Academic formalities

Thirty-one years ago this month I embarked upon my career as an academic, becoming Lecturer in Industrial Relations in Trinity College Dublin. As I prepared to go into my very first lecture, an older colleague (from another department) suggested to me that it would not be proper for me to turn up at the lecture not wearing a gown.

I doubt there will be many people giving university lectures this academic year in Dublin or elsewhere wearing gowns. And yet, there is still something curiously formal and old-fashioned (in a pre-1960s sort of way) about academic life. I know several university departments in different institutions in which staff do not all call each other by first name, and certainly do not address the Head that way. And even where such barriers have been overcome, there can often still be something very hierarchical about interpersonal relations, even in the most politically radical departments (not that there are many of these now). It sometimes surprises me how status conscious academics can be.

I tend to think that a spirit of scholarship and inquiry does not prosper in an environment of formality. Therefore it may be useful occasionally to consider the atmosphere in universities and within the organisational units, to assess whether it is conducive to open debate and the exchange of ideas, without the restraint of interpersonal formality and the inclination to seek or offer deference.

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4 Comments on “Academic formalities”

  1. I think some of the outward forms are changing – for instance I nowadays call even my Vice Chancellor by his given name – but the inner reality of stiffly hierarchical institutions remains pretty much as ever.

    Status consciousness is surely not strange in organisations which are structured very bureaucratically. If academics are more status-conscious than other university employees (and I’m not sure this is invariably my experience) it is surely because middle-to-senior administrators tend to control resources and manage processes, whereas even quite senior academics can be wholly dependent on the combination of status and ideology (‘academic freedom’) for their power base within the organisation.

    Certainly my recent experience has been that academic colleagues in positions of genuine organisational power – Deans say – never pull rank on me whereas relatively powerless colleagues, such as programme leaders, sometimes try to.

  2. Al Says:

    Probably best to have the discipline to interact in formal environments and relax from there, rather than going the whole ay to barbaria?

    • Jilly Says:

      this is precisely what my own institution does. In day-to-day interaction everyone (to the very highest level) is on first-name terms. However, in formal meetings, everyone (to the lowest level) is addressed by their academic title. This actually works very well, as it unconsciously reminds people that they’re in these meetings in their professional capacity, and leads to very professional (while still perfectly friendly) behaviour. I was struck by this when I first arrived from a different institution which was much more informal at all times, but which tolerated deeply unprofessional behaviour in meetings etc.

      So I do think there’s a place for formality; distinguishing it from deference, which is different.

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