We Are the Beneficiaries


As I sit here making the Spring 2017 class schedule for our department I recall the many times that I’ve heard academics lament being involved in administration. (That they equally complain about no longer being much involved in the governance of their institutions is an irony too rich to overlook.) “My condolences” is the witty reply many offer when learning that a colleague has fallen on the dagger (yes, that’s how it is portrayed) of becoming a department chair, coupled with such profuse congratulations at news of one stepping down as to make you think that it was equivalent to having your wrongful conviction overturned.

I’ve been a chair (at a large public university) for a while — I did an eight year stint starting in 2001, stepped down and was away from it for four years, and I’m now entering my fourth year back in the role — and I’ve got to admit that I’ve grown pretty tired of hearing these representations. Sure, I admit that I didn’t earn a PhD thinking I’d one day be worrying about what sort of furniture to buy for the classroom (“Does that fabric wear well?”), scanning over budgets and enrollment projections, or policing the use of the blue form as opposed to all of the others.

But I also don’t think I came into this career assuming that it would just magically unfold all on its own. Maybe because I grew up in a small business, where my mom and dad ran things on their own, I was already pretty aware that considerable behind-the-scenes work was needed to make the ship seem to head off in a reasonable direction. Watching the unending credits that roll after a movie should tell you as much. But it seems to me that plenty of our peers in this career fail to see this labor and, instead, see themselves as self-employed and free agents who do as they wish. While I recognize that much of our career works in just that fashion — “Should I review that book or tackle writing this essay…?” — focusing on only that is a luxury that does injustice to the labor that it takes to put conditions in place that enable some of us to devote time to that book review or this essay,

(Those outside the tenure/tenure-track system don’t have to be told all of this, of course, since they don’t have the luxury of overlooking the conditions in which they work…)

Sure, there are chairs whose hands are well off the tiller, and there’s plenty of departments that are adrift because of it. (How far can I run with this sea-going metaphor?) But, thinking back to that Spring 2017 schedule, will I query faculty for their preferences (both classes and days/times) or just make assignments that people have to live with? Will our instructor get saddled with the large enrollments and multiple different preps, taught all throughout the day or the week, or can I create extended free time throughout the week so that he can devote time to prep, reading, and writing? Thing beyond the schedule: what indicators are there for how our department is perceived by the Dean or the President’s office? Are there opportunities to secure the good impressions and address the others? Where’s the university as a whole heading and can the department achieve some of its own goals while helping the school get to where those above us want to take it? Come to think of it, what are the department’s goals? For they can’t be coterminous with each of its faculty members’ own desires since those apply only to each of their own individual courses and careers. So, collectively, where are we as a department going? And how do you even create the impression of a collectivity? Apart from having offices next door to one another, what do we have in common — anything? What’s more, given that we’re training students, some of whom will go on to earn PhDs of their own, how can we try to ensure that we’re still around when they come looking for jobs some day, desiring to do what it is that we helped them learn to do in the first place? Might we even try to grow a little so there’s a few more places at the table for people who wish to be paid to read, talk, write, and think….?

Sure, there’s parts of the job I’m not crazy about and, yes, I certainly don’t control much that conditions our life as professors; but, thinking back to our instructor, while I don’t determine his teaching load I do control what he teaches, when he teaches, where he teaches, and his courses’ enrollments — not insignificant factors. As for parts of the job that are less desirable, name me a career that’s not like that…. That’s why they call it work, no?

So while there’s plenty that I don’t control, there’s also a number of things into which someone in this role has a fair bit of input — things that create the structure in which each of those seemingly free agents we call faculty members do their own work. So it strikes me as a huge responsibility to tackle this role and one that shouldn’t be portrayed as encroaching on our first love. For without people behind-the-scenes making sure the office phones are connected, the email accounts are created, and the dry erase markers are stocked — not to mention a few more elaborate tasks than those three — there’d be no freedom to be enjoyed by those agents. For none of us would have earned the degrees we now hold and which allow us some of us to think of ourselves as side-tracked when our departments need our service time.

As I’ve said before, we are the direct beneficiaries of all this service — one role among many being the chair, but I could name others of equal or maybe even greater importance — since it creates and reinforces the institution in which we hope to have our careers. It’s therefore plenty ironic that many of us demean that crucial form of labor.