A ton of feathers (2 of 3)

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.


  1. #1 dd
    March 15, 2008

    Unwritten rules are bullshit, especially in the workplace. If that’s really the way academia works, what a crock. If a corporation was run that way, they’d have their asses sued off. Maybe some people need to sue these universities and get their HR departments to get their shit together and put together some seriously detailed employee handbooks. I have never heard of such a stupid way to run an organization before.

  2. #2 PhysioProf
    March 15, 2008

    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.

    One of the ways in which academia is unlike ordinary workplaces–and more like careers such as professional sports, performing arts, literature, visual arts, etc.–is that it is “winner take all”. There are very large numbers of people entering a system to compete for an extremely small number of prize positions, and those who do not achieve those prize positions end up as a second-class participants in the enterprise.

    Whether this is a good thing is a topic worthy of discussion, but for participants at the entry level–graduate students–it is important to recognize that this is the case.

  3. #3 Academic
    March 15, 2008

    I think if a place can afford to have unwritten rules, then there will be unwritten rules. There are enough loopholes in academia to give reasonable evidence for not renewing someone’s contract. They tend to pull at research and teaching.

  4. #4 Zeno
    March 15, 2008

    If a corporation was run that way, they’d have their asses sued off.

    Ever read the news? Plenty of corporations screw around with their own written rules in conformance to unwritten rules known only to the inner circle. The outer circles get screwed, companies get sued, and the game goes on. One of my friends was fired from a company for inquiring too diligently about the chain of command. He wanted to know who to report to, but he was thereby inadvertently drawing attention to the fact that one of the senior vice presidents was being quietly cut out of the operation. His persistence made the inner cabal very nervous about their planned mini-coup and he had to go before the targeted senior veep noticed he was being isolated and circumvented.

  5. #5 Kim
    March 15, 2008

    I hope the field trip went well.

    On the subject of dd’s comment about unwritten rules: there are usually written rules, in the form of a faculty handbook. But following the written rules is generally not sufficient to get tenure, because the decision is made based on many subjective factors. (What exactly constitutes excellent research or excellent teaching, anyway? It’s possible to measure numbers of papers or ratings on teaching evaluations, but the judgments of colleagues and students are susceptible to bias.) The rules, however, protect the institution from being sued.

  6. #6 Ivan
    March 15, 2008

    note to self:

    When(if) I get a faculty job, have a conversation with the chair about tenure requirements and follow up with an email detailing my understanding of the conversation. Not sure it would help with all the unwritten rules, but at least I will have something other than the faculty handbook to refer to around tenure time.


  7. #7 ecogeofemme
    March 16, 2008

    There are unwritten rules and politics any time people are together. There are even unwritten rules in social groups — how long is too long without calling your friends? or having them to your house for dinner? etc. — so it’s not realistic to want them to be absent at work. That doesn’t make it any easier to deal with, though. I think the issue is how to give everyone access to the politics and unwritten rules. I think that’s where much of the uneven distribution of power comes from — the non-equitable access to knowing and making unwritten rules.

  8. #8 Mac
    March 16, 2008

    There are some great institutions out there that rigorously adhere to their written rules, and set expectations very clearly. They are great places to work, and getting fired from a dysfunctional workplace could be a great opportunity to find a better job at a place where workers and rules are respected…

  9. #9 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 16, 2008

    The zeroth unwritten law of Academe is that of the Ivory Tower. The truth is that any university, even one with a $20 Billion portfolio (such as Harvard) is also a business. America is, imperfectly, a Capitalist nation, however popular Marxist sentiments may be on some campuses. Hence, as a matter of economic fact, I quote the following.

    “You may break any written law in America with impunity. There is an unwritten law that you break at your peril. It is: Do not attack the profit system.”
    [Mary Heaton Vorse, THE SUN, pg. 48, "Sunbeams", Apr 2002, Issue 316]

    Had I understood the Unwritten Laws better, I’d have had tenure long ago. Instead, I must content myself with 2,500+ publications, presentations, and broadcasts to my credit. And that the fools who hid behind the unwritten laws are less known than I, will be forgotten sooner, and have had much less fun than I.

    I operate with my own unwritten laws, one of which I now write: “Every day on the job, be it a university, corporation, high school, or assembly line, you have the choice to think for yourself and tell the truth, or, on the other hand, to engage in group-think and to accept a popular lie. I choose to tell the truth, and if I am fired, then that is their loss and my gain in all that really matters.”

  10. #10 Nonnymousia
    March 18, 2008

    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.)

    That’s exactly what happened to me. Nobody would tell me how high the bar was. I had to explicitly ask for that bar height and they still wouldn’t tell me. Their attitude was that I should just jump as high as I could, and then they’d tell me whether I’d got over it or not.

    There were several unwritten rules that they flouted and that I didn’t know about so I couldn’t do anything about. Like I was supposed to get comments from the dean before my case went up for [the equivalent of tenure], in advance, so I could have the opportunity to comment.

    My case approached. My typo that resulted in a publication being listed in one section of my documentation but not the other probably didn’t help. My boss was delighted with my work and extremely supportive. The dean commented (outrageously, erroneously, and despite not knowing me or my work personally at all) and I did not get a chance to see it before it went to the [tenure] committee. I didn’t make it. I failed to get over the bar. Only then did I get a torchlight to shine on the bar, shrouded in darkness, that I had tried and failed to jump over.

    And you know what the really horrible thing was? That bar? I recognised it. It was mine. That bar, that stick they were beating me with? I had made it. I had set that bar up there. Three years previously, I had arrived at that institution as a newly-minted academic and they’d got me to fill in these forms. They didn’t say what the forms were for, so I just filled them in however seemed reasonable at the time. And I had had no idea that I was fashioning the stick they were going to kill my career with. And I fashioned that stick because I was told to fashion a stick, and I didn’t know it was going to be the bar I had to jump over, because I DIDN’T KNOW THE RULES, and nobody told me.

  11. #11 silene
    March 18, 2008

    You know, I wish that in my workplace, #9 *was* a myth. If teaching really were considered the most important thing, as we are told constantly, we could concentrate our efforts on teaching–and be rewarded! But our departments tell us “well, EVERYONE here is an excellent teacher, so we can’t differentiate between you. So, you need to spend a lot of time on research (with no support, I may add).” And the campus says, “Well, we’re a small campus, so we care most about your teaching, but you also need to serve and chair major committees.”

    What ends up happening is that all three legs do become equally crucial–but the expectation isn’t that you split your time and give 33.3% to each portion. The expectation is that you give 100% of your effort to teaching…oh and also do significant research…oh yeah, and also, serve on these 3-4 committees–and why haven’t you spent your evenings at the student activities, by the way??

    Interestingly, it seems like there is a real dichotomy between the young male faculty with families and the young female faculty with families, effort and recognition-wise. And the pattern follows that which has been described in this blog.

  12. #12 Zuska
    March 19, 2008

    Ivan’s comment is excellent advice for any untenured faculty. I would have as detailed a conversation, and as detailed a followup email, as possible. And I would ask for acknowledgment that the chair agrees with what is in the email or else explains what in it needs to be altered and how. If you have a trusted mentor, talk to him/her before the meeting to find out as much as possible what sorts of things you and the chair ought to be discussing.

    Try to get a good understanding of what recent successful tenure cases looked like. If you can say things like “it looks like x is the average number of pubs needed for tenure, x amount of service, etc.” that can be really helpful in delineating what is expected of you.

    The conversation can help make them more conscious of what, exactly, they are expecting of you. It may take more than one meeting to get at a good summary. Press as hard as you (reasonably) can for details, details, details. And put it all in writing.

  13. #13 newly retired prof
    March 25, 2008

    Unwritten rules vs. written rules argue for a unionized faculty at universities. But when unionization happens, merit is not rewarded, and science faculty are paid the same as humanities faculty, despite many more student-contact hours and significantly higher standards for research and professional service,along with a frantic race to “keep up” with rapidly advancing fields.