March 18, 2003

Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten Academic Therapy

Good grief.

Is this really necessary?

"Hoping to avoid lawsuits and rancor," writes Piper Fogg in an article entitled "Academic Therapy," "more colleges use conflict-resolution experts." The article features the work of one Sandra I. Cheldelin, a licensed psychologist, "professional conflict manager," and associate professor at George Mason University's Institute of Conflict Resolution and Analysis, who has "worked with dozens of institutions on conflicts that include ideological rifts, personal spats, and illegal forms of discrimination."

Now, Professor Cheldelin sounds like a wonderful person, the kind of person you want on hand if you host a party, because she can work the room, break the ice, and get people talking. And I'm sure she does a marvellous job working with academics, many of whom are cranky, neurotic and self-absorbed people. And perhaps her services are worth the "less than $1,000 a day, plus expenses" that she charges colleges for "her work as a private consultant."

But as I read the Chronicle's article, it occurred to me that I had discovered a new part-time career opportunity for my mother. No, my mother is not a licensed psychologist. Nor can she boast of official credentials in the area of "conflict resolution and analysis." But as a retired kindergarten teacher (and hey, "less than $1,000 a day, plus expenses" would make a nice supplement to her modest pension) with some thirty years experience in "active listening" and various other methods of "creative" conflict resolution, my mother, I am almost certain, has what it takes to get the job done.

Take, for example, the following case:

"Have you heard the one about the airline pilot who, by accident, announces his longing for a certain flight attendant over a plane's loudspeaker? Well, when a young female assistant professor heard it from a male colleague a few years ago, she didn't think it was funny. She filed a complaint against her fellow professor. The administration at the small, public university investigated but found no evidence of sexual harassment. The problem lingered. People took sides. And pretty soon, the nasty conflict had spread through the university."

And here is an account of its resolution:

"After listening to the professor who was so fond of telling jokes, she told him that it seemed as if he wanted to make people laugh and feel good, and that he clearly was upset that this woman did not feel good. Ms. Cheldelin then went back to the department and said, 'This guy wants to make people laugh, while this woman wants support -- can you help them?'
She asked everyone in the department to come up with jokes that weren't offensive to anyone in the group. She reconfigured the offices of the two professors so that one had to walk past the other to get to the coffee machine. She also encouraged them to find a shared interest. The two professors started a film club and pledged to see movies together once a month."

In other words, Let's all be nice to one another and share all our toys. Does this not sound an awful lot like kindergarten?

Off to call my mother...


As a public service, I will be offering updates on the risk of terrorist attack, as measured by the Department of Homespun Insecurity. Current threat level is: high


Just to clarify:

I haven't heard "the one about the airline pilot who, by accident, announces his longing for a certain flight attendant over the plane's loudspeaker," complaint about which on the part of a young female assistant professor led to the hiring of a "professional conflict manager." I'm sure I would rather not hear the joke, I strongly suspect that I would not find it funny.

But to file a formal complaint over a tasteless joke that is, I've no doubt, sexist and offensive and everything I hope my own son will not grow up to embrace and indulge? Well, call me a marginalized adjunct with some questions about the allocation of scarce campus resources, but I have some real problems with this approach on the part of a fellow female faculty member. Did the whole thing have to go so far that the administration ended up hiring an outside consultant who charged "less than [i.e., just under] $1,000 a day, plus expenses" to resolve a conflict that should have, and I dare say could have, been resolved between the two parties themselves?

For pity's sake, young female assistant professor: You are a grown woman with an earned Ph.D. and a position of responsibility which carries with it some important duties, including that of behaving like an adult even in the face of a faculty member who is behaving like a silly schoolboy. Are you so completely vulnerable and powerless at the hands of a fellow faculty member that you must call in the big guns over a tasteless joke? And did you try other tactics, I wonder? How about, for example, a look of bemused puzzlement which says, 'You poor thing, I wonder why you find that funny'? Or failing that, perhaps the next level of response, which involves carefully cultivating a look of withering scorn that says, 'Back off now, you silly twit, I don't find your joke funny'? Well, perhaps you tried the above and more, maybe even talked to the man and found he was resistant to your arguments. I still don't get the formal complaint.

I don't know. There is such a thing as sexual harrassment in the workplace, and there should be policies in place to deal with this problem. And I am not at all siding with those who make awful sexist jokes and comments and then meet objections to their "humour" with the reply that goes something like "Can't you take a joke? where's your sense of humour?" But at the same time, there is also the risk of trivializing the problem of harrassment with a hypersensitive and hypervigilant stance, and there is also the possibility that policies and procedures against harrassment will be overused/abused. I mean, I'm sure I would find that male professor's jokes irritating, and yet I also find myself irritated at the thought of his being schooled by a professional "conflict manager" in the telling of jokes "that weren't offensive to anyone in the group." And it's not that I think tasteless and offensive jokes are just harmless stuff and that we should all learn "how to take a joke." But there is something so infantilizing about the process, and for all involved.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at March 18, 2003 02:28 PM

This was very educational and I think that it is very important and that others besides myself will benfit greatly from it.THANKS a lot!!!!!

Posted by: Gina Wiley at September 30, 2003 03:11 PM

This was very educational and I fell that others besides myself will benfit greatly from it.THANKS a lot!!!!!

Posted by: Gina Wiley at September 30, 2003 03:12 PM