Sunday, February 27, 2005

The Faculty/Staff divide

I realize this is a risky post topic considering my audience, but it's something I've been wanting to write about for a while. This also may be a figment of my own imagination and/or unique to my insititution.

A while back, I mentioned that I felt like I was being treated like slave labor and this is the root of the faculty/staff divide as I see it. I have the good fortune of having known many faculty before I took this job through association with my husband who is a faculty member at the same institution. These people know I am an educated and thoughtful person, capable of understanding a research agenda and what it's like to teach (having taught myself at the college level for nearly 10 years). I also have the good fortune of having worked with many faculty who didn't know me before but who have gotten to know me and respect me for my competency and intelligence.

Still, my days are too often punctuated with rude requests that are often just barely within my job description. I'm asked to add students to Blackboard courses (something faculty can do themselves). I'm asked to print out Blackboard documents for students that aren't enrolled (this really isn't within my job). I'm asked to fix hardware and software problems. Once I was asked to deliver a check for a personal computer to the purchasing agent (who is housed in another building). Someone's asked me how to create fancy-looking e-mail announcements (is this instructional technology?). I'm being asked to help an alum with an online chat.

Not all of these things came from faculty, but most of them did. One of the underlying issues is simply that we're a small department and job descriptions often overlap. We also have too few staff, in my opinion, so some of these requests come through me because going through "proper channels" means waiting too long. I also have a hard time saying, simply, "That's not my job. It's so and so's job." And often these requests are piggybacked onto legitimate requests, so it's even harder to say no.

The most frustrating requests are those for which there is documentation and which aren't that difficult to figure out how to do. If students came to these same faculty and asked what the readings were for next week, they'd say, "It's on the syllabus." I once got e-mail from someone claiming there was no documentation. The giant help button wasn't obvious enough apparently. Basically, I get treated like the outsourced tech help.

I've had this version of myself (the tech help, the Blackboard person) brought to my attention in quite public forums. I was on a search committee for the head of one of our branch libraries. At the initial planning session, one of the faculty said that she wasn't entirely sure why I was here since she didn't see that the head of the library needed to understand Blackboard. In front of me! I diplomatically kept my mouth shut and finally by the end of the search, she understood that I was more than the Blackboard person. I asked questions about digital assets and creating online learning objects in conjunction with the library's digital collection, about balancing the need for physical objects with the demand for 24/7 access to collections. I think the faculty were somewhat shocked, not by my questions, but by the fact that the candidates themselves inspired these questions by their focus on "going digital" in their job presentations.

Yes, I changed minds during that process, but too often I am dismissed in someone's initial contact with me. Too often, it is assumed that since I'm not faculty, I must not be as smart or as interested in academia. There's that condescending tone they use, the obvious expectation that I can drop everything and help them with the most mundane of tasks. Most of the people who choose to become staff members at an educational institution do so because they like to think and like working with students and faculty who are smart and make them think and they believe in education. In our department alone, there are 3 ABDs and many people with master's degrees. I could make a heck of a lot more money in industry. I choose not to because I really believe that there's value in figuring out how to teach and learn in the 21st century. If I worked in industry, I would expect to be treated like a lackey occasionally. I expect to be treatd with a little more respect in an educational setting.

I really do love my job and most of the time I love the people I work with, including the faculty :). But some days, I get frustrated. Our uber boss said of our group that we're somewhat like an academic department. Our group was talking about setting a research agenda. Granted, there's disrespect all around among and between the real academic departments, but just for once, I'd like for people to realize that we might be more like them than they may want to admit.