Sunday, January 6, 2013

Not Your Emergency

What I hate more than anything is faculty crapping all over other faculty when they should really know better. As if it's not enough that everyone else (see the idiocy inflicted on us by Forbes magazine) thinks we are lazy overpaid layabouts who teach 3 hours a week and spend the rest eating bonbons; that is, when we are not on our 3-month summer or 1-month winter vacation, when I presume it's all bonbons all the time.

What I eat all day every day during the 4 months of vacation I have each year. 
I am chairing a search committee. Due to the reasons I cannot discuss, which are outside the committee's powers and which have to do with administration at various levels, we have an extremely short clock: a little less than 3 weeks from the application deadline to the expected time to produce the short list, and then start interviewing pretty much right away.  These three weeks overlapped with major past holidays, which means we could not get access to many applications because the staff person was, well, on holiday, and you can't expect staff to work when not in office. So we had a week to make the first cut, a week that included the second major holiday and during which all our staff were on holiday too, but never you mind, because faculty work non-stop anyway. So we made the first cut and sent out for letters of recommendation with a fairly short turnaround time, while apologizing profusely. By the way, I was the one who spent several hours in the afternoon and evening customizing and emailing all these requests because the staff person who would normally send these out could/would not do it till the week after, and we didn't have the time to wait. Most letter writers seemed to be fine with this request and promptly emailed their letters. But then I get this email from one professor scolding me for such a short turnaround time and telling me that other places give 4-6 weeks for letters (the requested letter was attached anyway).**

Well, bite me. No, I have not been sitting on my hands, if that's what you are implying.

All faculty are perpetually in the putting-out-fires mode, and most of the time it's not because we are lazy or disorganized. It's because we are constantly being pulled in all directions and often have to prioritize other people's immediate needs over those of  our groups. Last semester I spent a lot of time on reviewing all sorts of internal proposals and award nominations for a university-level committee, often during inopportune times when I really needed to work on something else. Very often there are proposal deadlines, project report deadlines, all sorts of administrative and service deadlines. I am not even talking about deadlines that appear because one of your collaborators finally got their head above water and can finish the collaborative paper they'd been sitting on for months and only has a week before another pile of shit befalls them, so of course, if you want this thing to get done, for your own sake and the sake of all the students and postdocs involved,  you drop everything else and make sure this paper gets out.

Faculty member dealing with an urgent service task.
I am constantly putting out fires that weren't started by me. It is very stressful and annoying, one of the most stressful parts of the job. As a result, the aspects of our job that are the most important in the long run -- working on your science with your group members and looking at their papers (as opposed to e.g. refereeing those of others) -- get postponed. I don't think I am unusually bad at deflecting the crapolla flying my way from all directions, but maybe I am mistaken. I try to protect  my time, but no amount of careful prioritizing and scheduling helps prevent all the deadline-driven work dropped in your lap by others, who are also likely getting ruffed up by someone else to do stuff last minute.

Near as I can tell, all faculty fight this battle, and it is simply part of the job. It gets much, MUCH worse after tenure. That's why it pisses me off so much when I see that a fellow scientist feels it's their duty to scold me for asking for a short turnaround time on a letter of recommendation. They should know better than to assume I am a disorganized twat or the whole committee isn't doing their job, and, instead of admonishing  me via email, simply take it as yet another request that needs to be done on a suboptimal timeline, likely sent to you by an equally stressed out colleague from another institution.

** Please don't ask why the application submission is not by file upload, followed by an automatic request for letters. That is another ulcer I am getting right there. 


Psycgirl said...

Your image of a faculty member dealing with an urgent service task made me laugh so hard I cried.

Anonymous said...

Ugh, I had a colleague in my office recently, complaining about this very thing and essentially asking if they could just ignore recent paperwork requests from administration. This person is senior to me, so I know they weren't looking for my permission to blow off the admin requests. But this person has been on my nerves lately with their whiny, passive-aggressive avoidance of anything that THEY didn't define as important. Seriously. We all know that there are stupid busywork requests coming in from all quarters. A few may be so unimportant that you can ignore them. But the rest are probably important to someone, somewhere, and in my experience, it takes less time to just do the thing than to whine about it to everyone you know and try to get someone else to do it for you. Cowboy up!

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I joke that being a tt professor has four components to it: 1. teaching, 2. research, 3. service, 4. fire fighter. And actually, fire fighter should probably be first on the list. I wonder how much I would be able to get done if I weren't dealing with other people's dang fires all the time.

Good luck with your search! Sounds like a bit of a headache!

Alex said...

The week before a grant is due, all I do is reply to emails from Research and Sponsored Programs Office about some issue with how $300 of some sort of overhead charge was put into the wrong column (on a budget that they themselves prepared) or emails from co-PIs about something or other. Basically, until late at night, I do nothing but send and receive email. I f**king hate it.

inBetween said...

I have to admit that reading this makes me feel better. It is a relief to know ghat it isn't just me. And it seems likeit has gotten worse over the years. I don't know how much of that is getting tenure & some seniority and how much is a real shift in oir job duties (i.e., since lots of stff have been fired). But I have essentially no time for my research. I found that I can't even really plan out my week, with blocks of time when I do MY job rather than facilitating other people's jobs/issues/problems. Every time I plan to keep a day a week, say Fridays, open and clear, some emergency comes up and it is a total bust. The urgent always trumps the important. I do wonder what the long-term effect if ths will be on academia, but I am pretty sure it won't be good!

GMP said...

But I have essentially no time for my research. I found that I can't even really plan out my week, with blocks of time when I do MY job rather than facilitating other people's jobs/issues/problems. Every time I plan to keep a day a week, say Fridays, open and clear, some emergency comes up and it is a total bust. The urgent always trumps the important.

Amen, inB. This is my experience exactly.

Alex said...

It's 9:30am on a day that I don't teach. I came into the office thinking that I could spend the morning catching up on a few small tasks to get them off the plate, then start some work on tomorrow's class and review a paper.

Nope, I got an email about putting out yet another small fire for making the grant budget fit some particular idiosyncratic rule about how we spend money here.

I can probably clear that off my plate quickly, but I fully expect another issue to come up soon.

EliRabett said...

Never on the god damn distribution list for any change in procedures and only find out about it with some asshole berating me for not doing X.

No, I didn;t fucking know you have a new unified form for getting bathroom paper and paying tuition

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I know the feeling—for example, this year I was asked to provide the list of interviewees for grad student applicants days after the pool closed in the middle of exam week, before any of the faculty had time to look at the folders. (A "deadline" imposed entirely by an anal-retentive staff member who had no authority to do so.) You HAVE to push back against the bureaucrats, since they already have defined the university as existing to provide middle management jobs, with faculty and students as purely subsidiary enterprises.

The professor who complained about the tight deadline was right. You should have shoved that complaint over to the people who gave you the tight deadline and let them know that they were making your job impossible.

I'm on a search committee this year with a similar tight deadline—our incompetent administrators didn't get around to approving the position until late December (based on allocations that had been made in July). We'll probably get complaints about the tight deadlines also. You can be sure that I'll be sending every such complain on to the dean, letting him know that his office is making recruitment harder than it needs to be. (He already dislikes me for not thinking that his plans for empire in a distant place are wonderful, so I won't be burning any bridges.)