I’ve never considered myself an administrator. I’m a teacher first, a scholar second, and committee member/service provider third. I doubt that very many professors begin their careers intending to become chairs, deans or college presidents. After all, the duties of an administrator — dealing with paperwork, making pragmatic decisions, being politic and worrying about the fiscal well-being of the institution — is quite different from the isolated pursuit of truth that most of us sign up for. Yet when I look back at the past 15 years, I realize that the majority of them have been spent as an administrator of one kind or another. How the heck did this happen?
Let me assure you that while I’m reasonably competent, I am not one of those uber-organized bureaucratic geniuses who thrives on conquering paperwork. Nor do I consider myself to have “leadership” qualities, whatever that means. But it seems that once you’ve done an administrative job, everyone assumes you’re good at it – and willing to do it again. I got tagged to be an administrator early in my career: I became an untenured chair during my fourth year as an assistant professor (in my first tenure-track job) and was hired at my current job, in part, because of this experience (or perhaps out of sympathy for it). I was appointed associate chair of humanities in my third year at my current position, and immediately after became chair of English department until my sabbatical last year.
Of all my administrative jobs, I liked chairing my current English program the most. We’re a small but very collegial department. Everyone works hard, there are no turf wars over courses, and everyone gets the schedule they want. I was worried about coming back to teaching after my sabbatical, partly because I hadn’t taught a “full load” (in my case, four large courses) in many years. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed getting back to teaching full time. As it turns out, managing 150 students felt much easier than being in charge of my department and fielding endless emails and racing to complete program reviews. Although the job of chair doesn’t sound that difficult on paper, the duties are endless and rather unpredictable. Preparing, teaching, and grading feel containable in comparison. And as much as I like my current colleagues, I find students more appreciative. At best, most faculty members ignore their administrators, and at worst they actively distrust them. There may be good reasons for this, but I think the situation would be improved if more faculty members had the experience of being chair themselves.
In the midst of relishing this year away from administration, I was asked if I would run for chair of the humanities. To the outside world, being chair seems like a desirable promotion, and there is an allure of taking on new challenges. However, within academia, scholarship and publications (along with upper-level administration) is the real currency. But more importantly, I had a strong, clear sense that this particular position at this time in my life would make me miserable.
I’ve been talking and writing a lot lately about taking responsibility for one’s own happiness. And yet when faced with a decision of whether to take (if elected) a position that would make me actively miserable, I hemmed and hawed and seriously considered it.
Luckily, as I struggled the decision, another opportunity presented itself, one much closer to my heart and my life-long passion: interim director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning. So next year, I will be an administrator again, but on my terms. I can live (happily) with that.