Here's a couple of papers that should enlighten you more than most. One is hard to find... on purpose. Some folks you have to watch like a hawk. Especially those who fancy themselves to be messiahs. Fabulists. Here’s an article placed “strategically” in a fourth-rate predatory “journal” that publishes garbage literally 10 days after being received (can you say, review?) for a few hundred dollars. No way a decent journal would be willing to publish such an atheoretical diary. I also noticed the author did not put this one on his vitae. Hmm.  In it, it comes close to slandering colleagues in the name of “organizational communication” scholarship. IRB? The victims probably will not see it. That’s why it is placed in a backwater venue. So why bother? So they can get a little tingle every time they meet the unsuspecting victim, thinking “I fucked you good, and you don’t even know it.” Reminds me of Bill Cosby. It’s a double insult.  I’ve got a few blades in my back too. Beware of treachery. Often it comes with button-down shirt and tie and a smile.

World Journal of Education and Humanities ISSN 2687-6760 (Print) ISSN 2687-6779 (Online)

Vol. 2, No. 3, 2020


Original Paper


Addressing Doctoral Student “Failure”: Catching Lost Souls

Michael W. Kramer1*

1 Department of Communication, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK, U.S.A.

* Michael W. Kramer, Department of Communication, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK, U.S.A.



Received: May 6, 2020                 Accepted: May 25, 2020                                             Online Published: May 30, 2020 doi:10.22158/wjeh.v2n3p97                                                          URL:



Statistics indicate that 45-50% of doctoral students who finish their course work never finish their degrees ( This essay examines this problem as an example of fundamental attribution error and suggests that in some cases, but not all, success rates can be improved by making changes in the situation instead of blaming the students. It illustrates this point with examples of successful efforts to prevent students from failing to finish their degrees by advisors serving as process experts instead of content experts. It also points out that while being a process expert may increase the percentage of students who complete their degrees, it does not always lead to success. Rethinking this issue may assist educators as they attempt to help college students at all levels finish their degrees.


attribution theory, A.B.D. status, degree completion, process expert



1.  Introduction

Each year, bright new students enroll in Ph.D. programs across the country. They often excel in their coursework and pass their written and oral comprehensive or general exams within a few years. As such, they reach the official status of doctoral degree candidate, although they are known more frequently by their unofficial status, A.B.D. (All but dissertation? All but done? All but dead?). They seem destined for distinguished careers when suddenly they get lost. Instead of graduating with a Ph.D., they join the ranks of the 45-50% of doctoral students who finish their course work and never finish their degrees (See for example: dont-graduate/).









2.  Theoretical Framework and Case Studies

2.1  Fundamental Attribution Error

Faculty and program directors often commit the fundamental attribution error to explain this pattern. Attribution theory focuses attention on whether we use individuals’ situations (external causes) or their personal qualities (internal causes) to explain the individuals’ choices and actions, including their successes or failures (e.g., Kelley & Michela, 1980). The fundamental attribution error overestimates “the importance of personal or dispositional factors relative to environmental influences (Ross, 1977, p. 184). In other words, in this situation, we typically blame these students for becoming lost souls and failing to finish their degrees while ignoring situational factors. We say things like, “The students would not settle on a dissertation topic.” “They settled on the topic, but never wrote anything because they were in an endless cycle of reading the literature.” “They were perfectionists who never showed what they had done because they never felt it was quite ready.” Attributing their failures to internal causes allow advisors, programs, and universities to excuse themselves from responsibility for these abysmal statistics. After all, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”

There certainly are multiple reasons why students get lost once they reach their A.B.D. status. Some

graduate students are largely responsible for their failure to finish. However, as attribution theory suggests, there are often significant external influences that cause students to join the status of A.B.D. permanently. For example, there are advisors who are simply difficult to work with and who rarely successfully mentor a student to degree completion. They do not provide enough direction, or they are slow to read drafts and provide helpful feedback to students, and so, after a number of delays and a general lack of progress, the students simply stop trying probably due to situational factors. Those situational factors might include factors like the busy lives they are leading—such as earning a living wage to pay off student loans, taking care of family commitments, and those sorts of things. If a faculty member has not guided any Ph.D. student to degree completion in 10 years, the faculty member is likely at least part of the problem.

Students are frequently victims of other circumstances largely beyond their control. For example, their advisors retire suddenly or take jobs at other universities midway through the students’ programs and decide not to continue working with students from that university after retiring or leaving. Whatever the reason for the departure, often the students discover there is no longer a good match for their interests within the remaining faculty in the department and none of the remaining faculty are willing to work with them on their topics. If faculty members only work with students who align with their very narrow interests, they limit the opportunity for graduate students in this situation to succeed.

Regardless of the circumstances that bring their progress to a halt, if we continue making the fundamental attribution error, we conclude that, yes, circumstances worked against the students, BUT they had free will or agency to change their situation instead of becoming lost and drifting aimlessly, and so ultimately, the students are responsible for their failure to graduate. “They could have changed their topic.” “If they showed more diligence someone would have worked them.” If you have taught in



a PhD program, you recognize these different types of “lost soul” Ph.D. students.

2.2  Changing Personal Resources

One way that advisors attempt to provide A.B.D. students with the ability to successfully finish their dissertations is to provide them with additional resources. A common practice is to encourage (or require) students to read one of the many advice books for finishing a dissertation published over the years (e.g., Becker, 2007; Joyner, Rouse, & Glatthorn, 2018; Sternberg, 1981). These books generally include chapters on choosing topics, choosing advisors and committee members, working with the Institutional Review Boards, and making timely progress among others. The title of one suggests that you can finish your dissertation as long as you commit to working on it for 15 minutes a day (Bolker, 1998). Other resources may include writing programs and support groups on campus or during the summer. Certainly, these additional resources have helped many graduate students complete their degrees and providing them to students is important. But in the end, if the students do not finish, we can still commit the fundamental attribution error and blame them for not taking advantage of all the resources we provided them.

2.3  Changing the Situation

I am not convinced that these lost souls are to blame. After all, even when it seems like the students’ actions or inactions are to largely to blame, it does not make sense to make the student solely responsible; the system must also take some of the blame. But, rather than discussing this irresolvable philosophical question further, I’d like to discuss ways to change the situations faced by these lost soul situations so that they can eventually graduate. I’ll use an analogy to S. D. Salinger’s (1951) The Catcher in the Rye to make my point.

Depending on your age, demographic, and location, you may have read Salinger’s book in junior high or high school. I don’t remember much about it except for the main character’s explanation of his role in life which explains the book’s title. In Chapter 22, the main character, Holden tells his sister: "Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be.” (Salinger, 1951, pp. 224-225)

That image represents how we need to address lost soul graduate students. They are headed toward the cliff that represents falling into the abyss of eternal A.B.D. status. Someone has to catch them and stop them. Catching them involves changing their situation and sending them back into the field of rye where they can succeed. A couple of personal examples of catches illustrates this point. During my career at two Ph.D. granting programs, I have caught a number of students who became stuck largely through no fault to their own and was able to prevent them from falling over the cliff.



2.4  Being Process Experts

In one case, the two members of the student’s committee with similar interests to his both left the university over two years. This occurred in part because he was a non-traditional student working full time as a faculty member at another institution while being a part-time student at ours. As a result, it took him longer to complete his course work and some of the faculty members he had for some of his early coursework, including his chosen advisor, were gone when he was ready to work on his dissertation. When he approached me as the director of graduate studies to become his advisor, I urged him to find someone else more suited to his topic, a content expert. The newer faculty members in his area of interest rejected his requests since they never had him in class and so he returned to me with a second request a few weeks later. His topic was unrelated to anything I ever studied, but I knew the steps needed to write a defendable proposal and dissertation and so I became his advisor as the process expert, not the content expert. I simply made him work on the proposal until it seemed logical and complete to me. The rest of his committee served as content experts. I remember being anxious at his proposal meeting because the topic was completely outside of my area of expertise. I was relieved when a young committee member, a content expert, reported his literature review was one of the best she had read. I realized that an advisor who is good at the process of completing a degree is perhaps more important than one who is a content expert. After defending his dissertation, he continued his career at his institution and has become a director of a program and a full professor.

In two other cases, students began working with faculty members who were content experts. Both

students soon found it too difficult to progress due to their advisors’ poor (slow) work habits and lack of mentoring (unclear or non-existent advice). The advisors were failing as process experts. After floundering for a year or more, each approached me, apparently due to my reputation as a process expert, and I guided them through the process although both took somewhat longer to graduate than it should have taken. One went onto a career at a liberal arts college where she was eventually promoted to full professor. The other went on to a successful career in a statewide government agency (Success stories do not always have to end with careers in academics). Both of these cases suggest that if more faculty focused on becoming process experts instead of content experts, the percentage of A.B.D. students who graduate would likely increase.

Perhaps the most extreme lost soul I worked with faced this situation. She had already defended her dissertation proposal when her advisor retired suddenly. The secondary advisor took a job elsewhere at the same time. Both decided not to work with students from my university anymore. I respect those decisions, but the student was left with a committee of three and no advisor. She approached me even though I was not on her committee and I eventually took on the dissertation in a topic that was unfamiliar to me with the proposal already approved. Although the study design was in good shape, the rest of the proposal did not meet my standards for writing and so the student ended up rewriting large portions of the literature review until it satisfied my standards. Then she finished the data collection, wrote and defended the dissertation, and went off to her first position at an international university. She



bounced around from adjunct position to adjunct position for a while before pursuing a career outside of university settings. Again, she needed a process expert to be able to finish, not a content expert. I was able to be that process expert.

Of course, it would be ideal to have an advisor who was both a process and content expert. Reading some of those same books mentioned earlier can help advisors become process experts.   But if you have to choose, it seems like a process expert might be the better choice.

By now you might think I am rather prideful about my ability to prevent students from falling into the

A.B.D. abyss, for being the catcher in the rye. You might bright. I like to think I made a difference for these students, but I have seen other advisors do the same thing and so someone else might have caught these students instead of me had I not been available. After all, the students did the work. Each was capable of writing a reputable dissertation when the roadblocks got removed. All their dissertations were comparable to the others I advised or approved as a committee member. They needed someone to step in as a process expert to prevent them from falling off the metaphoric cliff. It did not have to be me.


2.5  An Extended Counter Example

It is important to note that being a process expert does not always lead to success. In another case, I became aware of another lost soul. The advisor the student originally selected left the university suddenly. She replaced him with one of those difficult to work with faculty members. When I found out about her, she had completed her courses except for two incompletes. She had not even filed her plan of study for her degree due to poor mentorship by her new advisor. She had no plan for when she might take her comprehensive exams. She had only one more year of support coming from the department. That meant it was imperative that she at least be A.B.D. before the end of the academic calendar so she could finish her dissertation long distance.

I approached her about her progress early in the Fall semester. She clearly felt lost. She did not know what to do about her situation or her advisor. I volunteered to be her advisor instead of waiting for her to ask me, perhaps a mistake on my part. I remember telling her that it did not matter that I was not an expert in her area of interest. I was good at getting students through the process. If she was willing to work, then I would help her achieve her goal. She took me up on the offer.

The first step was identifying her committee members and filing a plan of study. Within a week or two, we pulled together the committee meeting. It was not really a plan of study; it was more of a record of completed coursework. Her committee accepted the plan recognizing that she still needed to finish the two incompletes. By the end of the semester in December, she turned in the two papers, received grades, and was ready for her comprehensive exams. She had turned back from the cliff.

With her assistantship running out in May, we selected dates for the written exams and oral exams before the end of the semester. She studied. I checked back periodically. She studied more. When she announced that she was ready, she took her written exams. Her written exams were quite good and her oral exams went well. The committee had no major concerns and she passed both her written and oral



exams with unanimous approval. She had avoided the cliff for now.

As part of the oral exams, her committee asked about her dissertation topic. She explained that she was going to examine how one university responded to the scandal that led to the departure of a respected coach (There are enough such examples that I can leave you guessing which coach, which sport, and which year. Let’s just say it made national news). The committee responded enthusiastically to the idea for the study.

During the last week of the semester, the student and I talked about the topic. We talked about how to access the news stories for analysis. We talked about getting multiple sources including print and television news. We talked about the method of analysis she would use. Since the story was ongoing, we discussed some of the latest developments as well.

When she left at the end of May, it seemed like she was on the right path. She had a plan. She just needed to execute the plan. She would begin writing, sending me drafts and she would gradually finish a proposal and then the whole dissertation.

And then it didn’t happen.

I sent her an email asking about progress. Because she no longer had an assistantship, she wrote that she was busy looking for employment, but she assured me that she would get to work on the proposal once things settled down. A few weeks later, I sent her another email about some breaking story related to the case when it made it in the news again during the summer. This time there was no response. I figured she was still busy settling in and so I did not give it too much thought.

During the fall semester I emailed her and asked her for an update. Again, no response.

At the beginning of the next semester, progress reports for all graduate students were due. I sent her another email. I was not surprised that there was no response.

In fact, I never heard from the student again. It has been several years. Obviously, I had incorrectly congratulated myself for keeping her away from the cliff. I had kept her in the field for a while, long enough to reach the A.B.D. status, but she still managed to get past me to fall off the cliff and become another permanently A.B.D. former graduate student.


3.  Discussion and Conclusions

So, what can we learn from these examples? It has been far too common for faculty, programs, and universities to commit the fundamental attribution error and blame students and not the situations for the poor completion rate of students who reach A.B.D. status. These examples point to a number of situational factors that contribute to this low success rate. The factors include faculty turnover, ineffective advisors who poorly manage the process, or faculty who will only work on a very narrow area of research with students, among other external causes for low completion rates. Some of these factors are situational factors that can be addressed.    Faculty can focus on being process experts instead of content experts. Being a process expert means knowing the steps but also recognizing the importance of timely progress. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard a faculty member



suggest that it is no big deal if it takes another year for the student to finish because they will be better prepared or get a better job. If you are living on a TA salary or adjunct pay at a community college, another year is very costly, and another year does not guarantee better preparation or a more prestigious job. A process expert will work to reduce time to completion. And of course, it is important to note that even if we address situational factors and remove barriers so that the student can succeed, not all will. Some will still find their way off the cliff and fail to finish. We need to be sure that we have done what we can to remove the situational barriers.

I am currently working with another lost soul student. Her advisor put a roadblock in her way, refusing to work with her for a semester because he was too busy preparing to teach a new class. That postponement would have delayed her degree completion by at least 6 months, but probably a year. He was a content expert, but not a process expert. She came to me for help and I agreed. My hope is that the outcome will be positive again this time and that I can help keep her from going over the cliff.

There are similar lost souls in undergraduate and master’s degree programs, not just in Ph.D. programs. The students come close to graduating but never make it. When they apply for jobs, they fall into either the category of “some college course work” or “some graduate coursework.” Some of these students do not have the ability to complete these degrees. Others genuinely change their minds and decide not to complete the degrees. But in other cases, there are situational barriers that can be addressed to enable them to finish their degrees. I am confident that there are many faculty members, advisors and administrators who have helped changed situations so the students can graduate and who continue to do that for many students at all levels. We need more of these catchers in the rye for students at all levels.



Becker, H. S. (2007). Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article (2nd                  ed.).           Chicago,           IL:                  University of                     Chicago                  Press.

Bolker, J. (1998). Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day: A guide to starting, revising, and finishing your (doctoral Thesis). New York, NY: Henry Holt.

Joyner, R. L., Rouse, W. A., & Glatthorn, A. A. (2018). Writing the winning thesis or dissertation: A step-by-step guide (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, a Sage Publication.

Kelley, H. H., & Michela, J. L. (1980). Attribution theory and research. Annual review of psychology, 31(1), 457-501.

Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 173-220). Academic Press.

Salinger, J. D. (1951). The catcher in the rye. New York, NY: Little, Brown, & Company.

Sternberg, D. (1981). How to complete and survive a doctoral dissertation. New York, NY: St Martin’s Griffin.

The Year of the Newborns: A Department Chair's Reflections


Michael W Kramer University of Missouri


In September 2006, a newly hired tenure track faculty member informed me that she was expecting a child in March. During the next few months, three more faculty members told me that they were expecting in May, June, and August. Fully two-thirds of the faculty women were pregnant at the same time. We jokingly wondered if it was the water.

I understood the importance of supporting these faculty members during this time. Research suggests that a combination of the amount of time spent at work (rational model) and the perceptions of control of the workplace and support from the institution Uob strain model) impact faculty members' stress (O'Laughlin and Bischoff 99). I expected that by following university work-family policies, it would be a simple matter to assist each of them in managing their situation. I discovered the situation was much more complex. The policies were not universally known, they created a range of responses from individuals directly and indirectly affected by them, and they were part of broader set of family-work issues to consider.

It started simply enough. I was aware that our university ''stop the clock" policy allowed faculty members to extend their "probationary period" by a year for family-related issues including pregnancies. I fully supported a recent policy change that made approval of requests for probationary period extensions due to childbirth or adoption automatic for primary caregivers. Clearly while parenting a newborn, faculty members experience a confluence of the three major types of work-family conflicts identified: time-based (time used on one activity detracts from the other), strain-based (mental effort on one activity interferes with the other), and behavior-based (behaviors appropriate for one activity are inappropriate for the other) (Greenhaus and Beutel.I 77-81). As noted elsewhere (Sulli-

Michael W. Kramer (PhD, Texas, 1991) is professor and chair of the Department of Communication  al the  University of  Missouri. This essay complements  his interest  in the ite ract io n of employees with their organizations as part of the organizational assimilation/socialization process. He wants to thank his cooperative faculty for making

the year of the newborns a positive experience for him as chair.



van, Hollenshead, and Smith 25), allowing additional time for promotion and tenure is a simple and essentially cost-free way to support new parents. If a faculty member achieves promotion and tenure with an additional year, the department and university retain a valuable faculty member at no cost. If a faculty member fails to achieve promotion even with the additional year, the department and university still receive the faculty  member's  services  for the year. The only "cost" is a one-year delay in searching  for a new faculty  member who may or may not be more likely to gain tenure. In full suppor1 of the policy, after congratulating each faculty member, I informed her of this option.

Two expectant faculty members were not affected by the policy      me

was in a non-tenure track position and the other was already up for promotion. I was a bit surprised at the reluctance of one of the two eligible

Text Box: faculty members to take advantage of the stop the clock policy.Like                                                                                        situations documented elsewhere (Kirby and Krone 71), she  was  con­ cerned that taking advantage of the policy might label her negatively and ultimately hurt her promotion and tenure chances. I assured her that she would not be forced to wait another year because she requested  the extension, and that she might  even  go up early  if  her record of  teaching and scholarship continued  as it had so far. Despite  my assurances, she did not request an extension-I believe in part because of her fears. The other faculty member asked for and received an extension.

My pride in my awareness of the stop the clock  policy  was shattered when I found out that the College of Arts and Science has a phantom maternity policy. The policy provides a new parent with a reduction in teaching  of one course  for one semester  surrounding  the birth or adoption of a child and includes an option for the reduction of a second course if the professor teaches an overload another  semester  or  a  summer  course without the usual additional compensation. I call it a  phantom  policy because although it was  posted  on  the college's Web site  at one  time,  it was removed in a dispute  among  college  and  university  administrators over the appropriateness of individual colleges developing their own maternity/paternity policies. As a result, I was unaware of the policy. I was embarrassed when the second expectant faculty member told me about the policy, which we could not locate on the college's Web page, but she eventually  was able to show  me. After verifying  the  policy  with the Dean, I went back to the first expectant faculty member to tell her that she was due a reduced teaching load in addition to the stop the clock policy. At



least with the final two birth announcements I was able to inform faculty members of both policies.

Of course, the policy also left me with a major problem. Suddenly I had four additional sections of teaching to cover during the year, and it turned into five sections when one faculty member took the additional course reduction option.   In a large department,   this might not be a problem,   but in our   department, it created a major instructional shortage. When I met with the Dean and his staff, I started to give them a piece of my mind about my embarrassment at finding out   about a   phantom   maternity   policy   from a faculty member, and the difficulty I faced trying to provide the necessary instruction. They blamed the removal of the policy on a higher level administrator and assured me that they would stand   behind their policy. Then they quickly addressed   my   problems   by   providing additional   salary to hire adjuncts to teach all five sect io ns .

Having the funding to pay adjuncts to teach the sections only partially solved my problem; it was going to be a problem if I had to find someone willing and able to teach 4-5 sections in one semester and nothing the next semester. Here, my expectant faculty members demonstrated cooperation that made the policy and the funding solution workable. With  their consent, I was able to spread the reduced teaching loads over three semesters, which eliminated  the hiring problems. A positive outcome of this was that I was able to provide some advanced graduate students with additional teaching opportunities for three semesters with the adjunct  pay. J felt fortunate to have such cooperative faculty members.

The due dates for three of the faculty  members meant  that only one gave birth during a semester when she had teaching responsibilities and so needed actual maternity leave. The Dean's office also provided funding to hire a teaching assistant to team teach her class and to then teach the class for as long as needed  until the faculty  member returned, until the end of the semester if necessary.

This faculty member came back to teaching  after about four weeks rather than taking as many as twelve weeks until the semester ended. I would like to attribute her quick return entirely to her commitment to teaching,  but l suspect  that two other factors inAuenced  her . She  was the one who feared taking advantage of the stop the clock policy, and so I suspect she feared staying out longer might reAect poorly on her. In addition,

had given

birth  to  their  daughter  during  spring  break  and  returned  to  teaching


without missing a day. It's a remark that once it's out about all you can do is damage control. Despite privately assuring her that the remark was inappropriate and there were no expectations that she return until she was ready, I'm sure the comment put undue pressure on her to return quickly.

I suspect that she perceived (incorrectly in my opinion) problems identi­

fied elsewhere: a "chilly climate" that discourages using family leave

policies and pressure from "workaholic peers" that made her feel she

would be judged as unprofessional if she took more time off (Sullivan,

Hollenshead, and Smith 26). Ten months later, she admitted to me that she

should have waited longer, but by then there was nothing to be done.


I could probably stop here, claiming some success in managing "The Year of the Newborns" based on college policies, extra funding from the Dean, and a cooperative faculty, and perhaps I should. However, it is not the end of the story. Discussions of family leave policies typically focus only on how the policies benefit those directly affected, as I have done so far. The focus is on the impact on families, typically married couples with small children, and only occasionally other family situations, and rarely on the implications for others. Certainly for the individuals involved, I was pleased that the two policies benefited the faculty members and their fam­ ilies.

When I look at the policy's impact on the department though, I also consider its impact on other faculty members. Our policy is to provide a reduced teaching load to new tenure track faculty sometime during the first two years to assist them  in  jump starting  their  research  agenda.  I  wanted to provide a reduced load to our new hire during 'The Year  of  the Newborns," especially  since she was going to teach a  large service course one semester. However, I didn't feel that I could add that strain  to the schedule and so in the hiring negotiations,  I informed  her that she would have to wait until her second year for her reduced load. I am not convinced this was fair to her. However, she agreed  to wait, and  it seems unlikely  that it will have an adverse effect on her career in the long run. Her cooperation helped smooth out the problem.

As I reflected on the policies from an organizational   perspective, I admit that at times I felt some mild dissonance. It is difficult to justify paying a full-time salary to someone who is fulfilling 75-80% of their job duties. There are few organizations that provide this type of benefit in our country. Some countries provide more extensive maternity benefits as part of their social system , but it is far from the  norm here. For example, in

2004,  only  18%  of  surveyed  universities  offered  this  type  of  full-pay,



modified duties benefit (Sullivan, Hollenshead, and Smith 25). Other university staff members are not eligible for a reduced-load, full-pay policy; they only receive unpaid leave. Elementary and secondary educa­ tors do not receive this benefit. As a tax and tuition funded public university, I can imagine many taxpayers and tuition-paying parents or students questioning these policies if they were aware of them, since most of them do not receive this kind of benefit in their workplaces. They likely see this as another policy they are stuck paying for that benefits faculty members whom they perceive as underworked  and overpaid. I am glad that I do not have to defend the policies to them. It seems unlikely  that they see the long-term benefits of retaining talented faculty members as a compelling argument for what they would see as full-time pay for less than full-time work.

We are fortunate that universities have more flexible work settings for faculty, but I also have to wonder about the equity of policies that favor faculty parents of newborns. I recently had a discussion with a  male faculty member who considers many family-friendly policies discrimina­ tory because they provide benefits to some employees but not to others; due to gender or lifestyles, some employees will never be eligible for a spousal accommodation, reduced teaching for maternity, or stop the clock benefits. Further, when faculty parents receive first choice in scheduling to accommodate small children, other faculty are often left with limited and less desirable choices. So the policies seem right to me from a human compassion  perspective for faculty members who benefit, but they also can create resentment and inequities for others.

I also wonder about the fairness of making accommodations related to childbirth without making similar accommodations for other types of nonwork issues. Should I expect a reduced  load  with full pay if I choose to provide home care for my aging parents even though I could choose to hire someone instead? And if an organization should support faculty members when the situation involves immediate family, why not other relatives, close friends, or partners? And if it is reasonable for faculty to expect accommodations for situations involving other people, why not for other nonwork complications in life. Can I expect accommodations so that I can oversee the construction of my new house? I know this is a slippery slope argument, but there does seem to be a question of how to balance an organization's interest in supporting an employees' nonwork activities to retain them with the employees' obligations to provide services to their organizations. Although I am supportive of our university's current poli-


cies, I'm not sure where we draw the line on accommodating and sup­ porting nonwork ac ti vi tie s.

I also wonder about our own willingness to blur the lines between work and family. We seem to be moving from relying on our own resources to manage family and nonwork issues to expecting  organizations  to  be involved and accommoda ting . Certainly at times this seems quite positive when flexible work hours and working at home eliminate some family problems and issues for emp lo yees . But  what is the cost of this blurring? The negative side of this is that the same employees who benefit from such policies are often implicitly expected to be accessible via cell phones and e-mail almost 24/7. If we allow or expect this type of accommodation and integration of family and work, what is the eventual impact on our nonwork/family lives?

Joanne Martin describes an organization with very generous work­ family policies. When a high-ranking woman who was instrumental in developing a new product chose to have a Caesarian birth early to be sure to be available for the product launch, the organization insisted she stay home, but arranged closed-circuit television from her home during her "maternity leave" so she could participate in its launch (35). This can be viewed either as an example of extraordinary accommodation and inte­ gration of work and family, or as an example of extreme intrusion of work on family. I am personally appalled by this story, but the people involved apparently thought that it was a mutually beneficial accommodation. Again, it's a slippery slope issue, but how much do we want organizations involved in helping us manage our nonwork time, our families, and our other activities, and what are the hidden costs of that involvement?

The  "Year of  the Newbo rns"  was quite an  experience  for  me as chair. It was easy for me to be excited for each new parent. From my perspec ti ve, we collectively managed the issues fairly well. A combination of cooper­ ative faculty, flexible policies, and financial support from our dean allowed everything to work out reasonably well. Clearly in the future, family-work policies, whatever they are, must be more adequately communicated than they were at my university. Frequent and periodic communication of policies is necessary in light of the frequent turnover of department chairs in most institutions (Su lli van, Hollenshead, and Smith 26). In addition, the policies must be flexible as they balance the interests of those directly benefiting from them , such as new parents, and those indirectly affected when  they  receive less desirable  work schedules or are ineligible  for

benefits because they are single or not part of a traditional family. Policies


Text Box: Did I mention that our new hire for next year was due to give birth just

must balance individual needs with organizational needs. Finally, policies must be designed to actually improve the quality of faculty  members' work and family lives and not simply create additional stress and conflict by blurring the distinctions between them. I wish I had the magic policy that resolved the complexity of the situation.


Text Box: before the fall semester began? And by the way, our other top candidate


Text Box: was pregnant at the time, too.

Managing multiple group roles: an autoethnography of communication and perceived role incompatibility

Michael W. Kramer

Department of Communication, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK, USA



Received 20 June 2017

Accepted 27 October 2017



Boundary theory; autoethnography; role management; stress












Waking up, I consider the various roles I will play today. First, I will attend church with my wife, my son, and his fiancé, a weekly activity to renew my faith and make me feel secure in who I am. After the service, I will talk to other church members. I hope they dont ask what Im doing this afternoon because I worry what they would think if they knew. After a quick lunch, I will head to the universitys theater where I will don a costume and assume the role of an old man who drinks excessively and swears at his two adult children birthed by promiscu- ous behavior with different women and who blame him for their incestuous relationship. I enjoy acting in the production because it is well produced and I feel good about being able to portray someone so different from me even if I feel compelled to keep it secret from my church leaders. After the performance, I will speak briefly to audience members. I am torn between a desire that other faculty members see me perform and a concern about how they might evalu- ate me as chair of the Department of Communication after seeing me in this role. Then I will go home, talk to my wife, and write fieldnotes for a research study I am conducting based on my participation in the production. I will enjoy the day full of the multiple roles I juggle, but at the same time, I feel anxious about my ability to manage them all effectively. Later I will respond to a variety of emails to get a head start on my Monday morning duties as chair. We all assume multiple roles in our daily lives. For the most part, we move seamlessly from work roles to family roles to leisure roles, although we also experience stress due to

CONTACT Michael W. Kramer

© 2017 National Communication Association


these multiple roles. Scholars such as Greenhaus and Beutell (1985) identified three major causes of role stress: (1) Time-based stress in which time spent on one role or on thinking about one role takes away from time for another role; (2) Strain-based stress in which the attitudes and stresses of one role spill over into other roles; and (3) Behavior-based stress in which behaviors that are effective and appropriate in one role are inappropriate in another role.

Although informative, this typology did not describe the stress I experienced during my participation in a university theater production in which I portrayed a character that embodied a significant number of characteristics that I abhor, such as promiscuity and vulgarity. The stress that I experienced did not fit into these categories: I had the time to be involved, could separate the attitudes of the character from my other roles, and did not carry the role behaviors into my other roles. I experienced stress this time over possible negative repercussions if I communicated my participation in this particular theater role to members of my other role sets. A stigma is a blemish of individual character (Goffman, 1963). Stigmas are constructed through communication based on perceptions of both the non-stigmatized and stigmatized individuals (Meisenbach, 2010). I was con- cerned that I would need to manage the perceptions of some people who would stigmatize and evaluate me negatively and as less desirable for my portrayal of this particularly offen- sive character. I did not feel this potential for negative evaluation or being stigmatized when I participated in other productions, such as when I portrayed Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, because that character was admirable and compatible with my other roles. Instead, I was concerned about other peoples ability to accept my portrayal of this particular character as consistent with my other life roles. As I considered this issue, I realized that there are other times I experience this type of stress between my roles. I chose autoethnography to explore the stress I felt over the difficulty of communicating my multiple roles as consistent and appropriate for my self-identity to those around me because in autoethnography, a scholar engages in self-reflection to examine personal issues that have potential broader cultural implications (Adams, 2010), I anticipated that analyzing my experiences could assist others who experience similar role stress. As I considered this issue, I began to see my anxiety in this situation as more than simple role stress; it involved issues of identity and impression management. And so, this studys central question explores how one individual communicated to maintain role con-

sistency while recognizing that others may perceive those roles as incompatible.

So Ive provided a rationale for the study that satisfies the researcher in me by identifying the study as unique and stating its purpose. It is not even a post-hoc rationale like some studies. My motive for this autoethnography from the beginning was to consider how I com- municated to maintain roles that seem consistent to me, but which I recognized would be evaluated negatively as incompatible by some others. Now I had better review some relevant literature.



Roles and identity management

Multiple roles

As I read the scholarly literature on stress resulting from conflict between multiple roles, I found it did not directly address my concerns. Typical textbooks identify a variety of role


conflicts people experience as they balance multiple roles (Daniels, Spiker, & Papa, 1997). For example, people experience inter-role conflict when the demands of one role (e.g. pro- fessor) interfere with another role (e.g. actor) or intra-role conflict when sub-roles within a single role interfere with each other, such as a professors sub-roles of teacher and coau- thor working with a graduate student. However, these types of role conflicts were not like my concern that others would evaluate me negatively because they perceived two of my roles as incompatible.

Other research that I found explored the interplay of behaviors and attitudes involved in multiple roles. For example, there is spillover of work and nonwork moods (Michel, Clark, & Jaramillo, 2011; Williams & Alliger, 1994), and attitudes (Ilies, Wilson, & Wagner, 2009; Staines, 1980). There is a reciprocal relationship between work to family and family to work conflicts (Byron, 2005; Frone, Russell, & Cooper, 1992). There is a relationship between the type of communication experienced in the workplace and at home (Golden, Kirby, & Jorgenson, 2006; Ritchie, 1997). This research failed to address my concerns as well. My work and nonwork attitudes, moods, and communication con- tinued much as before. My concern related to anxiety I felt from communicating to others who might feel I was enacting an inappropriate role by being involved in this particular theater production.

I found some useful ideas about managing multiple roles when I read about boundary theory (Ashforth, Kreiner, & Fugate, 2000; Michel, Bosch, & Rexroth, 2014). Boundary theory emphasizes that people simplify and order their environment by socially creating and maintaining boundaries between roles. Although they are permeable, role boundaries designate certain times and places for particular roles, such as professor or amateur actor. Role identities explicate the appropriate and inappropriate behaviors for various roles. When individuals move from one role to another, they generally use one of two main strategies to manage role transitions: (1) they can segment or separate roles, resulting in less role blurring but more distinct transitions; or (2) they may integrate or combine roles, resulting in fewer role transitions, but more role blurring. The choices actually vary along a continuum rather than as a dichotomy and are subject to change over time (Cruz & Meisenbach, 2017). Individuals attempt to minimize the difficulty and fre- quency of role transitions.

This theory provided some insight into my situation. I like to segment roles. For example, I rarely read work-related emails in the evening or on weekends; it is equally rare for me to receive family phone calls at work. I realized that by conducting research while participating in the leisure activity of acting, I was intentionally blurring role distinc- tions, but I simultaneously wished to segment this role from people at church to avoid possible negative reactions and was ambivalent about allowing my university peers and administrators to see me in this role. So although useful, the theory provided no insight into how I should communicate while simultaneously wishing to integrate and segment my roles.

Another limitation to boundary theory has been its focus on work to home or work to work transitions (Ashforth et al., 2000). Most of the research has made no more than passing reference to transitions from work to third place or life enrichment groups, such as professor to amateur actor, and omitted discussion of home to life enrichment transitions or transitions between life enrichment activities, such as actor to church member. Recently, scholars have begun to recognize the importance of examining how


individuals communicatively manage these boundary passages as well (Cruz & Meisen- bach, 2017). My own examination of how community theater members managed the ten- sions between work, family, and life enrichment groups addressed this (Kramer, 2002). I found that people managed these time-based role conflicts by limiting their participation in certain roles, for example, by avoiding overtime at work or by letting chores at home go unattended temporarily. They communicated to others about these role conflicts by telling friends they would be too busy for social activities during a production. They reported time-based stress in managing role conflicts, but most did not experience stress in com- municating to others about their roles in the production.

I began to feel I was perhaps unnecessarily anxious over my situation except that I reported instances in which the plays content created communication problems for par- ticipants (Kramer, 2002). Particularly relevant to me was the fact that a church elder voiced disapproval to one actor about his and his sons participation in that particular play; the actor wished he had more carefully considered announcing their involvement in that production. Here very specifically was the stress I was experiencing. I was reluctant to announce my participation in this production to people at my church in anticipation of similar negative reactions to my role. Because the performances were on campus rather than in a community theater, I also had concerns about how some faculty members might react if they discovered how I spent my leisure time.

I found another link to my concern in the discussions of the role management problems people face when they are in stigmatized occupations considered dirty work(Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999; Meisenbach, 2010). Dirty work may be physically dirty (garbage collector), socially tainted by dealing with stigmatized others (prison guard), or morally tainted (exotic dancer). Unlike visible stigmas such as physical characteristics (Goffman, 1963), occupational stigmas can sometimes be concealed, and so some individuals managed the stress related to their roles by keeping their occupations secret even from family members or friends. My situation involved a leisure role that could be concealed, but I imagined that if they found out, certain people might stigmatize me as morally tainted for portraying this character. Given the long history of churches viewing acting in general as morally tainted, I was particularly concerned with how people from my church might evaluate me for portraying a morally tainted character. I felt that they would not be able to separate the inauthentic emotions and behaviors I would portray as this character, a form of emotional labor involved in acting (Hochschild, 1983), from my personal emotions and values. My desire to keep this hidden from some people indi- cated that I faced identity and impression management concerns and so I examined some of that literature.


Roles and identity

The literature on identity reinforced the importance of studying how people manage their identities while maintaining multiple roles as a communication issue. We communicate our unique identity through the idiosyncratic way we align ourselves with certain groups, organizations, or ideas, while at the same time, distancing ourselves from others (Cheney, 1991). Symbolic interactionists (e.g. Mead, 1934) emphasize that our identities are not individually created, but are socially constructed through interactions with others (Holstein & Gubrium, 2000). We learn our identities in part by understanding


what others think of us through communication, which is not just the identity that we choose to project.

This reiterated for me that communicating our identities to ourselves and others is challenging enough when our multiple roles seem largely compatible with each other. When stress results from conflicts between compatible roles, we manage our identity by explaining how we balance our multiple roles. Because the roles of worker and family member are viewed as normal and compatible, managing those roles involves demonstrat- ing an appropriate balance between work and family, not convincing others that the roles are compatible. However, when we align ourselves simultaneously with two groups whose members may perceive the other group as incompatible or stigmatized, the communi- cation about roles becomes more complex and risky. For example, Olson (2005) suggests this problem when she mentions her concerns about how revealing her experiences as an abused spouse might affect her professional colleaguesevaluations of her. Managing her identity became an impression management issue. This impression management of iden- tity becomes even more complex if we may want to simultaneously reveal our group mem- bership to one set of acquaintances while keeping it secret from others. Through selective disclosure, we become involved in covering, in which we tone down one disfavored iden- tity to fit into one group (Yoshino, 2006), but reveal it to fit into others.


Impression management

I found that impression management scholarship in interpersonal relationships reinforced many of these ideas on identity. For example, the ground-breaking work of Goffman (1959) emphasized that individuals attempt to create a certain impression through their performances in social interactions, but that the impression is also created by othersreac- tions. Some of the elaborate theories of impression management dissect an impression management episode into separate components such as self-concept, relevance, goals, message strategy, and evaluation (e.g. OSullivan, 2000), but did little to address my concern.

Goffmans (1959, 1963) works gave me a number of useful ideas. When individuals manage a differentness or stigma that is not obvious, such as my incompatible theater role, they have the option to manage their image and maintain flexibility by choosing to reveal their differentness to some groups and concealing it from others. However, when individuals choose to present separate performances to different audiences, it is important to keep the audiences separated. These ideas reinforced that it is through verbal and nonverbal communication that we accomplish impression management, but provided little insight into the communication strategies used to reveal or conceal identity to multiple audiences. In addition, the literature rarely considers situations in which work, family, or different leisure roles may create perceptions of incompatibility or inconsistency.

To summarize, the literature on role conflict, identity, and impression management was interesting and informative although it never specifically addressed my situation. Role conflict research focused on managing conflicts between roles, not the stress created by concerns over how others might evaluate me negatively over perceived role incompatibil- ities. Identity scholarship emphasized the importance of communication in creating an identity, but seemed to assume that the roles would be perceived as compatible to


members of various role sets. Impression management scholarship mentioned problems of impression management to multiple audiences, but provided no real insight into the com- munication strategies to use in such situations except to keep the audiences separated. Finding little that addressed my concern, in this study I explored two areas that have received limited attention. First, I examined how communication created stress for me concerning potential role incompatibilities. Second, I explored how I communicated to manage the potential role incompatibilities.

There. Ive satisfied my communication scholar role by providing a theoretical frame

(boundary theory) and conceptual development (role conflict, identity, and impression man- agement) in a literature review. Now I need to present my research method. Some autoeth- nographers seem to feel a need to justify their methods. Oddly, although I will explain my method, I dont feel that need to justify it. The approach I chose to take seemed appropriate given the subject matter and I had a systematic plan for gathering data from several sources to satisfy me as a social scientist.



Autoethnography combines characteristics of biography, in which an individual reflex- ively and selectively writes about personal experiences, and ethnography, in which an indi- vidual participates in and observes a culture to write about everyday interactions to understand its assumptions and values (Adams, 2010). Autoethnographers write reflex- ively and selectively about their experiences to connect them to larger cultural issues, but also must distance themselves from the experience to be able to apply the theoretical lens of scholarship in analyzing the experiences (Adams, 2010).

I used several data sources for this autoethnography to increase my reflexive thinking about perceived role incompatibility. First, I consulted my theater-program file I have maintained since I was in junior high. It contains programs for nearly every theater pro- duction in which I appeared on stage, directed, or worked backstageover 70 productions. I used these programs as a systematic method for prompting me to recall conversations, events, and memorable messages surrounding my participation in those productions.

Memorable messages are communication interactions that are remembered for a long period of time and are perceived as having an important influence on the course of a persons lifetime (Stohl, 1986). They are typically brief conversations, often with someone of higher status than the recipient, that addressed some important issue or point in a persons life and provided some guidance for dealing with it based on certain cultural norms or values (Knapp, Stohl, & Reardon, 1981). Previous research suggests that memorable messages have a positive bias where the message source is percieved as trying to benefit the recipient, but some memorable messages are negative (Barge & Schlu- eter, 2004). Because they are remembered for a long time period of time, memorable mess- ages are associated with self-reflection as recipients consider how the messages impacted their lives.

Not all the conversations and events I recalled from reflecting on these artifacts exem- plified all of these characteristics, but they addressed a range of temporary and long-term concerns. For example, I recalled a director scolding me for delivering a line differently which she felt caused me to break character during a performance. I remember feeling angry about that conversation because I was sure I delivered it the same as always; it


was that audience laughing much more than other audiences that caused me to break character. Although I remembered that conversation, it did not have a long-term influence on me like a memorable message.

By contrast, some conversations occurred at important turning points in my pro- fessional or theater life. Based on those memorable messages, I constructed a 26-page nar- rative that divided my 40+ years of theater experiences into six periods: (1) An introduction to acting (grade school to junior high); (2)  An  identity and  passion is born (junior high through early college); (3) Transitioning out of acting  (end  of college); (4) Directing and producing (directing high school and college productions);

(5)   Denying an identity (finishing my Ph.D. and becoming a communication scholar);

(6)    A rebirth of an identity (doing participant observation research on theater productions).

In addition to systematically reconstructing memorable messages of my theater experi- ences this way, I consulted fieldnotes from three theater group ethnographies I conducted over a six-year period for evidence of role incompatibility concerns. Olson (2005) also suggested that autoethnographers should talk to people familiar with them to gain an understanding of the topic of interest. To accomplish this, during this particular theater ethnography, I included fieldnotes from informal interviews of colleagues, family, and friends concerning my theater activities. Then I reflected on how I managed communi- cation about my theater role. Finally, I considered other situations where I faced similar communication challenges concerning my roles.

Autoethnography does not rely on coding data systematically to make claims about important themes or topics based on the frequency that they occur in the data. Instead, I selected memorable messages, in some cases 35 years after the events, that had significant long-term influence on my theater participation.




Communication creating perceived role incompatibilities

The perception that others might view my theater role as incompatible with my other life roles came primarily from two conversations. I recalled a conversation with my father, a professor turned dean turned seminary president. A 24-year-old high school teacher at the time, I called him to seek his advice in selecting a Masters Degree program. The conversa- tion went like this:1

Im looking into two Masters degree programs, one in speech and one in theater. Im trying to decide which would help me the most in the long run. I might want to be a principal someday or if I teach at a college, a dean or something. I guess Im wondering what you think: do drama directors ever get considered for administrative jobs?

Its not impossible for a director to become an administrator, but its pretty unusual. They more likely come from some other area of study.

As I recall, this conversation solidied my perceptions of role incompatibility between theater participant and administrator. I suspected that theater people were considered too creative or artsy for administration. Since I had never met a theater person turned administrator, my fathers comments conrmed my suspicions. This conversation, in


part, led to my decision to pursue an M.A. in speech and later a Ph.D. in communication rather than theater.

As I completed my Ph.D., a second conversation communicated to me that my theater background was incompatible with the role of communication scholar. I remember this conversation sitting in my advisers office as I began applying for university jobs. He com- mented on the vita I showed him that I was about to send out with job applications.

You really should remove these references to being the director of drama if you want to be seen as a serious organizational communication scholar.

Im just trying to give a complete picture of what Ive been doing.

Well, unless you want a job that includes directing, you should take it out.

I dont want to direct. But Im concerned that if I take it out, people wonder what Ive been doing these last few years.

Youve been doing plentyteaching classes, working on a Ph.D. They wont miss it.

I did not want to hurt my job prospects by having theater on my vita. I did not want a position that involved theater; teaching and research were enough. I felt a little dishonest because I was withholding important information about myself, but I deleted director of drama before sending out my vita, thus removing theater from my projected professional identity. For many years, my vita did not mention that I directed plays at the college level. These conversations were pivotal moments in my theater identity. Each led to decisions that seemed quite practical at the time. I was far too busy teaching, directing plays, and coaching the speech team at the high school. I felt relieved when I let go of directing and focused on speech. After returning to directing when I taught at a small college, I again felt relieved when I gave it up because I was consumed with writing my dissertation. Both conversations contributed to my decision to deny the theater identity I embraced during my education and early teaching. I did not regret the decision to delete theater from my vita at the time, nor do I retrospectively. However, doing so removed theater from my public, professional identity. Much later, after I was well-established in my

career, I decided I had nothing to lose by adding it back to my vita.

Because theater was still a part of my private identity, I continued to attend theater reg- ularly. During some performances, I wished I had tried out and imagined myself playing certain roles. When my children reached high school age and I had published enough to be on my way to full professor, I suddenly had more free time. When I saw an ad for tryouts for a play I once directed and always wanted to be in, I revived my public theater role by trying out. I was excited when I was cast in my first leading role ever but anxious about telling my colleagues. Unaware of my past involvement, I felt that they would think it was odd that a middle-aged professor was acting. I justified the activity when I told them I was cast in the play.

I got a part in the community theater production. Im playing one of the lawyers in Inherit the Wind.

Congratulations. I didnt know you liked to act.

I used to do a lot of it. I enjoy it. But I want you to know that Im not just having fun. Im going to do an ethnographic study as part of being in it.


Text Box: Framing my role this way jus-By mentioning that I was doing research on the production, I was framing the activity with positive values (Ashforth, Kreiner, Clark, & Fugate, 2007).

Text Box: tified my participation to my colleagues and graduate students, not just for that first pro-

Text Box: duction, but also for other productionsI participated in during the coming years even if I did no research. I felt that framing it made my theater role part of my serious scholar role and so would be perceived as less incompatible than it might have otherwise and less likely to be evaluated negatively.

Two specific conversations communicated to me that certain theater roles were per- ceived as incompatible with my church member role. In that first production of my revived theater role, I played Henry Drummond, an agnostic lawyer who defends the right to teach evolution in Inherit the Wind, a fictional version of the Scopes Monkey Trials. One Sunday when I was standing in the back of the church, my pastor approached me and said in a challenging and negative tone, I hear youre playing a heretic.I immedi- ately felt tense. I was not sure how he heard about my part, but clearly, he was unhappy about my role. Remembering my unsuccessful attempt a number of years earlier to defend presenting the same play at a Christian college to a narrow-minded pastor, I recognized the futility of defending playing the hereticto this person. As a result, I said, I realize the play might upset some of our church members and thats why Im not telling people Im in the production. Clearly, in his mind, my role in that play and my role as

president of the congregation at the time were incompatible. I quickly changed the subject and was thankful the topic never came up again.

The same production brought about a different concern after my department chair saw my performance. Her comments after the show concerned me.

Good job. I enjoyed the performance. Thank you. And thank you for coming.

I have to tell you that I had trouble getting used to you swearing.

What? Did I emphasize the swearing too much? (Inexperienced actors often do this.) Not that. Its just I never heard you swear before and so it surprised me.

This comment caused me to consider whether playing that role was incompatible with my role as an active Christian. I was pleased that I had effectively modeled behaviors so that swearing seemed inconsistent with my values to her, but concerned I was negating my carefully managed image by swearing in a production, even if it was an infrequent part of the role. However, I decided my chair could separate the inauthentic swearing I did for the character from my personal values.

This series of conversations over the years represented memorable messages that con- cerned me as I considered and accepted this particular role in a university production. It was one thing to perform a positive role like Juror #8, Henry Fondas famous role, in Twelve Angry Men, or Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music in a community theater. It was another thing to play a swearing, drunk, promiscuous old man in a campus production. I expected some church members would not be able to separate the inauthentic swearing from my personal values. Of course, participation in the pro- duction represented some of my other values. I value the enjoyment I receive from partici- pation in creative theater productions. I value the research I conduct when participating in


theater. As a result, I was involved in a change in footing (Goffman, 1981). I framed my participation in ways that aligned it with my leisure values and my values as a researcher and scholar, not my religious role.

It also bothered me that during the production, my physical appearance would be incompatible with my administrator role. After allowing my beard and hair to grow unat- tended for two months for the role, I looked very un-administrator-like. As a result, my unkempt appearance made my theater role visible and difficult to mask. Unaware of the research component involved, administrators and other faculty might be critical of my appearance as inappropriate for an administrator or of the time I wasted on the pro- duction instead of dealing with various department chair activities. Since this production was on campus, the risk of being observed was greater than when I participated in com- munity theater productions off campus. As with all theater productions, there was the risk that the performance would be substandard. As an actor in one of my ethnographies said, I dont want people to come and go, lot of guts.I wanted audience members to praise the production and my performance, not thank me for trying hard. I remember being embar- rassed by one production I was in. I worried that I would be embarrassed by this pro- duction or my role in it, although knowing the director this was not a major concern. In the end, I decided to take the role despite the anxiety I felt about how others might nega- tively evaluate my participation. This meant I needed to communicate in such a way that my roles appeared compatible to others.


Communication managing role incompatibilities

Text Box: about this particular role to manage any perceived role incompatibilities and avoid nega-

Text Box: I communicated strategically to different groups of peopleMy field notes indicated that

nsistent with Goffmans (1963) idea that stigmas occur within relation- ships, the communication tactics I used varied according to my social relationships and whether I expected the other person would judge me negatively for my role. My tactics involved a range of those identified by Meisenbach (2010) including avoiding, framing, and minimizing the offense when I feared being stigmatized by a particular individual or group. By contrast, I also unapologetically invited others to performances when I had no fear of being judged negatively by them. For example, I communicated nothing about my role in this production to the majority of my church acquaintances. Because many church members were aware of my involvement in some summer theater pro- ductions, they sometimes asked, Are you doing any theater this summer?Since this pro- duction was in the winter, it was easy to remain silent because none of my casual church acquaintances asked me about theater during the production. If they asked me about work, it was easy to leave out references to the production.

Text Box: perceived role incompatibilities and avoid negative evaluations while maintaining my

Text Box: he use of strategic silence allowed me to manageText Box: inadvertent omission of information.Text Box: This silence was strategic and notText Box: tive evaluations. CoT

I was not alone in using strategic silence. The student male lead in this same play informed me that he did not invite his grandparents to the production as he usually did because he knew that the plays content and his role would offend them.

Text Box: social identity with these individuals by deliberately avoiding the topic.I was also part of a smaller group ministry of about 10 church members that met bi- monthly at someones home. It was not feasible to use strategic silence with them


because of our more active involvement in each others lives. Rather than avoid the subject, I told them about the play, but also warned them about its content. My wife told me that when one group member said that the plays title sounded like fun, she told them that the play was about a dysfunctional family and might not appeal to them. We thought they would choose not to attend, but in the end, seven of them decided they could handle the adult content and made an evening out of it.  We worried about their attendance, but felt they had been given fair warning.


we approached the perform- ances, I became quite proud of the productions quality despite any dubious merit of the play. As a result, I minimally publicized my participation in the play with posters in the department. However, anytime I had the opportunity to discuss the play with someone, I worked two topics into the conversation. First, I warned them about the language and situation of the play and the role I portrayed. Here it  was not so much that I was concerned that they would be offended or stigmatize me for my part in the pro- duction, like some church members might. Rather, I wanted to make it clear to them that I was playing a role that was quite different than my professional and personal identity. Second, I always mentioned that I was doing research in connection with the play. Con- tinuing the pattern from other productions, I felt this framing partially justified my par- ticipation to the people who valued scholarly publication.

Some friends and acquaintances received full disclosure and invitations to attend. My wife and I attended a community theater event one afternoon. We ran into people I knew from other productions. I communicated openly to these people about my partici- pation in this production. I would briefly comment about it being a strange play, but cer- tainly did not attempt to dissuade them from attending. Instead I hoped the description might actually increase their interest. I did not expect that these individuals would perceive any role incompatibilities or evaluate my participation negatively. They viewed theater as an opportunity to portray others and so they have no difficulty separating an individual from their character. They also knew me primarily through my community theater activi- ties, not as a professor.

With a few close friends and family, I not only openly discussed my participation in the play, but I also used them as sounding boards about my concerns. My wife and I had numerous conversations about the play and my role. She understood my reservations, but supported my participation. She said she always liked the actor part of me since back in college. However, because of our shared concerns, she did talk her mother, who had seen all my other recent shows, out of coming to see this particular show.

A conversation with a retired business executive and close church friend significantly impacted my participation. While he was barbequing dinner for us and our wives, I told him about the play and my part. Then I added:

My character swears a lot. Im concerned what people from church might think about that.

Oh, I dont think you need to be concerned. I mean, when I worked, I used to swear some- times for effect.

Ive heard there are executives that are good at that and some that arent. Actually, I never used Gods name in vain. Im not sure how I feel about that.


When he claried that he never actually swore (i.e. called on God), I wasnt sure how he would feel about my role. This concerned me because I didnt want to offend him or others with my role. As a result of this memorable message, I changed all my god damnsin the play to damns, a strategy of reducing the offensiveness of the stigmatized behavior (Mei- senbach, 2010). It was a small change that maintained the characters crude behavior while decreasing my anxiety about how others might react to my portrayal. I was relieved that the director did not notice the language change the rst time I did it or any other time. After my friend saw the show, he said I dont think your language would have bothered anyone from church,but my wife disagreed, and he did not know I made language changes after our conversation. I felt good about managing a middle ground position by portraying the characters crudeness without offending my friend.

Text Box: I intended to use strategic silence with university administratorsto avoid any percep- tion that as chair I was either not busy enough or wasting time having fun. At a large university, the true risk that administrators will attend theater productions is minimal. They are simply too busy or disinterested. However, when the director and I were standing in the buffet line at a college luncheon a week before opening, he informed my dean of my participation, much to my dismay. Later, I had a private conversation with the dean:

What do you think about a department chair being in a play on campus?

I think its great. Its always interesting to see someone doing something in a context that you usually dont see them.

You should know that Im also doing research as part of my participation. Thats good that youre getting some extra credit out of it.

Once again, I carefully framed my participation to my dean by mentioning that I was doing research. It is not clear whether that justication mattered to him.


Communication for understanding my image

In the previous section, I described how I attempted to manage my communication to minimize othersperceptions of role incompatibilities. I also used interactions with various people to find out what impact my participation had on their image of me, that is, their perception of my identity. I was selective in whom I queried, primarily asking indi- viduals I thought would be at least neutral if not supportive of my participation. Still, the results surprised me. Not surprisingly, my two children uniformly supported my acting even in this play. My daughter was only  able  to  read  the  play  during  Christmas break because she was attending college, but she had no concerns about it when we sat in the living room discussing it merits before I tried out. She actively encouraged me to audition:

It seems like a good thing and you do a good job. Maybe its a passion of yours. Besides people are more than just their work and their families. They have hobbies and interests and this is one of yours.

She and my son easily separated my portrayal of inauthentic emotions and values as a par- ticular character from my personal values.


The closest I came to getting a negative reaction was from one woman of my church group who started to say something during the social part of our group meeting but was cut off before she had a chance to finish.

Michael, about that play, why

It was an excellent performance and you did a terrific job. Thank you.

When the second woman cut the rst woman off, it seemed to silence her and she did not

bring up again whatever concerned her. She may only have had a question about the plot, but her tone of voice made me think it was criticism. In a way, I was thankful I did not have to address any concerns she had because of the interruption.

A colleague told me she thought it was great that I am involved in theater because it is so contrary to my image as a quantitative scholar and department chair. She called it my image bomb.Her idea of an image bomb is something you drop on people when they think they have you figured out which makes you more complex and interesting. She

Text Box: graduate studentkeeps a few image bombs handy to surprise people. One                                                                           surprised me

when she told me my participation in plays inspiredher. She worried that earning a Ph.D. and becoming a professor made you too narrowly focused. Knowing I did quanti- tative research and participant observation ethnographies of theater productions made her believe that she could maintain a broad focus and balance in her life instead of being a

Text Box: graduate studentsworkaholic professor. A few                                who saw the production enjoyed it, but

Text Box: a particularly religious onethought it was rather mild after my warnings. However,                                                                                    said

he would not have played my character due to  the language and situation, but that it did not bother him that I played the role because he knew me outside of that role.

I almost concluded that no one perceived any role incompatibilities between my role in this particular play and my roles as family member, professor, administrator, and church member. I began to think I had agonized over nothing. I was quite please momentarily. Then after recalling the woman who responded negatively, but was silenced by a group member and the religious graduate student who would not have played the role, I realized that I had not informed people who I thought would see role incompatibilities about my participation. Those most likely to have evaluated my role negatively never heard about it and could not voice an opinion on it. I knew little more than that I was a pretty good judge of who might not be offended. I can only assume I was equally accurate about those who would be bothered.


Communication surrounding other role incompatibilities

Since most people are not involved in portraying despicable characters in theater pro- ductions, I wondered if the concerns I faced over being evaluated negatively transferred to other situations. To explore this, I considered other areas in which perceived role incompatibilities exist for me. Two in particular came to mind, one of which I explore here, my strategic communication about my political views and affiliations. At work, I attended a meeting prior to 11 September 2001 in which a late comer asked rhetorically, Is there anyone here who doesnt believe Bush is an idiot?Political commentary from other colleagues is usually subtler, but the underlying assumption is that professors


embrace a liberal agenda and the Democratic Party. Although polls suggest these assump- tions are true of professors in general, the assumptions do not apply to everyone. In con- trast to these assumptions, at church, a friend of mine who is an outspoken Democrat told me that a church member once said to him, I dont know how you can vote for baby killers.Both conversations made me cringe inside. A recent survey to select church elders clearly conveyed that a conservative, Republican agenda was the only acceptable viewpoint to be considered for a leadership position. Participating in both of these worlds but embracing neither one, I am content being an independent because I do not see either party as correct on all issues, not because I am undecided on issues. As an inde- pendent, I am often too conservative for many people at the university and too liberal for many at church. I was surprised that even my independent status was attacked once when a political science professor said that You have to be an idiot to be an independent.

With few exceptions, such as telling the political science professor I did not think I was an idiot for being independent, I have used strategic silence and strategic ambiguity to manage these perceived role incompatibilities. I communicate ambiguously by asking questions rather than stating views, by commenting on both sides of an issue during a con- versation, or by reporting the political views of others without stating my personal view. To maintain ambiguity one year, for election day I baked what were allegedly recipes from the wives of the two candidates and placed one of each of them in baggies in the depart- ment office in a box labeled Bi-Partisan Cookies.I wore an I Votedsticker without indi- cating my vote. In the past, after leading class discussions of presidential candidate credibility, students have claimed that they could tell whom I favored, but they were often wrong, usually projecting their own views onto me. This suggests that through stra- tegic ambiguity I was able to maintain a sense of cohesion or unity with my audiences (Eisenberg, 1984). I am aware that some colleagues would appreciate this neutrality, while others would criticize me for it. However, I am actually proud that I have avoided perceptions of role incompatibility through my strategic communication. Most people at work and church do not see me as outside their political views because they project their own views onto me and are unaware of my actual views.

I have come to the end of my analysis. I think it is clear. I think I have provided evidence to support my points. Perhaps I will find that I am not alone in experiencing stress over potential negative evaluations due to perceived role incompatibilities and that others also use silence, ambiguity, and selective self-disclosure to manage these issues. Now, I need to write a discussion section. It should summarize what I have written and show that I have addressed an important topic that provides new insights that will address communi- cation scholars theoretical and applied interests.



I began the self-reflexive process that led to writing this autoethnography because I believed I would be evaluated negatively or stigmatized due to perceived role incompatibil- ities between my portrayal of a reprehensible, vulgar character in a university theater pro- duction and my image as a scholar, administrator, and church member. I discovered that a number of pivotal conversations caused me to think that others would see this particular character as incompatible with my other work and nonwork roles. I explored how I com- municated strategically to maintain a certain image with members of my various role sets.


My communication strategies included strategic silence to those most likely to evaluate me negatively for participating in this production, strategic disclosure with warnings or caveats to other individuals, and complete disclosure to selected individuals who were unlikely to perceive any incompatibilities. The result of managing my communication in this manner was that I largely experienced support for my participation in the play from the people who were aware of it. However, by strategically avoiding people most likely to evaluate me negatively for my role, I can only speculate as to whether their reactions would have been as negative as I anticipated. Finally, I explored how I commu- nicated in similar strategic ways to deal with similar perceived role incompatibilities about politics.

In this study, I focused on a type of role stress that has not been identified in most pre- vious research. The conflict was not over the stress created between roles due to time, strain, or behavioral stressors (Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985). Instead, the role conflict occurred because I felt that others would perceive my roles as incompatible and evaluate me negatively or stigmatize me (Goffman, 1963). Defining perceived role incompatibilities as another role stressor may assist others in coping with similar experiences. For example, after a conference presentation of this paper, an audience member shared how a group of women at her fundamentalist church conducted secret readings of plays because they per- ceived that they would be criticized by other members. Another audience member, a new assistant communication professor, shared that he feels uncomfortable discussing his pre- vious theater work because it seems incompatible with his new role, the view voiced by my advisor. Hopefully, this study will help other individuals become aware of a broader set of perceived role incompatibilities that create stressors in their lives or the lives of those around them, such as hiding their social-economic class upbringings that seem incompa- tible with their current status. For example, Dougherty described her efforts to hide her lower, social-economic background from peers in college and early in her career because such a background was perceived as incompatible with an expected middle to upper-middle class background (Dougherty, 2011).


Practical applications

In addition to identifying the issue more clearly, the study provides some practical sugges- tions for managing perceived role incompatibilities through communication. When roles are perceived as compatible, impression management is largely a matter of creating an image of competence in each role. For example, the role of coach for my daughters soccer team was simply an addition to my parent role, not something incompatible with a parent or academic role, and so I simply needed to convince people that I was a competent coach. However, convincing someone I can portray a crude, immoral man on stage and still be a committed, caring family member, academic scholar, and church member is a different issue, or at least I perceived it would be with some members of my role sets.

This analysis suggests various combinations of communication strategies individuals can use to manage perceived role incompatibilities. I relied on strategic silence, strategic self-disclosure with caveats and framing to manage my image while performing my role in the play. Similarly, Olson (2004) writes she was concerned that revealing her past would create image problems for her due to perceived role incompatibilities between


being a victim of spousal abuse and a competent academic scholar. She used strategic silence about her past until she wrote her article. In her article, she used strategic disclos- ures with explanations to minimize being evaluated negatively. Like the individuals who hide their dirty workoccupations as exotic dancers or garbage collectors from others by withholding information (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999) or recovering alcoholics who keep their past behaviors secret, strategic silence can be a primary strategy for managing role incompatibility stress. If others dont know about some of our roles, they cannot per- ceive incompatibilities between the roles or evaluate us negatively. Strategic disclosures and  framing can minimize image problems by limiting those who  are aware of our roles to those unlikely to see them as incompatible and provide explanations that might mitigate any possible negative or stigmatizing effects.

I also used strategic disclosures and strategic ambiguity to manage my perceived role incompatibilities over politics. By selectively disclosing my political views to other inde- pendents or by using strategic ambiguity so that others are unaware of my actual political views, I can maintain relationships with individuals from a wide range of political views. My ambiguity allows others to perceive me as in agreement with them (Eisenberg, 1984). Similarly, these same strategies allow me to maintain collegial relationships with individ- uals who may have quite different views when it comes to evaluating our dean or the merits of a particular university policy or program. Strategic ambiguity allows me to main- tain relationships in the face of potential role incompatibilities that might be disrupted by clarity (Eisenberg, 1984).



I was surprised to learn that the individuals I included, both by inviting them to the per- formances and by discussing my role with them afterwards, were uniformly supportive, even enthusiastically so, and did not perceive incompatibilities between my professional, religious, and theater roles. But if we only disclosed to those we think will be supportive, like I did, it is impossible to judge whether our perceptions that others will evaluate us negatively by viewing some of our roles as incompatible are illusions. Perhaps we waste time worrying and managing our communication about our roles. It may be that my stra- tegic disclosures and careful silence actually prevented me from developing new relation- ships and experiencing support for my theater role from others, like I received from my image-bombcolleague. In future research, I could explore whether the unanimous support for my participation in the play was the result of careful  self-disclosure in which I successfully remained silent with those who would have seen my role as incom- patible or if I simply fail to give people credit for being able to separate the role of the char- acter I portray from my professional and private image.

Regardless of how supportive individuals were concerning my acting role, this does not necessarily mean the same would transfer to the other perceived incompatibilities individ- uals experience, such as political views. Many roles are not temporary and cannot be put on and taken off like an acting role, thus making managing perceptions of role incompat- ibilities in those areas more complex. My sense is that concerns over being evaluated nega- tively for perceived role incompatibilities are quite common. For example, certain students report feeling they must keep their social and political views silent in the classroom or risk receiving lower grades. This is often true for individuals who practice sexual behavior that


is inconsistent with the beliefs of other family members or their chosen religious affiliation (e.g. living together outside of marriage, same-sex attraction). In ongoing perceived role incompatibilities, disclosure even with caveats is not likely to be uniformly viewed as posi- tive. Withholding information and ambiguous communication are possibly necessary, although these strategies incur certain costs, such as missed opportunities for relationship development.

This autoethnography is about a rather mundane activity, managing everyday work, life, and leisure roles. Most autoethnographies seem to be about life-altering events like suffering spousal abuse (Olson, 2004), discovering sexual identity (Adams, 2006), revisit- ing parental abandonment (Herrmann, 2005), suffering from depression (Jago, 2002), or responding to tragedy (Miller, 2002). It may seem that including this mundane activity as possibly stigmatizing makes Goffmans definition of stigma so broad that it becomes uninformative (Cahill & Eggleston, 1995). Still, I think that the topic meets the criteria of writing autoethnography to give voice to a previously ignored experience (Boylorn & Orbe, 2014). It explored how people manage perceived incompatible role identities in the midst of multiple roles and multiple audiences. Others, like the two conference attendees who talked to me about similar concerns after I presented the paper,  can learn from my experience because it involves a much more mundane, everyday event. We all practice covering to hide disfavored identities from one audience or another (Yoshino, 2006). Understanding how we communicate in such circumstances can benefit others.




I wrote this autoethnography to explore how I managed my own perception that others would perceive my participation in playing a reprehensible character in a theater pro- duction as incompatible with my roles as scholar and church member. I discovered the communication strategies I used to manage the situation and found I used them in another situation I face. Additional exploration into how and why individuals communi- cate strategically through silence, ambiguity, disclosure with caveats, or full disclosure may provide a richer understanding of how people accomplish impression management of their roles when they experience stress from perceived role incompatibilities.

Hmm. Have I presented new insights into an important and complex communication

issue? Have I relied too heavily on a traditional social science research organization for this article instead of a more free-flowing, narrative style that some people use for an auto- ethnography? Should I have written in a more dramatic script style to express a more crea- tive approach?

Have I revealed too much about myself? What if I wrote about another role incompat- ibility of mine no, too risky, I better keep that to myself for now.




1.    The conversations throughout this manuscript represent reconstructions of actual conversa- tions based on field notes and/or recollections. They represent my memories, not transcripts, of those conversations. They represent the socially constructed meanings I attributed to those memorable messages and the influence that they had on my attitudes and behaviors.



The author would like to thank Tony Adams and Debbie Dougherty for their helpful feedback on this manuscript and to Howard Kramer and Carla Kramer for proofreading previous versions of the manuscript.



Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.




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