Recently, David Edelstein and Jim Goldgeier circulated an open letter for signature to address bullying in the profession. The open letter can be found here. So far, there are nearly 100 signatures, including mine.

As a sophomore in high school, I was 5’2”, weighed 215 pounds, was in a bunch of advanced classes with much older students, and played role-playing games in my spare time. I know a little bit about being bullied. And I know a lot about its toll. I know also that bullying can come in many forms, with some bullies savvier than others in terms of how they ply their craft.

Verbal abuse and physical intimidation or assault are clear violations of behavioral standards – professional or otherwise – and instantly recognizable by any reasonably aware on-looker. One of the things that made some of the recently surfaced allegations of bullying so shocking is that the language and behaviors were so coarse and bluntly damaging as to stagger belief. I think this kind of bullying can be policed, and in ways not all that different from the way it got policed on the schoolyard: someone larger or with more status would make it clear the behavior needed to stop. Or eventually one would snap and stand up for oneself, even if it meant fighting a literal fight you could not win.

Ferreting out more subtle bullying behavior is going to be incredibly difficult because behaviors that would be considered bullying in other professional or interpersonal contexts are formalized parts of how our work is assessed and rewarded. 

As a largely self-policing and -assessing community, we pass judgment on one another. All. The. Time. We can say we are passing judgment on the work and not the person, but for most purposes that is a distinction without difference. And these opportunities to pass judgment provide ample opportunities for bullying behavior. I’ll focus on two: the peer review process and tenure discussions.

Peer Review

Try explaining the peer review process to someone unfamiliar therewith: 

“So, let me get this straight: you work for months or years on a project and then send it out for assessment. The assessment is conducted by people who are trying to publish their own work in the same places, right?”

“That’s correct.”

“And you don’t know who these people are? What happens if their assessments are flawed or mean-spirited, or if they have a personal grudge against you? What if they just want to thin the competing herd?”

“Well, you usually have the opportunity to oppose reviewers on a variety of grounds. You give the editor a set of names and reasons.”

“So, in order to avoid your own work potentially being assessed improperly, you basically have to preemptively accuse other professionals in your same industry of unprofessional behavior?”

“Well, when you put that way…”

“Do they ever find out about this accusation?”

“Well, they shouldn’t. They probably don’t. They simply aren’t invited to review the work.”

“Oh. OK. Well, what if you get your work rejected on flimsy grounds? What if you object to the editorial decisions? Is there an appeals process?”

“Not really. You can write the editor to protest the decision, but that’s a really bad idea. You don’t want to make an enemy of the editor.”

This is usually the point in the conversation where the person begins staring blankly back at you.

Tenure Discussions

Try explaining the tenure and promotion process the same way:

“So, let me get this straight: you work with people for five or six years. Then they send your materials out for review – again, to a bunch of anonymous people, so you still have all the potential issues you just told me about with peer review. Those people then make recommendations on whether your employer should keep or fire you.”

“Yes, more or less.”

“And then your co-workers get to vote on whether to keep you or fire you?”

“It’s a bit more complicated than that, but yes.”

“It seems like you could make a lot of friends but also put a lot of noses out of joint in five or six years.”

“True, which is why as a junior faculty member you really need to keep your head down, avoid getting involved in controversial department politics, and make sure not to piss anyone off.”

“But what if someone is being really mean to you? What if they’re consistently critical of your work, or they think the subject you study is unimportant, or they are mad because you got hired over their preferred candidate? What if they just don’t like you for personal reasons? Can they vote against you for that?”

“Well, they should have a good reason.”

“Aren’t you people really smart and essentially professional arguers?”

“That’s flattering. I guess, yeah.”

“It seems like someone fitting that description could probably come up with a reasonable sounding argument to justify a decision that’s essentially a product of a personal vendetta.”

“Well, when you put that way…”

I can tell you from personal experience: the constant fear instilled by bullying and the way it shaped my daily behavior as a teenager was much, much more insidious than the actual instances of intimidation, verbal abuse, or public humiliation. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the emotional and mental strain of living in fear and literally mapping out safe pathways from one class to the next to avoid bullies was worse than the bullying itself.

Pre-tenure people are mapping out these safe pathways for half a decade. And don’t even get me started on the precarity of adjuncts and visiting instructors, for whom the review process is even more capricious and occurs quarterly or annually.

I am glad we are having a conversation about bullying. And I’m glad many people are pre-committing themselves to doing something about it when confronted. But I think the very nature of the largely anonymous peer assessment process that underpins much of what we do in academia “bakes in” opportunities for subtle forms of malicious behavior that will be harder to address.