Tyro Tracts

Prepare for Administration

Even if you are an academic and aspire to never leave the faculty ranks, you need to learn how to manage programs and projects, writes Nate Kreuter.

October 26, 2012

One of the frustrations of teaching writing, as I do, is the obstinacy with which students sometimes insist that they will never need to know how to write, let alone write well. It doesn’t matter if I bring in working geologists and businesswomen and nurse preceptors and engineers as guest speakers to tell my students how often they will write as geologists and CEOs and nurses and engineers, and what sorts of writing takes place in those careers. Neither does it matter how often I try to explain to these same stubborn students that even if, and “even if” is a huge assumption, they do not have to write in their initial job duties, they will certainly have to write when they begin to climb the professional ranks. I preach, I evangelize about how important writing is. They coolly dismiss my appeals. Such is how it is and always has been for teachers of writing, for the most part.

The insistence of some of my students that they will never need to know how to write is analogous, though, to a similar willful blindness among many graduate students and some assistant professors. We like to pretend to ourselves that we will never have to shoulder administrative burdens. Just as none of my students ever think to themselves, "Aha, I’ll become an engineer, move into middle management, and suddenly have to generate an astounding number of written reports," none of us ever think to ourselves, "I’ll become a teacher-scholar, have an administrative role dropped upon my head, and take on a whole host of responsibilities that I haven’t been trained to perform."

Instead we may naively imagine ourselves simply teaching, researching, and perhaps serving on a committee or two (service obligations of all sorts get the shaft in these fantasies). If only academic life and work were so simple. Few of us imagine ourselves generating reports for the department chair and dean, managing a pool of ill-prepared or recalcitrant teaching assistants, or defending our curriculum in front of a hostile general education committee. But at some point in your career you’ll probably have to do all of those things, and a whole passel of other administrative tedium that you never imagined to be the work of a university professor. I’m here to tell you.

At some point in your career, and no matter your field, you are going to be cajoled or compelled into taking on an administrative role of some sort. Whether kicking and screaming or placidly and willingly, you will be given responsibility for overseeing a general education curriculum, an academic unit or subdivision, or perhaps a graduate program.  The administrative possibilities are almost endless. You’ll both have to manage others working with you, and answer to managers above you. New responsibilities do not necessarily carry with them new titles, and even those who never aspire to, say, work as a department chair will nonetheless be delegated administrative duties at some point.

Perhaps predictably, graduate school rarely prepares us for these inevitable administrative duties. I wish that graduate programs in all disciplines devoted more, or at least seem some, time to training graduate students for the leadership roles that they will one day have to assume. But, such training is exceedingly rare, and my wish is unlikely to be fulfilled any time soon. As a result, some faculty members are wonderful administrators and leaders, while others are awful. It’s a catch-as-catch-can system, and virtually all faculty members end up serving in administrative or supervisory roles at some point, regardless of their individual competence to do so.

In my own graduate program there were a very limited number of administrative positions that were awarded to graduate students on a competitive basis. The students selected for the positions assisted in the formal pedagogical training of incoming writing instructors, mediated plagiarism cases, helped to run the department office, and organized departmental and professional development events. Perhaps because of associated teaching releases, the positions were highly coveted. I served in one of the positions for a year, and learned more about the working life of professors in that year than in the rest of graduate school combined. Not only did I have the opportunity to closely observe the working life of professors from my desk in the main departmental office, but I participated in their administrative work, arranging speaking events, evaluating course proposals, and mediating disputes between graduate instructors and their students. If such opportunities are available in your own program, I highly recommend that you pursue them. Such an experience may not directly aid your research, but it will prepare you for your working life. And if you administer a graduate program, I highly recommend making such semi-administrative roles available to at least a few graduate students each year.

Ideally new faculty members will be shielded from administrative responsibilities, even those that might seem minor, until after tenure. In fulfilling administrative obligations you will inevitably have to broker tough conversations, and perhaps make even tougher decisions. Imagine the likely scenario wherein two tenured faculty members want to pursue two different courses of action. They are at odds. The unfortunate untenured professor with administrative responsibilities who has to make a decision between the two choices is in a lose-lose position. I think that departments have an ethical obligation to protect junior faculty from ever being put in such situations.

Administrative obligations also cut into the time that junior faculty have to conduct research and establish their tenure cases. Unfortunately, staffing and budget exigencies sometimes make the deferral of administrative responsibilities for junior faculty a luxury that some departments can’t afford. If you are taking a new faculty position and expect to be given administrative duties, at least try to have the time-frame of when the duties will begin explicitly defined in your contract, lest the date of those obligations creep forward.

While I think that junior faculty should avoid, and be allowed to avoid, administrative responsibilities, some departments might try to cultivate administrative skills in junior faculty through relatively low-stakes administrative roles. Overseeing a minor unit of the department, or assisting a senior faculty member with more substantial administrative responsibilities might be good options. Such experience would allow junior faculty members to cultivate the skills they will need later in their careers without being exposed to the full risks of leadership prior to tenure, when they should be prioritizing research and honing their teaching skills.

The nature of administrative responsibilities, and the point in one’s career where one is expected to take on these responsibilities, varies from discipline to discipline and from institution to institution. One almost universally necessary skill though, on one scale or another, is the ability to read, generate, and manage budgets. Just like my obstinate writing students, faculty members in some humanities disciplines in particular are prone to thinking, “I’ll never need to manage a budget,” and trying to take refuge in a sort of willful innumeracy. Every faculty member in every discipline should have a working knowledge of how to manage financial resources within the institutional setting of a university.

Graduate faculty in all disciplines need to be frank with their students about what sorts of administrative responsibilities they are likely to face over the course of a career, and how to prepare for those responsibilities. Graduate students need to be aware enough of these eventualities to make their own inquiries.

Preparing oneself for an administrative role might only consist of admitting that the inevitable administrative responsibility will arrive in due time. Or, preparation may involve much more concrete steps, such as completing in-progress research projects before administrative burdens make research too difficult to attend to. Some universities have even established leadership programs to prepare faculty for administrative roles. An academic career consists of much more than simply teaching and conducting research. Until graduate programs begin systematically preparing their students for the rest of the job, graduate students and junior faculty must prepare themselves, and seek out more experienced mentors who can educate them about the ins and outs of administrative responsibilities.

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