Monday, September 12, 2005

Sprinting vs. Marathoning

In the last entry, I slipped in a metaphor that I’ve used privately for years, without bothering to explain it. My bad. I’ll try to explain it.

Teaching is like sprinting. (Okay, if I’m using ‘like,’ it’s a simile, not a metaphor. The point still stands...) A really obtuse observer might say, of a sprinter, that she has an easy job: 10 seconds of work, max, and she’s done for the day. How easy is that?

The joke, of course, is that the real work goes into preparing for those ten seconds. The race itself is just a small part of the picture.

Something similar (though less extreme) is at work with teachers. A really obtuse observer could say that college professors have it easy – just 6-15 hours a week in class (depending on the school), and that’s it. Not like the 40 that civilians do. Plus summers off! What a scam!

Deaning is closer to distance running. When I teach a class, I try to give it all I have, planning to rest and recover later. Leave it all on the field, as the sports guys say. Deaning doesn’t work like that. I’m in the office for civilian-job lengths of time, or more during rubber-chicken-circuit season, so constant sprinting just isn’t an option. I can’t leave it all on the field, every day, or there wouldn’t be much left to leave after a while.

The hardest semester I ever had was the first time I moved into administration. I moved mid-semester, so I had to carry my regular courses for two months while performing the admin job full-time. I felt like someone had dropped a piano on me. Since all of my previous academic experience had been on the teacher or student side, I initially approached the new assignment that way. Big mistake. After the first month, I wasn’t doing either job well, and I was dangerously tired. I had to learn to downshift, to pace myself more deliberately while in the dean’s office.

That’s not the same as slacking, any more than it’s slacking when a marathoner runs 100 meters more slowly than a sprinter would. It’s just pacing.

In some ways, I think department chairs have harder jobs than deans do. Chairs have to switch between sprinting and distance running, since they carry a teaching load every semester. I find switching back and forth much more draining than either by itself.

The academic calender is relatively well-suited to sprinting: intense bursts of activity, with significant downtime for recovery. The administrative calendar is incessant, but usually lower-intensity; the successful administrator figures out a sustainable pace, and devotes actual mental energy to preserving it. (This may be why, to professors, deans seem preternaturally unflappable: we can’t let ourselves get ‘flapped’ at every new piece of news, or we’d flop.) A professor can afford to ignore the vast majority of what goes on on campus, concentrating her passion on a pet cause or two; for a dean, the opposite is true.

The dilemma for colleges, of course, is that the best sprinters don’t always make the best marathoners. The skills and temperaments each requires are different. Yet we set up successful sprinting as a prereq to marathoning.

Research is something else altogether – I haven’t figured out a good metaphor yet. Any ideas?