Who Are We Here For?

I was talking to a colleague the other day, and we were reflecting on how student-centered our campus is.  We often joke that students have more power than we do, a statement that might not be that much of a joke.  We were talking about a controversial subject, and she said, “I guess we’ll see how student-centered we really are.”

This conversation reminded me of when I worked at a Kroger grocery store in high school.  We had signs on the doors that separated our areas of the store (the loading dock, our break room, and the area where we processed incoming shipments) from the shelves where the customers were.  I saw those signs so often I’ve never forgotten them:  “The Customer is the only reason we’re here.”

On a literal level, that’s true, of course.  If we hadn’t had customers, then we wouldn’t have been able to stay in business.  However, that’s not the way those signs were attended (I hope).  Instead, the conversations management had with us focused on meeting customers’ needs, interpreting the sign to mean that the customer is the end goal of our work, not the bottom line or even our own financial well-being, which is clearly why most, if not all, of us were there.

What I discovered, even as a teenager, though, is that the policies of the store didn’t back that up.  One rather silly example centers around name tags.  I would often get bored at work and try to think up ways to entertain myself.  When I found out that office workers could make us name tags, I decided to have some minor fun with them.  I ended up with three name tags, one that had my real name, two that had fake names: Clyde and Elvis.

The customers greatly enjoyed these name tags.  Even if the customers were not regulars and didn’t know my real name, they often read the names and chuckled, leading to a fun conversation while I was ringing up their groceries.  Management, however, didn’t find these name tags humorous.  Our front end manager pulled me into a hallway off the main area and said that I needed to use one that reflected my real name.  I tried to explain that customers liked them, but she didn’t listen.  Her argument was that the people in the office needed to know who customers were referring to if they called in with a complaint.  I tried to explain that, should a customer call in with a complaint about Clyde or Elvis, it would be easy to see that the complaint was about me, but she wouldn’t hear that line of argument.

Essentially, she was unhappy because I was breaking some unwritten rule, going against the order the company wanted from its employees.  What strikes me as really interesting is that her argument centered around complaints, as if they expected complaints about employees.  One could argue that she was thinking about the customers, and I’m sure she would have framed her argument that way, if pushed; however, I was the one who seemed to be making the customers happy, not her.  Several even complained when I went back to my normal name tag.

In the year when I went up for tenure, I wrote an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Because it involved people who were working in our department at the time, I needed to publish it under a pen name.  I was proud, though, of having them publish one of my essays (my first one in that particular publication), so I asked my department chair to pass it up the line above her, which she did.  It turns out that the administration didn’t like my essay, mainly one paragraph, the paragraph they quoted back to me when they asked for clarification as they considered my tenure case.  Here’s the paragraph:

“If all goes well this academic year, I will be able to enjoy the long-term benefits of tenure. I look forward to the day when I can turn down a committee appointment that will take up way too much of my time and does not interest me in the least; when I can speak freely in meetings without fear that I’ll be looking for a new job next year; and when I can go for a period of time without feeling the pressure to write something new, and I can actually dig into a long-term project and savor the research process.”

Anybody who knew me then or knows me now will understand that I didn’t mean that I would begin coasting from that point on.  In fact, there is nothing here that says that I will not teach students as well as I had before.  The focus is on the work I will do outside of the classroom, not inside it.

I was asked to respond to the administration’s concerns, which I can, looking back, at least partially understand.  We’ve all seen examples of people who have largely stopped working after tenure, and they were concerned that I would become another one of those professors.  I wrote a letter in response, and my focus was clearly on the students.  I was quite purposeful not to pledge allegiance to the university, but to the students, a focus I still try to maintain.  If I had a copy of the letter, I would quote parts, but, unfortunately, I don’t.

Part of the problem is that I’m anti-institutional by nature, as are many of us in this profession.  Unfortunately, unless we want to begin teaching as Socrates did–which doesn’t offer great pay or any benefits–we need institutional higher education.  However, we can and should work to truly make our colleges and universities student-centered.  That doesn’t mean giving them what they want, but what they need.  That means that we do so even when the administration has other ideas in mind.  I still know where my allegiance lies.

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Content Where One Is

I’m in my thirteenth year at my current institution, and I taught and worked as a librarian at private high schools for four years before that, so I’m nearing the mid-career mark.  When I was younger, I spent a lot of time thinking about taking on certain roles or even moving up the ranks.  It wasn’t that I was unhappy with the people who were already in those positions; I simply thought that I wanted to be there, as well.

For example, when I was a librarian at a private school in Washington state, I was at a conference where someone talked about accreditation.  I knew about that from my work in higher education, so I was intrigued at how it worked at a lower level.  When I learned about how it worked, I wanted to get involved, to be a part of those teams that did accreditation.  Note that I had three years of high school experience at that point.  I remember going to the headmaster of my school, who was quite encouraging, to talk about this opportunity.  I never pursued it, though, as I left the school to return to higher education.

Even when I came back to the university level, I kept thinking about moving up the ranks.  Thankfully, our department chair has been in her position for a long time, and she does a great job, so I never thought about serving in that role.  However, there were other opportunities.  Because our department is so large (relative to our school; we have about 20 faculty members, which I know is quite small for many colleges and universities), we have people who coordinate parts of it.

A few years after I came back, I worked with those coordinators on a project or two, and I began to think I was being groomed to take a role at that level.  That didn’t happen.  Then, a few years later, our department chair clearly included two more of us in that group, so I was sure I would be taking on more of a leadership role.  That didn’t happen, either.  Both times, not surprisingly, I was disappointed, as I wanted to be seen as a leader in the department and the university, at large.

Now, several years later, I’m glad that neither of those situations worked out.  In fact, I now have no desire at all to ever serve at that role, and I certainly don’t want to ever serve as an administrator (I know that could change in ten to twenty years, but I’ll deal with that change if it comes).  I was recently in a meeting about undergraduate research, which we’re trying to improve on campus.  The woman who put us together said that we need a chair and that that person will probably get a class release time, if not now, soon.  I thought about volunteering, but then I realized that I would be shifting my emphasis from the classroom, which I love, to meetings, which I hate.

Similarly, last year, a friend of mine who just moved to a new university told me that there was an opening for a Dean there.  I’ll admit that I took a couple of days and looked at the school and the job description.  I even did some research on the town to see if it’s a place I might want to live.  What I realized, though, was that I kept looking at the English curriculum, as if that’s where my focus would be.  As with the meeting early this year, it dawned on me that I would be spending much more of my time in meetings, not the classroom, which would be an awful trade for me.

For some reason, we seem to believe that we need to move up the ranks.  Some people have that gift (often not the people who pursue it, by the way), but some people are better suited to the classroom.  Allison Vaillancourt writes about this idea in a post for The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is what inspired my post.  Since she’s the type of person to want to take on higher positions, she has trouble understanding those who don’t.

What I’ve ultimately decided is that I love the classroom way too much to ever want to make a trade, even for one class, to take on more leadership.  I’ll serve where I’m needed, but I will not seek out such positions.  Instead, I’ll spend my energy and time trying to be the best teacher I can be.  That’s stood me in good stead so far, so I’ll stay right where I am for the time being and, possibly, for the rest of my career.

As with article (https://chroniclevitae.com/news/848-does-there-need-to-be-a-next), I’m now content to be where I am doing what I’m doing, and I’ll probably be so for the rest of my days