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What they don’t teach us in Grad School– management

25 October, 2008

What they don’t teach us in Grad School– management

I would like to be working on a book review, but I’m sitting in a loud airport, where a passel of teenagers have decided to make louder the almost-quiet place I’d found. So, here we go on a new topic! This is something I’ve noticed a lot lately. It wasn’t such a big thing at my old campuses, which were unionized on both the faculty and the staff side. One of the benefits of union contracts is that there are few grey areas — and some might say that’s one of the disadvantages, too. It’s also something I’ve noticed because I had all that time being a not-academic, part of it as admin staff with people who reported to me — and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing at first, so the signs seem kind of familiar.

When we’re in grad school, I think it occurs to us some day that we might eventually be department chairs, or deans, or even have TAs and RAs. It’s part of the package, but I don’t know anybody who really gave much thought to what that might entail. Mostly, as I can tell, it means moving into a new mental space called ‘management’. As grad students and junior faculty, we’re pretty much labour. We’re at the bottom of the totem pole, and are either busy trying to follow the direction of our departments, deans, etc. We get put on committees, told what we need for comps or portfolios, have … supervision. But at some point we don’t. Moving from being supervised to independence as scholars is a different post, and anyway, I think we kinda figure that out in the last stages of the thesis or the early stages of the first job.

But what about that other stuff? I mean, we all know that there are four basic contingents on a college campus — students, faculty, staff, and administrators. In many campuses, there is also a lot of encouragement for a democratic approach to interpersonal and work relations that tends to appeal to much of the younger professorial set, not least because its members can think back to the days when admins were called secretaries and were expected to bring coffee and cookies, make and collate copies, etc. Treating the admins and maintenance guys as equals who do important work and keep the place running is just natural for us — or for those of us whose heads aren’t too far up our academic asses. Pity the new faculty member who starts ordering people around like servants!

But here’s the thing: sometimes, these people report to us. We are responsible for signing their time cards. Their jobs might actually included doing work that we give them. This is especially true of our work study students. And that means we are, whether or not we like it, whether or not we all treat each other as equals, bosses. One of the things I’ve noticed in my current position is that none of my colleagues wants to be a boss. A couple want to do the “fun” things, like control budgets, and sign off on travel requests, and have the words, “director of institute X” or “Department Chair” attached to their names and CVs, but when it comes down to employee relations, they suck.

I think part of this is about avoiding confrontation. But I also think part of it is that no one ever pulls us aside and tells us what it means when we are given some sort of supervisory duties. So sometimes, work study students start to show up whenever they want, calling in sick or busy with no notice, and there’s the faculty member, not wanting to be mean, or to act like s/he’s being a dick because it’s wrong to give orders. And it can get worse. Sometimes the person who reports to the hapless junior academic is an adult, a friend, a co-worker. And possibly someone older than the hapless junior academic, who has quite possibly never had a position where they were supposed to supervised someone. Or, equally possibly, the hapless junior academic isn’t bothered, or hasn’t really noticed, or worse, has just started doing someone else’s job, too. At some point, wheels will come off, balls will be dropped, someone’s shit won’t get taken care of, and then, one of the conflict-avoiders will lose their rag, and Mean Things Will Be Uttered and Things Will Never Be The Same.

So I have to ask — given that we academics will likely all serve as management at some point (well, if we’re any good at all at our jobs), why isn’t this part of our training? I mean, ok … lots of us were never trained to teach, or to mentor grad students, either. But at least we’ve seen it done and have good and bad examples. But not all of us — probably most of us — have never worked in the kind of position we’re supposed to be supervising, so we might not have the examples. So what do we do?

Well, I kind of think it would be nice if someone took us aside and told us the following things:

  • Somebody has to be the boss. That isn’t a bad thing, unless you are a crappy boss. But realistically speaking, your time is more valuable than the office staffs’. That’s kind of why we have administrative assistants and work study students — because it’s their job to free us from some of the grunt work. It’s not an easy job, and an admin with institutional knowledge can be worth her (or his, but that’s still really rare) weight in gold. But this is one of the cases where that framed diploma makes a difference. Deal.
  • If you are given an administrative position, and no one tells you what your job entails, then it is your job to find out. I know we academics hate looking like clueless idiots even more than the average bear, but this is “how to hold down a job 101”
  • Speaking of which, the minute you have an administrative position, even if it’s part of your service, you have a non-academic job, at least part of the time. This means that all those perks of academic employment, like flexible hours and sometimes being able to just hide from your colleagues and students when you really need to get stuff done, just can’t apply to you as much as before. That might be why you get that course release.
  • Work Study students are supposed to be getting valuable work experience along with the crap wages. That work experience does not have to be relevant to their major — it just has to teach them something, even if it’s only how to perform well in a low-paying job and to appreciate the work that others do. Not giving them direction means not giving them that experience. It’s bad pedagogy.
  • People are generally happier when they don’t have to negotiate tons of grey areas just to get through a work day. If you’re the boss, it’s your job to help make sure there aren’t too many grey areas. This doesn’t mean that you turn into a martinet. It doesn’t mean you have to start ordering people around. But it can mean that you need to communicate more clearly and follow up on things.

And you know? It is often uncomfortable at first, but in the long run? it’s nice to work with people you can trust. And that’s true for everybody. Or I could
be wrong.

ETA: Dr. Virago points out that asking the support staff for advice on what you can ask for and what you should be passing on to them is a really good way to do things, too. This goes back to my point that good support staff, like good NCOs, are the people who run the place. I used to be one of them, and it really is kind of true. I know I wouldn’t be in nearly as good a position at SLAC if it weren’t for the help, advice, and support I get from the support staff in the Dean’s office.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 26 October, 2008 2:15 pm

    Once I became Grad Director, it meant that one of the dept. secretaries was essentially my assistant (although I’m not her boss — the chair is). I rely on her immensely, especially since she was the continuity factor and could teach me what needed to be done or who handle what, etc. But I’ve been bad at asking her to do tasks that I really should be asking her to do. What finally changes that was when I did a massive mailing of our program flyers, and did it all by myself. When I handed her a box full of stuffed envelopes for the outgoing mail, she took me to task for not giving the job to her, and she actually said, “Your time is too valuable to be stuffing envelopes.”So sometimes the staff themselves can help teach you to be better at delegating. So I would add to your point about asking what your position entails to ask your support staff what you should delegate to them.

  2. 26 October, 2008 3:03 pm

    That’s a really good point — I will try to add it.

  3. 26 October, 2008 6:23 pm

    This is really interesting because it’s something I’ve been meaning to talk about in my own context – what really strikes me about the difference between grad school and a professional program. I’ll say more at my place (sometime…), but my short conclusion is that grad school really is a professional program, but refused to acknowledge that it is. Hence, completely ignoring all the things that go into being a professor that aren’t research. So, yeah.

  4. 26 October, 2008 9:57 pm

    Here’s one: don’t because you want to be nice, make or even imply promises you can’t keep.

  5. 26 October, 2008 10:50 pm

    Ooh! good one

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