Sunday, January 13, 2013

 

Personification


There’s a great scene in the film version of The Grapes of Wrath that I don’t remember in the book.  A farmer is facing down a man on a bulldozer; the man on the bulldozer has been hired by the bank to repossess the farm, because the farmer has defaulted on a loan.  

The farmer pulls a rifle and points it at the man on the bulldozer, threatening to kill him if he gets any closer.  The man on the bulldozer objects that he’s just doing his job, he needs the job, and it’s not his fault that the loan is due; if he farmer shoots him, there will just be someone else the next day.  Deflated, the farmer asks plaintively “well, who do I shoot?”

I was reminded of that scene last week.  In the comments to the post about administrators as inkblot tests, someone mentioned that on campus, administrators are often taken as personifications of larger forces.  Since it’s impossible to attack those larger forces, some people use the nearest administrator as a sort of stand-in.  You can’t attack the recession, but you can take a dig at your dean.  

For as long as I’ve been doing this, I’m still not entirely used to that.  

In my early days of administration, I used to sort of distance myself from my role.  It didn’t work; if anything, it felt like bad faith.  I had to learn quickly that certain comments that were entirely fine in my faculty role were not fine in a dean’s role.  At the end of the day, if you’re the one writing somebody’s evaluation, then you need to own that.  You can’t do an evaluation ironically.

(This isn’t unique to administration, of course.  Grad students teaching their first classes, especially if they’re young, sometimes make a similar mistake.  If you’re the one assigning the grade, then you’re the authority figure, whether you feel like an imposter or not.  At some point, you need to make peace with that if you’re going to do it well.  And you’ll find that some students will have issues with anyone they consider an authority figure, no matter what you do.)

Being taken as the personification of some larger abstraction can be disorienting.  Most people don’t think of themselves that way -- it would be weird if they did -- and they don’t make their choices as conscious representatives of abstractions.  The shock is particularly strong when moving directly from a faculty role, in which there’s so much more autonomy.  In graduate school and then on faculty, there’s a tremendous premium on fine-grained distinctions.  After many years of that, it’s hard not to be put off by reductionist tirades against “the adminisTRAtion.”  Administrations consist of many moving parts, each with its own imperatives, and a host of different personalities.  They aren’t the Borg.  But some people won’t make the distinction.

You’ll also find yourself blamed personally for decisions made (or allegedly made) by your predecessors.  The trick is in not getting defensive before you know what actually happened.  That can be tough when you’re under attack, but it comes with the job.

I’m posting this not in a spirit of whining, but in a spirit of warning.  New admins are often blindsided by the abrupt shift in the ways people act towards them.  Some people just need a villain to hold their story together.  Knowing that you’re the villain ex officio can help, even if you never completely get used to it.

Comments:
In your role, you are The Face of Evil^H^H^H^H Academia to the President and the Board and the business VP, while also being The Face of Evil^H^H^H^H Administration to the faculty. Tough spot!

I like your analogy to the shifting role from student to teacher. There is nothing more schizoid than being a grad student TA telling students to do their homework when you should be telling yourself to do your own.

BTW, in my experience, what I value most is being backed up on grades and standards, but it doesn't hurt to get a clear and early message on changes in little policy details or even details like the final exam schedule for next year.

Worst is the person who sends out a memo on the day before classes start telling us something has to be in the syllabus that we printed a week earlier.
 
This kind of boss who won't back one up and doesn't give timely notice of changes doesn't just work in academia.

When a professor has experience teaching -5 years or so, s/he can still teach effectively even with the curricular/methodology changes which are the latest buzz.

But teaching is hard when an administrator will not back the professor up on grades/standards and also notifies the professor of little policy details at the last minute which affect what is done in the classroom.

Having a professor's back and giving timely notice of changes is greatly appreciated. Teaching for an administrator who does this is priceless and contributes to effective teaching and staff morale, which directly affects students. I teach for a dean who does this and I am willing to try any new thing s/he sends down the pike because I know s/he has my back and I want her/him to look good to his/her bosses so they won't let her/him go. I'm very fortunate.
 
Anon 7:48 edit to the prior comment;
I meant to say that some bosses/supervisors are like this (changes without timely notice and no support when needed) outside of academia too.
 
What, you DON'T like being the personification of evil? Then what fun IS there in your job????!?!?! What if we got you a Mr. Bigglesworth?
 
the best advice i was ever given about being a leader was this:
- give away all of the credit, and take all of the blame.

in the end, it really works. it lets your coworkers feel valuable to you (giving them credit), and it makes you seem accountable and a team player (taking blame).

it's never come back to bite me.
 
In sports officiating we are always reminded that it's the uniform being yelled at, not us personally.
 
The folks on the front line see classes getting bigger, have to constantly justify marks and academic decisions, have no time for planning yet are asked for increasingly elaborate plans to satisfy constantly changing criteria, and get blamed when they don't "work smarter" and "do more with less".

They see the President (or Director) making more than they'd earn in a decade.

And when you try to justify the situation, you're lumped in with everyone in management.
 
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