The Narcissistic Turn: Neo‐liberal Investments and the Death of Collegiality

This blog entry was actually posted on December 10, 2015.

This article is from WLUFA Advocate 1.3 February 2013.

Pat Elliot, Professor, Sociology and MA CAST

Collegiality refers to a relationship between colleagues who are “united in
common purpose” and who respect each other’s commitment to that purpose
and their ability to work toward it (Wikipedia). Institutional arrangements
to facilitate the acknowledgement of shared commitments that used
to exist in many universities took the form of spaces like senior common
rooms or faculty lounges where time would be devoted to informal meetings
and discussion among peers. Without idealizing such spaces, which were no
doubt more welcoming to some than to others, we might note that their disappearance
coincides with a complete lack of time for any non‐obligatory gathering. Increased pressure to produce knowledge measured in largely quantitative ways takes its toll on most of us who scramble to comply with its demands and who carefully monitor
the consequences of our decreased participation elsewhere. Like our students,
we calculate the most efficient means to the end: where students estimate
how much effort is required to achieve the grades they desire, faculty
estimate how many meetings can be missed, or how the work of teaching
can be minimized without affecting their personal goals of achieving tenure,
merit, or satisfactory teaching evaluations. Make no mistake: these institutional
pressures are as real as the predictable effects that I call “the narcissistic turn.”

What is involved in such a turn? The pressure to put our research first diverts
our energy away from other valuable activities that concern our common
goals, including the vital work of faculty associations and unions that
have the potential to promote our collective interests. Efforts to engage with
more time‐consuming pedagogies not oriented toward the technology of entertainment
appear a superfluous waste of time, especially when increasing
class sizes become a major institutional goal. Participation in the running
of our respective departments and programs also becomes dispensable since
the time required detracts from one’s personally valued and institutionally
rewarded commitments to publication.

Except for those who are paid to do so, meetings with students outside of class
or specific office hours becomes an expendable choice because contributing
to the development of others on one’s own time impedes the pursuit of one’s
professional self‐interest.

The impact of this institutionally created narcissistic turn is as profound as it
is demoralizing. There is little to no recognition of “common purpose” since
the only logical response to the institution is to retreat into one’s own scholarly
production, however broadly or narrowly we define its terms. Real commitments
to common purpose become exceedingly rare, and those who assume
leadership positions out of such commitments are routinely dismissed
by others. They are seen as serving some hidden personal agenda such as
wielding the fictional power one imagines Chairs to possess, or as possessing some personality quirk, or the inability to fulfill other aspects of one’s profession. Appeals to colleagues to work towards some agreed upon common goal, even if one
would be compensated for doing so, are frequently viewed as punishing
attacks on colleagues’ professional goals. After all, if meetings with colleagues or students
do not serve one’s own research and/or they represent a drain on one’s personal time, why make the sacrifice? In fact, these collective obligations can be refused with impunity as there are no institutional consequences for failing to participate in these types of
activities except at some minimal level – and this level drops off precipitously post‐tenure.
Structurally produced, one’s investment in the narcissistic turn appears to be the only rational response, and it does of course further the personal and professional
goals of those who make it. For those who refuse that turn, who continue to hope for and foster collegiality, there are problematic consequences since the collective well‐being they enhance is the result of work carried out at their own expense.

Held accountable for their reduced productivity elsewhere, they suffer the negative effects of engaging in unrecognized work. In taking on the work that others refuse to share, they make sacrifices that can only been deemed irrational and for which there is no recourse.

Given the institutional strangulation of collegiality and the recent, unqualified support for the narcissistic turn which rewards those who invest in it, those who invest in the common purpose are fighting a battle that has already been lost. They will either burn out
or retreat. Relieved of the burden of collegiality, others will be unable to recognize its defeat as our common loss.

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