Monday, November 28, 2011

Not So Secret

There was a recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled "5 Big Secrets Your Staff Wishes You Knew". Great title! Click. The essay is aimed at professors, and I am sure that many of us professors want to learn things that will help us interact better with staff. This is one of the useful things about the Chronicle -- it provides information from the point of view of all sorts of academic citizens at all sorts of institutions, so we can better understand each other.

OK, so what are The Big 5? I must say that I found them disappointing, even as I appreciate the main point of the essay: be respectful. It's sad (and cynical) to call this a secret, but it is good to be reminded anyway. It is something that we probably all forget more than we should.

In any case, here are The Five Secrets, in case you missed the essay:

1. Don't call them secretaries. The author of the essay is an academic program specialist. Most of us have administrative assistants in our department offices. Many have bachelor's degrees; some have more advanced degrees.

OK. Most of the professors I know don't use the word "secretary" anymore, but I can believe the word is still used now and then. I understand that "secretary" comes with some negative connotations, but at the same time, I don't think it is cool to slam secretaries, past or present, with this:

If you treat your staff members as mere secretaries, they'll probably act like mere secretaries. You won't get much constructive work out of them. But if you treat them like professionals, you might be surprised at how helpful they become.

Why assume that the people (most of them women) who are or were known as secretaries are/were not competent professionals with many or all of the same skills as the modern administrative assistant? Is the author (a man) referring to stereotypes of female secretaries? Is that why he used the word mere?

And I didn't understand the point about level of education in the context of level of respect. Surely the author is not saying that we should respect someone with a bachelor's degree more than someone without? That would undermine the entire point of the essay, in my opinion, because it leads to the conclusion that those without a PhD should automatically respect those with a PhD, and I don't think the author feels that way (nor should he, or anyone). I think the main point here is supposed to be that we should be aware that some staff are highly skilled.

The hint of retribution if we don't get the title right is also a bit disturbing. I have taught classes in which some of the students didn't know I was a tenured professor. On coming to my office hours, some expressed amazement that I had my own office, considering that they thought I was an adjunct. So what? Although I was not happy about the underlying assumption (woman = adjunct? or should I say contingent faculty?), I was not offended that they didn't get my title or tenure status right. Should I have become less constructive and helpful with these students? I can't imagine doing so.

2. Staff have deadlines too. This is a good reminder for us all. We all have deadlines, and we should all be considerate when we need something done now(ish). I think many of us can relate to this. We professors too-frequently encounter students who request letters of recommendation a day or two before a deadline, administrators who need something done yesterday, and staff members who forget to tell us that there is a new form we need to fill out (today). Ideally, we can try to minimize the number of times we ask someone to do something at the last-minute, but it does happen to us all, alas.

3. Staff can 'lead the way on technology.' That's great, but no one in any department I have been in has had anyone on the administrative staff who could 'lead the way on technology', no matter what their age (or my age). I suppose the main point here is to get to know the staff and their abilities.

4. Staff don't always think in the abstract. This one surprised me the most because I wondered: and professors do? This is where I scrolled down to see where the author works; in what kind of department do the professors always think in the abstract? The author is in a college of medicine. Scary.

It is strange to assume that faculty wander around thinking in the abstract all day. Many of us spend our days teaching and dealing with research management issues (grants management, keeping track of our advisees, writing reports, filling out forms that keep changing.. ). I wish I had more time for abstract thinking.

5. Staff are people too. I'm sorry that anyone would consider this a secret, but again, I can appreciate that the point is worth making.

This 'secret' seems particularly aimed at a certain species of condescending professor. Apparently, "The professorial supremacy complex inflicts far too many in your ranks". I am sure this is true, and for anyone who has to deal with those of us who think or act this way, surely even one is too many.

In some cases -- for example, asking a staff member to do something at the last-minute before a deadline -- I wonder how much of our (inadvertent) rudeness relates to the fact that we all have too much to do, that many of us are under quite a lot of pressure (even those of us with tenure), and that staff have to deal with large numbers of faculty with different styles and abilities in terms of organization, deadlines, social skills etc. Those aren't excuses, just reasons for explaining what might seem as rudeness or lack of respect, or even a "supremacy complex".

I understand why the author felt compelled to write this essay. As I have described before, sometimes, when I am spending some time in the main office of my department, I am mistaken for a staff person by someone who isn't a regular member of my department, and I am frequently struck by how rude people are when they wander into a department office and talk to staff.

Several times I have been abruptly handed pieces of paper and told to give this to So-and-So. What to do? Say "no" and hand it back without further comment (perhaps giving a bad impression of the real staff, who are unfailingly nice) or send the rude person to one of our hard-working staff people so they can be interrupted and ordered around as well? Typically, I will smile and say something like "I am Professor Z and, like everyone else here, I'm very busy, but if you want your (whatever) delivered to the right person, you can do it yourself. There are mailboxes over there, and a directory of offices in the hall." This sort of works.

Anyway, despite my criticism of the content and tone of the essay, I will say again that I appreciate its premise: staff should be treated with respect -- but I would add that this applies no matter what their title or how many degrees they have. The same goes, of course, for how staff treat professors, no matter what the professor's title, age, gender, ethnicity etc.


rosa said...

Excellent! I read the original article last week for the same reasons. I was looking for ways to help improve departmental politics (more or less). Equally, I was struck by how obvious the gist of the message turned out to be. On the other hand, we have a woman in our office who is a secretary - that is the title of her post. And I expect everyone to treat her with just as much respect as if she had a bachelors degree. Similarly, I expect to get treated just the same as if I was an older male professor! I hope that my children are getting that message about treating everyone equally! My fear is that we all slip up to some extent sometimes...

Anonymous said...

At my graduate school there were administrative assistants and there were department secretaries. Each dept had a dept secretary and he (generally it was a he) was in charge of all the administrative assistants.

Come to think of it, my undergrad also had department secretaries, one to a department (and student workers as assistants). Admin assistants worked only in admin.

These are both ancient schools and no doubt the title is a hold-over from when secretary, a post generally held by a man, meant keeper of the secrets.

EliRabett said...

There is one secret: To staff it is a job.

The second secret is that the faculty should involve staff in the mission of the department (students, research, technology) and make it more than a job

Cherish said...

You know, the funny thing about being a female in areas that are almost entirely male is that I ended up spending a lot of time chatting with department secretaries and administrative assistants. Given the things I've heard from them, I think there are a large number of professors who need some reminders about basic etiquette. Maybe it's not a secret...but apparently some people are that clueless.

Anonymous said...

I am all in favor of treating the administrative staff with courtesy, and I go out of my way to do so out of principle, of course, AND to avoid petty retribution. But that essay is ridiculous. It makes me want to write my own list of five big secrets your faculty wishes the staff would know.

My department also has a person whose title is secretary.

Alex said...

So, if "Secretary" is replaced universally by "Administrative Assistant" or "Academic Program Specialist" to describe the person doing the same job as before (running the department office) I assume that in a generation we'll be told that "Administrative Assistant" and "Academic Program Specialist" are demeaning terms, and the proper title is [insert new word here to describe the person running the department office].

Anonymous said...

The message may be obvious but it is amazing how many professors need to be reminded of it. Sadly, they are not likely to be the ones reading such an article.

Anonymous said...

Most of our staff have bachelor's degrees—it is hard these days to get a secretarial position with just an AA or high-school degree. We occasionally lose staff to go get masters degrees, though more often we lose staff to other departments who pay more for less work (I'm not sure how they get around the university-wide job descriptions).

We have some administrative staff with PhDs who decided research administration and grant writing assistance was a better use of their skills than doing research.

Of course, if the author was in in medical, he may have been noticing the traditional disregard that MDs in large institutions have shown to all other staff. I believe that this is changing in the better teaching hospitals, but I think that the hierarchy in the medical profession is still much stronger than in academia.

Hermitage said...

I was actually extraordinarily irked by the author's dismissive attitude towards 'secretaries'. The idea that (predominately female) administration was somehow useless and/or incompetent before a stylistic name change and defeminization of the profession is insulting.

I had planned to point out that the reminders in the essay cut both ways, but others before me were promptly castigated for being whiny academics who weren't listening.

Kea said...

The professorial supremacy complex inflicts far too many in your ranks ...

The horrifying thing about all this is the implied trend: if only you profs were a little nicer to those smart secretaries they would behave themselves better and we could take on even more dollars, um, students!

Kea said...

As for the levels of respect ... I can assure everyone of one thing: if a woman steps out of line, at any level, she will be invisible dogshit from then on.

Anonymous said...

I saw this article and had the same reaction -- well-meant, but preaching to the converted. But I did see your note that "The author is in a college of medicine. Scary." I'm not in a med school, but from what I hear of the way the staff are treated by the faculty/MD's in ours, it all suddenly made more sense...

Anonymous said...

As a young female professor, I had a very hard time working with office staff (male and female) who were very reluctant to help me with basic tasks that were their job, just like the help they gave my senior (all male) colleagues. It didn't matter how polite I was; in fact, sometimes I think things would have improved had I not been so nice. This all got better with time.

Anonymous said...

In my country, a Secretary is no smalltime professional. A secretary is typically a top bureaucrat who has cleared a nationwide exam in the 99th percentile or above and then spent a lifetime in the profession to become a secretary by the time he/she turns 50!

You know what happened in the US? Euphemisms and title inflation!

First, you libs decided to call CLERKS as SECRETARIES. A few decades later, it is hard to pump up self esteem with the word secretary! Now we all need to move to administrative assistant!

Time to stop this silliness. Lets call people what they are and not use euphemisms that infantilize and coddle people. Treat people with respect and courtesy instead of a show of empty euphemisms. Euphemisms belittle people and their work.

Your worry about nomenclature is a perfect example of all that is amiss with the liberal, band-aid type, touchy-feely, fluffy approach to issues.

Anonymous said...

Umm.. Anon 11:14, I hate to interrupt your strange rant about "libs", but the person objecting to the title of "Secretary" is a man (in the original essay), not a woman.