Everyone in graduate school gets drilled into their head that they should be good to the department secretaries. Department secretaries can accomplish all sorts of excellent things–they can expedite your travel paperwork, teach you the funky new copier, make sure your stipend money doesn’t stop when your funding department changes . . . they’ve got their hands on lots of levers. They’re great. And, in case you ever get a teaching job, it’s good practice, since department secretaries can help you with all manner of things–like getting you a good room to teach in, expediting your travel paperwork, &c. Quite often, especially in your first couple of years, aside from filling in personnel forms in your first week, the department secretary may well be the only university staff member you deal with on a regular basis.
One of the things I have tried to be mindful of over the past couple of years is university staff outside of departments. They used to terrify me, and they still scare me a bit. They promulgate rules designed to cover contingencies I can’t imagine, and they deal with faculty, students, and state auditors–three audiences with very different interests. Plus, they often like to use the phone to accomplish work-related tasks, and I hate the phone. (My current voice mail quite literally begs people to hang up the phone and send me an e-mail.)
But as I’ve worked on a couple of committees that are populated by faculty and staff, and as I’ve worked on events that have occasionally required massive contributions and favors from administrators and staff, I have generally come to think that it’s important to know these people and to understand their jobs. And not just because you may one day need a favor.
What’s interesting–aside from the normal interest one might take in people and their jobs–about the administrative side of the house is that it is, in many ways, an embodied history of the university and its decisions. Policy X is housed in this department rather than that one because of historical contingency Z. Policy exception Y, touted as exceptional customer service by one department, ends up interfering with another’s mission-critical task. Rule 42, which seems intuitively stupid to any right-thinking faculty member, is *also* hated by the staff, but they have to do it anyway. Rule 43 emerged because faculty members a, b, c, d, e, and f over many years refused to address circumstance foo. And so forth.
I was at a meeting of such a committee a couple of weeks ago, and one of the participants said that the most amusing thing about the meeting was watching my face as I processed all the sausage-making that goes into making certain kinds of decisions, given the resource constraints that we operate under. That experience is incredibly useful.
Don’t take me the wrong way: I don’t know much about how things work, and I have precisely no power on my campus. I know that there is *always* going to be conflict between faculty who tend to improvise and a state-regulated bureaucracy that needs to have paper trails. And I lean *way* too much on a handful of people who–out of kindness and out of a shared desire to make awesome things for students–are able to fix things when I just start beating my head against the desk. And I don’t want you to get the idea that if you just walk across campus in someone else’s sensible shoes that all of your campus’s problems will vanish. That can’t happen, especially in times of budgetary crisis and recission.
But I think that in addition to working on committees with faculty (which I’ve written about before), it’s worthwhile to find ways to connect with staff. Maybe that’s through clubs. Maybe it’s through the union, if you’re on a unionized campus. (Or, if you’re on a campus with multiple unions, through inter-union collaboration.) Maybe it’s through big, honking committees. Learning about how your university works, not from gossip (which privileges scandal and vitriol), and not through the one time you need a particular office to process something, is a remarkable experience. Because the staff serve the faculty and students as a whole, rather than just a department, they are the living memory of the institution.