Sunday, February 22, 2009

norms on speaking up

Friday was our monthly faculty meeting. Since we have five campuses spread over 100 miles, most of our meetings are held via Interactive Television (or compressed two way video). The faculty gather on each campus in a common room, and can view speakers (and the folks around them) on the other campuses. Unless a microphone is turned on, any conversation that happens on a campus cannot be heard elsewhere.

This Friday something happened that has happened many times before. A faculty member on another campus made a proposal that did not sit well at all with anyone in the room around me. An immediate buzz of complaints and criticism took over the room. Several people said, "someone should tell them" but no one made a move to touch one of the microphones and report their concerns. In the meantime, several other individuals (all male) from other campuses, did activate their microphones and speak on behalf of the proposal. The volume of complaint around me increased. While I personally had no problem with the proposal, I could see that it would not be successful with such a high level of negative feeling from my local colleagues. Finally, since none of the people around me with the complaints did anything, I punched my microphone and informed the chair that our campus was unanimous in opposing the proposal. A few other people, from other campuses, then chimed in with their doubts, and the proposal was withdrawn.

Many times over the years that we have conducted our meetings through Interactive Television, there have been issues and proposals that have raised the ire and criticism of the faculty on my campus. Not once in all those years has any one, aside from myself, ever pressed the microphone button and expressed their concerns. If the issue is not one I share or wish to ally with, then the opposition of faculty on my campus is not expressed. Instead, they continue to grumble to each other, but never speak up, never take an action to oppose something. Indeed, no one on my campus, willingly speaks in the meeting unless they have a specific committee assignment on which they are required to report. I am the only one who will simply ask questions or offer opinions. The faculty on other campuses, with the exception of three others (all men), are the same, only those with official roles to play (heads of programs, elected officers, deans, etc.) will speak, make comments and ask questions.

This particular Friday, several people thanked me for speaking up and expressing our view. But more often, the comments and questions by those few of us who do speak up, are resented rather than appreciated. Two of the three men who speak up frequently are considered annoying trouble makers. My guess is that I may well have developed that reputation as well.

I am left to wonder to what extent this norm against speaking up in meetings, and asking questions of the authority figures, is a function of regional subculture (central Appalachia) and to what extent is it a function of working class subculture (since nearly all of the community college faculty I work with are from working class families). Sociologists Sennett and Cobb in their seminal work The Hidden Injuries of Class recorded similar behavior among grade school students in working class Boston and Pennsylvania. But I did not see the same behavior in the working-class originating faculty of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, when I taught there in the 1980's. Perhaps this is not an "either/or" situation, but a combination of both regional and social class subculture.


Kiashu said...

Thanks for the story, Sue, it's very interesting and makes me think of people "speaking up" more generally. Many people are uncomfortable with this, it's common to have commenters on blogs focus on your tone and ignore the content. Women bloggers in particular will get this.

Of course, class and region of origin aren't visible online, so I couldn't guess about that. But it's something to think about nonetheless.

Amias said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amias said...

This was very interesting to read.
I am neither an educator, nor do I have any formal education; but I feel open to the challenge of speaking up.

Based on my experiences, regardless of the class or culture, the one commonality one has with everyone else, as it relate to "speaking up" is fear of criticism and not being accepted by ones peers. I found this to be true time and time again, as such, women in particular loses a lot of ground, on all levels of their lives, most notable in political, educational, and religious arenas.