Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lowering the bar... Yeehaw!

Years ago, when I was trying to get up my nerve to submit my first big dissertation research article to a professional journal, I happened across what may have been one of the worst articles I have ever read, published in the same impressive journal where I was planning to send my article. It was a good moment, because I thought, "Hell, if this piece of crap can get published, surely my article might make it in?!" That thought gave me the impetus and confidence to submit the article, which was accepted. (Of course, the unfortunate implication might be raised that my article may have been just as bad as the other I mention, but I have received enough positive feedback on it that I don't believe that is true.)

A recent blog article about the search to fill the Presidency of the New Mexico state system provided a similar feeling, as it explained that both James Oblinger, the disgraced former Chancellor of North Carolina State, and Richard Herman, the vilified former Chancellor of the University of Illinois, are among the finalists for the position. While I can make MANY jokes about the possible interview questions (e.g., when the Governor's daughter's best friend gets rejected for admission to the university and the Governor calls to complain, what will you do? What if, while he has you on the phone, he tells you that his wife needs a job?), it reassures me that the bar for senior leaders is actually a little lower than I would have thought.

Now, my feminist sister-outlaw would say that I shouldn't get too carried away, and that the lowness of the bar is actually just the setting for white guys, not for the rest of us.

But all one has to do is check out the professional rebound of former University of Colorado President Elizabeth Hoffman, who saw so many scandals in her time at CU that it is hard to list them all:

  • a nationally watched football recruiting scandal that culminated in a
    federal lawsuit filed by three women who claimed the university athletics
    department knowingly allowed sexual assaults by CU football players or recruits
  • CU Professor Ward Churchill calling Sept. 11th victims “little Eichmanns”
  • the drinking death of an 18-year old fraternity pledge
  • a student riot on Halloween
  • Hoffman's embarassing state legislative testimony where she explained that the term "cunt" could be used as a "term of endearment"
So, where did Dr. Hoffman end up after she was fired? Well, as the Provost at Iowa State University! So, while the boys may move laterally or even move up, looks like the women might have to take a little step down. Nonetheless, one step back is pretty good, considering.

So, former Iowa Central Community College President Robert Paxton--oh, he of the "shirtless beer bong with young coeds" pic that went viral and cost him his job--should take heart! While he may have lost his lawsuit against the community college for sacking him accepting his resignation, he made off with a dismissal package of $400,000 and he has the potential for another presidency or chancellorship any day now!

Yep, in some cynical way, I am encouraged by the lower bar these stories suggest. It becomes a little more feasible for me to become a President or Chancellor. Obviously, I would aim to be better than these feckless few, but it is good to know a mistake or two wouldn't cost me a future in academic leadership. And thanks to these stories, I know behaviors I want to avoid: covering up rape on campus, boozing with students, setting up patronage jobs for politicos, and helping their friends get into our institutions. Yeah, I think I can manage that.

Friday, October 09, 2009

What is an extrovert administrator to do?

Extroverts can make wonderful administrators.

Just to define our terms here, extroverts are people who like to have interactions with other people. We get energy from these interactions, and that energy is sustaining. We also tend to process ideas out loud, rather than internally as introverts would, and we see our understanding grow through discussion and debate with other people. We think best through conversation. We don't like spending too much time alone, as it saps our energy and sense of self.

There are some clear pluses to being an extrovert and administrator. We are good with people. We don't mind being in the public eye and giving presentations, trainings, and facilitating meetings. We are not shy in advancing our agendas, and we have gifts in communicating our ideas to others.

On the other hand, we extroverts face some challenges. We don't always listen as well as we should to people in meetings, being more focused on participating as part of our own thinking process. We may come on so strong that people take our statements to be firm convictions, when they may really just be tentative thoughts. We may tend to dominate or shut down more introverted people in these conversations as well, in a rush to participate or assert our own ideas. And we may struggle with confidentiality in our need to process--out loud--issues that are troubling us. It makes sense, in that extroverts tend to think by talking, and how can one think about, say, a personnel issue without talking about it with other people? Of course, personnel issues are just one of many that need to be confidential in a workplace, and results of breaking that confidentiality can range from a loss of friendship with colleagues to winding up in court.

I have taken many approaches to these dilemmas as an extrovert administrator. In meetings I am facilitating, I try to take notes about what others are saying and what I want to respond. That way, I won't forget my thoughts, but I also won't jump in prematurely and dismiss out of hand the ideas of others in the group.

I try to signal that I am open to challenge and changing my mind throughout a discussion by trying on the ideas and suggestions of others, though I am loathe to qualify my own thoughts. As a feminist, I just cannot hold with the "perhaps it's just me, but I think..." or "I may be wrong, but I thought perhaps..." school of speaking. Sorry, I know I speak in declaratives, but that is just what I prefer. No namby-pamby half-statements for this woman... you get run over by the guys if you do that.

The issue of managing confidentiality has been my biggest challenge, because the legalistic nature of our society takes away a lot of options for processing. Written reflections, such as journals and notes, can be subpoenaed, and conversations and emails can also wind up in court. My best recourse has been to use my partner (and some off-site professional colleagues) as a processing mechanism and as a support to my determination to keep things confidential. We process work-related issues, and she allows me to use this to think through tough issues. I will claim spousal privilege, since we are officially married in another state, though I would likely lose in my own state since we have a constitutional amendment banning recognition of same-sex relationships, which is a drag.

My partner is also the person who holds me accountable for maintaining confidentiality. I call her when I am tempted to disclose inappropriately to other people, and she helps me keep things confidential. I find that I am worse at saying things I wish I didn't say--not necessarily things that are professionally confidential, but things that are private or better not shared--when I am tired or, alternately, really excited and overstimulated, say after a day of teaching and public interactions. I have found that the best thing to do at that time is just to go be alone or be private with my partner. If I don't, I make mistakes that I regret.

So, how do my other extroverted friends handle these issues? What do you do to manage your mouth?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Imposter syndrome

I talked to a friend last week about that terrible experience that sometimes happens when one is teaching when you feel like an imposter. A students asks a question that leaves you stumped and looking like a fool in front of the class. At that moment, there is a feeling that a knowledgable professor exists out there who knows everything about all of the material you will cover in class. Unfortunately, you are not him/her. You just know bits and pieces very well, and you valiantly prepare for class every week trying to fill in gaps and cover rough spots so students will not find out that you are not really the know-it-all they assume you to be.

This imposter syndrome can crop up in a lot of settings, and not just with students: presenting on one's research at a professional conference, publishing a book or article, sitting on a curriculum committee, and even when receiving a big award. The thought rushes through your mind, "If they really knew how little I know, how poorly prepared I really am, they would leave the presentation/rescind the acceptance/kick me out of the meeting/take back the award."

I don't know if this feeling crops up more often for women than men; I am guessing that everyone shares that feeling sometimes. Of course, there are also times when you feel like you actually do know the most about the subject at hand, though that feeling is seductive and untrustworthy, because you can always be corrected on some misstep or misstatement of fact.

As we discussed the classroom issue, I recalled a time I taught about a concept that, honestly, I never learned well when I was in grad school, never followed up because it was unrelated to my own work, and never thought about again until I got a teaching assignment for a class that included that concept. The concept was developed by folks in another related field, but is frequently used in our field by people who do that kind of work. Like a good girl, I read the assigned reading on the concept, read additional readings, and felt pretty much prepared for an overview. Unfortunately, I had a few students in this grad class who had undergraduate degrees from the related field, and they critiqued my explanation of the concept and offered a better, richer understanding. With little else to do, I sucked it up, acknowledged the assistance they gave and the ways is expanded our understanding of the concept, thanked them for their input, and moved on to the next concept. From that point on, however, I think that those students who helped, and some of the others, thought a little less of me and challenged me a little more.

Even as I write about this episode, though, I feel the creeping sting of shame and weakness, the reinforcement of the belief, hammered into me in grad school, that I am not really as smart as I should be.

How do you cope with the imposter syndrome? Do you get over it at some point and recognize that it is impossible to know everything and we all do the best we can? Does the fear of being found out paralyze us or drive us to work harder and do more?