Responsibility and Civility
The Unwritten Essentials
The American Historical Association and organizations like it—whether workplaces, departments, divisions, or colleges—are held together by interlocking and overlapping webs of rules (often written), usages (more often informally conveyed), and expectations. These guidelines are intended to assure the smooth functioning of the group, promote its interests, and serve its members or clients. The AHA’s Statements, Standards, and Guidelines of the Discipline, for example, cover many aspects of proper professional conduct. Guides like these are important to organizations, as are resources such as staff handbooks and faculty manuals; guidelines on hiring, retention, and promotion; and tenure procedures.
Just as critical to the prospering of any such group are the unwritten expectations that underlie and ground the workings of every business or academic unit. When they’re observed, organizations prosper; when they’re disregarded, things go terribly wrong. These expectations fall under two broad rubrics: responsibility and civility. Breaches of either are frequently the reasons for organizational disasters. I have watched departments, colleges, and societies tear themselves apart, descending into fruitless squabbling with colleagues who trade acrimonious barbs and finding themselves unable to maintain a modicum of decent interaction or to exist as a functioning unit.
Within academic departments, this situation can prove to be the kiss of death, opening them up to receivership or even dissolution—a threat every bit as real for museums, libraries, and other workplace environments, even if the dynamics differ. Often, the reasons for such dissension arise from deep intellectual and political (with both a small and large “p”) conflicts. All too frequently, they are triggered by administrative and financial pressures that rupture the normal ties binding groups together. As they struggle to stay alive, communities sometimes turn to cannibalism. If we cannot put our own houses in order, a bulldozer awaits to raze the edifice. These troubles are dreadfully difficult to avoid or negotiate; sometimes larger forces are just too powerful to ward off. Competition is often blamed for bad blood and destructive behavior—true enough. But frequently, the fault lies with us, in the culture we cultivate as groups and individuals. When the organizational and personal virtues of responsibility and civility are breached, everyone loses.
When the organizational and personal virtues of responsibility and civility are breached, everyone loses.
Responsibility and civility count as indispensable to professional and public life, and not only for historians. In their absence, no organization can thrive. As historians, and thus members of the same (metaphorical) guild, we acknowledge certain widely accepted conventions. Most of us have internalized a set of behaviors over time that, if we think in terms of labor, guide our production (scholarship), distribution (exhibitions, curation, library service, teaching, publication), and training (broadly defined). Those familiar with organizational life in its many guises realize that our associations should be “big tents” under which healthy dissent, disagreement, even controversy prosper. Squaring this particular circle is not easy: How do we encourage debate without giving license to abuse or allowing nastiness to gain the upper hand and become an organization’s common discourse? Put another way: What does responsibility look like in the context of historical organizations and associations? To whom are historians responsible?
First, we are responsible to our publics: to those who read our writings, visit our libraries, view our exhibitions, and sit in our classes. But we are also responsible to the other members of our guild—that is, to our colleagues, wherever they live and work. Responsibility, in this instance, includes our participation in the normal business of scholarship that covers, but is not limited to, teaching and service at our respective institutions and workplaces. It also means, especially for tenured colleagues or those in secure positions outside the academy, a willingness to participate in review processes, mentor younger scholars and associates, and accept willingly (if not always cheerfully) the other duties necessary to running an organization. Before saying “no” to an assignment, it might be wise to think about who will get stuck with it instead. I find myself increasingly impatient with those who plead they are “just too busy” to shoulder a departmental or disciplinary chore, implying that someone else’s time is less valuable. For those of us who work in colleges and universities, this includes accepting the responsibility for writing book, article, and manuscript reviews; our colleagues depend on them, as do we. We are equally responsible for completing the tasks we undertake in a timely manner. Everyone gets overcommitted; being so is neither reason nor justification for breaking a promise. A responsibility accepted should not be shirked, barring unforeseen circumstances. I have repeatedly been faced with colleagues who agree to appear on a panel, run a workshop, or conduct a retreat before pulling out at the last moment; it happens with infuriating regularity, and when panels collapse, it is often junior colleagues who suffer.
A broader concept than merely “being nice,” civility or its lack can be observed in criticism.
The same accountability holds true for reviewing books, articles, and manuscripts; saying “yes” obliges you to deliver. I suspect that all of us remember a review we turned in horrendously late or not at all—no one is perfect—but the timely appearance of reviews can be of crucial importance to younger scholars. A punctual review not only stimulates intellectual discussion but can shape a career. Journal editors often complain that it is difficult to secure appropriate reviewers. “I don’t do reviews,” they hear, or, “there is no payoff for me; it won’t help me get tenure/a promotion/a raise.” However true those responses may be, reviews remain essential to preserving the health of the profession and assuring its intellectual honesty.
Civility is also a responsibility. A broader concept than merely “being nice,” civility or its lack can be observed in criticism. The phrase “constructive criticism” is used today almost ironically, suggesting that most criticism fails to meet the bare standard of being constructive. Reviews that simply demolish a submission are neither civil nor useful, nor do they contribute much to intellectual conversation. Reviews and comments (at conferences, say) need not be anodyne, but hard-hitting criticism can be delivered with civility and constructive intent. Viciousness often speaks of a poverty of engagement or insight, or sheer laziness. Intellectual exchange is a conversation, an activity that’s hard to share with someone intent on abuse. Derogatory comments do not reveal great erudition or competence, but a paucity of both and a meanness of spirit.
There exists another kind of discourtesy that takes the form of snide dismissal or denigration of those whose opinions we do not share. This is often expressed in ways that are directed at people’s appearance, manners, choice of dress, or demeanor. Didn’t we learn better in the sandbox? Recent incidents have suggested the need for a reminder: the standards of behavior in a civil society value divergent opinions and encourage civil discussion. To circle back to my January column on building community: fulfilling one’s responsibilities and preserving civility even in tough situations remain essential to the creation and maintenance of community, without which no association can thrive, or even survive. And a little humility doesn’t hurt.
Mary Lindemann is president of the AHA.
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