Saturday, July 23, 2011

Start up

I have experienced being a new faculty member on campus several times, and one thing I have learned to do is quickly make the transition. The tasks are fairly straightforward: Unpack the boxes, find the library, set up Blackboard course sites, learn my way around campus, order books for upcoming courses, get the new ID and parking decals, and so on. But coming to campus as a faculty/administrator is a whole different ballgame. You have to do all of those tasks listed above, plus a whole lot more.

In my first administrative position, I had to plan and deliver orientations to incoming majors within a week of arrival. There is nothing more intimidating than trying to welcome students to a program where they actually know the university better than you do! I also had to develop advising lists for newly admitted students, reorganize a committee that was supposed to exist but never really met, and develop and staff  a new satellite program, all in the first couple of months. It was a trial by fire, and I was glad to get to the next semester in one piece.

Now that I am once again starting a new, more senior, administrative position, I am re-learning that different tasks take precedence over unpacking boxes and prepping syllabi...Like finding out how to (a) locate online and (b) read the division's budget, proofing the accreditation documents that are going in under my name, reviewing personnel files, and figuring out the location of the division's policy documents. I am humbled that I am responsible for the fiscal accuracy, accreditation status, and personnel and academic practices of a division.

I will say that I am pleased by how natural I find the role. I have learned enough about how universities function that I can respond quickly to these new tasks. That said, it is still somewhat daunting how quickly these responsibilities kick in. As the new budget authority, I am asked to approve purchases and travel before I can even access the budget on my own. As division leader, I have to identify faculty to fill administrative roles, even though I only know most of them through my interview process. I have to schedule faculty meetings for the year, even though I don't really know the class schedule or the university calendar. I have learned to ask good questions, to take my time (because most things don't have a drop-dead deadline), and to seek out help when I need it. I am thankful for the strong staff and faculty who have answered my questions and helped make this transition a little easier.

I am also thankful for strong, supportive, SMART leaders in the roles above me. Having good people in these roles is such a pleasure, I barely know how to act! I have come away from my interactions with my supervisor impressed every time, which is a wonderful way to begin a new job.

When I was leaving my old job, people kept asking me if I was excited about the new job. I said yes, mostly because that is what they expected to hear, but in my heart of hearts, I was more reserved about the new position. I know how much remains unknown about a new job until one begins, and the real problems and challenges may take a while to emerge. And I didn't really know if I would like the job, the university, and the location. But so far, so good. I finished this week feeling truly excited about my new role.

The  pace of acclimating to a new job rushes a little faster for new administrators on campus, I think, even when you start in the middle of the summer. I can only imagine what awaits when the students and faculty return and classes begin. That said, I think I am in the right place at the right time. I can only hope I will be able to say that a year from now.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Boundaries and other administrative metaphors

I have been re-reading Tina Gunsalus' "The College Administrator's Survival Guide,"(left) and one lesson stands out above all others: Maintain your boundaries. My beloved partner is an expert in boundary maintenance, and she has additional words of wisdom. Boundaries, she notes, are like the yellow dotted lines in the road; you usually follow them, but if you cross them for any reason, be very aware and intentional about it. There are reasons to cross the lines while driving: to avoid an accident, to pass a car, and so on. But just as you don't cross the double lines that demarcate an unsafe space in the road for passing, such as a blind curve, you don't blithely cross a boundary with a colleague or subordinate unless you have thought it through.

For example, what are the long-term consequences of sharing very personal information with a student? (Is there some education-related purpose for sharing? Would it be a problem if s/he shared the information with other students or faculty? Could this sharing set up a new relationships that would make others uncomfortable or jealous? Could it be seen by the student as a come on?) When would it be appropriate to hug someone who reports to you? (Suggestions include when someone s/he cares about has been hurt or died or when you are leaving the job. And always with the caveat that s/he seems comfortable and open to it.)

I am trying to live into my boundary keeping by not starting my job until I actually am getting paid. It isn't easy, and I am not quite keeping my boundaries firm. Even though my start date is still in the future, I have met with a couple colleagues, responded to work email, and started reviewing materials related to the program. That said, I am trying to keep it all to a minimum, while letting myself ease into the new job. I hope that doing a few minor tasks in the interim will help keep me from being completely overwhelmed when I arrive for my official first day.

Other great lessons from Tina include:
  • taking time to think before you act (using lines like, "I have to do a little research on that before I can respond")
  • being consistent and dependable (i.e., do what you are supposed to do)
  • communicate with everyone (i.e., get back to people, even just to tell them that it will take longer to respond than expected)
  • ask for help when you need it (i.e., the university lawyer is your friend)
None of these are earth-shattering revelations, but instead they act as good reminders to a beleaguered new administrator. I hope not to be beleaguered myself, but I can feel the impending weight of this new position. I am glad Tina can help me get my head in the game as I ready for kickoff.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Professor's Pernicious Plan

Oh, yes, children, it is time for the truth. Gay professors have an agenda. The students can tell, no matter what the syllabi say--see the latest from the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

As a lesbian professor, I have long had to address this issue with students. If I EVER mention LGBT issues once in a non-LGBT class, there are always one or two students who feel irritated by this mention. It it upsetting to their delicate sensibilities, I guess, to hear an LGBT example amongst the many heterosexual examples I use in class.

And all my students (and I) will tell you: I have an agenda for every class and for my overall academic work. Of course, the question is: What is this agenda?

Is it the infamous homosexual agenda of yore? As Betty Bowers explains, at 3:33 we plan to:
 Assume complete control of the U.S., state, and local governments (in addition to other nations' governments); destroy all healthy Christian marriages; recruit all children grades Kindergarten through 12 into your amoral, filthy lifestyle; secure complete control of the media, starting with sitcoms; molest innocent children; give AIDS to as many people as you can; host a pornographic "art" exhibit at your local art museum; and turn people away from Jesus, causing them to burn forever in Hell.
Talk about time-consuming! No wonder it is difficult for LGBT folks to get tenure. Who has the time, when trying to take over governments and effect wholesale cultural change!

Nah, I have been too focused on securing tenure and promotion, supporting first generation college students, running an academic program, and improving my students' thinking and writing. Oh, and occasionally reminding students that LGBT people exist in the world and deserve rights like everyone else.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

When there's not much there there

I have been teaching for more than 15 years now, and I maintain my excitement for the classroom because I love seeing students learn and grow. My teaching this summer has been a fantastic experience, with some of the best students I have ever had the privilege to teach. Perhaps this love fest is due to my love of and interest in the topics; perhaps it is because the students really want to take these courses. That said, I have seen some amazing learning in the classes, with students evidencing reflection, critical thinking, and ideas for application of their learning that you hope for in every student.

This excellent experience has made me think about the flip side: when you just don't see much growth in students. I can take the blame for this lack of development sometimes, thinking that I haven't challenged the students adequately. Yet, there are also classes where I see growth among the majority of students and then other students, usually only one or two, for whom growth and development is just not happening.

For these students, I sometimes think it is an issue of age, developmental capacity, and/or just basic smarts. The first two, age and developmental stage, don't bother me so much, because I figure that perhaps later in life the lessons we learn will kick in. Helping students see beyond their own experiences is a challenge, and sometimes we need to have more diverse experiences before it kicks in. All of us have had a class that we recall, sometime later in life, when the lessons we were learning in a distant way finally make sense. Some classes with feminist content were like that for me: before I experienced real discrimination or power dynamics in an intimate relationship, the writings about these issues didn't really resonate for me. Later, I had a number of "aha!" moments, when I recognized these critiques actually helped me to better understand my own life and the world around me.

But the third category of student is a heartbreaker. Often, these students are nice enough, but, to paraphrase Ms. Stein, there just isn't any there there. It isn't that these students lack formal education; many of my best students come from weaker schools. Nor are all of these students young or inexperienced. What I see instead is an inability to think deeply about topics, to consider how theories apply to the world, and to really reflect on complexity. Those students are just plain depressing to me as a teacher, because I know that there is little I can do to help them really grow.

That said, my feelings about these students are probably not shared by these students themselves in any way other than their frustration over receiving lower grades in my courses. (They don't do well on concept integration and critique.) They usually feel pretty good about their more average grades and their performance in class. I always go back to a great quote from the movie "Bull Durham," when Annie notes, "The world is made for people who aren't cursed with self-awareness." Perhaps being dim and uncomplicated makes life a whole lot easier.