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.
There’s a great scene in the film version of The Grapes of Wrath that I don’t remember in the book. A farmer is facing down a man on a bulldozer; the man on the bulldozer has been hired by the bank to repossess the farm, because the farmer has defaulted on a loan.
The farmer pulls a rifle and points it at the man on the bulldozer, threatening to kill him if he gets any closer. The man on the bulldozer objects that he’s just doing his job, he needs the job, and it’s not his fault that the loan is due; if he farmer shoots him, there will just be someone else the next day. Deflated, the farmer asks plaintively “well, who do I shoot?”
I was reminded of that scene last week. In the comments to the post about administrators as inkblot tests, someone mentioned that on campus, administrators are often taken as personifications of larger forces. Since it’s impossible to attack those larger forces, some people use the nearest administrator as a sort of stand-in. You can’t attack the recession, but you can take a dig at your dean.
For as long as I’ve been doing this, I’m still not entirely used to that.
In my early days of administration, I used to sort of distance myself from my role. It didn’t work; if anything, it felt like bad faith. I had to learn quickly that certain comments that were entirely fine in my faculty role were not fine in a dean’s role. At the end of the day, if you’re the one writing somebody’s evaluation, then you need to own that. You can’t do an evaluation ironically.
(This isn’t unique to administration, of course. Grad students teaching their first classes, especially if they’re young, sometimes make a similar mistake. If you’re the one assigning the grade, then you’re the authority figure, whether you feel like an imposter or not. At some point, you need to make peace with that if you’re going to do it well. And you’ll find that some students will have issues with anyone they consider an authority figure, no matter what you do.)
Being taken as the personification of some larger abstraction can be disorienting. Most people don’t think of themselves that way -- it would be weird if they did -- and they don’t make their choices as conscious representatives of abstractions. The shock is particularly strong when moving directly from a faculty role, in which there’s so much more autonomy. In graduate school and then on faculty, there’s a tremendous premium on fine-grained distinctions. After many years of that, it’s hard not to be put off by reductionist tirades against “the adminisTRAtion.” Administrations consist of many moving parts, each with its own imperatives, and a host of different personalities. They aren’t the Borg. But some people won’t make the distinction.
You’ll also find yourself blamed personally for decisions made (or allegedly made) by your predecessors. The trick is in not getting defensive before you know what actually happened. That can be tough when you’re under attack, but it comes with the job.
I’m posting this not in a spirit of whining, but in a spirit of warning. New admins are often blindsided by the abrupt shift in the ways people act towards them. Some people just need a villain to hold their story together. Knowing that you’re the villain ex officio can help, even if you never completely get used to it.