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The Hidden Rules of the University Workplace

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By Heather Fitzgerald

Posted on August 22, 2023 | Updated September 29, 2023, 9:00am

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Many parents of neurodivergent children like me spend a lot of time learning and talking about hidden rules. Every social situation has rules that govern how people interact with each other, but those rules are usually invisible and often even unrecognized. Their invisibility of these social rules makes them hard to teach to kids who don’t learn by observing and following the behaviour of their peers: you might only recognize a hidden rule when your child behaves in a way that is not consistent with it. Unfortunately, by that time, the damage has sometimes been done and your child may be embarrassed, ostracized, stigmatized, etc. by their “unexpected” social behaviour.

Writing about the hidden curriculum in my last post made me consider all the other “hidden rules” that govern life at ECU — those practices that seem natural and invisible to those “on the inside” but totally baffling to those new to or unfamiliar with our context. Even, or sometimes especially, new faculty members negotiating their first term here.

In “Imagine Me Here, Or How I Became a Professor,” one of the essays in My Time Among the Whites, writer Jennine Capó Crucet describes her experience of applying for a tenure track job as a first-generation university student of immigrant parents:

I’m a first-generation college student, and the idea of becoming a professor — one of those people who seemed to emanate brilliance and poise, the people who made knowledge!—felt like too big of a leap for me, as someone who comes from a working-class family of electricians. Add to this hurdle the fact that the vast majority of my professors were white, and that most of them were male … and you can see how a Cuban girl from Miami could come to think academia wasn’t the place for her.. (156-7)

Crucet then articulates in detail the conditions / supports that made her application possible and eventually successful:

  • She received support and encouragement from former professors who were willing to walk and talk her through the application process
  • She received reassurance, encouragement and sample applications from fellow writers with tenure-track positions
  • She had gained solid research skills during her MFA that she applied to learn about dossiers, campus visits, job talks and other aspects of academic job searches that she had not been introduced to in grad school
  • She was contacted by someone on the search committee directly encouraging her to apply

Without all of this support, even with all of her obvious talent, Crucet does not believe she would have made it in the academic job market. [Footnote: Not that she’s not conflicted about the job as well, as she writes at the end of that essay: “The writing asks you to question the job. The job lets me afford the writing. The job is why you’re reading this” (174).]

In considering this essay alongside my recent thinking about the hidden curriculum, I realized that we in universities make huge assumptions about the kinds of people who apply for academic jobs. This is especially true in a place like ECU which attracts many “non-traditional” instructors.

Just as our curriculum often assumes skills and knowledge of our students that only the most privileged possess, our hiring and “onboarding” practices often assume that new instructors know how and why we function the way we do, when in fact only the most privileged would even have a rough idea. ECU operates with hundreds of unstated rules that govern everything from who talks in meetings and sits on committees to who participates in curriculum design and establishes teaching norms and expectations. Even for those who have worked in other universities, the particularities of ECU’s practices can be disorienting and unfamiliar, but for colleagues who have never worked in a university, the norms of our operations can exacerbate feelings of not belonging and imposter syndrome.

How baffling must our practices be for for anyone who

  • did not attend a PhD program that explicitly prepared students for university careers in North America
  • lacks access to academic mentors or role models who can help them navigate university careers in North America
  • does not have communities or social and professional support networks that understand university careers in North America
  • are unable to ask for support without fear of stigmatization, loss of employment or other repercussions

In other words, making the invisible visible or stating the unstated helps not only our students, but also ourselves and our colleagues. A few small examples of what that can look like:

A colleague, watching my utter confusion after a committee meeting early in my time at ECU, took the time to name and explain Robert’s Rules, a system I was entirely ignorant of. Once I understood the rules of engagement, I could imagine how I might contribute or even participate in meetings.

Another colleague shared a list of acronyms with definitions to help me interpret the coded language I kept hearing in meetings. That gesture made me realize that everyone struggles with the jargon of a new community and that I was not dumb or unqualified if I asked for clarification.

More recently, my colleague Sara Osenton started Dossier Drop-ins as a space to demystify the various components of the academic job or tenure application where people could ask questions and receive support without fear of judgment or reprisal.

These are all ways that we can reduce barriers to full participation and success for our colleagues. But there are more.

Many of our colleagues teaching at ECU work without a clear sense of what they need to do to succeed in their jobs, which creates a whole other kind of anxiety in an already precarious workplace. I wonder how we can use what we know about making the implicit explicit in our classrooms to make this a kinder, more accessible place to teach.

  • What would change in our faculty meetings if we assumed, as a default, that most faculty don’t understand how this place works or why we do what we do?
  • What if we clearly stated, maybe even in writing, which aspects of teaching are required and which are optional, so people didn’t have to guess?
  • What if we had a way of communicating best practices in our teaching so that others could benefit from our research and experiments?
  • What if we shared our approaches to common tasks in teaching (lesson planning, designing assignments, assessment strategies, how we run office hours, how we record attendance or absences) so that those with less academic privilege and security don’t have to start from zero or guess at what’s enough?

I know many faculty members already provide a lot of mentorship and support to new colleagues individually. I guess I’ve been thinking about how do we scale that up to make that support available universally? Your success as an instructor at ECU shouldn’t depend on being lucky enough to land a great mentor.