Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Deaning 102: Front of house

Posted by Arjendu on September 11, 2010

The academic year at Carleton starts next week, which means that the first-year students have been on campus for about a week and the signal has been sent to the faculty to focus back on the upcoming school year through the annual Retreat. The faculty are polishing their syllabi, scrambling to get as close to closure on summer research/scholarship as possible and, in all sorts of ways, getting opening-day jitters and doing the best they can to prepare for it.

For staff, this prep or peak intensity of work has been going on for a while. The Dean of Students office in particular, but the Dean of the College office (especially the Registrar), as well as all the academic support staff such as ITS (information technology services) and the library — have been revving up and, in fact, moving fast for a while now.  As far as I can tell, while there are still people with enormous amounts on their plates (I have at least one close friend in ITS who sounds like he’s beginning to forget what his wife and kid look like when they are not asleep), as always, we will be ready to go on Monday.

How about my life in particular? Well, I used to hang out with theater groups both as an undergraduate and a graduate student, usually as a techie on sound or light, and sometimes on building sets and doing props, etc. Everyone in a while I was shanghaied into being ‘front of house’: That is to say, put on some presentable clothes, and do something with the audience before the actual show started, like direct them to their seats, or make an announcement or something. This week, I had to do a lot of the ‘front of house’ stuff for Carleton. I found myself addressing people from a stage or front of the room at periodic intervals: Advising academic advisers about advising, reassuring parents that their children had been left in safe hands, talking to RAs (student housing leaders), admissions fellows, new chairs and program directors, SDAs (peer academic advisers), international students, athletes, finishing with talking to all the new students yesterday … though it’s all a bit of a blur at the moment. It did involve putting on some presentable clothes (given that I used to usually teach in a t-shirt and jeans, I figured that all I had to do to impress my campus colleagues was to find a clean shirt with a collar and put on a jacket; in my idle moments, I have wondered what my colleagues who teach in a suit and a tie would do if they had to crank up their presentability  — tuxedos? top-hats with tails?). And it meant that I was away from my office a fair amount.

All this made continuing with the day-to-day-management stuff that I described in Deaning 101 a trifle more challenging. Given that classes are about to start, it’s natural that that work continues picking up for a bit (deciding what to do with low-enrollment classes or those with large wait lists for example; approving independent studies, travel grants for faculty, etc, etc ). Thanks to my newly-impossible-to-pry-from-my-hands handheld communication device, my inbox remains pretty manageable, so I figure that at least I am not overwhelmed yet, though we shall see.

And then, the long-term projects: Budgets, future directions, keeping an eye on diversity issues, etc, etc. As scary and problematic those look, those are the meaty ones, the reason I find this position intellectually satisfying and interesting. I am still unsure of how to talk about those things (which, by the rule of thumb I have for when I can talk about a certain physics idea, means that I don’t own them yet), so you might not hear more for a while on this blog, but I hope that they occupy much more of my time than the things that I think of as Deaning 101 and Deaning 102.

I’ll leave you with more phrases to describe my life that I’ve acquired recently:

(1) In the Dean’s office you have to put out a lot of fires — with a squirt gun.

(2) Trying to manage academia does feel like policing as one of the archetypal ‘Bobbies’, who is on foot and armed not with a gun but perhaps a truncheon: When you see trouble, all you can say is ‘Stop! Or … I’ll say ‘Stop’ again’.

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