To teach or not to teach? Campus politics has got me twisted around

I'd like to teach a course that my subordinate wanted to teach -- should I do it or refuse?

Published August 23, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I work at a university in a non-faculty position. My immediate subordinate is a professional, as am I. She recently purchased a house and is feeling a financial pinch. I wish I could pay her more, but I have no power to do so. She knows this even though she isn't pleased about it.

Not long ago, she mentioned the desire to teach a course to make extra money. Specifically, she wanted to teach a class in a certain department. A little over a year ago, I taught such a course.

She has a "friend-of" connection to one of the highest administrators here, and she tapped into that. Although a nice letter was sent to the chairperson of the department on her behalf, no further action was taken.

The other day, I was asked if I wanted to teach a course in this same department. I, too, have new expenses, as my partner of 17 years died from a long illness a few months ago. A good part of the household expenses were borne by her, so I'm strapped as well. I want to teach this class, and it would save me from having to sell the house I live in because I couldn't meet the expenses much longer. (I should mention that I have a very supportive family who would help me financially in a second, but I'd rather not lean on them for my living expenses. She, on the other hand, has strained relationships with her relatives.)

This situation would be much easier if I could give her an unqualified recommendation to my faculty connections here on campus, but I can't. She has some radical positions, a tendency to swear, and can be confrontational. Admittedly, this makes her more interesting  she really does have an intensity and sense of humor that makes her one of the most unique persons I know. She was also very considerate during my many absences from work, often taking on more responsibility without complaint or monetary reward. She was very proactive in helping me solve some office personnel problems and eased almost all sources of stress during a difficult period in my life, for which I am very grateful. I have expressed my gratitude to her often and sincerely.

As a matter of fact, now that I think about it, I recommended her to a faculty member to teach an all-day class on a thrice-yearly basis. This faculty member had seen her give an informal speech to a student organization and despite my recommendation, declined to offer her the position.

So ... I feel like a heel because I want and need this assignment. And because I don't feel comfortable promoting her as a teaching adjunct, I feel very disloyal.

Conflicted, in the Midwest

Dear Conflicted,

Let's think about this. You want this assignment. You need this assignment. And it's being offered to you.

But you're thinking about refusing it.

To refuse would not make much sense. It wouldn't help your subordinate. It's not being offered to her. It wouldn't help you -- you need the work. And it wouldn't help the university. They would just have to find somebody else. While it might be a gesture of loyalty to your subordinate, it would be an empty gesture -- it might make her feel better but it wouldn't help her materially at all.

Further, to refuse this offer would actually be disloyal to the university -- an institution that has a bigger claim on your loyalty than either of you has on the other. The university is asking you to step up and teach. Presumably, you work for the university because you believe in its mission. Its mission is to teach. That's its core function. It's the one reason the place exists. It's the most important thing that happens there. So to refuse to teach this course would be to repudiate the very thing the institution exists for -- and all because of an uncomfortable personal situation.

It just doesn't make sense.

I'm not saying that your feelings of guilt and disloyalty aren't important. They are. They are important. But I think they are not as important as doing the right thing. It's one of those situations where you do the right thing even if uncomfortable feelings arise.

The fact is, to take a more philosophical approach, inequality and unfairness are built into the system like wind is built into the weather. Luck and fate are fluid. We have to take what comes to us and let others take what comes to them. It's like we're all thrashing around and things come floating down the river. But fluid dynamics is a complicated science. You can't tell where that grand piano is going to land -- or where that big bag of dog shit is going to land.

We'd like to help each other. But if you let that piano float by, there's no guarantee your friend will grab it. Better grab it yourself and then maybe she can come over to your shack and play it sometime.

Take care of yourself is what I'm saying, so you can be around to take care of others. Put your own oxygen mask on first. Take what is offered. If you're asked to serve, accept the invitation graciously.

That doesn't mean you should ignore your friend. If you want to help your friend, find ways to help her.

She has been good to you and you would like to return the favor. So continue to mention her to people who might hire her. You don't have to lie. But continue to recommend her. Look for opportunities she might pursue.

But know you have done nothing wrong. You were asked to serve the university in a certain capacity and you graciously accepted.

If there are hurt feelings, face them squarely. Tell her that you are sorry she is not the one who was asked to teach the course.

If you think she's capable of using honest feedback to improve the way she teaches, go ahead and tell her what you've observed -- that, right or wrong, people have made judgments based on her manner, or the sharpness of her opinions, or whatever. Some people can benefit from frank feedback and some can't. It's hard to tell. You would have to make that call.

But I really hope you can get things straightened out, because it's sad to see the mission of an institution bogged down by interpersonal struggles. I mean, I understand why it happens. People come to an institution because they want to be part of something bigger and bolder and more important than themselves. They value all the great things that happen at a university -- or a church or a newspaper or a hospital, or a publishing house. But then the system of rewards and punishments that arises out of the day-to-day interactions leads to these personal struggles that have nothing to do with the mission of the institution. And you get to the point where you forget why you're there.

Nothing could make that clearer than your situation. You are thinking of turning down an opportunity to do the very thing the institution exists to do -- because of an interpersonal struggle.

So I hope you teach the darned course. I also hope you will use this incident as an example, in order to say to others: Remember what you're here for!

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