As we head for Christmas, it is worth considering the people we’ve been surrounded by for the past year. Some will have been a delight, others may have caused immense stress for a number of different reasons. So, time to continue my characterisation of the Dramatis Personae in university departments, bearing in mind the recent discussion in the THE about what professors ought to be offering in terms of leadership, strategic development and support for those around*. (Of course the title professor should be taken as generic; these characters may apply at any career stage of a tenured academic.)
Whatever task you ask this person to take on, they will manage either to fail to start or most certainly fail to finish; possibly they will even manage to screw up the bigger picture of the task for others en route. Sometimes this is due to inexperience, but sometimes it is clearly a carefully thought through strategy so that colleagues never ask them to do anything again. I have known young lecturers who successfully followed this strategy early on in their career, so as to avoid having chores pointed in their direction, and who have subsequently turned into irreproachable heads of departments. I leave others to judge the ethics and/or wisdom of this behaviour.
Professor Centre-of-the Universe
This person may or may not be the star of the department. It doesn’t matter to them what the rest of the world thinks about them. As far as they are concerned they know the world revolves around them, and they expect everyone else to fit in with what they want. If they need more space they assume others will cheerfully relinquish their targeted rooms. If they want that outstanding student who has applied from abroad, it never occurs to them that others may equally have their eyes on them – and the accompanying finance. Such behaviour can be amazingly disruptive; while less egocentric colleagues will confer and be willing to compromise, Professor Centre-of-the-Universe charges on without a sideways glance at those who fall by the wayside. Of course, if they don’t fall by the wayside voluntarily, things can get even nastier. Battle lines can be drawn before others have even had chance to draw breath. A tricky person for the head of department to try to keep in check.
This person may or may not be synonymous with the previous character. Those who think they are the centre of the universe may also be those who are constantly on airplanes, jetting around the world from one high profile conference to another. They rely on teams of students constantly to replenish their powerpoint presentations with new data, but they are not necessarily close at hand to advise these students. Hence a large team of postdocs may also be required to keep the research group actually functioning in the long periods of absence of the boss.
Again this may often be one and the same person as Professor Mid-Atlantic, because a quick charm offensive on their return from every trip may be required to stop the troops from rioting during their next absence. One student I knew of such a professor told me how he had always gone into meetings raging about the lack of support he received from his supervisor, but found himself instantly disarmed by the (mock) sympathy expressed by the professor, with the outcome the student came out still not having expressed his fury. This is a skill that is clearly very useful to possess, but I would be most reluctant to encourage others to perfect the skill! A related tactic, perhaps more relevant to dealing with senior colleagues, is the line I was once faced with ‘How long do you want to rant at me this time, Athene?’ Again, I was disarmed by this approach (and am still waiting for an occasion when I feel I can try that line out on someone myself).
Professor Last Minute
This character is well known by the administration. If there is an important grant deadline approaching, this one will turn up in the admin office a maximum of 24 hours beforehand demanding instant attention and resolution of all problems, large and small. This one will leave submitting marks for any course/exam until ½ hour after the deadline (to the distraction of the senior examiner) or fail to provide the syllabus for the course or title for any seminar until at least 3 reminders have been circulated. What makes it worse is they fail to realise the stress or mayhem consequent upon their (non) action. They’ve done whatever it was that was being asked of them, what’s the problem? – they will ask in injured terms.
Professor ChiponShoulder/It’s Not Fair
This person feels the world treats them unfairly. Always, Whatever. They believe they are asked to do far more teaching than anyone else, regardless of what any workload model may demonstrate (strange, as scientists are meant to believe in evidence). They are convinced that others get more departmental resources, be it space, money or access to students. Their brilliant research is (they would claim) overlooked if individuals are being considered for any ‘reward’ – more salary, a prize or a nicer office. Nothing that comes their way is appreciated because it’s never enough to feed their fragile egos. The strange thing about these people is that sometimes they genuinely are valued for their skills and treated accordingly well, but somehow they can’t see the respect with which they are viewed, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy as others start to value them less.
Every department needs its share of these desirable individuals. They quietly get on with whatever is asked of them. Give them an extra dose of lecturing and they will perform, perhaps without charisma or even much enthusiasm, but with competence and consistency so that the student liason committee will not need to make a fuss demanding that they are instantly removed. Ask them to join a committee, and they will have read all the papers before the meeting although they may not wish to contribute much to the debate one way or the other (something that is by no means always a disadvantage). They will likewise deal appropriately with practical classes or admissions or whatever other task is tossed in their direction. What valuable colleagues these are, even if they may sometimes be less likely to attract large sums of money or the most aspirational students. They are a welcome relief from many of the other characters described above.
Professor Nearly Perfect
I don’t need to describe this person, since I’m sure all my readers fit into this category so they can fill in the blanks themselves.
Who have I forgotten?
* Any similarity to real persons, alive or dead, is purely coincidental.