Don’t Confuse Style with Intent

Riker, Picard, and Kolrami

Riker, Picard, and Kolrami

Quote from “Peak Performance,” a 1989 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

[Kolrami has criticized Riker’s inappropriate joviality and lack of seriousness for a commanding officer.]

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Don’t confuse style with intent. Only a fool would question Commander Riker’s dedication to Starfleet and the men and women under his command. He is simply the finest officer with whom I have ever served.

Sirna Kolrami: We shall see if your faith is well founded.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The test is whether the crew will follow where Commander Riker leads. His… his “joviality” is the means by which he creates that loyalty. And I will match his command style with your statistics anytime.

********

A few years ago, a senior female colleague, whom I consider a friend, told me that I did not have the right personality to go into administration. I don’t think she wanted to be mean and I believe she told me her honest opinion. I also have no intention whatsoever of ever going into administration. But her remark did sting, as they always do when a person whose opinion you value confirms some of the worst fears or most negative opinions you have of yourself. What I heard was a confirmation that how I am, my entire personality, is simply wrong for being a senior member of academia.

I am much more serious in my blog writing than I am in real life. I think my family and my students would roll their eyes at how stuffy I sometimes sound on the blog, especially when I am in advice-giving mode.  I am really not serious in real life, at all. (You should hear our family’s dinner conversations.) However, it’s a real challenge in faculty meetings to not blurt out the jokes that pop into my mind while the colleagues drone on. If you ever felt the urge to laugh at a funeral, that’s  how I feel in just about every meeting ever. With age, I have gotten better at keeping my mouth shut and distracting myself so as not to disrupt the super-serious and often time-wasting proceedings.

But my personality seems to be perfect for teaching undergrads. Peppering my lectures with “good bad jokes” (this is verbatim from a student comment) works well to keep the students engaged and generally everyone in a good mood. The courses I teach are very “mathy” (again, an expression a student used) and challenging on their own; for many undergrads, every avenue that can be used to relate such material to something practical or enjoyable is not only welcome but, in fact, necessary for the students to feel a real connection with what they are learning. Goofing around with them fits the bill.

I am also myself with my graduate students and my collaborators, as I let my pun-happy freak flag fly. I hope most of them don’t mind. At least they are all used to me.

But I never forget that my personality is wrong, that being a goofball is out of the norm, yet another item in the long list of ways in which I am not how I should be for where I want to be professionally.

This year, I am chairing an important university-level committee. It was a surprise that I was chosen to chair it, considering I had been myself the whole time leading to the election. But now that I was supposed to take up my chairing duties, I had every intention of being dead serious, like my predecessor, because it’s a very important committee.

We had the first meeting the other day and I had the floor to myself for quite a while, because there was a lot of material to present to the new members. I was very nervous and I felt at times that I couldn’t find appropriately weighty words, becoming of a serious academic. But I could always find a metaphor, a light self-deprecating joke, or a slightly sarcastic remark. And within minutes, I was relaxed, and so was everyone else on the committee. To my complete surprise, I was able to run a very efficient meeting. Here are some unexpected aspects that I noticed.

  • I covered all the material that I was supposed to cover, and I believe I did it clearly, and in considerably less time than my predecessor. An incisive remark or an appropriate metaphor is often more efficient at conveying meaning than three paragraphs worth of admin-speak. I will hypothesize that actual living academics in meetings with other academics might, in fact, like to have their information conveyed clearly and succinctly, just like all other humans do in every aspect of their life. Who knew?
  • I was nervous, but I guess so was everyone else, especially the new members. I think I (inadvertently) set a lighthearted tone that helped everyone relax quickly.
  • When I compare this meeting to the ones over the past years (different chair every year), I believe I spent overall less time talking myself while other senior members of the committee chimed in more. I am not sure what the reason is; maybe I am a blithering fool who’s not worth listening to? Whatever the reason, it’s a good thing overall — everyone sharing their impressions with the new members is vastly superior to just me dispensing wisdom for an extended period of time.
  • What is interesting is that some people who were very quiet last year spoke quite freely and cheerfully this year. It might be that they are simply more relaxed as they are no longer new. Whatever the reason, it’s good to finally hear from them!

Overall, I was surprised at how well everything went, how efficient the meeting was, and how cheerful everyone seemed as they were leaving. I did not suck at chairing this meeting, despite acting like myself.

You may call me Commander Riker.

13 comments

  1. “What I heard was a confirmation that how I am, my entire personality, is simply wrong for being a senior member of academia.”

    Administrators aren’t senior members of academia. They are outsiders, divorced from teaching and research and focused on herding us in service to agendas that have nothing to do with the value of knowledge and everything to do with making our institutions into factories while paying homage to the latest buzzwords.

    If somebody told me that I have the personality for administration I would grab them by the throat and start choking them until they recanted.

    Being the faculty chair of a committee is different. That is, at its best, about keeping the running of our institutions out of the hands of administrators. One can be a superb faculty chair of a committee while lacking the administrative personality.

  2. If somebody told me that I have the personality for administration I would grab them by the throat and start choking them until they recanted.

    LOL! Thank you for this.

  3. What that means to me is that one doesn’t suffer fools gladly. I don’t have the right personality because people being obnoxious irritates me, pointless meetings bore me, and I tend to care about things. These aren’t flaws and I don’t think people telling me not to go into administration (*cough* my mother *cough*) believe they are either. It takes a different kind of personality to deal with admin.

  4. Here, at least two of the senior administrators I know are definitely goofballs. One mitigating factor is that both of them are only interim and are thus actually still faculty. For example, one of them wore a name tag to a gathering that said “Almost interim Provost” because it wasn’t until 8:00 the next morning that his predecessor got on a plane and technically vacated the job…

  5. It always pains me to hear smart faculty paint all administrators with such broad (and unflattering) strokes. I am a dean at a little liberal arts school who came directly from our faculty (and still holds a faculty position in a STEM discipline). I went into administration because I DO care about things, especially making my school a better place for our students and our faculty. I hope that I can make a difference to more students as an administrator who oversees the entire college than I could as a faculty member who only sees a small section of the students. Portraying all administrators as outsiders who care little for the value of knowledge is unfair and entirely unhelpful to those who are trying to develop programs aimed at helping faculty and students.

  6. Prof dean, it probably doesn’t actually matter how much an admin cares in terms of how good an administrator is. It does, however, provide much more of an emotional roller coaster for the administrator. People don’t think I would be a terrible administrator, they think I would drop dead of a heart attack or something.

    Personally I am grateful to my chair and think he is well worth the almost double salary and course reductions he gets. I would not make that tradeoff.

  7. Wow! That super negative and unprofessional comment about you, and made directly to you…! So unprofessional, so irrational, so unnecessary!

    I’ve learned that such events are actually red, red flags—-all about the person making the comment. Beware! I recommend that you keep a very close eye on that person and do not trust them. This is a flag that they are themselves acting massively unprofessional in some way. They are jealous of you, and that’s why they said that to you.

    At the very least they are certainly saying worse things about you when you aren’t present, and their own career and influence are likely tanking in a big way. This person may be engaged in academic fraud, is being shut out of leadership for acting unprofessionally, is having an affair with a student, is stealing funds, has a major drug of alcohol problem, and/or has lied about their credentials.

    I know you think I’m exaggerating 🙂 but I’ve seen it happen too many times. It’s easy to take such a weird comment seriously and interpret it as something being really wrong with you and the way you do things. But if there was really something you need to change about your personality, wouldn’t many people have mentioned it to you? Wouldn’t it have come up over and over again during your career? And wouldn’t a legitimate criticism be about some personality aspect that is more unambigously and deleteriously unprofessional (and common) such as never answering email, never completing required paperwork or training, skipping meetings, being 30 min late to everything, habitually using foul language, sexual or rascist metaphors, or shouting at the secretaries?

    So, yeah, I think you should ignore the content of the comment and instead keep your eye on the person who made it–they are not your friend.

  8. Did you ever ask your friend what aspects of your personality are unsuitable for an admin position. It seems like you are speculating and it may be that you do not actually see the problem. Also, Alex’s judgment of admins is so cliche. There many good admins (and many bad ones), like any other job. It is always wrong to generalize.

  9. Did you ever ask your friend what aspects of your personality are unsuitable for an admin position. It seems like you are speculating and it may be that you do not actually see the problem.

    I didn’t think to ask, and I would have been too embarrassed to do so even if I had thought to ask. But I know the colleague and I know myself, so I think I have some idea what she meant.

    The successful admins I know, who started as faculty and have successfully transitioned into long-term admin careers with ever-increasing responsibility and prestige (as opposed to just serving a 3 or 4-year sentence as department chair and then taking years to recover), all appear to share very specific traits that are also found in successful politicians: a) smooth and eloquent; b) friendly but aloof, and holding cards close to their chests; c) generally serious or, if joking, then very innocuous, presumably to avoid offense to anyone; and d) cool cucumbers, never showing that they are perturbed by any crap that flies at them, always able to remain calm.

    My personality is pretty much the anti-admin: I am straightforward, sarcastic, impatient, interactions with people affect me, and concealing when I am hurt or angry takes me considerable energy and focus; I could not do it day in and day out as miscellaneous people keep venting their frustrations at me or asking mutually incompatible things from me, pulling me in every direction, which I assume an admin position requires dealing with. So the colleague is not wrong about me.

    But I am not bad with people or incapable of being in a leadership role; in fact, it appears I can be very effective in certain roles, where I am able to be my genuine self when I interact with people. Those roles seem to include teaching, mentoring, and certain committees. Not career administration, though.

  10. I admit that I painted with too broad of a brush regarding the individual character of admins. The systemic problem is that there is a certain mold, a certain Zeitgeist of assumptions in the culture of administration, and the bad ones fit it perfectly while the good ones have to at least pay lip service to it. I’d prefer to live in a world where the good ones set the mood and the bad ones had to at least pretend to play along.

  11. ” I am straightforward, sarcastic, impatient, interactions with people affect me, and concealing when I am hurt or angry takes me considerable energy and focus; I could not do it day in and day out as miscellaneous people keep venting their frustrations at me or asking mutually incompatible things from me, pulling me in every direction, which I assume an admin position requires dealing with. So the colleague is not wrong about me. ”
    is me exactly except for the sarcasm. I can pretend to not be these things but it takes a tremendous amount of energy. And there are so many things I would far rather be doing.

  12. I am with Alex. I would hate administration, so I would be really happy if people told me that I didn’t have the personality for it. Unfortunately, someone recently told me that my current major service responsibility is often the “fast track to Dept Chair”. Not for me!

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