Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Administrative work is intellectual work

I've had this post brewing for a while, but New Kid's recent post where she contemplates leaving academe prompted me to actually write it. The dilemma faced by many faculty thinking of leaving is wondering whether work outside of academe will offer intellectual challenges and rewards or if it will turn them into mindless corporate or administrative drones. While I'm sure there are jobs that would not be intellectually fulfilling, a lot of jobs become what you make them. Academic administration, to me, offers the best possibility of having intellectual fulfillment. Anyone who reads Dean Dad regularly should see that there's a lot of intellectual work going into making decisions related to running an institution. I've been thinking about what makes these jobs hard brain work as opposed to simply pencil pushing.*

  • First, some administrators, perhaps not at the highest levels, are able to maintain a research agenda in their area of research. I still do research and write papers and give presentations. And I'm able to pursue whatever interests I have since I'm not bound to covering certain areas. I feel that I can pursue research related to my work while I'm at work. If I veered too far from that, I'd probably pursue that outside of work.
  • There are always problems to solve. They may not be the same kind of problems a researcher works on, but they still require a lot of thought--and often some research. These often require critical thinking skills from a very different perspective than when doing academic research, but it's still quite challenging.
  • Textual analysis. In its simplest form, this can be reading between the lines of memos and emails. But it can also be about analyzing legal documents and contracts or proposals for grants or projects.
  • Writing. My god, the writing. I write more now than I ever did, and the writing needs to be carefully crafted and thought out. I have to attend to audience in a way I never did before--multiple audiences at once! I've written all kinds of documents since I've been on the administrative side: daily email, proposals, evaluations (both of me and others), documentation, web content, pr material. I like the variety. Because academe is a very text-driven environment, good writing skills are not only appreciated, they're crucial to getting real work done.
  • Teaching. In my line of work, there's a lot of teaching. I work with both faculty and students. I've done individual tutorials and workshops. I've created materials for workshops and I've created materials for the "self-taught." I've also had the opportunity to teach courses in the college curriculum. Many places will offer this as an opportunity if you have the experience and the desire (and time!) to teach. So teaching can be a part of an administrative job. But also, there's a lot of teaching that goes on in trying to articulate institutional goals, in showing how decisions were made and how they affect individuals, really in almost every conversation you have.
Honestly, a lot of these jobs are what you make them. If you want to treat it like a mindless job, then it will be. But if you bring all your intellectual skills to bear, that approach will be appreciated and will make the job more fulfilling. There are a lot of differences between these jobs that are worth noting.
  • Institutional perspective. I'm still surprised by how many faculty, despite the fact that they run the place don't have an institutional perspective. They still think only of their little corner of the world, their own pet peeves. As an administrator, you have to think more broadly, even at the lowest levels sometimes, you have to do this. You have to think about what's best for the institution and not about what's best for a particular department or particular faculty member. Balancing individual and institutional needs is a real challenge, one that requires a lot of thought.
  • Working in groups. Unless you're in the sciences where collaboration is common, most faculty moving out of academe will struggle with the idea of relying on others to do parts of their work for them. Also, you have to think about forming appropriate teams to get work done and to participate in teams in an effective way. This requires a great deal of cooperation and diplomacy. It can get frustrating when you're used to just doing everything yourself, but in the end, it's important to include a lot of people.
  • Lack of prestige and respect. The upper administration is almost universally reviled by faculty and there's very little love for the support staff either. That's something to get used to. I still struggle with it a little, but I've also learned that your actions can earn you a lot of respect. It just takes a very long time.
I'm sure I've left things out on both lists. Maybe other administrators out there will chime in.

*I've always thought it was funny to call administrators in academe pencil pushers, when the real pencil pushers are the faculty. Outside the classroom, there's all that grading and writing, not a lot of action.

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