In Praise of Prickly Men: A Gender Swap Version

The Inside Higher Ed opinion article “In Praise of Prickly Women” annoyed me. Why do women who stand up for themselves have to have the negative connotations of prickly?

The article means well, praising the persistence of these women, but for me, there’s a message just below the surface (if it’s even that hidden) that says, “Hey, you know those bitchy women in your department? They have some usefulness even though they are annoying you.”

Reading the article left me wondering whether this article would even exist if it discussed the persistance of those asshole men in your department who push their ideas through even if it annoys others at times. Probably not.

That’s the reflective moment when I decided to rewrite the article so it’s about men. I can’t take full credit here, since I used the Jailbreak the Patriarchy Chrome Extension to swap the feminine for the masculine. Beyond that, I stripped out a lot of the divs and css, and then I created a reenvisioning of the illustration from the original. Enjoy.

In Praise of Prickly Men

Despite the negative connotations they incite, they have exactly the kind of insight and persistence that higher ed needs today, argue M. Soledad Caballero and Aimee Knupsky.

Original by M. Soledad Caballero and Aimee Knupsky on May 23, 2018, from Inside Higher Ed
Genderswap with Jailbreak the Patriarchy Chrome Extension, with additional changes by tengrrl
(h/t for the Chrome Extension to Writer/Designer)

image created from the original istock/aurielaki background, with man by thethreesisters on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license, and Superman drawing by Matt Leyva on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

You may see them in the men who won’t back down. You may see them in the colleagues who ask “pointed” questions. You may see them as the loud voices taking up all the space in the room.

They are known throughout history as the “killjoys,” the “ice kings,” the “hysterics,” the “ball-busters.” They are the “Prickly Men” — the men who don’t let things go, who stand up for themselves and others, and who question the status-quo of structural inequities and outdated institutional practices. They stick out decidedly among the “sis-hood” of academic administration.

Despite the negative connotations and perceptions they incite, Prickly Men have exactly the kind of insight and persistence needed as the crises in higher education continue to mount. We argue that among the deluge of advice being tossed around to address those crises, one of the most radically simple solutions would be to identify your Prickly Men and listen to them.

They are not the newly minted Ph.D.s, nor are they the “up-and-comers” who bring much needed enthusiasm into the conversation about higher education. Prickly Men have been through the wars. They have seen colleagues fall or be pushed out. They have seen the fast fixes thrown like darts at a wall to see what sticks. They have most likely been among those darts — among those members of underrepresented groups invited to join the hallowed halls of academe only to be left to their own devices

There are many of them, and they are not all the same. They each have their own challenges and battles. They are black, they are white, they are Latinx, they are Queer. They are dads, they are single, they are able-bodied or not.

Their identities intersect in a myriad of ways. They are not always allies nor are they always friends. But if you look around your institution for mid-career professionals, you will find Prickly Men with tales to tell and scars to show. And, you will see they have been systematically silenced — and relegated to do the hard, thankless service work that keeps institutions running.

It is almost redundant at this point to talk about the stereotypical, angry male colleague or leader. The literature is full of evidence to show us that our image of Prickly Men is an entirely constructed one. They are the product of stereotypes that suggest men hold the floor longer than their female colleagues; that they are prone to irrational, emotional outbursts; that they are angry when providing constructive feedback. They are “bossy” leaders, those who incite mistrust should they take on the mannerisms of their female colleagues.

In fact, you may begin to see them as women should their anger be expressed across their faces. They are in a catch-22: if Prickly Men take on the masculine role of care-giver, they are seen as weak and less serious; if they adopt the confidence and “agentic behavior” lauded in their female colleagues, they become bitches. In other words, traditional gender roles deny them access to academe, while betraying those roles relegates them to the sidelines as people worthy of admonition and punishment. In fact, even the crisis in higher education today has been blamed on Prickly Men. A recent article suggests that one reason trust in higher education may be eroding is the number of men who have joined its ranks and obtained success.

But instead of dismissing Prickly Men, we must embrace them. The metaphor itself shows the value of Prickly Men — they are sharp, they cut through the academic bullshit and prevarication that keep higher education spinning its wheels instead of moving forward.

What Prickly Men have to offer is the ability to let go of what is not working, the willingness to try new things, the ability to listen to others without feeling threatened, and the courage to be leaders when needed and followers when inspired. They are keenly aware of their own limitations while still capable of valuing the strength in others. At this point in their careers, they convey and respect vulnerability, the kind that draws unlikely partners together to combat common foes.

Prickly Men on campuses have deep institutional memory and history. They have knowledge of what has and hasn’t worked in the past. They see why shiny, new programs aren’t the answer to your problems; they see what the “boring” time-tested programs have to offer. Prickly Men know who the players are, they know what the games are, they know what the rules are and when and how to break them.

Prickly Men very likely have strong, robust networks of prickly pissed-off colleagues and they know how to engage those networks to get the real work done. They want others to succeed and are good mentors who have “seen it all.” Prickly Men are perceptive; they have vision. Their ideas are informed by the people working anonymously on college campuses. Prickly Men have a strong desire to simplify institutional bloat and to find synergies with what is already working on campus. This desire to synthesize comes from Prickly Men’s voracious reading; they are always on the lookout for scholarship that makes them better mentors, instructors and colleagues.

Prickly Men are not interested in reinventing the wheel, and they are not after your power.

Prickly Men work hard. They are scrappy; they will sacrifice even when given little praise. They still have a lot of time left in the academic gig, and despite it all, they still want your institution to thrive and have contributions to make.

Contrary to popular opinion, they do not have thick skin. They can be hurt. If you mistreat Prickly Men, they may curl up in defensive hedgehog positions and you will lose some of your best unknown, uncelebrated, and un-championed resources. Above all, Prickly Men are full of empathy, passion, and concern for others. They are guided by an ethical compass that we desperately need in the landscape of higher education today.

Don’t grind them down. Don’t ignore them. Make them your allies. Use their sharpness, pointedness, prickliness to your advantage. Don’t fear Prickly Men. Find and engage them.

And, if you are a Prickly Man, find your prickly comrades. Take comfort among their ranks. Build an altar to the feats of Prickly Men everywhere. Persevere.