This is what I’ve become, part 2

This is what I’ve become, part 2

A few weeks ago, I started thinking out loud about my new job. Here’s part two of my thoughts on the subject.

Don’t all 46 year old professionals wonder if they’ve made the right life choices?

Becoming a bureaucrat

For the last few years, I’ve been able to translate my teaching and writing into interesting blog posts for you, faithful readers.

But I don’t know if you’re that interested in what I did on Friday:

  • Inputted the schedule requests from four different academic areas in my department into a grid.
  • Approved some course equivalencies for a young woman studying abroad.
  • Met with an advisee who doesn’t know what to do with his life.
  • Met with an prospective student who knew exactly what to do with her life.
  • Proofread upcoming blog posts.
  • Tried to find people to teach unassigned classes or cancel them. Why are they unassigned? I can’t talk about it.
  • Answered 50 emails about lots of different things I can’t talk about.

Basically, I’m a bureaucrat.

My mad, bureaucratic, communication skillz:

I am pretty good at seeing things that need to be done and finding ways to do them.

I’m good at delegating. I can keep interns busy. Just ask Daniel, Becca, Lauren, and Taylor.

I’m a macro person. I see systems. How do systems work? Where are they getting jammed up? How can they be unjammed?

I’m pretty good at thinking outside the box. I’ve worked at four different universities. I’ve seen a lot of boxes.

I’m pretty good at communicating a message clearly and effectively to a large number of people. I think this comes from my other job as a writer, someone who has had to learn how to be my own publicist/media consultant.

I’m pretty blunt, I guess. I hadn’t realized this. I’m sort of a bull in a china shop, which sucks when you have no authority, but is great when you do have a little. I’m not always politic about it, but I try.

I’m good at meeting with prospective students and their parents. I guess time will tell if they apply and are accepted and major in English, but I feel like I’m good at “selling” what we offer: a solidly excellent humanities foundation plus lots of professionalization opportunities. I like to bring the students in first and talk to them alone, find out what they dig, and then I bring the parents in and reassure them that English is a practical degree. Amazingly practical! because the world desperately needs people who can write well. I like the students I meet because they’re from Indiana, from the same socio-economic background as me. In fact, the other day, I met a prospective who lives a few miles from my parents. It’s easy to sell something when you believe in what you’re selling with every fiber of your being, and you’re talking to people you already know, even though they’re strangers.

Skillz I need to work on:

The little things. I’m not much of a micro person. I’m not the best proofreader. I send emails with typos all the time. This is embarrassing.

The little things. I love the communications part of my job, the challenge of coming up with a social media campaign, a departmental calendar, etc., but find it harder to answer emails about does this course count as this? And can this student get credit for this? And can I change so-and-so’s schedule for this reason or that? And have we spent our library money? It’s not that those issues are unimportant. In fact, they are vital—to the students’ happiness and the faculty’s. But the challenge is different. I like to do the harder things about my job, which I find easier (because they are more interesting), and I don’t like to do the easier things about my job because I find them harder (because they are less interesting).

Fashion. On Friday, I put a paperclip in my hair to keep my bangs out of my eyes. And forgot that I’d done it. I walked around like this for hours. Nobody said anything.

Getting out of my silo. I get so wrapped up in the job that I forget to come out of the office except to go teach my class and go to the bathroom. I never see people.

Keep it simple, stupid. I’m very very bad about making things harder than they need to be. It is my lifelong struggle.

Conservation: When I’m being Admin Cathy, I sometimes fail to conserve my energy and brain function so there’s a little something left for Writer Cathy.

I’m sure that if you asked people in my department, they’d tell you PLENTY of other things I need to work on!

What Would Richard Do?

I know this person who knows this person who teaches at University X. Over her desk, she keeps this sign that says “W.W.R.D.”

It means “What would Richard do?

Who is Richard?

  • Richard is that senior faculty member who came of age as a professional with lots of support staff. A wife. A secretary. Graduate students. Interns.
  • Richard delegates as much as humanly possible. He is never reticent to ask the office staff to type up the notes from his Moleskine.
  • He never, ever offers to make coffee.
  • If he shows up to a meeting and there aren’t enough chairs, he doesn’t solve the problem by pulling a few from a neighboring room; he calls somebody to fix the problem.
  • Richard doesn’t initiate new programs or events or classes unless there are resources for said work, and if there’s not, Richard simply says, “No.”
  • Richard has perfected the befuddled shrug that is part truth, part lie that excuses him from learning new things and that results in someone else (usually a woman) doing it for him.
  • Richard innately looks out for number one.

When I heard about that W.W.R.D. sign, I got angry for awhile, but then I recognized I’d grown up in a world full of working-class Richards. Without thinking, I often bent over backwards to help the nearest Richard–just like I’d been brought up to do. I decided that I needed to channel him a little bit if I was going to survive as a writer and as an academic.

This hilarious essay at McSweeney’s pretty much sums up what I’m talking about here, folks.

I’ve written of this before re: protecting my writing space the way my dad protects “The Swamp.”

Moving up the ladder

Somewhere along the way, I got this message about being a writer in academia: do your job–no more, no less. Serve when asked. But volunteer nothing. Protect your writing time. Don’t get involved. Conserve as much time as possible for your writing.

Most of the creative writers you know who have academic positions (let’s say George Saunders and Lorrie Moore) don’t let themselves get invested in moving up the university ladder. The ladder they want to move up is the New York Times bestseller list or the short list for the Pulitzer prize in poetry.

The thinking is: once you start moving up the university ladder, it’s hard to maintain your professional or scholarly identity.

Is this true? 

I’ve worked at four universities and only one, The College of New Jersey, had a president who was an English professor.

Only about 13% of university presidents or chancellors come from the fine arts/humanities–period.

Thus far, no writer has become a college president.

I once visited Vanderbilt university and met with Kate Daniels the poet in her office. The Dean’s office. I remember thinking, wow, that’s rare. A poet! A dean!

A few weeks ago, I asked my friends in the Facebook group Creative Writing Pedagogy if they could think of any creative writers who had served their institution beyond directing a CW program or serving as department chair for a time. I got a long list of suggestions. Here are a few:

A few things I noticed:

Most of the writers who’d taken a university position (who responded to me personally) did so for the same reason I did: they were asked plus they thought that having a more 9-5 job would help their writing, but most said that that was NOT the result.

Most of the writers who’d moved up the university food chain were poets.

I don’t mean to offend the poets reading this, but I think that the amount of time and head space that poets needs vs. what fiction writers and memoirists or long-form nonfiction writers need are quite different. Prose writers need bigger chunks of time, and administration takes that away.

Administrators don’t blog about being administrators. They don’t write about this work. They don’t talk about it on social media. They’re usually too busy doing it.

My “mission”

I’ve never known a creative writer who took on an administrative job and ended up happier for it. Except for maybe Richard Robbins. 

Actually, I don’t know too many academics who didn’t end up bitter in the end anyway—no matter whether they chose to serve their research/writing first nor their institution/students first.

I just don’t know too many people my age and a little older who aren’t seriously jaded.

But strangely, I’m not. At least not right now.

One thing that makes me different, I think, is that I didn’t just end up at Ball State. I chose it. I wanted to serve my state somehow. When I’m meeting with a young person trying to figure out how to pursue their dream, that’s fulfilling of course. But it’s even MORE fulfilling to me because they are from the same place I am. It’s the closest I’ll come to have kids, this work I do. When I’m playing whack-a-mole, whittling down my inbox or signing a form, there’s a greater purpose to the bureaucratic stuff I do. Everything fits into and is part of a larger something. That’s meaningful.

I feel like I’m helping my state be a slightly smarter place every day, and that’s a good feeling.

My writer game

To be honest, a big reason why I started blogging back in 2010 was that I wanted to stay in “the game.” The writer game.

I taught for five years in New Jersey and went to New York and Princeton for readings a lot.

Then I taught for five years at Pitt and came into contact with lots and lots of contemporary writers.

I was scared that moving back home to Indiana meant I’d fall off the face of the earth and feel the same literary loneliness and isolation I felt growing up here.

This blog connected me to literary scene in all kinds of wonderful ways that could not be achieved IRL.

But now I guess I feel connected to something else, something more local. The needs of my department, my college, my institution. I feel a sense of purpose I have never felt—ever–in my 20 year career. It’s a great feeling.

But I also feel like I’m falling off the face of the Earth. Going off the grid. Not popping on people’s radar. And I’m sort of ashamed that this bothers me.

I’ve seen this happen over the years to many writers who either a.) became parents or b.) took on an administrative position or c.) both a. and b. They fall off the face of the earth for awhile. Their attention is focused on much more immediate concerns.

I want to prove to myself (and to you, I guess) that writers can be administrators and maintain their writerly identities.

I also want to encourage writers to step up in their departments and institutions when possible. Maybe we’ll never be able to convince deans to open up enough tenure-track creative writing lines to meet the considerable demand from students.

A thought: Maybe we’ll just have to become those deans ourselves.

A thought: Maybe that’s the worst suggestion ever. Maybe we should exit the academy entirely (we’ve only been putting one foot in anyway) and get jobs that make more money.

Remember:

  • I have changed jobs about every five years for my entire professional life.
  • This is my fifth year at Ball State.
  • This is the first time, however, that I’ve had a blog whilst going through this phase.

Update:

Here is an interesting article about “ass-deans.” 

Here’s an interesting article about administration. 

And other about staying put in academe. 

Teaching

5 comments

  1. Patty Day says:

    Well Miss Cathy…
    That plane ride must have stirred up some serious thoughts! This was a wonderful piece. You really put yourself out there, sharing your fears and perceived weaknesses, which are actually your strengths. I wish I had put more thought into my family life, marriage and career over the years. I don’t mind saying, I want to be just like you when I grow up. I am so glad you are back in Indiana and we are working on the Heart to Heart project together. I am so proud of you and your work and writing. It represents who you are and what you’ve created. I honor it as much as I honor and love my grandkids. Love, Momo

  2. This blogpost scared me a little, but it’s a very important and honest inside look and I so appreciate the time you spend documenting your various professional identities, Cathy. For those of us making new professional choices every few years, your posts always provide food for thought.

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