Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Posted by Arjendu on April 6, 2008

As I’ve mentioned in passing before, this year I have acquired a new role as an administrator — as co-director of CISMI (the Carleton Interdisciplinary Science and Mathematics Initiative). The first few months I was still getting used to doing it, mostly consumed by the excitement of participating in the writing of a giant proposal, and getting some new ideas off the ground. But this last week, as I’ve attempted to get back into the groove for the new term, CISMI-related activities are very visible, more routine, and hence feel very much administrative. The administrative assistant for CISMI is also the Physics Department’s admin, and there was a morning last week when I was trapped in a loop for what felt like half-a-morning but was probably a lot less: I was stopped with a CISMI-related question when I stepped out of the office for coffee, had to go back to my office to shoot off an email/make a phone-call to sort things out, and when I headed back towards to the coffee machine, stopped again, and so on. All that administrivia made focusing on physics a little difficult, to say the least.

Why did I say yes to the Dean (Scott Bierman) when he asked whether I would take on this position? He made the request/offer to me a week after calling me to let me know I had tenure — he claimed that this gave me a fair shot at saying no. (Full disclosure, as a smart game-theorist economist, he asked for service on multiple fora when he did this, and I said ‘no’ to all the others. We’ve joked about his strategy — that Scott was banking on it being easier to say yes to one of many requests if they were presented all together.)

As is typical in academia, it’s not because there’s enormous rewards associated with it. Actually, on the surface, none. There are course-releases associated with it (for me and Fernan, the Director of CISMI) but they barely compensate for the added work, something I hadn’t really appreciated from outside.

And it’s not because I am done with being a professor and itching to move on: I love teaching and doing physics, and have plenty of other college-wide involvements, thank you very much. So what, then? The following are my musings on motivation, apologies for some of the ambiguities inherent.

One reason stems from something Scott has said repeatedly: There is an enormous amount of Carleton College’s activities that relies on this kind of ‘volunteer’ work from faculty. Which means that either one of us has to do it, or it doesn’t get done. The pool of people who could fill this spot isn’t that large, so really it’s a question of ‘doing your tour’, in some ways. I have often characterized myself as being pretty good in the role of ‘heckler’ — someone who is happy to hang back and comment (constructively, one hopes) on ideas put forth by the people nominally running things. It felt like time to try the role on the other side.

It’s the same reason why I’ve felt like teaching the Cross-cultural studies course was beneficial for me, or why I write a column for the ‘The Indian American’, and why I am maintaining this blog, in some ways. Apart from my research field, and of course my courses, I haven’t been asked to take a stand or create the target for criticism about much. It’s about time to see if a coherent story can be made from the scattered thoughts I’ve generated about all sorts of things.

Another is that I get to push/facilitate the growth of/ two ideas that are close to my heart: (1) Complex systems thinking as embedded in interdisciplinary science (through the curricular development funds that we get to disburse) and (2) broadening access to education and to science for under-represented minorities, again through curricular issues, as well as through helping guide conversations on classroom climate and pedagogical techniques.

All of what I get to do is facilitation and suggestion rather than direction, really, given that everything goes through an advisory board composed of some very smart people with strong opinions — yes, hecklers — and that it’s directed at moving faculty along (which, as we all know, is somewhat on the lines of herding cats, particularly when you have no power over them at all).

So it’s about making meaning, creating a story, on a larger scale than your discipline and your teaching, and for a place I definitely feel like I belong to, and which perhaps has begun to ‘belong’ to me. Which compensates somewhat for taking care of the paperwork and the logistics. I also get to have long chats with Fernan, which I have begun to enjoy greatly — they are officially about CISMI but land up ranging all over the place, as you probably experience in conversations with any collaborator.

And a short while ago we heard back from that big grant we had requested: We were approved! It’s still not officially announced (so more details later) but it means that we — the Carleton science community specifically — will get to do some of the things we had hoped to do, and it’s nice to feel like one has helped facilitate that.


2 Responses to “Administrating”

  1. […] by arjendu on April 23, 2008 The till-recently-embargoed good news from the grant I’d mentioned earlier? Here’s the official press-release. Fernan even got interviewed by Minnesota Public […]

  2. […] administration issues: 2 – 10 hours a week. This fluctuates hugely, again, depending on whether a proposal or […]

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