Academic journal article Taboo

In Search of Civility: Higher Education and the Discourse of Disdain

Academic journal article Taboo

In Search of Civility: Higher Education and the Discourse of Disdain

Article excerpt

Oceania is the image of a totally regulated society yet has no regulations.

--Orwellian Linguistics, 1979

James Gee defines discourse "as a socially accepted association among ways of using language, other symbolic expressions, and artifacts, of thinking, feeling, believing, valuing, and acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful role" (1996, p. 131). These behaviors, beliefs, and 'artifacts" which of course include one's choice of clothing, shoes, hair style and color, the manner in which one composes a memo, or addresses a colleague, the degree one holds, one's area of interest, and so forth, mark one either as a member of a discourse community, or as an outsider.

In this article I discuss the communicative encounters--oral and written--between members of two discourse communities--human resources and faculty--housed within an urban university in the Northeast. I focus on one individual's attempts to articulate and impose a component of her community's implicit rules for behavior upon a member of the faculty. Since what the individual wished to enforce was tacitly accepted as part of the discourse of the community of which she was a member, the rule carried ideological weight (Belsey, 1980; Eagleton, 1984, 1986), if you will, but was, nonetheless, amorphous within the greater community, i.e., the university at large. The effort to enforce a tacit component of a discourse community as if that tacit assumption were shared across separate and differing discourse communities within the institution led in the end to a total breakdown in communication and to a flagrant misuse of bureaucratic power.

It is this interplay with the tacit assumptions held within a discourse community, and the concomitant efforts on the part of the community's representatives to make the tacit seemingly concrete or real, that bear the crux of the will to power and deceit that emerged over the course of one semester of an academic year. It is this will to power shrouded in a cloak of disdain that I seek to uncover.

The Office of Human Resources

Human Resources (HR) consists of staff charged with overseeing personnel support services such as payroll, benefits, retirement, medical leaves, and return to work from medical leaves, and so forth, for both faculty and staff. In essence the principle role of HR is to maintain the paperwork necessary to insure that the overall system--in this instance, the university--functions appropriately principly from a monetary and contractual perspective in relation to personnel. The office has no say in such financial matters, for example, related to allocation of resources to departments for faculty hiring or for infrastructure repairs and development, for that matter. Nor does HR have any say in matters related to teaching load, allocation of teaching assistants, or anything remotely connected to the academic domain. As the name of the department implies, HR is to serve as a resource to the community in matters related to those listed above. In fact, not so long ago at the university of which I write the Office of Human Resources was labeled: Personnel Services.

Those who work in HR are "members of the staff" and not "members of the faculty" and as such have not gone through the ranks of academic scrutiny or review: one can reach an upper level administrative position in HR with a bachelor's degree, or with a degree in administration or management, or one comparable, though doctorates are now offered in applied psychology with a concentration in human resources, marking, from my perspective, an uncomfortable blurring of boundaries between staff and faculty.

The structure and bureaucratic functioning of HR, in good part, mirrors that of the corporate environment. In fact, a HR department at a bank would look much like the HR department at the university o f which I write: it would just serve very different discourse communities, i. …

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