I know something about academic infighting. After all, I was at Duke University when the English department famously imploded in the 1990s. The collapse was headline news in The New York Times. According to The Times, the department's decline was seen, in part, as the inevitable result of its attempt to buy its way to the top. You just can't shark up academic celebrities, the article observed, and expect them to get along. With so many international egos in one place, a blowup is bound to happen.
Since leaving Duke, I've discovered that you don't need world-class critics to have first-rate fireworks. Nobody in my current department would qualify as an academic superstar, but it's not unheard of for meetings to end with somebody stomping out and slamming a door. Even when everybody sticks around, things aren't always civil: Some faculty members silently pout. Others snort derisively and roll their eyes. And still others hurl insults and curses.
When I was an assistant professor, my primary focus was to stay out of the crossfire. Now that I've earned tenure, I'm not as concerned about keeping my head down. That is not to say that I'm picking sides and lobbing grenades. Instead, I have been reconnoitering the battlefield, trying to determine when and how the enemy camps were formed.
As I was describing our latest departmental dust-up to a friend who is not an academic, he interrupted with an observation. "The problem with professors," he said, "is that they never learned to get along with others." According to my friend, your typical professor is the socially awkward kid from high school who didn't fit in anywhere outside of the library. Unable to cut it in the real world, we just opted to stay in school. Eventually we ran out of classes to take, so we had to start teaching them. But at no point did we acquire basic social skills.
One of my faculty colleagues (who actually has pretty good social skills) offered another perspective. He pointed out that academics, especially humanists, are wholly invested in the idea of intellectual exchange. "Look at our classes," he reasoned. "What do we do? We circle a bunch of people around a table and talk. What we want more than anything is to create and participate in intellectual communities."
Unfortunately, the departmental communities we inhabit rarely live up to our romanticized ideals. Instead of sharing grand thoughts, we end up grabbing for meager resources. Frustrated in our ambitious desires, we blame our colleagues for the failure of our departmental communities. Disappointment, then, drives the anger we direct at one another.
Generous observers might attribute our penchant for infighting to our commitment. We care so much about our students that we cannot stand idly by and see them shortchanged or misled. But that isn't the kind of conflict I'm talking about. Nobody storms out of a room because he or she believes that students are going to suffer some injury in the future. You storm out because you believe the injury has already been suffered — by you.
The big conflicts, the ones that tear apart departments, the ones that persist, are personal.
And, boy, can they persist. When I regale my siblings with stories of academic conflict, they typically ask the same question: "If the professors in your department have such a hard time getting along, why don't they just leave?"
I usually say something about the difficulty of making a lateral move as a tenured professor, but I suspect that it's just as much the case that none of us believes any other department would be significantly better. We've all been to conferences and compared notes or heard stories. English departments seem to be, as if by definition, uniformly dysfunctional.
In fact, dysfunctional departments are so prevalent that we might have cause to wonder if we're applying the right standard of functionality. How can conflict be dysfunctional, if conflict is the mode in which most departments function?
Now I'm not trying to normalize or sanction conflict. What I am trying to suggest is that conflict must have a certain practical value for us. We professors are a relatively intelligent bunch. But by refusing to be nice to one another, we poison our work environment, effectively peeing in our own pool. Why would intelligent people do that unless it served some purpose? Couldn't it be the case that academic conflict — even as it creates certain problems — might also solve certain problems, problems that are particularly acute for academics?
Although I'm not even at the midpoint of my career, I'm already worried about the repetitious nature of my job. Teaching the same classes year in and year out would seem to be a one-way ticket to tedium. On bad days, you feel like the protagonist from the movie Groundhog Day. On good days, you feel motivated to discover new texts, develop new courses, and strike out in new directions.
But innovation requires effort, and opportunities for change are often limited by curricula, concerns about coverage, and other constraints. Perhaps we initiate and perpetuate interdepartmental fights in order to keep boredom at bay. Not that we do that consciously or calculatingly, but at some unrecognized level, aren't we itching for intensity? Tenured for life, we perhaps need the drama of conflict to inject the thrill of spontaneous emotion and extreme passion into our stable and predictable existences. Conflict might be our unacknowledged antidote for ennui.
It might also be a cure for inconsequentiality. As a humanist, I am regularly asked to justify my seemingly arcane pursuits. And here's where conflict comes in handy. If academics as a group are fundamentally uncertain about the value of their activities, then fighting tooth and nail over the specifics of those activities implicitly attests to their value. Anger offers us a palpable form of validation. If we can get so worked up about our policies and practices that we are willing to scream at one another, then those policies and practices must be important and world altering, right?
By escalating our philosophical differences into all-out wars, we unconsciously make it easier to buy into the premise that our professional lives have consequence, that they (and we) really matter. By constantly fighting, we implicitly convince ourselves that what we do is worth fighting for.
One of the reasons I suspect that our animosity is at some level contrived is that we are capable of casting it aside pretty quickly. I've seen professors suspend long-running feuds to militate against evil administrators or tyrannical chairs. More to the point, I've seen professors overlook historical hatred to help enemies experiencing adversity, heartache, and affliction.
Simply put, we can get along when we need to. Perhaps we rarely do because we rarely need to.
So is academic strife healthy, rational, or sane? Quite the contrary, academics would be far better off if we treated one another with respect. But I wonder if we remain dysfunctional because it meets certain unacknowledged needs — the need for variety, for passion, and for self-validation.
In a twisted sort of way, there might be a method in our madness. There might be a function in our dysfunction.