The Heart of the Matter: Mobbing
Lou Spaventa is a teacher and teacher trainer based in the US. He is a regular contributor to HLT. Has been writing the Heart of the Matter column.
"And the dirt of gossip blows into my face,
And the dust of rumors covers me."
Bob Dylan "Restless Farewell"
Gossip. It seems unavoidable in modern life, and it certainly seems to play a role in our lives as teachers.
A late morning knock on my office door. "Got a minute?" she asks. "Sure. Sit down," I reply. "I have two really good students in my class. They told me that the last instructor they had was terrible. They learned nothing. She treated them as if they were totally illiterate. I thought you should know. It's Alice X."
Another day while passing in the corridor, someone stops me and says, "Bob just did an observation in Y's class and boy, he said that Y was teaching grammar when he should be teaching how to write essays."
I am the recipient of more gossip than most other instructors because I serve as the chair of our department. I interpret the intentions of the gossipers as normative. They want me to take some sort of action, or possibly avoid hiring an individual again, because the subjects of the gossip do not conform to the norms of our department: we are known on campus as good teachers, and we focus on teaching reading and writing skills to students. If I act to reassert these norms by talking to the subjects of the gossip, I am validating the use of gossip to control the expectations that some people have of others, expectations which may or may not be based on first-hand observation, and which are almost always based on single reports or incidents. On the other hand, if I let the gossip pass over me, then I risk the chance that I may miss an opening for helping an instructor or the chance that I might be perceived as a weak leader, someone unwilling to see that norms are being adhered to among our instructors.
Gossip is a tool for controlling the behavior of people in a work community such as a department of English teachers. However, it is at best, a distasteful tool which diminishes the subject of the gossip and the person doing the gossip. It is a cheap way to assert personal value: "I am not like her. My students love me," or "I do things the right way in class. My students focus on learning how to write essays."
These are unspoken parts of the gossip conversation. When people in a conversation share gossip, they are often aiming at reasserting personal worth at the expense of someone else.
Gossip can come from a number of sources in an educational community. It most often comes from students through instructors. Yesterday a student told me for the second time without solicitation, "I had Z for a reading class and didn't learn a thing. She just talked about her personal life." I swallow this gossip and will not let it out into the department, but, unfortunately, sometimes I do as do other instructors. A second source of gossip is straight from instructors. Mostly this gossip is about how another instructor is doing a bad job in the classroom. This might be based on an observation of one class or on a quick impression about the instructor and the class from a glance through the classroom window: the instructor engrossed in her own notes at the front of the room; the students unruly and seemingly not doing the work. A third source of gossip is from administrators and program assistants, people who are likely to have contact with instructors outside the classroom setting. Here we get judgment on personal behavior, life history, and lack of adherence to educational policy. For example, "People say A flirts with the cute male students." "B's having psychological problems and it's taking a toll on his teaching." "C is getting docked because he didn't turn in his grades last semester." On the positive side, we also get affirming gossip. The dean observes a class that has been well-planned and well-taught. She then spreads the notion that the instructor is excellent. This is done on the basis of a visit a semester or less frequently. Reputations are made and broken this way, but they shouldn't be.
When mentally gathered together, all the gossip about an instructor creates an image which may or may not have some basis in reality. The key point is that it does not come directly from the subject of the gossip. So we know the individual more and more through the gossip that surrounds the person and less through direct contact. Perhaps in a large educational community where instructors may have very different teaching schedules, this is inevitable. Yet, reliance upon gossip as a tool for knowing others is surely a mistake. Moreover, it certainly diminishes everyone involved in the gossip.
There is another unhappy phenomenon directly linked to gossip, and that is mobbing. In the ethology of bird behavior, mobbing takes place when large numbers of one species mob a single or a few members of another species perceived to be a threat. In human terms, mobbing occurs when many people take the time to "go after" a person because of his or her behavior or beliefs. The information age has accelerated mobbing through the use of institutional email. A recent example at my institution is the following. An instructor sent out an email which purported to be the educational philosophy of a prominent American billionaire. The individual sending out the email clearly was endorsing the ideas of the billionaire, ideas which were a little too business-like for the taste of our educational community. Soon, the individual began to be bombarded with emails decrying the values implicit in the billionaire's educational credo, and criticizing the instructor for endorsing these. The instructor in question, after a dozen or so emails, recanted his position. Thus, he was mobbed because the values that he seemed to endorse were against those apparently held by this particular educational community. Through force of numbers, this instructor was isolated from the group until he was perceived as no threat. He was no threat because he recanted.
Gossip and mobbing are real and they are hurtful to the individual and harmful to the teaching community. So what is to be done? My solution is structural. I believe people in a teaching community must function in several roles: instructor, master teacher, teacher trainer, administrator, and student. Responsibilities and roles should rotate through the community. I also believe that teachers should meet often for short periods of time to check in with each other. I believe that continuing difficult problems should be worked on over time by smaller groups of three to five instructors. For example, a small group might be charged for one academic year with re-examining the way the department or institution goes about observing and evaluating instructors. Such a group would create an institutional record about the problem even as the group itself changed composition from year to year. The group's work would be done when an acceptable result was reached.
My approach to electronic mobbing would be to attempt to change behavior by changing what is acceptable as institutional email. I would want a policy which made email a vehicle for institutional information, not personal opinion. At the same time, I would organize public fora at which individuals were free to explain and support their opinions regarding education.
Gossip and mobbing need to be reduced in their influence on individual instructors and on the academic community. Face to face interaction, the sharing of multiple roles, and the clear separation of information from opinion (something that modern mass media seem unable to do) are prerequisite to a healthy educational community.
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