Cold dispositions: what a thought. I would hazard to speculate that cold dispositions in academia are not limited to minority academics, although the effects of racism and generalized cultural insensitivity would likely only compound the general lack of respect faced by many academics.
I met with a colleague yesterday in order to hand over materials related to the position I had stepped down from recently. He was appreciative of the thoroughness with which I had assembled the materials. As a self-identified codependent, the idea of voluntarily stepping down from a position in which I had been relatively successful is a big deal. This is actually the first time I have done such a thing in my career so far. This is a position I consider to be major in terms of service, and minor in terms of administration. So far, it seems like a positive move.
Inadvertently, this ended up being an informal conversation that also included the department head. I had been thinking that I wanted to speak to him about some of the comments I received on the students evaluations, not because I'm terribly concerned about the numbers on the forms, but because the lack of appreciation of some of my efforts is leading to me to think that I might want to make some changes, and I would like to talk through that him. I had earmarked the beginning of the next academic year as a time to do that, but since he stopped by while I was meeting with my colleague, there ended up being a little bit of informal conversation among the three of us yesterday in my colleague's office.
What is becoming clearer is that there are common problems that many of us face. When we make adjustments in response to student complaints, then there are often complaints about the adjustments that we have made. At least it can be said that this year, instead of feeling miserable and isolated and trying to find solace in codependent attachments to spiritual seekers with deep personal problems, or focusing intensely on intuitive pursuits such as astrology, I'm actually opening some lines of communication with a number of colleagues (not all of whom have been my favorite people in the department) and am participating in a collective process of reviewing what we are doing. For example, the colleague I met with yesterday had some of his evaluations red-flagged by the provost's office, which led to the department head being charged with having a conversation with him about student perceptions of his teaching. At least I haven't had to deal with that kind of humiliation.
In contrast to the numerous conversations I have had about student evaluations since the end of the semester, one thing that stands out is the absence of my former faculty mentor. I heard indirectly, through another colleague, that he had been gloating over how great his evaluations had been this past semester, how he attributed this to his bicycling or something, etc. (The former mentor is the one whose wife is in Avatar.) Students and colleagues alike have described him as "manic," and I'm thinking that there might be something to that. If it is indeed possible to have numerous, realistic conversations about a mixture of successes and failures, aspirations and disappointments, etc., and yet one person is conspicuously absent from those conversations, it might just lead one to wonder what is going on. Maybe he just had a good semester and, if so, good for him. Or maybe he really is a superior being and the rest of us are just inferior. Or, maybe the majority of us are realistic and he's living in an artificial, alternative reality that has been constructed in order to deflect attention away from his insecurities.
There is another colleague whose perspective I question as well. This one, like the former mentor, seems to assign himself the role of Mr. Popularity among the students, and of someone who definitively has his finger on the pulse of what is going on with the students. (It seems to me that there is something kind of high-schoolish about that.) Yesterday I was mentioning to the department head that I had heard that a high school choral teacher in the area was known for running a rigorous, comprehensive music program. The department head countered that the colleague I was just describing above said that the "joy was going out of" that choral program, and that it was becoming "too academic." Too academic, or merely more accountable to standards of quality than the run-of-the-mill program? Hmm.
Another thing I learned yesterday was the extent to which the colleague I was meeting with finds teaching to be unrewarding, and has therefore turned to research to increase a sense of meaning in his career, although at this point (he's 62) he says he doesn't pursue that as energetically as he used to: if someone wants him to write something, he will, but otherwise he's not pushing as hard as he did before. He said that, earlier on, he used to prepare more thoroughly for his graduate seminars, but the more that he tried to increase the information content of his courses, the more he found that the students weren't interested.
I think that there some unwritten rules in our department. It seems that a number of the students are bright enough and intuitive enough to know better, and to do better than they do, but they seem deeply resentful when they are challenged by the faculty to truly rise to the occasion and to do their best. There is enough mediocrity in their environment that they feel they can use that as leverage from which to hurl insults at anyone who challenges them, whether they be faculty or those few students who really stand out. I find that I have gotten the most resentment from students when I have specifically focused my efforts on raising the standards of their work, and especially when I focused careful attention on their writing about music.
What I'm facing at this point is that maybe it's just natural for people in their 50s to question what the returns are on their efforts, given that limitations on the resources of time, health, and mental acuity are becoming increasingly apparent.