Howdy, fellow academics!
The new school year is in full swing, and, oh boy, is it swinging! Straight for the fences! Only the bat is aimed at a faculty member’s head instead of a baseball! Sure, I’m yelling and mixing metaphors, but what do you expect from a headless academic blogger?
I’ve realized that, when the semester starts, my stress doesn’t come from my graduate research students or the undergrads/grad students in my classes. Yes, teaching and research are tiring and may sometimes be frustrating, but I often find them invigorating and, when I step back and reflect on my job, I always appreciate how important and meaningful these endeavors are.
Most of the stress comes from i) unnecessary in-person meetings, ii) institutional service in general, and iii) dealing with hostile administrative staff.
I have always hated in-person meetings. With increasing age, my tolerance of in-person meetings has been steadily declining, as my natural introverted tendencies have overtaken the sociability I’d taught myself to emulate. All facetime drains me, even with my loved ones, but I understand I need to appear in the flesh in front my family, the students in my classes, and my own research students.
I do not, however, understand why we have to meet in person for pretty much any service task or committee. Or for faculty meetings. I am much (much!) more comfortable meeting over Zoom now that the technology is available, as there are fewer issues I have to wrangle. I am less likely to run my mouth in Zoom meetings (I feel that’s always welcome by everyone, including me), more comfortable not having my whole body on display (because my body language reveals exactly how uncomfortable, bored, and/or annoyed I am), and let’s not forget how much easier it is for various people to jump in and share various materials (slides, links).
Despite me and others mentioning a number of times our preference for online meetings, powers that be insist on in-person meetings for some inexplicable reason. Only it’s not inexplicable; they feel in-person meetings play to their extrovert strengths, and have the added benefit of making the introverted, perhaps socially anxious likes of me, who are commonly found in STEM, feel unsteady and thus easier to manipulate. With this particular power that be, the manipulation toolbox also includes the ever-popular request to meet without saying what the meeting is about, as well as impromptu phone or video calls, where some significant commitment is asked of me and I’m pressured to say yes or no without being given the opportunity to think about things. I hate it all.
The second issue is service. Many service duties simply aren’t necessary. There are many more committees than they were when I first joined, yet somehow the university functioned back then. For example, must we continuously tweak our curriculum? We just finished a big overhaul. Can we leave it alone for a second? Must we increase the frequency of formal review of our assistant professors? They are stressed enough without us making them turn in loads of paperwork twice as often as before, and waste the senior folks’ time on having to review all these. Must we add new layers of oversight of established, tenured faculty, as though they were disobedient children? FFS, these people are seasoned professionals, let them do their jobs, and don’t waste their time. Someone suggested that we should have mentoring committees for senior faculty. The idea was shut down, thankfully, but can you imagine? When is someone enough of a professional grownup? Never, some would have you believe. These are all insults and power grabs under the guise of help and care. The ever-increasing amounts of paperwork we are supposed to generate for the purpose of assessing shit that doesn’t need assessing are likely designed specifically to waste faculty time while also tying their hands. Is it the case of wanting us to be too busy and distracted to not notice the lack of resources, the lack of actual boots-on-the-ground staff support, the black hole into which the overhead funds seem to vanish, the increasing number of well-paid special deanlets and associate vice something-somethings, the inability to actually effect any meaningful change even though we’re supposed to pride ourselves in faculty governance?
The third issue, one that Grumpies noted in their recent post, is the increasingly hostile attitude of a lot of administrative staff. It has become a serious energy drain. I am still of the mind that our department staff, the people who do absolutely vital, day-to-day work with faculty and students, are pretty uniformly wonderful and helpful, and there is a feeling we are all on the same team. However, moving to the college level, let alone the university sponsored programs office, you can really taste the venom. I don’t know if the pandemic made things worse somehow, but even before it, they were not on the same team with faculty at all. They were (and are) not only unhelpful, but actively obstructive and dismissive.
Here’s a fresh anecdote. I had made a purchase on one of my grants a few years ago. At the time, multiple people in the department and college had approved said purchase, and in fact had made me get the item through them at 2x the price I could’ve paid otherwise. Recently, the grant was getting closed out, and the university-level accountants came back saying the purchase wasn’t allowed. I managed to hunt down all the emails, but it turned out every single person I’d worked with regarding that purchase (something like five total) and who had all vetted and approved the purchase were now gone (retired, moved elsewhere, etc.), and the currently relevant person at the college level claimed they could not find any record of the purchase. I was basically told that I never should’ve charged the item to the grant to begin with and I was left holding the (2x greater than I would’ve wanted) bill. When I told them it seemed unfair to have me waste discretionary funds on this now since I hadn’t bought this item in vacuum and that the college and department certainly shared responsibility, I was all but told to go fuck myself. I am not a particularly vindictive person, but if I found out this rude, dismissive person got a really bad case of food poisoning or, better yet, got in a heap of trouble because they condescended to someone who isn’t as tired, jaded, or wussy as I am, I would very much let myself enjoy one delicious Schadenfreude high.
How’s the semester going for you, blogosphere?