Friday, July 06, 2012

Discussion in a Faculty Office, Part II


It has been almost five years since I’ve written about Sam Stamper, the young Assistant Professor who was taken to task by one of the most senior full professors in his department following a classroom observation. We left Stamper as he ran off to teach.

After class, he contacted his union representative and filed a grievance against Professor Fayles and asked his department chair to schedule another observation. The chair conducted it himself. When, a few months later, the grievance succeeded, the report Fayles submitted was removed from Stamper’s file, the glowing one from the chair remaining.

Though the bullying attempted by Fayles did not succeed, that was not the end of such incidents in the department. Today, with a new chair and quite a number of retirements (including Fayles), the atmosphere is quite different—though inappropriate attempts at intimidation do still happen, even to Stamper.

The college has a seven-year tenure clock and Stamper’s turn came up last fall. He decided to apply for promotion to Associate at the same time. In both cases, he was successful. Tenure and promotion will commence at the start of the fall, 2012 semester. The process was not without pitfall, however, and bullying once again interfered in what should have been a much more collegial (though rigorous) process.

Professor Anthony Scolia, whose specialty is the history of the English language, is one of the only senior members of the department with real scholarly credentials. Though he never has produced a book, his articles have appeared in respected venues and he has been an influential officer in several professional organizations. Proud and a little bitter over having spent his career far from the research institutions where he feels he belongs, Scolia has always seen himself as different from his professional colleagues at the college. He does, however, take his responsibilities to the department seriously, actually reading promotion files (for example) before voting on them.

Stamper shares an office with seven other junior faculty, a long room with an aisle down the middle with alcoves on each side separated by moveable dividers. The eight can talk together, if they want, by simply rolling their chairs a few feet towards the middle, where all eight desks can be easily seen. One day last fall, Scolia walked into the office and stopped at the center-most point in the aisle, near Stamper’s desk, which was one of the middle two on the left. Five of the occupants happened to be there at the time.

“I have a bone to pick with you.” One hand behind his back, he stared at Stamper, who looked up in surprise. “Take out a dictionary.”

“No.” Stamper had no idea what was going on, but he wasn’t going to accept such condescension. “Just tell me what your problem is.”

“What does ‘adumbrate’ mean?”

“You tell me…. I’m sorry, but I don’t understand your point.”

Scolia brought his hand forward. It had been concealing Stamper’s book, borrowed from the promotion file. “On page 13 of this book of yours, you use the word incorrectly.”

Stamper stared up at Scolia, who was now leaning over him, the book waving under Stamper’s chin. In defense, Stamper stood, finding himself nose-to-nose with Scolia.

He didn’t know what to do or what to say. Sandbagged, he wasn’t willing to argue a point of definition with a man who had made a career out of the minutia of the English language—a man who, also, would soon be sitting in judgment on him on the Peers Committee. But, with four colleagues watching, he couldn’t let this pass. So, he changed the subject, doing something he should not have done, for he knew what would hurt Scolia most, what his greatest career disappointment was.

“If you had ever written a book, you would know that errors get through, and in every single case. Now, give me that book,” he grabbed it out of Scolia’s hand, “it belongs in the chair’s office.” He stalked out of the office, leaving Scolia staring after him, speechless.

Even as he slipped the book back in its folder, still angry, Stamper knew he had done the wrong thing. In his mind, he was already composing what he knew would be a necessary apology. By the next day, he had both emailed Scolia and spoken to him personally, telling him he had reacted poorly. Scolia did nod graciously, but gave no more of a response than that.

And ‘adumbrate’? Had Stamper used it incorrectly?

He looked carefully at his book, at the passage. He had, he saw, been using two meanings, the one (‘to obscure’) carrying ironic hints of the other (‘to foreshadow’). Clearly he had failed to communicate the nuance he had intended, but… all he could imagine was that Scolia had seized on the first thing he had seen that could be used to put Stamper in his place.

Looking a little deeper into the book, Stamper winced. There was plenty in it he could be criticized for, and he knew it, remembering problems as he paged through. It was a good thing, he thought to himself, that Scolia had stopped so quickly and on such a trivial point.

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