Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Am I Selling Out?

A returning correspondent writes:

Well, here I am having just completed my first year as a tenure track faculty member at a community college and excited for next year. I've accomplished a lot last year and I had a very positive first year review (thanks for the help on writing my tenure plan last year, by the way, and thanks to your readers too!). I feel like I'm ready to have another good year but I figured that since you've given such good advice in the past I might be due for a check-up.

Right now I feel like my teaching is in a great place so let's assume, for the sake of the argument, I can anticipate receiving somewhat similar feedback this year and that I should basically keep on doing what I'm doing insofar as teaching is concerned.

As I teach at a CC we're asked to make departmental and college-wide service parts of our tenure plan. I've been doing that through my involvement in one fairly time consuming college committee for which I am our division's representative. The committee has a high but negative profile (I call it the Death Star Committee just to keep things fun for me) .

I'm also on a few very occasional departmental committees of which the meeting commitment is extremely manageable (like one hour per semester). I also now have a release time position.

All this being said, the number of activities that I am involved in and the types of activities and jobs that I have in make me somewhat anomalous as among my fellow newer faculty members. This is nothing new. In all earlier career incarnations and in grad school I was an extremely organized, hard working, and cheerful person who is good at meeting deadlines. I feel like this makes me sound like a smug jerk but I don't think I come across this way in person, I hope. Also, I have no children and not even a pet and my partner is also a first born, type A like myself so we tend to work hard and then take fun and relaxing vacations. I don't want to sound like I'm a total slave to work. I even *gasp* make time to see friends and family. are my questions

1. I don't feel like I'm headed for burnout and I don't feel at all overwhelmed by my responsibilities--busy, yes, but overwhelmed, absolutely not--but I feel a little bit uncomfortable about what I'm doing and how much I'm doing. Is it wrong, politically, to work at a level of work productivity which is different than your fellow faculty? Could this cause alienation and isolation for me down the road? How best to negotiate this issue or am I being paranoid here?

2. Given what you've heard of my responsibilities do you think I'm working too hard? (This question stems from a paranoid reading of the Chronicle's career discussion boards regarding "Setting Boundaries",40252.0.html. Apparently I am doing the exact opposite of all the chronicle participants' wisdom)

3. I have long term goals of working in academic administration. Any ideas on how to be productive on the Death Star Committee and maintain a positive working relationship with administrators and possibly even seek out an administrative mentor in a climate in which faculty are somewhat skeptical (I'm putting this politely) about campus administration?

I swear I didn't make this up.

How much work is too much will vary from person to person, and over time. It sounds like you're in a spot right now where you're comfortable going the extra mile. As long as you're happy with your life, and you're keeping up the communication with your partner to make sure that you're okay with what's going on there, I don't see a problem. (Communication is huge. In its absence, it's easy to assume for a while that no news is good news, until, abruptly, it's very bad.)

I think every campus has a version of the Death Star Committee. (Some have several.) If yours is anything like the ones I've seen elsewhere, there's lots of posturing and indignation, and some very strong and entrenched personalities.

My advice in that kind of setting is to play for the long term. The Masters of Indignation think from short-term battle to short-term battle, using their long memories mostly to store grudges. (Judging by your reference to the faculty-administration divide, I'll guess this is pretty close to true for yours too.) They can be very good at winning individual battles, but when push comes to shove, they often have no concept of the big picture. That's where you can make a meaningful contribution, and where you can mark yourself as someone with a higher ceiling than the Death Star Committee.

Don't get involved in the nasty personal bickering. Stay above the long-simmering political conflicts, and don't worry about those who think less of you for it. (This can be difficult when it's directed at you. I have to remind myself of that from time to time.) Instead, be the one who offers constructive, win-win solutions. Or, when that's not possible, be the one to keep people focused on the good of the whole. And whatever you do – this is as close to a golden rule as I'll give – don't play the indignation game. It suggests inflexibility, which is a fatal flaw in a manager. Be judicious showing emotion in meetings generally, but ban indignation from your repertoire. I'd rather see crying or anger or even belittling sarcasm – none of which is good – than indignation.

At Proprietary U, I was first noticed for management when a colleague pointed out to my dean that I was one of the few faculty who didn't get conspicuously frazzled at the end of the semester. (I just knew all that emotional repression would come in handy someday!) At my cc, a now-retired professor became the unofficial Campus Sage by being the one who could see past conflicts and around corners. She became the go-to person for chairing administrative searches, self-studies, and ad hoc committees, even though she never chose to go into administration herself. She managed to command the respect of both faculty and administration, even when neither was especially fond of the other. She was one of my favorite people here, and her retirement left a gap that still hasn't been filled.

(In a way, her universal belovedness was probably, in part, due to the fact that she never crossed over. If you do cross over, there will be times you will have to make decisions that will make some people mad at you. Others will be mad at you by association. It comes with the gig.)

In terms of finding a mentor, I don't know of an easy rule. Some go by the 'demographic identity' rule, but sharing a gender or race with someone doesn't necessarily make you a match. (In my case, the person on campus I learn the most from shares neither my gender nor my race, so there you go.) If you can find someone who remains interesting after more than, say, six months, you've got a keeper.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts? Any advice on finding mentors?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.