• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

One Foot in Each World

When one has faculty and administrative duties.

 

July 26, 2018
 
 

In response to yesterday’s post about the hidden rules of administration, one commenter asked about hidden rules that might apply to faculty who take on partial administrative loads through course releases. What should they expect?

That was actually how I got started in administration. I took on a self-study for an accreditation visit, and the rest is history.  Admittedly, that was some time ago…

Context matters, of course, as do motives. I’ll write from a combination of memory of my own time straddling the two roles, and what I’ve observed since then from here.  Wise and worldly readers are invited to fill out the picture in the comments.

I remember being surprised at the different senses of time in the two worlds. The best analogy I’ve seen to it is that teaching is like sprinting, while administration is like distance running.  I don’t know if it makes any sense to declare one easier than the other; they’re just different. But moving between the two modes repeatedly can be disorienting.  If you try to sprint a marathon, it won’t go well. If you’ve been a sprinter exclusively for a while, then learning the pacing and endurance of distance running is a real adjustment.

The people I’ve seen handle the split assignments most effectively, though, have shared a few traits:

They aren’t shy about asking “why” questions, especially in the beginning.  I’ve seen some very smart people struggle with this, because asking why in a genuine -- as opposed to “gotcha” -- way is humbling.  In the new role, they have to be willing to let go of the idea of being the most knowledgeable person in the room, especially at first.  The upside is that the fresh eyes they bring to established processes or problems often benefit those of us who’ve been struggling with them for a while.  By asking, they aren’t just catching themselves up; frequently, they’re bringing a welcome new perspective to an old issue.

They collaborate. That can be a culture shift, too. I remember being surprised, when I started as full-time faculty, at just how solitary the faculty role could be.  Yes, there were a few meetings, and there was some hallway banter. But mostly, I taught my classes and did my work, and others did what they did.  Actual conversation about subject matter, or teaching, was relatively rare. Very smart people, with a disproportionate leaning towards introversion, created a culture of small talk. I never really understood that. The culture enabled a certain isolation.

In administration, though, if you can’t work with other people, you don’t get anything done.  The upside is that I’ve seen more bonding among administrators than I did among faculty, since there’s more co-working. The downside is that it’s harder to get the same sorts of unambiguous wins, precisely because everything is collaborative and effects are often delayed and/or vicarious.

Depending on local culture, you may or may not have some faculty colleagues treat you as some sort of turncoat. The longer I do this, the sillier that seems, but it happens.

Don’t be surprised, too, if some higher-ups treat your assignment as a de facto audition.  That’s because these tasks are hard, and people who do them well -- and who are easy to work with -- are rarer than one might think.  If someone shows a real talent for it, opportunities are likely to follow, even if not immediately. Some people take those opportunities and turn them into a career change, as I did; others stay on faculty but become known as the “go-to” people for important tasks. Both are valid.

Wise and worldly readers who’ve had a foot in each world, what would you add?

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