Collegiality and Academia

Academic departments in the humanities rarely understand the social impairments of autism. These departments are, by their nature, social places — quite unlike some departments in the STEM disciplines. I’ve blogged repeatedly that STEM fields tolerate introversion and even social awkwardness, but not the humanities. This claim is based not only on my experiences, but on dozens of interviews with graduate students and terminal degree holders.

The autistic students and professors with whom I’ve discussed this problem point to the underlying philosophies and pedagogies of the humanities. Group work and discussion are the norm, which might be good unless you struggle with group dynamics or conversation cues. If you pause to interpret speech, speak too quickly or too slowly, if your tone remains flat or sing-song, then you don’t fit into the “style” of the discipline. Autism features an impairment of social skills and interpersonal connections. Any academic skills the autistic might have become hidden by the communication barriers. Autism is a disability that leads to isolation and social alienation.

When universities start to make “charm” (and I select that term precisely) a job requirement, it dooms many of us to failure on the tenure track. Yes, it is charm these departments want and demand. I’ve had this said to me directly and at least a half-dozen of autistics report similar directives from supervisors and/or colleagues on review committees. The very nature of autism becomes a barrier to a career.

Disguising the expectation for “charm” as “collegiality” confuses some autistics in academia. What defines disruptive? What defines productive collaboration? I’ve been told I was disruptive because I required clarification on points of discussion. I was disruptive because I wanted notes in writing. I impaired productivity because I wanted to double-check citations and claims in papers.
Autistic scholars have told me that they are insulted and called out for needed supports. These supports provide us with tools for survival in the workplace. Sadly, I went a half year without some supports I requested at a university, and my attempts to follow-up were considered “pushy” by some colleagues.
U. of Arkansas System Considers Changes to Ease Tenured-Faculty Firings
By Audrey Williams June
OCTOBER 26, 2017

The University of Arkansas system is considering proposed changes in its tenure policy that could make it easier to fire professors and, faculty members say, chip away at academic freedom.

A key concern, they say, is language in the proposal that outlines when professors may be fired for cause. It includes a "pattern of disruptive conduct or unwillingness to work productively with colleagues." That language, some faculty members say, effectively means collegiality — or the lack thereof — can be used as a reason to dismiss a professor.

Using collegiality as a criterion to evaluate faculty members has long been condemned by the American Association of University Professors.
My concern over the collegiality requirement is joined by the AAUP, FIRE, and a mix of political organizations from the left and right. Plenty of academics struggle with charm and are introverts. Being autistic multiplies these challenges in any workplace.
Arkansas Universities Want to Be Able to Fire Professors Who Aren't Collegial
General counsel for the university system tries to slip in long-condemned policy.
Lindsay Marchello | November 22, 2017

In addition to plagiarism, theft of property and acts of violence, the University of Arkansas system is considering adding a failure to maintain “collegiality" as a reason to terminate tenured professors.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit organization focused on civil liberties in academia, warns of the chilling effect on professors' academic freedom if policies enforcing vague "collegiality" standards move forward.

"Collegiality-related charges are easily and frequently thrown in as a laundry-list item in faculty investigations, and often it is the only charge universities can make stick," Peter Bonilla, a writer for FIRE, explains. "It's a difficult charge for faculty to fight — just about any behavior could be subjectively cast as un-collegial, after all—and therefore an easy charge with which to gain leverage."

FIRE has also condemned a provision in Ohio Northern University's faculty handbook. The provision reads, "faculty members are expected to treat colleagues and staff with civility and respect."

"How is one to define 'civility'? What constitutes 'respect'?" Bonilla writes. “Of course, the Ohio Northern policy provides no answers, leaving it all too easy for administrators to conveniently define it however they please, whenever it suits their interests."
Few people like me, but I do well with my students. In part, I realize this is because students only judge me based on what I deliver to them — knowledge they can use in their careers or future studies. My students don’t care if I don’t attend faculty lunches or avoid loud gatherings. Students work with me, but they are not collaborators (generally) on academic projects. My student evaluations are good because those represent the “me” in the classroom, which is a special setting with social rules that are basic and clear. Raised hands are great social cues.

I’m uncertain if I will be able to have any career. I choose to pursue academia because it seemed like I could succeed based on my classroom performances and my academic research. Instead, I have encountered conflicts, misunderstandings, and outright prejudices from my colleagues. All workplaces, it turns out, are social. But the humanities departments at schools are particularly social in ways that many of my private industry workplaces were not.

The attraction of academia proved to be something of a trap, a siren’s song. At least at the moment, I remain more like most autistics: underemployed as a freelance writer and independent scholar.
From Slate:
The Tricky Path to Employment Is Trickier When You’re Autistic

Autistic adults may very well be the most disadvantaged disability group in the American workplace. Only 14 percent of adults with autism held paid jobs in their communities, according to one May report from Drexel University’s Autism Institute (the report looked just at those who had received state developmental disabilities services). 
This leads to wonder how to address disclosure of disabilities, particularly autism. How to explain my special needs is something I must determine before any future job interviews with academic departments.


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