Friday, July 26, 2013

Inheriting the Earth

I came to my current career as an academic relatively recently. I may occasionally bitch, but I really like it, and I intend to do it until someone makes me stop. People ask me what I like about it, knowing that it's not the money or the prestige. The work is endless, the politics are as bad as any corporation, the bureaucracy is stifling, and I'm sitting in an office chair that is likely as old as the building it's in. But that describes most every job I've ever had.

I like the work, I like being on campus, and I like the people. One thing I like about the people is that they are smart. And many of them are good, in the old fashioned sense of the word. I was reading an article yesterday about how a disproportionate percentage of bosses are psychopathic bullies* when I realized something that may outweigh even the smartness and goodness. With a few exceptions -- mostly in the non-academic parts of the organization -- our campus has very few Montgomery Burns' in management or leadership positions. We have our share of Michael Scotts, but that just makes it fun to come to work.

As a boss, I'm what you would call an agreeable sort. An employee told me once that my greatest talent was the ability to chew someone out without them feeling like they had been in trouble. I think he meant it as a compliment. Anyway, I have never seen the need to be a bully or a weasel at work, and I don't really like being in the sort of environment such people create.

Everything I need to know about business I learned from
beating up other kids in kindergarten. Image from here.

Too many businesses love these people. Bosses proudly use words like "aggressive" and "decisive" to describe their abuse of the people around them, and their complete disdain for any life outside of the office. They win big (usually on the backs of what a former colleague called the "worker bees") because they take big risks. They lose big as well, but usually manage to deflect that onto someone else, or jump ship before the hammer falls. Agreeable leaders tend to do just as good a job -- without the drama -- but that doesn't really seem to matter in our "nice guys finish last" society.

Campus has largely been a haven from that sort of thinking. Our leaders are mostly painfully polite. Our meetings are civil and pleasant, even when we argue. The last chancellor who asked someone to cancel their vacation got fired.**

This is one thing -- though far from the only thing -- that worries me about the current trend to make educational institutions more businesslike.  Put aside the small detail that schools don't operate like businesses, and treating them as if they do will not produce desirable results. I'm afraid that the push for "results" will bring larger numbers of "aggressive self-starters" to the academic world. While that may sound like a good thing, I promise you it is not. I just hope it takes a while. I would hate to have to start another career.

* Surprised? Yeah, me neither.

** He didn't really get fired for that. It was just a typical example of his style, and one of his final acts.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Taking a breath

Last night I finished a grant proposal that has dominated my time and attention since returning from a conference two weeks ago. Before that I was planning my conference presentation, and the trip in which it was wrapped. Before that was packing for a move that still hasn't happened. Before that more stuff, intermingled with various committees, student interactions, and family events. The last time I recall being without a looming deadline was the day after Christmas, and I was shoveling snow.

I think we all remember the great Christmas blizzard of oh-twelve. Am-I-right?

This afternoon I will attend the first of a half dozen impending meetings that will kick off a half dozen new projects, with deadlines stretching from September through next June. Summer school ends in two weeks, then (hopefully) a new work home, then a brand new academic year. More conferences and special events, more proposals, more websites, more papers, more students, more to-do lists and deadlines. Somewhere in there I will need to fit jury duty*, medical appointments, shopping trips, and more family visits. This afternoon it all starts again.

But not this morning. This morning I am taking a breath.  My head is empty, and I will do my best to keep it that way. I plan to close my door, sip coffee, and maybe eat a Pop-Tart. I am not reading e-mail, and I will think very hard before answering the phone.


If there is time later, I may spend a few minutes contemplating a life where days like this are common, rather than a biannual exception. Days where we wake up thinking, "I wonder what I will do today?" without a hint of sarcasm. Days that routinely include walks, and sunsets, and afternoon naps. With benefits.

Don't get me wrong. I had the rare privilege of choosing this life for myself, and I am grateful for it (almost) every day. But we all have our fantasies.

Here's to breathing.

* If you want to make sure you never serve on a jury, go out and get yourself an advanced degree. I'm not sure I know anyone with any sort of degree that has made it to the jury box, but a Masters or Ph.D. will just about get you laughed out of the courthouse. They say it has something to do with wanting to "better reflect the makeup of society at large," or something along those lines. I'm not sure what it says about our justice system, but I can't imagine that it's good. Of course, they still make you report.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Friendly skies

The last time I was on a long multi-leg trip, it was the final flight that was the problem. This time it was all the rest. Our flight to Atlanta (of course) to catch the big bird to London was delayed by an hour before we even left the house. It eventually took off not quite two hours late. Luckily, it is not as hard to get out of our country as it is to get back in, and our overseas flight was almost an hour late taking off, so it all turned out okay. Apparently they pushed the throttles to the stops because we landed in the UK right on time.

Speaking of getting back in the country, when we landed at Heathrow there was a passport gate for EU Citizens that people were walking through sort of waving their passports, while foreigners stood in line with a zillion other people waiting for a manual passport check and light interrogation. Since we had been in row 41 on the plane, we got to watch 280 other people go before us. Luckily, when we reentered the U.S. at Atlanta -- no wait, it was worse! The foreigners were standing in a line shorter than ours, while the four agents manning the twenty-something U.S. citizen gates quizzed us about how long we were out of the country. I wanted to tell the guy it was none of his business, but assumed that would be counter-productive.

One benefit (maybe the only one) of being in a long queue is that it is a great opportunity to people watch. This time I was interested to see how opinions colored people's perception of our situation. I assumed that the dearth of passport control agents was likely a combination of budget cuts and some calculus concerning how long people would stand in line before becoming too unruly or missing their flights. The lady behind us seemed convinced that there was an agent for every gate, and the rest were apparently lazing around in the back somewhere. Probably playing dominoes. You know how union workers and bureaucrats love their dominoes.

After an hour at passport control, there is the ceremonial claiming of the bags and putting them on a different belt. I can think of no logical reason for this little ritual, except to give people a chance to stash their duty free liquids in their checked bags before going through security. Again.

None of this would have been a problem, except that we were an hour late getting to Atlanta. Only about 15 minutes of that was flying time. There was still a plane at our gate when we landed, and a few babies and old people decided they couldn't wait until we parked to pee, so we sat between two runways for about half an hour. As it was, we got to our gate in plenty of time, our plane left more or less on schedule, and the flight home was uneventful, which is exactly how I like them.

As air travel goes these days it wasn't bad. Except for one cranky little dude on the first overseas flight, the flight attendants were generally friendly, I got to catch up on a few movies, and the person in front of me never tried to lay their seat flat. There was a child under five either directly in front of or behind us on all four flights, but Biscuit got the brunt of that.

The final session of a conference. This room  was full on the first day. Most of the people remaining had something to do with organizing the thing, and are just waiting to receive their appreciation gift.
I will write about the rest of the trip when I get through the pictures, and can stay up later than 8:00 pm. Okay, not the conference so much. Not even my mother wants to hear about the conference.