Taking up on last week's discussion of the suffering pseudonymous conservative in the classics department, William Pilger, I want to explore another angle.
Let's take Prof. Pilger at his word. It's likely true that the faculty in many university and college departments tends to vote Democratic. And it's also true that faculty occasionally lunch together as described in this heart-rending scene:
A couple of days later, during the Republican National Convention, I ate lunch with several colleagues. The discussion turned, inevitably, to politics. The anti-Republican tenor at the table remained unbroken, but reached its zenith with this vehement comment from one colleague, "I'm not even going to watch [the convention]. I can't stand it."
Nearly sixty years ago in 1948 the Cornell sociologist William Foote Whyte published a book, Human Relations in the Restaurant Industry that described and analyzed Whyte's observations of the everyday work life of waitresses and cooks in Chicago restaurants.
Whyte had trained at Chicago in the heyday of the Chicago sociology's empirical approach to research, and the book received decidedly mixed reviews. Some reviewers saw it as aimed only at the narrow audience of restaurant supervisors and managers; others saw the connection between Whyte's work and the pioneering work in the field of observing workers at work: Roethlisberger and Dickson's Management and the Worker but none of that book's insights, and some others saw a powerful example of the value of basic observational research for studying how people got on at work.
In any case, time has smiled more kindly on Whyte's book than the initial reviews. Through the 1950s the human relations approach to studying the relationship of people within organizations was dominant. Among its insights -- which now may seem commonplace -- were two that have special relevance for understanding Prof. Pilger's plight.
As I say, nothing too profound there. But the human relations school overturned the inter-war received wisdom influenced by Frederick Taylor that viewed workers as elements in a system, rather than complex things that brought their problems, motivations, and ideals in from the outside.
The human relations school waned after the 1950s with a shift back towards understanding organizational structures, the prevailing social scientific move to quantification, and a move away from observation and intensive interviewing to questionnaires and mass interviewing.
If any setting would benefit from a study based on the human relations approach it would be academic departments. The number of people to be observed is on the scale of the restaurant or the hospital ward or the department in a store. And while we know casually that academic departments have hierarchies and relationships that exist way beyond any organizational chart, something beyond a David Lodge novel is needed to understand them.
A "Human Relations in an Academic Department" study would probably find that tenure -- a formal, organizational rule if ever there was one -- allows the otherwise socially marginalized a foothold in the power structure of departments not available to the outsider amongst the waitresses.
Moreover, the success of an academic department depends somewhat less on the co-operation of its members than a restaurant. Major divisions between the cooks and the waitresses, and pretty soon there will be poor service and spoiled food. But an academic department can more easily separate its fractious members -- X and Y will never be asked to teach the first year survey together, for example -- and so long as their individual research and teaching is adequate the department will survive.
Which is to say that within a workplace the individual eccentricities can have a big impact on how the place works, but comparing workplaces the formal rules will still be seen to matter.
The bottom line for Prof. Pilger is, be nice to your colleagues. Once you have tenure, you can break out a little. And if you think you're hard done by, try waiting tables.
UPDATE Just to confirm the relevancy of tenure. Robert "KC" Johnson at Cliopatria discusses a breaking case where an apparently great scholar and teacher is being denied tenure for being "uncollegial." In other words, the wait staff don't like the new water boy and can vote to kick him out.Posted by robe0419 at December 20, 2004 10:09 AM | TrackBack