Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Secretarial Skills as Crucial to Professorial Success

Ok, so while I was in college/graduate school, I often fell back on the secretarial skills that my mom insisted were a good idea to have. (You know, along the lines of: whatever happens you'll always be able to get a job and make ends meet, even if you will be miserable.) I have worked as a receptionist. I have worked as a telephone operator (One of my favorite jobs, actually, being the operator in a huge office building. We were allowed to wear whatever we wanted and to do whatever we wanted as long as we answered the phones promptly when they rang and got the calls where they were supposed to go. This meant that during the summer I had that job I managed to do huge amounts of research about how to apply to graduate schools and that I read pretty much every novel by Margaret Drabble. Oh, and I had perfectly polished finger-nails. Yes, we polished our nails at work. Not a bad gig.) I worked for about nine months as a transcription typist. I've had temp gigs where the entire job was to file.

It strikes me, however, as I try to make sense of my office that these were not just "fall-back-just-in-case" skills. I'm still doing clerical work. After 10 years of higher education, after publications, after teaching, etc. I'm my own fucking secretary. I totally resent this.

18 comments:

Derrick said...

On the bright side, think of all the stuff you can get yourself on Secretary's Day!

On the dark side (perhaps) do you think you would be better or worse as a boss toward your secretary, given your experiences?

I find having a secretary requires walking a pretty thin line. I am not even sure I can call her a secretary. Hmmmm.

tippycanoe said...

Why do you resent it? Just curious ...

Dr. Crazy said...

Ok, I like the idea of buying myself gifts for secretaries' day. That is awesome.

As far as what I'd be like as a boss, I think that I'd be ok. I mean, it's impossible to know, as I likely will not have a secretary of my own EVER, but, well, for example, I tend to try not to burden our department secretaries with my crap (like making last-minute copies, etc.) because I remember hating when people would just dump crap on me when I was in the administrative assistant world. Also, I'm not particularly picky about how a person chooses to accomplish a particular task or in what order they choose to complete tasks as long as at the end of the day the task gets done adequately and by the deadline, if there is one. I imagine if I had a secretary I'd be likely to leave them to their own devices and to give them a lot of autonomy, which I think I'd like were I a secretary....

Why do I resent it? Well, I think that I resent it for a couple of reasons. 1. After 10 years and tens of thousands of dollars of debt, it strikes me that I shouldn't be doing the same crap I had to do before I "achieved" the goal, you know? 2. I think that it's a reminder that the whole thing of, "education will mean that you don't have to do the crappy stuff you have to do in jobs where less education is required," is a lie. Coming from a working-class background, education was always held up as this thing that promised salvation from a life of drudgery. On days like this, I realize that this is not the case.

Ancarett said...

Most valuable education I received in high school? My minor in office practice -- learned bookkeeping and got up to 90wpm in typing. (My sister also did shorthand, but I decided I'd rather bail in three than stay for a fourth year.)

I agree with you that I tend to resent some of the secretarial work that's fallen back on faculty since the advent of the computer. We have to do all our own manuscript preparation, we end up doing most of our copying, etc. or the secretary was buried under requests. Especially before the recent wave of retirements, I saw our department secretary do a lot of work that my older peers could easily have managed for themselves but had never thought to do.

And as the department secretary should rightly be considered an administrative assistant with all the budgetary and reporting duties that fall on her shoulders, I continue to do my own paperwork rather than burden her, whenever possible.

csdorotoc said...

Almost nobody in the US has a secretary anymore unless you work in the government or run something big. If you're just some director or vicepresident, you can pretty sure you'll be answering your own phone and making your own copies.

Dr. Crazy said...

Uh... a lot of people in the world have secretaries or assistants of some kind. While it is true that even directors or vps etc. will do some of their own administrative tasks - like answering the phone, making a copy here or there, etc. - they don't tend to do ALL of their administrative tasks, which at least in my experience professors do. I'm sorry, but you're not going to see any director of anything on his knees creating a filing system, or even just purging files of old stuff. They hire people to do that shit. Really.

But to respond to Ancarett, yes, the computer is to blame for a lot of this stuff (I just had this conversation with a friend of mine yesterday as she was struggling to format an article for publication). Also, I agree that it's not right to burden department secretaries with stuff that one can easily do on one's own, like making copies. It's funny - that's not the work that I get most irritated by but rather things like dealing with the massive volumes of paper that come across my desk that I really never needed to see, or making sure I have a system for saving all of the crap that the university bureaucracy requires me to keep track of.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Some of it varies by institution. One thing I can whole-heartedly praise about my current institution is its excellent secretarial support - I never make copies, never go to the library, never order my own desk copies, etc. (I do file all my own crap, of course, although people have actually used work-study students here to do stuff like that). The ms preparation stuff I don't mind at all, because I'm a control freak and wouldn't want someone else to do that stuff, anyway (though if I were sending copies of a ms to a publisher, for instance, I could easily ask our secretary to do it - basically, I can get people to do anything mechanical that I want).

And then the place I was last weekend, the school in a tiny town? They're very similar to my current school - and they don't even have secretaries for DEPARTMENT CHAIRS.

I just got lucky this time round.

(And Crazy, I've done all the secretarial work, too. When I first got here I felt guilty asking them to do stuff for me that I could do on my own, but honestly, the work-study students often sit around on their asses otherwise...)

Dr. Crazy said...

Good point about the institutional variances, NK. (And something for me to consider as I consider the whole going on the market thing.... I would SO love to have more administrative support than I've got here.... In our department of about 30 tenured or t-t peeps, and COUNTLESS full-time non-t-t, adjuncts, etc., we've got two secretaries and one student worker, so that makes for a lot more administrative responsibility falling on faculty, and I won't even mention the fact that we only got a COPY MACHINE - as opposed to a "digital duplicator" - like last year. Apparently the faculty were still using a mimeograph until like 1995.)

Mykindoftown said...

Wow...where to start on this post...
First off, anyone who assumes that the world of higher education is "different" than any other industry (especially these days) is delusional, or they just didn't get their noses out of the Derrida enough to smell the changes during their years in grad school.

Secondly, I have no doubt that a wistful look back at the world of telephony sounds pretty good. However, let's take a closer look: That job probably had mountains of oversight, arcane rules, and tons of supervision. In case you had forgotten, professors tend to have a great deal of leeway in the way they structure their day.

Thirdly, anyone who thinks the world is "fair" (or that educational attainment necessarily leads to some certain preordained future), probably NEVER got their heads out of the books to take a look around....listen, I'm also from a working-class background, and thank god I finally realized that higher ed is full of capricious people, back-stabbers, and incompetents...the percentage is about equal to that one would find in the "real world". That being said, there are some marvelous people out there in colleges and universities (janitors, profs, librarians, etc.)

Now, if the only way you can achieve happiness in this field is if you become a Chomsky or whatever, you may never be satisfied. Having said that, I interviewed him on my radio show in college, and when I called to make the appointment with him, it was he who picked up the phone, not an underling.

Derrick said...

Gosh, Dr. C, I think your post just made someone's knee jerk.

Dr. Crazy said...

Dude, mykindoftown, take it down a notch. In no way do I think I'm entitled to some kind of life of leisure just because I am a professor, and nor do I think this is the hardest job in the world. It's not. Nor am I delusional about what higher ed is or isn't. I was bitching about the fact that I spent my day today doing shit that is entirely invisible, for which I am not paid (my contract does not run into the summer months, and yet I do work year round - not that I expect a trophy for this, but it is the reality), and that has absolutely nothing to do with what I was educated and trained to do with that education.

And it's my blog. I'm allowed to bitch if I so choose. And it's not that I expect the world to be fair, or that I think that this bitching will mean I suddenly don't have to deal with clerical tasks, or that what I want is an "underling" to do my bidding, or that I don't appreciate some of the benefits of this profession (though I would argue that we do pay dearly for many of those). Frankly, I find your comment, which indicates all of the above about me, rude and condescending. And I'm not sure why you felt entitled to try to put me in my place for having an opinion about the conditions of my labor.

Dr. Crazy said...

Derrick - Hehe - my knee just jerked right back.

Derrick said...

I sorta knew it would...lol :)

Mykindoftown said...

Hey, first of all, I didn't question your qualifications, competence, etc. But it is clear that I struck a nerve, or else I wouldn't have gotten such a strong response.

I didn't attempt to put you "in your place", but merely threw out a contrarian/alternative viewpoint on the world of higher education. You didn't even deign to respond to any of my comments, etc.

And as for "derrick" in boondoggle flats...try to think about some more snappy one liners, because as it is, you're not even poor man's Shaw, or for that matter, a poor man's Jeff Foxworthy.

Derrick said...

Would love to engage you, Townie, but it's not my blog. I am just a guest here. :)

Dr. Crazy said...

Ok, first of all, please no being rude in the comments to other commenters, MyKindofTown. Derrick comments here all the time, and whatever your opinion of his sense of humor or lack thereof, it's not your place, on my blog, to tell him he's a poor man's anything.

As for the strength of my response, yes, it was caused by the fact that you struck a nerve. It was that pesky nerve that always seems to act up when I feel like people are treating me like any of the following:

a) a dilettante whose head is so lost in the clouds of theory and literature that her opinions don't have merit.
B) a silly girl who should put up and shut up because she's "lucky" to be a professor. Incidentally, women faculty often have a heftier administrative burden than their male counterparts, not because their male colleagues are jerks or anything of the kind but because women are often trained in administrative skills and because women are socialized in such a way that they think it's inappropriate to "burden" the department secretaries with certain kinds of tasks.

But now, to respond to your comments, because I suppose that I didn't.

1. While it's true that higher ed is a business or industry, it is not in fact one like any other. There are distinct differences in the way that employees are evaluated, the way that employees are compensated, and in the structures of governance that keep the business or industry running. And those differences are central to the mission of higher education to produce not only workers for other industries but to produce citizens who contribute to communities in a capacity beyond that of worker.

2. Honestly the telephone operator job was pretty much as I described it. There was no supervision to speak of - other than whatever form of big brother monitored whether calls were dropped or whatever. The only rules that I recall were that I had to be there on time and other than during my breaks/lunch, I could not leave my phone. And there was very little responsibility involved in the job, and absolutely no need to be self-motivated. Yes, it was a dead-end job, and yes, I was happy when I finished it, but there are trade-offs to having a job with "a great deal of leeway" in the way one structures ones day. With that leeway comes much greater responsibility. Also, as somebody at a regional comprehensive university who teaches four classes in a semester and has very heavy expectations for service and moderate expectations for research, I don't have as much leeway in structuring my days as one might suppose.

I don't know what to respond to your "life isn't fair" point, because of course it's not. Nor are people at universities going to be a better class of people than other people, obviously. I think that we agree on that one.

As for the Chomsky comment, I have no ambitions to be Noam Chomsky.

Is that better?

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

Dr. C, you aren't alone... I did several clerical / admin assistant jobs while in college and grad school. While I think it is good that I have clerical skills, especially computer skills, I'm not exactly sure why my time is well-spent making copies.

I teach a 5/5 courseload and some semesters have 250 students at the start of the semester... plus service that requires travel out of state 5-8 weekends per semester. Just being organized enough to have our AA make copies has left me time to do things like research, grade and prepare for class.

Professor Zero said...

The thing is that doing all your own clerical work, really cuts down on productivity. I a visiting job once in a place with good clerical support. It was amazing how much time and energy that freed up. At that place there was also a functioning xerox machine available 24/7, in case you wanted to do yet more, or were just a do it yourselfer or a nightowl.

Answering one's own phone is a different thing. I always pick up the phone if I'm in my office, don't mind at all.