• 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

What I Would Tell My Younger Self

Important lessons.

February 18, 2019
 
 

Claire Major got a great discussion going on Twitter this weekend. She asked professors what they would go back and tell their first-year-of-teaching selves, if they had the chance.  The thread is well worth reading. Several of the more popular answers were variations on “you don’t have to be perfect,” which is great advice generally.  (When people ask me why I write so much, I sometimes mention -- truthfully -- that writing a lot takes the pressure off any given piece. If you write 200+ pieces a year, nobody can expect them all to be good.  I just hope that there’s enough good in the pile that the pedestrian ones don’t matter much.) I also liked the ones about students forgiving small flaws if they sensed that you actually care. In my observation, that’s thoroughly true.

The thread got me thinking about what I would tell my younger administrative self. If I traveled back in time and met younger me on the cusp of that first deanship, after expressing nostalgia for my hair, what would I say?

  • Individual administrators have far, far, far less power than most people believe. That’s both good and bad. That’s particularly true in the middle ranks, when the broad direction has already been set by folks above. That can be frustrating, as it can be hard to make the difference you want to make. It’s also liberating, in that much of what happens is really beyond your control either way. Just keep pushing in the right direction.
  • Some people will distrust, or even hate, you, ex officio.  It comes with the office. Don’t take it personally. They hated the previous occupant, and they will hate the next occupant. To paraphrase Taylor Swift, haters gonna hate; shake it off.
  • Put more weight on behavior than on statements.  
  • Don’t forget that the point of the enterprise is to serve students. It’s not to serve employers, or faculty, or disciplines, or bosses. It’s to serve students.
  • Repeat yourself often. Most people aren’t listening at any given time.
  • Just because something is obvious to you doesn’t mean that it’s obvious to others.
  • Call bluffs. This works remarkably often.
  • Imagine a reporter sitting on your shoulder when you’re making decisions. Imagine a lawyer reading your email back to you in court.
  • Don’t reciprocate nastygrams.  No good comes of it.
  • Go to conferences.  Talk to people from other places. You’ll discover that the same issues occur everywhere, and sometimes, people have found smarter ways to deal with them than you have.
  • Lead by example. The loudest ones may never notice, but many of the quieter ones will.
  • When you mess up, own it. It’s awkward in the moment, but it wears well over time.
  • Much of what happens will reflect political currents entirely out of your control.  Just try to do the job in ways that let you look at yourself in the mirror each morning without flinching.
  • The Boy and The Girl see who you are.  Be worthy of them.

Wise and worldly readers, if you could go back and talk to your rookie professional self, what would you say?




 

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