On losing your “nice” in the academy

How do scholars develop? I think I have hit a new stage.

In general, I have tried to be a departmental good guy. I go to the things where we give our time to recruit students. I give my time to program directors. I say yes when self-interest says no. I sincerely have treated this work as part of my job.

Friday, I hit a wall. I lost my nice. I think, perhaps, forever.

I got up three hours earlier than I normally would have for a meeting. When I arrived, sick and bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, I was told my assignment for the meeting was to “meet somebody I didn’t know.”

Something cracked in my brain.

You’re not entitled to my time, people.

I have enough friends. I meet hundreds of people a month, going to conferences and meetings around the world. I realize that not everything is about benefitting me, but…does any of this really benefit anybody?

I behaved abominably at the meeting, offending one of our excellent staff people. I wasn’t sure at the time why, but I do now.

After that meeting, we went into a two-hour faculty meeting where new departmental policies on cell phones and space planning *were read to us*.

If there is anything that having a PhD should say about you, it’s that YOU ALREADY KNOW HOW TO READ.

I realized that I was doing this for people who are not, in fact, using my time well, and, since they know they are not using your time well, they don’t respect you for showing up. It’s a bad cycle. They don’t use your time well because they don’t respect your time because, it seems obvious to them, you’re not using your time well because you showed up. And those people who do use their time well? They never show up. Because these things aren’t a good use of time.

And on it goes.

Prior to last Friday, I used to think that my showing up sent the following message:
I’m very busy, but I made time for your activity because I value what you do. I am here to support you, the collective and the endeavor.

In reality, nobody respects you for showing up. For one, senior people just want junior people to shut up. People just want you to comply. They talk at you. You’re supposed to sit and listen. And clap.

By giving your time to students and colleagues, they read that message as:

I’m not doing anything important. If I were doing something important, I wouldn’t be here.

So of course they treat you like you’re not doing any research–or if you are doing any research, it must be lower in impact than the people who never show up or–if they show up at all–flounce in a half hour late. These are the people who will get constant praise and attention and salary increases for every time they go to the bathroom.

For students and people outside the academy, they tend to blame research for the fact that some faculty don’t bother showing up for them or giving them time and attention.

But the only real tradeoff is in culture and mystique.

And in salary. It’s much better to never show and be considered a hot commodity, in demand, and on the move, than it is to be nice.

One of my colleagues, Richard Green, is fantastic about showing up and doing great work, but he came to USC as a star. For people like me, being nice is, simply, a bad career move. You will lose hours you could have spent on your own work, and you will lose the respect of the people around you and they will instead give their respect to the people who put themselves first.

I am not in a position of understanding what putting yourself first all the time means in terms of your own development. For all I know, it may be beneficial intellectually as well as in the culture of the academy. It will probably yield me more sleep, more hours with my beloved data, more time for reading and reflecting, more time for learning new things, and more leisure time. Works for me.

4 thoughts on “On losing your “nice” in the academy

  1. I’ve learned this one in the past year and it’s made a world of difference (for my head, if nothing else). Meetings are usually a waste of time and those who show up get stuck doing the non-essential work that gets divvied up at the meeting. I haven’t looked back and have no regrets.

  2. Fortunately, Frank, in the new “me-centered” “evil-Lisa” universe I live in, I get pretend that all ideas are my own, so I can take credit for discovering this on my own.

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