What is Professionalism?
People who know me well know that I am a huge stickler for professionalism. I’m not sure that I though much about the concept before I started by job at UT Austin in 2002. My graduate program at University of Pennsylvania did an excellent job of training its students. Not only were we well prepared for the intellectual aspects of working as professors but we had spent 5–6 years watching some of the most professional academics I know. I don’t think the word “professionalism” was ever uttered. We simply watched how our faculty behaved and took note. As a graduate student, I had very little idea of any behind the scenes drama (if there even was any). My faculty always spoke positively about one another and never let the contents of any faculty meeting, job search, etc. leak. At the time, I took this as normative. Little did I know how lucky I was to learn from these particular faculty. in that particular environment, and with my particular classmates.
It was a shock to come to UT. I had been warned but, honestly, it is not possible to imagine something that you have never experienced. Suddenly, I found myself in an environment where graduate students seemed to know too much about confidential discussions; where graduate students were often used as pawns; and where professors with endowed professorships used these blatently to attract graduate students. Money was scarce and the promise of extra money from one’s dissertation advisor was meaningful. I spent much of my first few years at UT in a state of shock as I attempted to adjust to the role of Assistant Professor, but without the kind of moral compass and guidance that I had as a graduate student. At a certain point, I made several promises to myself: I would never gossip about my colleagues with graduate students; I would never use graduate students as pawns or weapons; and I would never break confidentiality. Nearly two decades later, I am proud to say that I have kept these promises.
Yet, bizarrely, one of my Chair’s favorite lines of accusation to level at me is that I am not “professional.” This accusation first appeared back in Spring 2015 when, without a word to me, my chair decided to fill a lecturer position with her choice rather than the individual I had trained for over a year to take on the role. While it might seem like I am kvetching about something that isn’t my business, that’s not quite the case. I was the one who arranged the funding of the lecturer position. Indeed, in a document, my chair describes this by saying that, while the College refused to provide the needed money, the Director of Liberal Arts ITS — which was in charge of the development of the Online Rome class — magically appeared with the necessary funds. She knew perfectly well why LAITS was giving a big chunk of money to the Classics Department at that point in time: to hire my trainee to oversee the running, updating, pedagogical training of the Online Rome class. The position was funded in part by the College, in part by LAITS. It existed because I pushed and pushed for it, knowing that, without it, the Online Rome class would languish.
Ultimately, hiring decisions are in the purview of Chairs. Until this hire, my department had always made these decisions as a group, in part because it has the possibility of becoming a permanent position (as this one did, thanks to the excellent work of the hiree). It is clear to me that my Chair wanted to avoid such a conversation, since it would be made clear to the entire faculty why the position existed. It was also distressing to me that the individual I had devoted so much time to training was not hired in the permanent position, in part because I knew that the person hired would be asked to carry out many other job functions that were more important to my Chair. This is exactly what happened. I bear no ill will towards the individual hired (we are in fact friends). My frustration was with the fact that the position I worked so hard to get created had been hijacked without a word to me or my colleagues.
LAITS did not pull the money immediately because they hoped that the department would hire my trainee in a year or two. Only after several years did they finally concede that my trainee would never be hired by Classics, given my Chair’s very open dislike and devaluation of online learning and teaching. The money was finally pulled and LAITS used it to fund, in part, a permanent position as a Project Manager for my trainee in LAITS (where he has thrived and, thankfully, has reasonable job security). Among the many aspects of this difficult situation was the fact that my Chair did not have the professionalism and decency to even let me know what decision she had made. I cannot understand how she thought that this behavior was acceptable, given that I had worked tremendously long hours on something that was entirely to benefit HER department. I sacrificed my own research to do something that benefitted the department and College. My reward? Finding out on Social Media that my trainee had not been hired for the position I had set up for him.
I was furious, not only that he had not been hired but that I had not been given the courtesy of a simple email notification. I deserved at least that much. I felt terrible for my trainee. He had worked incredibly hard to learn the ins and outs of the class, and he had been the one to teach it during the development phase. In the end, he has landed on his feet; but that outcome was not at all clear at the time or even in the next several years. My anger had nothing to do with the person hired. She was hired to oversee our graduate teaching program and to teach various classes in our curriculum — all things she was well qualified to do. She was caught in the crossfire, unfortunately.
My anger was directed at my Chair, who had signed off for me to work on this extremely time consuming project for two years, at the expense of my own research and at a key time in my career. I now realize that she a. did not care that this was severely disrupting my production of typical articles, book chapters, and books. Indeed, it makes me a bit sick to think of all the projects I ended up pulling out of because I did not have the time. b. she did not care at all about the online class and its potential to attract significant numbers of students (she has since declared her open dislike of online teaching under oath). c. she cared that I was not in the department and so Karl and Tom Hubbard had no reason to antagonize me and require her interventions. d. she cared that she was getting $$ in exchange for my absence. Everything was motivated by what made her life better and not what would best help me succeed and move towards promotion to Full Professor.
In a state of white hot anger, I wrote a post for the blog that I had been keeping to document the process of building and then testing the Online Rome class. In that post, I suggested that the hiring decision had been influenced by my Chair’s desire to do a favor for a colleague who was close to the new hire and who had also supervised the undergraduate thesis of my Chair’s son. I also commented on the hiree’s skill set when it came to maintaining an online class. Someone apparently sent this version of the blog post to her. In fact, within hours, I had edited it to remove the reference to her son and to remove the comments about the hiree. My chair, not knowing how these things works, seems to think that everyone saw the version she had, not understanding that almost nobody saw it before I replaced it. As well, the people who saw it were from my ed tech circle and did not include more than a few classicists.
I later learned that she had reported me to our professional society’s ethics committee. She surely knew that a. they could not do anything about it; b. it is not unethical or unprofessional to disagree — even publicly — with one’s Chair. Indeed, had my Chair behaved in a professional manner herself and let me know what she had done and why; if she had treated me as an adult, tenured colleague who deserved to know why she was overturning a careful and time consuming plan I had made, there would have been no angry blog post. There would have been a post, and I am sure I would have expressed my concerns, but at least I would not have been infuriated to find out the hiring plan from a social media post instead of my department chair. In the end, the ethics committee never even contacted me, though she does seem to have achieved her goal of tarnishing my reputation with at least one member. Even now, knowing the department I have worked in for two decades, I find it a bit hilarious that I am the one who gets reported to the Ethics Committee.
Of course, the source of my anger was knowing in my gut that my plans for helping my department catch up to current trends in higher education were dead. By 2015, the student demand for online courses was through the roof. Anyone paying attention to developments in higher education would know this. When we were beta testing the Online Rome class, it filled within hours of opening it. There were few online classes at UT in 2015 and we had a corner on the market. Essentially, we could have taught as many students as we had staff for back then. But that was never going to happen under my current department Chair. It is interesting that she was Chair for a 9 year stretch that covered the boom in online course demand, while openly declaring her belief that online courses are not as good as in person; and provide an inferior learning experience.
I remember talking about the situation c. 2017 or so with someone in LAITS. They expressed their frustration that my Chair was sitting on a goldmine and doing nothing with it. My trainee had built an online Intro to Myth class as well as some Beginning Latin classes. These classes were also very popular. But, back then, we could have expanded substantially in creating online versions of our “service” courses. We never did, to our great loss. These days, we have a lot more competition for enrollment. I expect that will be the case even more once Covid recedes and students return to wanting a mix of online and in person classes on their schedule. I don’t get the sense that my colleagues have any interest in trying to meet this demand. Our enrollments have declined substantially over the last decade, for a range of reasons. I do wonder if a department will survive with just a few large enrollment classes offered in online format.
As I feared, my Online Rome class went without the updates it needed and reached the point that it needed a lot of work without anyone to do that work. I certainly was not going to do the work. For years, I had asked the department to develop their own version of an online Rome class since they refused to support mine and I owned the IP. UT repeatedly insisted that they owned the IP until Covid hit. Suddenly, they had to assure all faculty that they would own whatever online content they created. This meant the end of teaching my Online Rome — and end which should have happened several years earlier since the content and assessments were not updated. Personally, I have an updated version and hope to work with some colleagues who teach online at their institutions to apply for grants to fund the process of digging it out of Canvas and making it Open Access. To this day, I get emails from random people, usually older gentlemen, who found a complete set of lectures for the class that reside on a YouTube channel. I don’t own the channel so they remain there for all to hear.
The accusation that I am not professional (whatever that really means) continues to surface now and again. I am accused of gossiping about colleagues to graduate students — even in the context of teaching graduate seminars. It is true that I will occasionally mention the name of a colleague, but I am extremely careful to do it only in an informational or positive context: “Dr. Riggsby would know more about Roman law than I do”; “That might be a good thing to talk to one of the department’s several epic specialists about.” I find it completely bizarre to be accused of something that I not only did not do but, in fact, make a point of not doing — even when it requires me taking on the blame for something that has gone awry.
At one point, I was accused of leaking details of a hiring meeting discussion. I found this particularly interesting because, earlier in the semester, first year grad students had told ME one relatively harmless thing attributed to one of my colleagues; and then several very detailed bits of information that never should have left the room. In all my years, over the course of many hiring meetings, I had not had that particular experience. By telling me all these things, these students unintentionally put me in an awkward position: do I confirm them? Deny them even though they were true? I opted to change the subject and get the students to return their focus to the class. I was extremely frustrated that my chair had opted to announce who the department had voted to hire in the middle of my seminar. Of course students had their computers on and email open. In retrospect, I wish I had shut the conversation down immediately, but I had no idea that it was going to go in the direction that it did. Later, I did learn how the students had heard details of the hiring meeting. It was what it was — but, most importantly to me, it was not from me. I have no idea why my chair was confident enough to accuse me of this misdeed (and several other, similar improprieties) in an email to me and cc’d to our new Dean. It seems that, when it comes to me, hearing a random rumor is as good as a confirmed fact.
These days, my department’s faculty are generally committed to professionalism. The kind of antics that were common when I arrived are no longer common or accepted by most of us. Over time, I have also come to see that my chair’s efforts to attack my own professionalism are largely acts of projection. I suspect that, when one spends all of one’s formative years in an environment in which unprofessional behavior is regularly on display and never corrected, it comes to be normalized. I don’t mean to say that an individual is always unproffesional. Rather, I mean that it seems like an appropriate strategy to accomplish one’s goals. If it requires weaponizing graduate students, so be it. And never mind that it puts the graduate students in an incredibly difficult position. They might not realize what is happening at the time but, eventually, they do figure things out.
Of all the challenges over the last several years, the most difficult one has been to find a way to continue to stick to my own sense of who I am in the role of Dr. Ebbeler. I have been gaslit beyond belief. I have had to manage the questions of students, who are well-aware that my chair is not a fan. I have had to deal with the unprofessional behavior of colleagues when it impacts graduate students under my supervision. I have had to fight the temptation to let it fly on a few occasions. I have no hope that things will ever change. Once the well is poisoned, it is poisoned. I just keep reminding myself that the most important thing is staying true to my own sense of self, including a commitment to “professionalism.” I am sure some think that this blog is the height of unprofessionalism. For me, “professionalism” no longer includes covering up for my colleagues or remaining silent about various abusive actions that have harmed me or my career. I often think of something that my PhD advisor told me: “If it feels good, don’t do it.” This advice continues to guide me, including what details I share. My goal is not to take revenge on anyone or make them look as bad as possible. It is to tell my own story.