Been there, done… what?

November 24, 2012, 3:45 pm

I am at home this weekend grading papers, and as always, I see practices that remind me of myself as a clueless undergraduate. One student handed in a paper with the top left corner folded over, because she couldn’t seem to find a stapler or a paper clip. I cannot tell you how many times I did that… though it is hard to imagine doing that now.

Another student misunderstands academic writing culture and gives me a reflective paper full of “this writer believes” and ten-dollar words that obscure rather than illuminate the concepts he wants to discuss. I remember thinking that academic writing had to be complicated, and that using long sentences, preferably with a semi-colon or colon thrown in, would yield a higher grade. Good teachers and papers full of red ink helped me curb that practice.

The point, though, is that I understand where my students are coming from, especially the fuck-ups, and I find it easy to provide the support and encouragement they need to be successful in the future. I was not always a good student; honestly, I was mediocre at best as an undergraduate, with no patience for topics that didn’t interest me (Hello, astronomy and philosophy of aesthetics!). If a teacher challenged me and the subject interested me, though, I was hooked. I still might not turn in my assignment on time, following ALL of the directions carefully, but I did the work and wrote well. So, I was a natural for grad school, where you get to focus on classes in your area of interest, and over time, I got better at meeting teachers’ expectations about professionalism.

Individual faculty and staff do not always reflect an administrator’s own prior experiences or behaviors.

As an administrator, though, I don’t always know how to relate to the faculty I supervise.  It was different when I was simply a colleague. Faculty members with anger management problems or control issues were simply people with quirks that I had to work around. I adopted simple working rules, like “Don’t talk politics with George” and “Make sure to ask Annie what to do, as she likes to be consulted but rarely offers her opinions.” I taught my classes, did my scholarship, and engaged in service with the other few folks who liked to be involved with the operation of the department. As far as the administration went, I was a good go-to girl, for the most part, responsive to “opportunities” offered on campus (course development grants, freshman seminar development projects, etc.), though I know I was sometimes a challenge for those who supervised me, because I was likely to ask questions and challenge decisions that went against my own values. I usually fell in line with the direction of leadership, though, and was quick to toe the party line, as long as it was not in conflict my own ideas about the direction of the program. If I did have a disagreement, as long as I could voice it and feel heard, I could accept the final outcome.

I have come to learn that my style is not typical of most faculty. My responsiveness to calls to evaluate administrators, organize and present student evaluation data, serve on university committees, mentor and advise students, and the like apparently are not shared by all faculty members–at least for all of those I supervise. My friends who have spent more time in administration agree. I am sometimes upset or frustrated by faculty and staff actions/reactions that don’t make sense to me, mostly because they are not what I would do in the situation.

When I noted, with shock, that none of the faculty or staff filled out the university’s evaluation of my performance, my administrative colleagues laughed and assured me that this was normal and, actually, a good sign. After all, one of them told me, if they really had a problem with you, everyone would have complained.

I have learned to pay attention to each individual faculty and staff member: what they value, what they need, what upsets them, and how they manifest (or cover) their emotional responses. I constantly have to remind myself that everyone doesn’t think the way I do, that their goals and experiences are not the same. I try to think about how what I say or do can be interpreted from their many different perspectives. It is a challenging task; though, the longer I stay in this position, the more insight I have into each individual faculty and staff member and the more I can foresee and shape my actions to address their possible problems and concerns.

This job is certainly one of the best learning experiences of my life, and I find myself challenged almost every day by some issue or another. Nonetheless, as Tenured Radical said in her reflective post this week, “Now I am glad to have this experience.”

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