Thursday, May 17, 2012

How the STFU Culture in Academia Enables Dysfunction

Those of you brave or bored enough to browse the user forums on the Chronicle of Higher Education's website should already know what "STFU" means.  For the initiated, I'll spell it out for you, it's an acronym for "shut the fuck up."  Back in my academic days when I suffered in a dysfunctional department, I would turn to the "Tenure Track" forums to see what others were told when confronted with similar problems, such as bullying in the workplace, incompetent chairs, unfair workload, and badly-designed course catalogs.  (Believe you me, the latter problem can make your life a living hell when you never get to teach the classes you want.)  Often, when junior scholars on the tenure track ask for advice in these forums online, older and wiser professors very commonly counsel their younger charges to, you guessed it, STFU.

They don't mean that the younger people should close their mouths and not post their problems online, but that they ought to hunker down, put their shoulder to the wheel, and wait to voice their concerns about their department until after they get tenured.  At that point you simply can't be fired for stirring up a little shit or registering complaints.  (Of course, chairs can and will find other methods of punishment for those who defy them, even if protected by tenure.)  While this method of dealing with a major problem, which basically amounts to sucking it up for six years, might sound a teensy bit counterproductive and unfair, it does seem to be the prevailing strategy for folks on the tenure track in the profession.

In many respects, I can't argue with it.  I've seen folks who refused to STFU and actually state their opinions and displeasures turned into targets and ostracized.  I've also seen sub-mediocrities with barely any publications get tenure simply because they never caused anyone on the tenure committee any offense.  Taking on others in your department, even if they are breaking the rules, is hard to do without suffering the consequences.  For instance, I knew for a fact that many graduate assistants in my department were being used as teaching assistants (they were grading papers, leading discussion sessions, etc.), despite the fact that this was completely against university policy and awfully unfair to the students who were not being compensated like TAs.  I brought this issue up in a meeting once, and did so in the least confrontational way possible ("I just want to have clarified what kinds of things the GAs can do.")  I would have gotten a friendlier response if I had laid a turd on the lectern.  None of the senior faculty backed me up, and those abusing the system quickly shot me down.  Soon enough, I was being labeled a "trouble maker."

On the surface, the STFU culture just might be another case of the world being an unfair place and younger professionals needing to pay their dues before they are allowed authority.  Hierarchies exist in all walks of life.  However, I think STFU speaks to a deeper dysfunction within the profession itself, one that renders a large swath of its members powerless and voiceless.  Junior scholars have been experiencing the brunt of the funding crisis in higher education.  Tenure track jobs are fewer and farther between, they have much higher tenure benchmarks than their older peers did, and the scrapping of library budgets and travel money has made it all the more difficult to get the support needed to do the research to achieve the aforementioned benchmarks.  Many (though by no means most or all) tenured faculty are content to ride the last helicopters off the roof, kicking their younger and less fortunate peers trying to climb on.

A majority of faculty are contingent, so they don't even get to sit at the table.  Adjuncts and visitors are typically treated like peons, and usually not given any role at all in the task of faculty governance of the university.  Those lucky enough to score tenure track jobs must adhere to the STFU code, and remain silent while they are disadvantaged by the wave of austerity the hurts some more than others.  This leaves the tenured graybeards as the only faculty group with any real power or say-so.  No wonder things are so rotten for junior scholars these days.  It's time to see STFU not as wise career advice, but a tool enabling the dysfunction of academia and the mistreatment of junior scholars.


Anonymous said...

Amen, brother.

Unknown said...

Haven't been creative enough to solve this, eh?