Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Owning knowledge

I just cannot get over how people think they own knowledge. It is completely mystifying.

After approving them at the level of my program's advisory committee, I sent my two new courses out to my department for approval before they go on to the next stages. I have received nothing but accolades and support for them. Except from one colleague, who is sending me - and the whole department - absolutely horribly condescending emails in which they are essentially asking, "Why aren't you teaching things the way I would teach them?" Well, my friend, that is because we have different kinds of training, and I am not an expert in what you do. You want courses that do that? You teach them in your program; the courses you're proposing don't actually fit with my training or my "inter-"discipline. This colleague is also sending me emails in which they try to "teach me" very basic things I already know. I don't know where this person is getting the idea that I need to be taught these things - it is a mystery to me. In fact, in an email I had just sent them, I had explicitly said these things! It is like my words are not being heard, and what the courses actually do is not being engaged with on any level. How frustrating!

I'm not sure how to respond. I feel as if I can't just let it go, this latest condescending email that purports to "teach me" things. It's a matter of pride. But I don't know - maybe I shoul just ignore. Ugh. Why, why, why do people want to make academe into a monoculture? And how do people have the chutzpah to talk to colleagues - people with PhD's, for goodness sake - in that way? (Part of the answer is gender, in this case.)

Update: I responded quite collegially but quite forcefully, and seem to have gotten the colleague to back off: I received a "Peace" response.


Pantagruelle said...

Yay for the peace response! Good for you for putting him in his place in a collegial manner.

medieval woman said...


I'm glad that you responded forcefully and in a no-nonsense way - looks like it had the right effect and perhaps he'll stop with the teaching emails! He needs to teach his own students and have faith that you've already been taught.

I have to ask - is this person older or quite a bit more advanced? I've had similar (though by no means as substantive and invasive) emails from an older male colleague. They seem to think they need to be fatherly to a young female professor and it's so damned annoying. They usually end up doing this to all women (both students and professors) who are younger than them and it infuriates everyone.

Hilaire said...

Yeah, he's definitely older, but not necessarily very senior. I think the combination of age and gender is a potent one, in this respect.

Ahistoricality said...

It's funny: I'm on an interdisciplinary committee, and I'm constantly biting my tongue to avoid the "I'd teach it differently" gambit. I guess some people don't have that tongue-biting impulse.... There are definitely times when I think the course proposals are flawed, but I'm going to think that about anything that isn't firmly in my field.

Anonymous said...

What's wrong with being open to suggestions from a more experienced colleague, regardless of gender? This person may not be able to switch out of "teaching mode" when speaking with a colleague, but does that mean he has nothing to say that is of any worth? Seems to me you are not respecting his expertise but have become defensive and unwilling to listen to him. Pot calling kettle black, in my opinion.

Hilaire said...

Ahistoricality - Yes, this is the approach most people in my department take...because the department is a federation of programs, most people take the position that they will not try to interfere with others' curricular developments, because they are outside of their fields. I have an advisory committee to my program - since my course proposals were approved by them, the department-level vetting is really just a formality.

Anon - I'm certainly not closed to suggestions from a more experienced colleague. In fact, I have engaged in and heartily welcomed a dialogue with another colleague who said they had resources that might fit nicely with one of the courses. I was excited about those resources and may even invite this person to do a guest lecture when I teach the course. It is a question of tone - that's what I mean with regard to gender. It was an assumption that I didn't know some very basic facts...I think that's an *incredibly* patronizing of this colleague's emails threw statistics at me! I'm sorry, but I find this problematic...especially since it was clear he hadn't even read my last email, because if he had, he would have seen that I already "knew" the very things he was purporting to "teach" me. There was an agenda being pushed, to the extent that the colleague was blinded to the correspondence actually in front of him.

The other thing to understand is the structure...this colleague is not in my program, and has *no* expertise in the things I teach. (Such is the nature of a department of federated programs.)

I have now had several colleagues come into my office, close the door, and apologize for this behaviour, telling me that this is what this person does *every* time a new curricular or structural innovation is discussed - tries to blindly push his agenda without regard to whether it fits the context. I think that my "defensiveness" is warranted, given this. I also suspect that if you were to see the details of this case - which I can't share - you would agree that what you see as my "defensiveness" is warranted.

In fact, I think what the colleague is doing is problematic in that it is aiming to create a monoculture in the academy, whereby everyone in the university is teaching from the same approach. I am really not interested in going this route.