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 someone who became 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 is one that will deservedly perpetuate that downfall.
But I’d like to offer an alternative: that junior academics and would-be 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.
It has become very clear to most who know me that I am massively enthused about my new job at the London School of Economics.
It’s a broad spectrum I cover, as the programme administrator for the MSc in African Development and the web, communications and events co-ordinator. I’m far from a simple administrator, and the diversity of the role is one of its most attractive features. Yes, 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 often pause to reflect upon the real impact of my work in the humanities, it’s hard to argue with the resonance of anything that goes on in a field such as development studies. This kind of 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. That requires cooperation, which, in turn, requires understanding.
Future academics deserve to know how difficult it is to keep the cogs turning. Yes, you will be stressed and overworked. You’ll sometimes feel that you’ve been handled insensitively by an administrator who’s oblivious to the weight of expectation on your shoulders or the job insecurity you’re faced with. Sorry, but that’s why your starting salary is around £8,000 per annum higher than ours. I’m not saying that conditions for junior academics are satisfactory by any means, but it’s not without a financial consolation prize.
If the institution treats your administrators well, it’s likely your administrators will treat you well. If your administrators treat you badly, you’re either particularly unfortunate or it’s a signpost of a broader cultural malaise where you happen to work. 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 distinct advantage of approaching this role as an academically-minded person is that I’m genuinely enthused about publicizing research. By coincidence, 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 from our department to receive at least a mention.
Unlike my previous role in Leicester, where it was fiendishly tough to engage readers or to generate interest, having a strong platform at an influential institution is a huge bonus. The apathy I held about social media has given way to enthusiasm. You’ll now catch me live-Tweeting, using Storify, working much harder to engage with a genuinely interested public. The more I interest myself in what goes on in our department and how to present it to the outside world, the less vacuous social media now seems.
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 wasn’t well, my dad was in hospital, and things got particularly difficult. Beyond all that, I had a very affable administrator who made me want to bend over backwards for him. Every late script was dealt with; every deadline was met. 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 lie down and accept that as an argument. If anything, activity will spur response. Don’t be last in the queue, folks. 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 growing tensions between the two factions.
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 (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?