• 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

Why?

Audience and mission.

December 4, 2018
 
 

On Monday, Laura Runge posed a series of questions to me on Twitter that deserve a longer response than a tweet or two. First she asked “who do you see as your primary/secondary audience for writing on admin? When (why?) do you feel moved to write on admin?” She followed with “As a scholar, my purpose in publishing is to enhance knowledge of my field, promote my career, and raise visibility and stature of my home university. I wonder if writing on admin might work at cross-purposes for the latter two?”

Or, put differently, why don’t my administrative colleagues elsewhere do something similar. After all these years, where is everybody?

Honestly, my first audience for writing has always been myself. Part of that is because it took a long time to develop a substantial readership, but mostly it’s because I use the process of writing as a way to work out what I’m thinking.  The old model of “figure out what you want to say and say it” only applies to easy cases; frequently, I figure out what I want to say as I’m saying it. On my better days, I go back and edit to bring some “I meant to do that” coherence to it, but really, part of the point of writing is to see where ideas go.  Sometimes they go where I thought they would, but sometimes they wander off. When an idea leads somewhere I didn’t expect, I’ve learned something.

Beyond my own clarification, though, I started with an audience of academics very much in mind.  In the early years, it was largely about outlining the various dilemmas of management in public higher ed.  I had seen some of the academic blogosphere before I started, and I remember being annoyed at certain widely held articles of faith that struck me as simply false.  Many of the early writers were adjuncts who were frustrated at not getting full-time offers. Their legitimate frustration often led to speculations about administrative behavior that didn’t describe anything I had seen or done.  Characterizations of deans as Snidely Whiplash-style cartoon villains didn’t strike me as advancing understanding of how colleges work. At worst, they could become self-fulfilling prophecies, scaring away good people and leaving only the most venal to step up.  The cliches about “crossing over to the dark side” speak to a cultural taboo that does more damage than many of us want to admit. They also cut off inquiry before it gets to the real structural, political, cultural, and economic causes behind austerity.

When I started, my kids were very young.  My wife and I both believe that both parents should be involved in substantial ways -- for “substantial” read “time-consuming” -- so I found myself trying to balance a more-than-full-time job with conscientious parenthood.  I noticed that most of the writing on “work/life balance” was by women, for women. There were obvious historical reasons for that, but I believed -- and still believe -- that the struggles around work/life balance won’t get easier unless and until men own them, too.  That’s where the pseudonym “Dean Dad” came from. It was a variation on “Professor Mom,” which everybody seemed to understand. It combined the two roles in which I spent most of my waking hours. My kids are in high school now, so the issues are different, but family life continues to be a topic because work/life balance continues to be a challenge. 

The career effects of writing like this could be described as mixed.  On the positive side, it has allowed me to participate in conversations I otherwise couldn’t.  I’ve met some amazing people. It has helped me understand issues more deeply, and therefore to be better at my job.  On occasion, one of my virtual messages in bottles lands on an unexpected shore and makes a difference there. For example, I was honored when Marion Technical College adopted and adapted my idea for a sophomore-year scholarship to encourage degree completion.  I’ve also had the chance to speak at various conferences around the country, which absolutely would not have happened without the blog. I always enjoy those.

On the negative side, though, some people prefer to hire folks who don’t have paper trails.  I’ll just leave that there. I take pride in writerly ethics -- you won’t see anything in my writing along the lines of “you won’t believe how drunk Ottmar was yesterday” -- and try never to do harm.  But there are people in the world who manage simultaneously to talk up “transparency” while getting nervous that someone who writes has left a record to critique. Ironically enough, in the course of addressing work/life balance, I seem to have simultaneously installed my own glass ceiling.  Yes, that can be frustrating. That may explain why the niche remains pretty unpopulated.

Still, the point of the enterprise wasn’t really careerism.  (If it were, I wouldn’t have used a pseudonym for all those years!)  It was to help people understand a reality that they frequently get wrong, in the cockeyed hopes of helping to make it better.  It’s a lot of work, and I don’t know if it has helped or not. But the educator in me has to believe that putting truth out there in digestible form, for extended periods, has to do some good, somewhere.  That’s what classroom teachers do. This is my version of teaching, even if I’m figuring it out as I go along.

 

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