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  • 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.

Victories, Near and Far
October 12, 2007 - 6:26am

One of the psychological adjustments I had to learn, when moving into administration, was to lower my expectations for victory.

I wasn't a great teacher, but I was a very good one. On my best days, the feeling of success was palpable. I remember students saying, in all apparent sincerity and with an unmistakable note of surprise, "I didn't know this could be interesting." When everything worked, I could walk out of a classroom knowing that the last few hours were well-spent. When I saw the lightbulb go on over a student's head, it made my day. Those victories kept me going when things got tough.

In administration, victories are fewer, slower, more ambiguous, and mostly vicarious. (Blame, on the other hand, is cheap and abundant.)

Although I'm responsible for, among other things, ensuring the quality of our academic offerings, I don't actually teach a class. I observe classes, but that's not the same thing. (Every so often I can't stand it anymore and sign up to do a guest lecture for our senior citizen program, which is an absolute hoot. But a one-off lecture isn't the same as a semester class.)

In administration, most of what I do involves trying to make it likelier that other people will do a good job. When the 'other people' in question have tenure, and there's no merit pay system, most of what I do has to be done indirectly, and most of the results show up only gradually. And yes, that can get frustrating.

I've noticed this recently by contrast. By lucky happenstance, I'm on the cusp of two HUGE victories. Actual, concrete, visible, sustainable, non-vicarious victories. I'm utterly beside myself about them, and I'm realizing that it's because that feeling of winning -- which used to be pretty common -- has become so rare. There was a time when I'd get that feeling a few times a week. Now, twice a year is a good year. One of them has been about two years in the making; the other, about one. It's just dumb luck that they're coming to fruition together.

When I help make a good hire, there's a satisfaction in that. But the hire is the one teaching the classes. When I'm able to find the money in the budget to help someone carry out a pet project that helps the college, there's satisfaction in that. But again, it's not my project. I've had to learn to be content, most of the time, with that.

On an ethical level, I'm a strong believer in the "it's not about me" school of management. My job is to make my college better, within certain material parameters. If getting that done requires setting my ego aside, so be it. Paradoxically, this can actually lead to more criticism, since some folks will loudly assume that if you aren't taking credit, then you must not be working. It's unfortunate, but there it is.

But I'm still human. And it feels good, even if it's only once in a while, to pull off a nice, clean victory or two.

 

 

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