3. Unwritten Rules and Impossible Proofs
“Anyone who spends much time in academic settings learns that they are riddled with unwritten rules, and this can make for a great deal of bewilderment and frustration for all kinds of academics. For any oppressed group, this situation is particularly dangerous, since rules can be made and broken in order to keep them in their place. Furthermore, the unwritten nature of so many rules means people who are treated unfairly may find it nearly impossible to prove that any rules were broken.” (p. 34)
I found Caplan’s chapter on unwritten rules to be one of the most powerful parts of the book, and one that I’ve found myself mentally and verbally referring to on multiple occasions since reading the chapter.
The unwritten rules range from the trivial – I didn’t know there was a specific advising form I was supposed to fill out and put in each student’s file – to the career-threatening. A now-tenured woman faculty member recently told me about not knowing (and never being told) that she had to have external review letters in her tenure application. Those are concrete examples of things that “must be done” but aren’t codified in an accessible written form, and must be learned by trial and error or by conscientious mentoring from someone in the know.
There are also the unwritten rules that guide behavior, and Caplan has some good examples of those, too.
“Graduate students report terrible dilemmas with respect to figuring out the rules for virtually every phase of their work: How often is too often to consult with your thesis supervisor about your thesis proposal and project – and how often is not often enough? To what extent can you become friends with your professors?” (p. 35)
“At most colleges and universities, there is no comprehensive system for orienting newly hired faculty in important ways. … In face of this information vacuum, one newly hired woman specifically requested a meeting with the head of her department to discuss the tenure review process. However, when she asked what was expected, she said vaguely that she should just work hard, and when she asked how she would get feedback on her progress, he dismissed her question by saying that she would be notified if there was any problem. She was never notified, and her contract was not renewed.” (p. 39)
Having survived graduate school, I now find the second quoted paragraph to be particularly terrifying. I’d add that, in my case, one more way that the rules are unwritten is that the bar for tenure seems to be constantly changing and no one seems to be able to concretely answer what it will take for me to get tenure. (Shit, now I feel like I should get back to research work.)
What purpose do these unwritten rules serve? Because women and other minority groups often lack the mentoring, networking, confidence, etc. that white male faculty benefit from, the unwritten nature of the rules “helps to maintain the traditional power balance within academia, and this includes keeping women down – and keeping women form non-dominant groups down even further.” (p. 45) Yet when a woman encounters obstacles or mistreatment, the lack of written rules can prevent from being able to prove it. If she does file a complaint, yet another set of unwritten rules can kick in to censure her, wear her down, coerce her to drop the compaint, or even leave the university entirely. I think I can see where the Chapter 5 title comes from.
4. The Myths
“The myths specifically portray academia as an ideal setting and women as deeply flawed. Where people and systems can no longer announce, ‘Women are not wanted here,’ they can nevertheless use the belief system composed of myths to make us feel uncomfortable, doubt our abilities, find it hard to be productive, or even become convinced that we don’t belong in academica, so that we ‘choose’ to leave.” (p. 47)
In this chapter, Caplan identifies 27 myths: 12 about academia, 11 about women, and 4 are about women in academia. I’ll admit that I didn’t find this the most compelling chapter of the book, so I’ll just pull out a few that I’ve noticed in my own experiences.
“1. … The myth of meritocracy is the belief that, in academia, people are formally rewarded…simply according to the quantity and quality of the work that they do.” (p. 48)
I think this myth encompasses a lot of the other ones that Caplan uses to describe academia. In this myth, there is no unquantifiable emphasis on collegiality or power relationships that prevent voices from being heard. There are no favored research subspecialities. But universities are real workplaces, more like others wokplaces than they are different. There are power dynamics and politics everywhere, and the unwritten rules of universities may even magnify these in academia.
“8. The myth that, in academia, people’s search for knowledge is done cooperatively, not competitively, and that this cooperation is rewarded.” (p. 52)
Again, I think this myth incorporates several dimensions. First, the search for the funding necessary to do scientific research is clearly competitive. Second, even though much science requires collaboration and many papers are co-authored, the value placed on co-authorship by review committees is unclear. How is second versus third authorship counted? Will the committee recognize the tremendous amount of work done to produce a paper first-authored by a student of yours? Third, I believe that we are competing with our untenured colleagues. If I produce 2 papers per year and my childless male colleague produces 4 papers per year, I will look bad by comparison, even if 2 papers per year is really quite a reasonable level of productivity.
“9. The myth that ‘they’ really want you to do service, teaching, and research in equal amounts and that, when it comes time for tenure and promotion, they will count all three as equally valuable.” (p. 53)
I think we all know that this one is a myth.
…I’ve run out of time to go further in this post. I’m leading an all day field trip on Saturday and I’m still not ready. Maybe I’ll get back to this later tonight, but if I don’t I’ll post some more on Sunday.
Talk amongst yourselves.