privacy and power

This morning I'm taking a few hours off from being a responsible grownup, and instead slept late, caught up on email, worked out in the hotel gym, and now am catching up on blogs.

A line in AKMA's post this morning from the DigID caught my eye, though, and dragged me back to the things that have been weighing me down in the real world.

He quoted Cory Doctorow as saying "Privacy never exists apart from power relationships. Privacy is all about power."

Now, this isn't really a groundbreaking concept. (And I've certainly been on the receiving end of criticism on exactly this front, as those who are regular readers and participants on the Happy Tutor's site are well aware.) But seeing the words like that, in the context of recent departmental debates about things like promotion in rank, and internal governance, really hit a nerve for me.

This week had an almost surreal feel to it for me, in fact, because I was re-reading Pierre Bourdieu's book Homo Academicus, in preparation for my presentation at AoIR. The book is Bourdieu's "self-reflexive" sociological analysis of power and class struggles in French higher education, and his discussion of the "symbolic violence" that results from imbalances of capital and power.

On Tuesday, while I was in the midst of this reading and thinking, we had an extraordinarily divisive meeting of our faculty. Some context, first. We've got 51 tenure-track faculty members in our department (and a handful of visiting professors, and a smattering--a small smattering--of adjuncts). Of the 51, 20 are tenured. Of those 20, two (including me) are still at the assistant professor rank, because our departmental policy does not allow faculty to go up for tenure and promotion in the same year. It turns out that we're just about the only department on campus to have that restriction, so a number of "junior" faculty asked in the faculty meeting that our departmental policy be changed in this regard.

The details of the meeting are not particularly important, but the outcomes certainly were. The "junior" faculty (myself included) are unlikely to forget the statement by one of our most senior professors that the "peer group" (those at or above the rank aspired to) was under no obligation to even consider an application from a faculty member for promotion, even if that person met the university's criteria. Nor are the senior facuulty likely to forget my angry response to that, and to a highly charged and divisive vote that occurred at the end of the meeting.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut, considering that I'm up for promotion this year. After the meeting, one of the less belligerent senior faculty told me that "confrontational approaches never have good endings." I refrained from pointing out that seldom are power imbalances corrected by gentle suggestions by the underclass. Yes, I know, I could have waited a year. But I squelched my anger at how things are done in our department for two years (between midtenure and tenure) in order to keep my job, and I guess I just didn't have it in me to keep quiet one more time.

The response of the senior faculty to what happened on Tuesday was two-fold. First, they made it clear that any changes to policy would happen behind closed doors, without the input of those most affected, and without the process being made visible. Second, at least two of them have contacted me to say that because they were offended by my challenging their votes, they're going to request that all future full faculty votes be conducted by secret ballot.

I don't want to break down all the structures, hierarchical or not. As Cathy Irving pointed out in a comment to an early post of mine, "Walls are good. They hold up the roof." But I think that privacy must be balanced with trust. Do I want to be private sometimes? Sure. Are there times when the use of power is appropriate and effective? Yes. But the breakdown occurs when trust is gone, and I think our department is well past that point. Maybe it's a function of scale. Maybe it happens everywhere. I don't know. But I'm saddened by it, and increasingly weary of fighting the battles.

For now, though, I'm going to wander over to the AoIR presentations, and soak up a little more of what I love about academia--the exchange of ideas, the enthusiasm about research, the conversations with smart people that make you really think. And then I'm going out on the town with no other than Joey deVilla (aka Accordion Guy). If you're at AoIR and want to join us, come find me during or after the 2pm session today on "Access Denied: Critical Considerations of Internet Space and the Digital Divide." I'll be the one with the 17" powerbook, live blogging the panel (assuming WiFi is live).

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry published on October 17, 2003 12:29 PM.

aoir: "broadening the blog panel, part 1" was the previous entry in this blog.

aoir: "Access Denied: Critical Considerations of Internet Space and the Digital Divide" is the next entry in this blog.

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