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Public Relations: The Diva-Doormat Debate

November 28, 2006, 4:01 pm


I want to pick up on a post by the excellent Flavia on Ferule and Fescue, which if you have not yet been moved to do so, you should check out. Flavia is funny as all get out, but also has a skewer-like capacity for cutting to the heart of things. This week she has posted an important question: when you feel that you have been taken advantage of, do you act or not? Do you complain, on the theory that squeaky wheels get greased (the Diva position), or do you keep your mouth shut in the hopes that your seniors will keep their promises to you and perceive you as a team player, thus risking becoming the Doormat, a.k.a., the person in the department who picks up after everyone else, a.k.a., “the girl” or “the wife”? And what are the attendant risks to not accepting the jobs others in the department wish you to take?

There were several great responses to Flavia’s post that suggest this struggle is an almost universal concern for untenured people, although I would like to add that it is a choice that remains, and is often hard to make, long after tenure is achieved. A couple comments pointed out that Diva and Doormat are the extremes, and that there are a number of positions to take in between. And then there is the question Flavia also poses: “I hate divas! Why would I want to be one?” Good point, pal. I weighed in on this yesterday, but thought about it a little more overnight. So here goes.

The great unspoken here is: what will people’s informal perceptions of me have to do with my eventual evaluation for tenure? If I am seen as “difficult,” will that cause people to represent my scholarship and teaching as flawed, no matter how hard I have worked and no matter how “good” I really am? If I am seen as subservient, on the other hand, will people perceive me as someone who will perform any kind of drudgery, causing more drudgery to be sent my way and ultimately at tenure time, causing me to be perceived as a drudge, and thus not a potential jewel in the crown of the department like the Divas, whose scholarly abilities soar above the petty, diurnal concerns that drudges are taking care of anyway?

Because the answer to these questions is “yes –uh, no, well maybe you’re right – hmmm,” and because I would be lying if I said I haven’t seen this scene play out in tenure meetings, I would like to offer some narrative context rather than answers to these questions.

First of all, the Unfortunate Events, which I have yet to describe, were exactly caused by several full professors’ perceptions of me as a) a troublemaker and b) a drudge (word of advice: if offered a teaching award, refuse it. It is the kiss of death.) Until the Events, however, and certainly up to and through my tenure review, I lived a charmed life. Subsequently, I actually did several things of which I am still quite proud that earned me the sobriquet “troublemaker.” Your Dr. Radical is far more of a screaming pain in the behind than has yet become evident in these posts, and because of her many successful forays against evil in the History department, she was briefly given a Very Hard Time. So I would never say that perceptions do not matter. But I would also argue that structural questions – racism, sexism, homophobia, perceived class status – matter a great deal more, and often in ways that cannot be predicted in advance.

But back to Diva-Doormat. These two things I know for sure:

1. Divas do prosper. They do so for two reasons. One is that they are able to identify the conditions under which they do their best work, as well as what will compensate them adequately for how good they are, and are then able to pull themselves together to say what they want. The key phrase here is: “I need…” As Deborah Gray-White, historianness extraordinaire and longtime chair at Rutgers once said to me at a restaurant in the nation’s capital, “People who don’t ask, don’t get.” So true, Miss Thing. The second reason is that when you feel treated fairly, you put yourself in the best position to be happy, which then creates the conditions to do your best work. When you honestly believe you are doing your best work, you then begin to act like the confident soul that everyone mistakes for a tenured person.

2. Doormats work harder and have more low status work. Doormats often feel like they make the life of Divas possible, developing a Cinderella complex that can be truly debilitating when the pumpkin never turns into a carriage after all. Doormats endure teaching and advising too many students, managing vast surveys, and accomodating bad schedules. Their complaints about workload are often dismissed because “your field is so popular” or “you are such a wonderful teacher!” Because they have more students, they have more office hours, papers to grade, letters of recommendation to write — aaiiiieeee! Sometimes other doormats reassure them that “this is the way life is” and “only bad people” cap their classes or set boundaries around their work. This puts the “doormat” in a position to be constantly anxious about how s/he is viewed by both doormats and divas, resentful of others who seem to be doing better professionally, and sometimes becoming virtually unable to write, so exhausted is s/he and so conflicted about the possibility for happiness in this job. The answer often seems to simply apply for another job – or to make a life away from your department that offers the positive feedback you crave and deserve. But think for a moment: what would it take to improve your situation where you are? Applying for jobs can be time-consuming, hinder the completion of major projects, disrupt domestic life, and broadcast your unhappiness to the department in an indirect way that isn’t possible to address because the “doormat” pretends publicly that everything is FINE. And making a second life elsewhere – in a program, or doing an endless round of conferences – actually increases the burden on your writing time, not to mention your life away from work.

And have I said that doormats are usually, um — women and gay men? People among whose best qualities are often that they care deeply about relationships?

So what ARE the alternatives? They may be obvious by now as you compare the above, but let’s summarize anyway. First of all, figure out what you need to do your work, and know that some semesters may tip the balance towards your writing, and some may require more attention to the requirements of others. Second, ask for what you want and know you may not always get it, or you may not always get all of it. For example, Flavia suggested that in return for having the small class she wanted to teach cancelled, she should re-negotiate her spring to have two large classes be two sections of the same course so that she has one prep. This is an excellent response. I would also push it to say that she needs some guarantee from the chair that she will get a grad course in the fall, and work with the chair to figure out a course that will fill up enough to be kept on the schedule – this might even mean taking that course away from a senior colleague (gasp). Take the risk that the colleague might graciously concede it, and have the chair negotiate it.

Your Dr. Radical has not only been an untenured person and a woman, she is still a woman and occasionally is mistaken for a gay man, and she has raised several untenured folk from pups. I seek to cultivate a colleague whose financial, scheduling
and scholarly needs are taken care of to the best of my ability. What I ask in return is a colleague who tries to develop an awareness of the needs of others, and when I am in charge – as American Studies chair, or field advisor in United States history – those needs would primarily be mine, since “my needs” either reflect those of the students or orders being dictated from above that I have not yet found a way to undermine. I try to cultivate a confidence in my untenured colleagues that I will not ask for something unless it is important, and that I will always do my best to distribute work equally. I try to protect them from the unreasonable demands of others, and to never ask them for anything I would not do myself. I try to anticipate what will make my group tick best as a unit, but I also depend on my untenured colleagues to speak as openly as they can about what they need.

And by the way, the reason I think this works is because during the Unfortunate Events, no group of colleagues was kinder to me than the untenured folk.

You may say, look Radical, good for you and your little gang of thieves. But what about me? OK – I guess I am trying to communicate several things. One is that we all need to ask and we all need to give. Another is, you may have senior colleagues who will be more responsive, and less judgmental, than you think. And the third is an observation, gleaned in part from the Unfortunate Events: in the end, you may have to be the person you are regardless of what the potential consequences are. This is called “living with integrity.” But what you also need to be is aware, and you need to think, not react: don’t replicate what are ubiquitous and bad management practices either by submitting or by “getting yours” and letting others fend for themselves. You will be a tenured person yourself someday, and in charge of people like you. Start preparing now by figuring out how you want to live and getting as close as you can to it.

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