Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Priorities, academics and administration

I have some random thoughts I want to capture here that I've been thinking about over the last few days. I haven't exactly figured out how this all ties together or exactly what I think, but I'm putting it out there anyway. I've written before about the ways in which administrative work is intellectual work and that administrators are often thoughtful about their work in part because they still have ties to the academic side of the house. I've been tying this idea in my mind to the mantra of many liberal arts colleges and other teaching-oriented schools that a faculty member's research informs their teaching (and sometimes vice versa) rather than research being the be-all end-all of a faculty member's work as it might be at an R1. So imagine the same is true for an administrator--that any research-related activities inform their work as administrators and in fact makes them better administrators. That's the theory with research for teaching-oriented schools.

Unfortunately, as many of you know, a lot of administrators don't do research. Some never did. This is especially true of the middle area of administrators who serve in roles similar to mine in support of the academic mission of the college. In theory, I think, those in these roles would be better at their administrative jobs if they had a related research agenda. For me, as I said in the post referred to above, that means writing and presenting in areas related to technology and education. I can imagine other positions that might benefit from delving into research--deans of various kinds, program coordinators, writing center directors (many in this role do research already), student life directors, librarians. There are probably more. It's not a lack of desire or intellectual ability that keeps people from doing research, but has more to do with what work get priority. And often that prioritizing is imposed on people rather than people deciding what to prioritize.

Let me use myself as an example. Today serves as a good example of the variety of work I do and the difficulty someone in a support role might have in determining what to do next. I started my morning with a meeting with a research group. We talked about network systems, social networking, social contagion theory, etc. I'm presenting to this group next week. After this meeting, I came in and started reading a couple of articles for said presentation. Then I met with a student to talk about having her help with some web support. I then spent a little over an hour dealing with what we call "tickets." These are help requests that are tracked in a centralized system. These issues included requests for Blackboard courses to be set up, investigating enrollment issues in Blackboard, restoring course materials in Blackboard, DMCA violations, and more. Then there were conversations about the college web site, our WordPress MU installation, negotiating who is supporting what and more. Open in my browser are the following tabs: Google reader (to read IT blogs), Gmail (both mail and my RTM to-do list), a wiki on Moodle integration with ePortfolios, Blackboard*, the new Research Blogging icon, an article about risks by IT managers (found via my network), a Google spreadsheet that is collecting data via a form for a workshop I'm planning, Amazon, NITLE, the two aforementioned articles, the Anarchist Librarian web site,, a registration page for a project management workshop, a podcast featuring yours truly (as yet unlistened to) Google calendar, this window, and Geeky Mom. If your head is spinning, imagine what mine's doing. And this is a low tab day.

The thing is, stuff has to get done. The "tickets" need to get processed, the calls have to get taken, emails answered. And most of that is what counts as "work" for people like me. But that other stuff, much of what's open in my browser--reading material, keeping up with trends, investigating what other schools are doing--is also important, and I would argue more important than the other "work." Because the other stuff--research, reading, etc.--might actually inform the way the other work gets managed. It might help find more efficient ways of doing things. It might help implement new software, hire new people with different skills. It might improve the institution. My thought is that as long as people remain mired in the grunt work, they're never going to see the big picture.

I think I have more thoughts, but my email icon is bouncing . . .

*I was interrupted by a phone call asking if Blackboard was down or "messed up" because "someone can't do what they need to do" with no explanation of what that thing they were doing was. Sigh. FYI, troubleshooting is difficult without specific information.