This is what I’ve become.

This is what I’ve become.

It’s been four months since I started my new job, and the things I most feared have happened.

  • I’ve stopped blogging here.
  • I haven’t been working on my novel as much as I’d like.
  • I care about stuff that I never cared about before–like bulletin boards and registration time tickets and how class rooms are assigned and posters and scheduling grids.

I’m not surprised. Administrating changes you. Entire realms which have been hidden from view suddenly appear, and all you can really say is, “Holy shit.”

This quote from an Inside Higher Education essay by Chuck Ryback is on the money. Read the whole thing here.

Looking back to when I was first hired on the tenure track, I really didn’t know anything about how the systems I was working in were structured. Literally, it has taken me 10 years to even achieve a competent grasp. Why? If a maze built by Daedalus is complicated, imagine a maze built by an army of Daedaluses. Campus and system governance in public universities is deeply complicated and entangled, and this is largely because it’s supposed to be difficult to understand (but that’s a whole different post).

My job as Whack-a-Mole

When people ask me what I do all day as Assistant Chair of Operations, I tell them it’s like this:

You walk in the door and the moles start popping up—in my office door and in my inbox—and I take my mallet and whack whack whack as fast as I can.

Perhaps this makes it sound bad. Like I’m mad. Like I resent the moles from popping up. Like I’m trying to hurt them.

Au contraire.

The “whacking” isn’t hurting, it’s helping, solving, progressing.

For twenty years, I’ve written words that took months if not years to be published, taught students that I (mostly) never heard from again. So there’s something deeply rewarding about walking out of the office at the end of the day knowing that I actually finished something. Even if it was answering/archiving/deleting 50 emails and signing five forms.

My job at the candy conveyer belt

I like coming home and having dinner with my husband and maybe writing a little in the evening or reading or watching a movie, like a normal fucking human being who is almost 50 years old, not a graduate student. Like my doctor. Like my lawyer. Like pretty much every professional person I know.

Except for teachers.

We don’t expect our doctors to help us and answer our questions when they aren’t in their office. Why do we expect college professors and teachers to do this? I don’t know. But it drives me crazy.

I never worked this hard when I was in my 20’s and 30’s. This is a new development. It’s Lucy Ricardo’s candy conveyer belt and the chocolate is coming faster and faster and faster. Because there are real chocolates and virtual chocolates coming in via email.

One reason why I took this new job, I think, is that I’m no longer Lucy at the conveyor belt anymore. I’m her supervisor. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but for me, it was a necessary thing.

My job as a state bureaucrat.

Last night I went to a play with my cousin, who is a freshman at Ball State. She introduced me to a friend and I said I was the Assistant Chair of the English Department, let me know if you need anything, etc.

Later, I saw a dean walk down the aisle and pointed him out. “That’s the dean of your college,” I said to my cousin. She looked at me, and I thought, Oh my God, if I was 18 years old and a freshman, I would have no freaking idea what that meant nor why it mattered in the slightest.

So I said, “Okay, so pretend Ball State is a country. President Ferguson is the President. The deans of all the different colleges are like the governors of the states.”

She nodded. “So you’re like a senator, right?

“No, a department chair is like a senator. I’m like his chief of staff.”

“Oh.” She sighed. “I’m sorry. I just think politics is kind of boring.”

“Yeah, I know. Or think of it this way. The department chair is like the mayor of a city. And the English department is a big city in the country’s largest and most populous state.”

“So you’re like the mayor of Los Angeles?”

“No, more like Sacramento. I’m like the deputy mayor of Sacramento.”

I remembered then that her friend had wanted to meet me because I’m a writer, but lately, I’ve started thinking of myself as the deputy mayor of Sacramento because I really like the job.

And that’s what scares me. Can you help run a city and write books at the same time?

That is the question, isn’t it?

Here are some more:

  • How does your identity change when you take on an administrative position?
  • How do you maintain your identity as a writer when your daily work is so specific to the institution to the place where you work?
  • Since so many of us have day jobs–lots of different kinds–how can we balance our job (paycheck) and our work (art)?
  • How do we keep our work from becoming a hobby?
  • How do we keep our job from defining us?
  • When do we say to ourselves that we’re better at the job than the work? Or can we do both?
  • How do you keep doing your job for years and years and years without becoming overwhelmed by despair?
  • Here’s a great essay that’s helped me think through these things.

(more later, i’ve been thinking about this a lot)


Teaching Writing


  1. I bet you’re awfully good at this, Cathy. Because you have a very good attitude about it. Some administrators I’ve known saw their job not as helping but keeping people down in their place. And I mean departmental administrators not deans or presidents.

  2. Marcia Zerance says:

    Well, I hope you can find a way to figure it all out Cathy, as selfishly I’m just impatiently waiting for your book about the life of Linda Lee Thomas!

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