Ahead of this year’s general election, debates are heating up about the death of the humanities and the polarising divide between academics and administrators that is supposedly fuelling the process.
As an administrator in a new field owing to dwindling job prospects in the humanities, these debates point uncomfortably at me, reaffirming at once that my academic life is in tatters and that the leap I’ve taken will deservedly perpetuate that downfall.
But I’d like to propose that prospective and early-career academics could benefit enormously from a taste of administrative life, and that this may create community rather than conflict in the evolving world of higher education.
My friends and family know that I am massively enthused about my new job at the London School of Economics.
It’s a broad spectrum I cover, as Programme Administrator for the MSc in African Development and the department’s web, communications and events co-ordinator. There’s some box-ticking and form-filling, some office tasks, a lot of emailing. But there’s creativity involved as well.
After a steady start, I quickly became loaded with projects. I’ve already revamped a lot of the department website, and I’m now providing web solutions for the unusual problems that academic life can throw up. A few weeks ago, I was asked to find a way to accommodate 15 years’ worth of Mozambique election data on the web. Several bulk-upload, XML and translation issues later, the project goes live tomorrow.
While I reflect often upon my work in the humanities, it’s hard to argue with the resonance of anything that goes on in the field of development studies. This raw data will prove valuable to those working on election studies, African studies, democracy, government and corruption. It will prove a valuable resource for journalists, researchers, and future PhD students.
The role has elicited a positive response from the department too. The academics are realising that we now have a dynamic and responsive web presence. If they need something doing, it will be done within the hour, not within the week. They are beginning to come forward, looking for ways to make things happen, and that doesn’t seem to have been the case before.
I cannot go without mentioning the dreaded buzzword, impact. Good administrators need impact too. I don’t think we operate at our best over any length of time without a clear sense of accomplishment. I’m fortunate that my role is allowing me to witness it very clearly.
Alongside this, working alongside two brilliant colleagues in my opening three months has given me great respect for the weighty side of administration: timetabling; scheduling; dealing with indecisive and pernickety academics; assessments; query handling; and the broad knowledge of a department, its courses, regulations, and everything that goes on.
It’s very clear to me how efficiently these burdens are managed and how the management of department affairs could easily be very much weaker than it is.
Part of this lies in effective relationships, and prospective academics deserve to know how difficult it is to keep the cogs turning. Yes, you will be stressed and overworked. As are we, for less money. If the institution treats your administrators well, it’s likely your administrators will treat you well. Do unto others, and all that…
LSE provides 41 days annual leave per year, training opportunities, a rich and varied cultural programme, and funding for professional development. It’s as happy a ship as I’ve come across.
Advantages of inter-service experience
One advantage of approaching this role as an academically-minded person is that I’m genuinely enthused about publicizing research. This appears to be precisely the area of our department that had become marginalised, even during the latest REF submission in 2014. I want every publication and event to receive its mention.
Unlike my previous role in Leicester, where it was fiendishly tough to generate interest, having a platform at an influential institution is a huge bonus. The apathy I held about social media is giving way to enthusiasm. You’ll now catch me live-Tweeting, using Storify, working much harder to engage with an interested public.
Another advantage is that I’m acutely aware of how difficult it is from the academic side. This time last year, I was marking huge numbers of scripts for very little money during evenings and weekends. The conditions were poor, I was unwell, my dad was in hospital. Beyond all that, I had a very affable administrator who made me want to deal with every late script and meet every deadline. One day, I would like to impart the same response from the academics I rely upon for similar commitments.
My varied background has also prevented me from becoming an oleaginous loyalist. To my great surprise, I’ve already developed a reputation for speaking my mind and for standing my ground. Having taught at universities in Switzerland and the UK, I understand how and why different methods of assessment work, so I’m not allowing anyone to assume ignorance or naivety on my part to run roughshod over rules.
Nor will I allow department politics to get in the way. The idea that something should not be given maximum publicity or prominence on the website because it may upset others who either haven’t got projects to share or haven’t brought them forward is absurd. I won’t accept that as an argument. If anything, activity will spur response. If you don’t want to be left out, be next.
Academics and administrators need to co-exist peacefully for departments to run well. Given the rising stock of middle-management roles to the falling stock of less profitable academic disciplines, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to reconcile the tensions. But war is less likely, I think, if we have a better understanding of what life is like on the other side.
Right now, as an administrator, I want a better understanding of ‘impact’, and a more holistic view of the department’s research culture than a solipsistic academic role would provide. As a potential future academic, I want to know the extent to which professional services staff can contribute to academic output, and how to make administrators’ lives easier to create optimum working relationships.
Everyone a winner?