I was chewed out by an upper-level administrator last week. Why? Well, to cut out the long background, I asked for some clarification about the parameters of my job.
My job sort of straddles two jobs, one slightly higher in the institutional hierarchy than the other. Everyone thus far had been behaving as if the two jobs were essentially the same, and all information I had been given about the jobs indicated as such. So, I had no questions. As it turns out, there are fundamental differences in the two positions that go unnoticed -- indeed, unmentioned -- until the administration has to make cuts in support. Well, the cuts came, and I was a little surprised to find those difference. (Again, remembering that I was not aware of any significant differences since I had been given no indication that there were differences. Naive? Yes.) I wasn't indignant -- at least not until I understood what was going on -- just surprised since, as I said, we had been proceeding as if the two jobs were the same.
So I asked for some clarification on my position. If there are real differences in the two jobs, if those differences are related to their slightly different positions on the hierarchy, and if we are going to operate by the rules of the job that are slightly lower on the hierarchy, then I should have some clarification of those differences since they don't appear in the faculty handbook or anywhere else that I can find. Really, I wasn't challenging these rules, I just wanted to know what they are.
For that I was taken to task for my "tone" (always the "tone" when you speak with conviction), told that another administrator agreed with this one (ah, the patented gaslighting technique), and told that I should be damn well happy I have this job because I wasn't really qualified for it and because the administrator chewing me out didn't really want to hire me anyway. All with nifty scare quotes and "look here, little missy" phrasing, Not that specific phrase, but you can see by the content what I mean.
Welcome to the school!*
I talked to some other faculty with whom I am friends. They told me that, first, to be glad that this exchange took place via e-mail because these sorts of highly reactive, defensive, angry attacks usually take place at top volume and in your face. Second, they said that this initiates me into an exclusive club that includes all the faculty. They also told me that, the next time I see this administrator, the administrator will be all collegial and friendly and asking about my summer and such, as if nothing happened. Any interaction could be with Admin. Jekyll or Admin. Hyde. You never know, but expect Hyde if you ask a question that could in any way be construed as, well, questioning anything. I'd heard about this before, and thought it abusive. Now I had an e-mail full of it, and still think it is irrationally alienating.
My point here, despite appearances, is not to bitch about the exchange, but rather to talk myself through my own reaction.
Normally, when someone attacks like this -- and make no mistake, the administrator was lashing out -- I usually have three reactions. First, I feel my head turn into a funnel, with all possible reactions crowding through my head toward the tiny opening that is my mouth (or finger tips) where they become clogged. The first one to make its way out is often not the most constructive or thoughtful, and sometimes the most embarrassing. Mercifully, I do have something in my head that shuts off the profanity at this point.
The second and third reactions, the ones that ultimately exit the funnel and guide the rest, are fight and flight. I've tried to train myself away from "fight," or at least the type of "fight" that I learned, because the fighting becomes destructive and devolves into annihilation. Any real grievance or frustration or conflict that appears in the fight ever gets addressed much less solved. No one steps back to say "what is really going on here?" Everyone leaves angry, filled with hate, and exhausted, marking time until the next fight erupts.
Yet, even if your "fight" is more constructive, standing up for yourself or your work or your program, not yelling, not insulting, not annihilating, some personalities -- especially if they are insecure and defensive -- can only conceive of the conflict as a fight. You can't get anywhere with them because, no matter how calm and rational you remain, they just keep yelling louder and louder. At best, you might be able to calm them down to listen to you, but you have to do all the work to show them that you are trying to make an argument for or against something, not attack and destroy them personally. Even when the interaction goes that way, you end up exhausted and wondering if the exchange was worth the effort. Rumor has it that this is what I can expect from this quarter in the future.
Flight has become my favored mode of reaction in the face of attack. I tend to concede the ground because I have given up trying to interact with anyone who attacks. It would be a guerrilla strategy, retreating when the enemy advances, except I don't come around and strike when the enemy least expects an attack. That's because I don't like thinking in terms of "enemy." Conflict makes me nervous, but loud, angry, aggressive conflict shuts me down and I look for a more peaceful place to be. Flight can save your life or your mental health, and is a necessary tactic; but sometimes, you can't fly, or flying is an overreaction.
[This paragraph disappeared from the post when it when up earlier] Knowing all of this about myself, knowing the way I respond to an attack, I found myself a bit amazed that my reaction had changed as I read this particular attack from the administrator. Instead of feeling all of the possible responses rush through a funnel, I instead saw them amass before me, like game pieces: fight, flight, turn off, cry, scream, restate my position, and so on. Each potential reaction sat before me to use, discard, or hold in reserve. I could evaluate the ways that they might effectively protect me and advance my agenda, which was to learn the exact parameters of my job and the expectations that I could have for support in the future.
More importantly, underneath this surprisingly new response was a surprisingly new feeling of confidence. Normally, the sort of things that appeared in the body of the e-mail that questioned my fitness for the job, would have me turned in on myself, confirming all of my worst fears of myself as an impostor. This time, I thought, "oh, jeez, this is just bullshit." Bullshit and kind of pathetic.
With this sort of new found confidence, I picked up the flight piece in front of me. "Now, where are you going to go?" I asked myself. "And do you want to go there? Furthermore, what are you going to do when something similar arises there?" The poison of some of my work places led me to some of my conclusions about fight and flight; but not all work places are entirely toxic. Some just have one or two problems. Those problems are bigger the higher up and the more incompetent they rise, but they are always there and at all levels and in all jobs. "You have to figure out some strategies and tactics to deal with this sort of thing," I told myself. "It makes you sick to your stomach, but that's the only way you are going to stop running and learn new ways to fight that don't seem so much like fighting."
Then, I had to be honest with myself. I leapt into this job without looking too carefully. I would have leapt anyway, trust me; but in order to make the leap and not feel too anxious about it for the past year in which I've been in limbo between the two jobs, I've had to let myself believe that the job was perfect. Always, always a mistake -- and a rookie one, at that.
In taking this job, I gave up some pretty important comforts. I gave them up because this job offered a different set of comforts for the next few years and much bigger comforts in the long run that were completely unavailable at my last job. Still, the change is a gamble (as are most, right?); and for the past year I had experienced the loss of the comforts of the last job without yet being able to trust that the new job would actually provide the promised comforts. Then, before I even have an office or my name on the schedule, I'm asked to volunteer to take on extra classes (answer: emphatic but polite "no thank you") and found myself disqualified from forms of financial support with the anticipation of being disqualified from more, although I still do the same amount of work. That felt like sitting at the top of a steep incline with vertigo setting in and all of my nightmares lining the path down.
Yet, the new found confidence pulled me back. What this administrator said was bullshit, but the fact that s/he thinks it indicates danger. The only way to fight the danger is to be good at what I do, which I am, which is the reason that what the administrator said was bullshit. That's rather a nice vicious circle there, don't you think? Much better than the usual self-flagellation. The fact that this administrator behaves irrationally should not be my problem, but those sorts of people make it your problem, so I will learn strategies to deal with it.
Most of all, I have altered my expectations about this job. I went into my last two jobs fully believing that I would not be there forever, that I could be tempted by something better. Still, if I was there forever, that wouldn't be the worst thing (moreso with the last than the one before it) or even a bad thing. They were where I needed to be at that particular stage of my professional and intellectual development, and I could be content there until I wasn't. Meanwhile, I could figure out the direction that I wanted to go, whether it kept me in place or took me somewhere else.
I hadn't been thinking that way with this job. I had thought of it as a destination or an end when, in fact, it is just another of those places. This will do for right now. Maybe it will continue to do, until it doesn't. All of the support that I had expected that is now either gone or about to be gone, and that I will accept because I can't do anything else. I lived without it before under more pressing work conditions, so I can live without it now under less pressing. I work for the students when I teach, my colleagues when on committees, and myself (and the Big Guy) when I research. I will have more time to devote to each of these things (not that they won't become overwhelming by, say, October) and that I have access to pretty much any research resource I need outside of archive collection. Those were the main comforts for which I traded those other comforts of my last job.
Well, that and compressing the space of two large states down to one dining room table between me and the Gentleman Companion each evening.
*Incidentally, this welcome was preceded by a request that I volunteer take on a heavier teaching load than contractually required.