Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Dilemma of Service

Yesterday, I shouted out via Twitter my frustration at having to do some menial labor on behalf of a couple of faculty. I actually didn't mean to shout that to the world, but most people sympathized, even empathized. I've been trying ever since to analyze the reasons for my frustration.

I've had the experience in the last couple of months (although really this has probably happened for years) of having people say something along the lines of "I just don't get this technology" or "My brain just can't grasp this technology stuff." This from people who hold Ph.D.'s. Like a lot of things people say when it comes to technology, I think this is an excuse and it frustrates me. Yes, it takes some time to figure things out, and no, it doesn't always work perfectly and yes, when that happens, it's frustrating. But I want to ask, do you give up if you don't understand something you're reading? can't solve a formula? can't find the right way to frame an argument? Would you let your students throw up their hands so easily?

And then there's just the personal frustration I feel at doing something I consider below my pay grade. Even though what I might be doing involves technology, it really falls into the category of what one might ask an administrative assistant to do. And maybe that's my own personal issue that I need to get over, but some of the stuff I've been asked to do (and in some cases have actually done) are things I did as a first-year grad student and got paid $9/hr (a hefty sum in those days). So I think I'm justified in feeling that my talents are wasted when I'm doing these tasks and that in some ways, it's a waste of college resources. The time I'm spending doing these things is time I'm not spending working with my students, developing long-term plans, working on projects that benefit the entire community. And I've had the experience of having to table projects because I just didn't have the time to devote to them. And it takes much longer--around a year to a year and half--to bring a project into production, because I only have a small amount of time to devote to it.

And here's the catch-22. If I had more time, I could develop more materials that might help faculty do more of these things themselves. Instead, it just becomes easier to do it for them. Sigh.

It's difficult to say to a faculty member, I'm sorry I can't do that for you or I won't do that for you. I mean their work is important. It's often time-sensitive in a way that mine sometimes isn't (though this is debatable).

Further, I think my frustration stems from a disconnect between my understanding of my role and theirs. I see myself as a consultant. In that role, I sit down with them. We talk about their goals. I make some suggestions for directions to go and tools to use and I may then teach them how to use those tools. I may follow up and see how things are going, make suggestions for improvements or talk about how to rethink something for next time. And there are faculty with whom I have this exact relationship, but it accounts for about 1%. For the great majority, I am an encyclopedia to get answers from about *any* technology, whether it's related to education or not (how do I sort folders in email? what is blu-ray? how do I set up wireless?).* Or I am the digital kinkos--scan this document, copy these video clips or audio files. Or I am TA/admin assistant--add this student to my Bb course, upload this document, copy these files from my other class. It's not that I don't appreciate the need to have someone else do these things. Some of them are not easy. Some of them are time-consuming. I just don't think we are currently resourced for having me do all of that for over 200 faculty. As a colleague of mine often says, there's one of me and 200 of you, you do the math.

The dilemma is, I do want to help people, but I need to know where to draw the line. And once I know that, I need for people to respect the line and take some responsibility for their own work.

*Sadly, these are real questions I've gotten.