A few weeks ago I went to the high school graduation party of my second cousin, Erin. She’s going to be a freshman at Ball State this fall. I asked her if she was taking ENG 103 with “Staff,” and she said, “How do you know?”
“Because starting July 1st, I’m the person who makes sure there is a class for you to take and someone to teach it.”
So, today I officially started my new job as Assistant Chair of Operations of the English Department at Ball State University.
What does this mean?
Well, I work in a very large department. We have a chair and two assistant chairs. Basically, I’ll be in charge of:
- Scheduling classes. This is pretty complicated when you consider 100+ sections of first-year writing, the needs of 60+ faculty members, and the desires of hundreds of students who want to graduate on time.
- Advising. I’m the primary advisor, which means I’m the person who figures out when you can graduate, whether that class should count for the major, etc.
- Library budget. One thing I’ve learned about academia over the last 20 years is the value of a good university library. I’m the person who reminds everyone to turn in book and journal acquisition requests.
- Personnel. I will hire and help to review the yearly performance of our full-time contract faculty.
- Communications. With the help of three interns, I oversee our social media accounts, department blog, and yearly newsletter.
- Other things I’ve probably forgotten.
A few of my thoughts today
Right now, I feel least confident about the advising aspect of this job. I know the creative writing curriculum very well, but now I’ll need to understand the needs of all the majors, notably the teaching majors.
I feel most confident about the communications aspect. It’s a challenge I look forward to. How the hell do you communicate effectively with such a large number of people? I’ve been thinking about this a lot with regard to my job as a writer (communicating with readers) and as a teacher (communicating with students), and now I’ll apply what I’ve learned to my job as an administrator (communicating within and without the department to faculty, students, alumni, donors, deans, etc.)
Because my job will involve hiring contract faculty, my new position will give me a front-row seat to the adjunct crisis. This issue has been on my mind a lot for the last few months. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you know I’ve been sharing many articles like this one. Unfortunately, I will not be in a position to fix the problem (determine budgets and create teaching lines, etc.), only to manage the problem. But I am determined to use whatever privilege I’ve been afforded to do right by everyone.
Most writers who work in academia eventually take their turn in administrative roles. Writers have a reputation for flightiness in these matters, but I have many friends and acquaintances who are/have been excellent administrators. Most of my grad school cohort have all been directors or assistant chairs or chairs by now.
Conventional wisdom for writers in academia is that you should practice a healthy kind of selfishness: keep your head down, do what needs to be done at the institution that employs you, but volunteer for nothing that will distract from the limited amount of time you have to write. I know many writers who have directed writing programs, but very few who have chaired an entire department or who would want to. Creative writers aren’t typically very good at being bureaucrats. And that’s what I have agreed to become, really, a slightly bigger cog in a large bureaucracy called an American university.
My problem is that I have always liked being in charge of something. This goes all the way back to my junior year of high school when I was elected class president and spent one class period a day working behind the scenes to put on The Prom. I’ve never been so happy. All those moving parts. The lists. Creating a structure, a system, a kind of machine. If you build it right, things go smoothly. I love trying to figure out how a system works.
This blog was created in an effort to figure out how my classroom works, and I shared that thinking with you. However, I cannot do the same thing re: my new position. Much of what I do will concern confidential matters. There are many blogs about being a writer, some about being a teacher, but none (that I’ve ever seen) about being an administrator. Why? I imagine it’s because you’re too freaking busy, because it’s not interesting to most people, and because there’s a lot you can’t really talk about anyway.
However, I think that this silence re: the professional lives of academics is one of the reasons that we’re in the mess we’re in. The public doesn’t understand what we do. Some of my most popular posts here at the Big Thing are on “unspoken” topics, such as how to ask for a letter of recommendation for grad school or how to write a Statement of Purpose. I’ll try to find a way to share what I’m learning with all of you in a way that’s helpful but also professional.
(Many thanks to Nicole Walker for pointing me to this blog, Confessions of a Community College Dean. The blogroll will be of much interest to anyone interested in higher ed issues.)
Will this job make it easier or harder to finish my novel? That’s a good question. The position comes with release time. I’ll go down to one course a semester. I’ll need to be in the office more often, but I can work something more akin to “banker’s hours.” I’m looking forward to more compartmentalization in my daily and weekly routine, and that, I hope, will be good for my writing habit. I do better with a little structure to my days. I recognize, however, that protecting my writing time and the head space for it is largely up to me.
This past weekend, I became very nervous about taking this job. I went into my closet and realized that most of my teaching clothes are for fall and winter. In the summer, I mostly wear t-shirts every day. So I went to Goodwill and TJ Maxx and bought myself a shit-ton of classier summer attire. I rationalized these purchases by remembering this quotation from the fashion designer Mainbocher:
“How you look influences how you feel, and how you feel influences how you act, and how you act influences how many other people act.”
I’ve never really been in a position of authority before, but I’m grateful that the newly elected department chair, Dr. Adam Beach, thought I could do the job. I anticipate that the focus of this blog might change a bit–in fact, I have no idea what category to call this post!–and I hope you’re willing to go along for the ride.