Monday, October 08, 2012

Think Different?

Not long ago, I spent some time with a very diverse group of academics: professors and administrators from the sciences, engineering, humanities, and the social sciences. It can be interesting to experience academically diverse committees and workshops like this one. Even if the overall experience is boring (that is, the doing of the thing that we are tasked to do and have outcomes and deliverables for the stakeholders etc.), but I like the people (well, most of them) and I am fascinated by glimpses of how other departments and disciplines operate.

Anyway, at this particular event, a group of us were sitting around drinking hot or cold caffeine and discussing what our priorities are in our daily work life. We were not talking about work-life balance (with or without cats); we were talking about work-work balance. That is, when faced with several (many) competing work tasks, all of which, in theory, need to be done now, which ones do we realistically do now and which ones do we do later?

This is what blew me away: when discussing two very specific examples that I will vaguely describe below, the physical scientists and engineers prioritized one thing and the humanities and social science faculty prioritized the other.

These particular examples involved whether we would deal first with a possible crisis involving undergraduate students or whether we would respond first to an urgent request from an unnamed upper-level administrator. The scientists and engineers opted to (hypothetically) wade into the student crisis and try to sort it out, but the others (hypothetically) opted to respond to the administrator first.

I hasten to point out that those who prioritized the administrative issue emphasized that they nevertheless were concerned about the students. We all agreed that both these issues were important and should be dealt with as soon as possible, we just disagreed about what should be done right now and what should be done immediately-after-right-now.

Why the difference, I wondered?

A couple of weeks after the incident, I told a colleague of mine -- a former upper-level administrator -- about it, and his explanation was that it was not so much cultural differences among disciplines (and definitely not degree of concern for students) but rather a function of the specific personalities of the administrators involved. That is, the humanities and social sciences faculty have long had very demanding and aggressive administrators, whereas the scientists and engineers have had more "flexible" administrators in our part of the university. We STEM people may therefore feel less pressure to give an immediate response to an administrator if we have another urgent situation to deal with at the same time.

I had never thought of it that way before, but it makes some sense. And, if my colleagues is right, it is a rather dramatic micro-illustration of the effect of administrative personalities on the operation of the units for which they are responsible. I suppose that can be good or bad, depending on the situation.


Alex said...

However much I might complain about life in my corner of STEM, I've come to a conclusion similar to your post last year about the misery of biomed folks: Physical science and engineering are among the least screwed-up disciplines, at least in terms of how they function in a university. (I can't speak to how the culture of scientists outside the academy compares with other cultures outside the academy.) And even as miserable as the biomed folks seem to be, humanities and social science are even weirder, with even stranger politics and battles.

Your post confirms this.

Anonymous said...

My first guess was the following explanation: the humanities and social sciences bring less money themselves from grants, and thus depend more on the administration, and have less power compared to the administration.

RJ said...

My instinct was that STEM and science labs have things in them that can explode, and experiments that students could ruin.

Whereas, in humanities the novels of Walter Scott should survive students for long enough to deal with the administrator.

Female Science Professor said...

I wouldn't extend my anecdote to explain anything about these general disciplines. I can imagine that, at other universities or at my university in a different administrative era, the situation could be reversed.

And, re. RJ's comment, this particular situation involved a classroom issue, and nothing to do with labs or safety.

Anonymous said...

I have to echo Alex. Academic life in STEM has its issues but from what I hear and read it's nothing like the being in social sciences/humanities (ss/h) and I'm so grateful. Colleagues in ss/h consistently seem more worried about job security and the role politics plays in getting and keeping a job. I'm not naive and I recognize that there are politics in STEM fields and departments but they don't seem like such an overwhelming force. This may be because our metrics of performance are a little more straightforward - publishing is paper rather than book based which gives more chances to establish yourself in the field and grant funding is pretty easy to quantify. I wonder too though if it's a function of overall societal status of these fields. Certainly all academic fields have taken a prestige hit lately but not nearly as hard in STEM as in ss/h. Does that contribute to the feeling of insecurity? How sad - we need folks in ss/h to envision new ways that society might be organized or understood - their vulnerability (real or perceived) has to have a constraining effect on that.

nanoalchemist said...

I've been on both sides, and I feel the same way as the Anon and RJ.

I think, too, that there is a difference in that those in STEM are there because they want to teach or do research: they can get job elsewhere, but chose to be in a university setting.

In the humanities, there are fewer external options, and thus academics are more beholden to admins than students.

Anonymous said...

Although I've heard that Medical Schools are incredibly dysfunctional compared to regular STEM.

jb said...

I'm with Anonymous who posted at 01:32. Stem fields usually bring more money to the university so they have more "power" than ss/h who have to jump when told me. Incidentally, our univ decided to cut some humanities programs last year. One professor then started emailing the entire campus community protesting the injustice of it all. We got a couple of responses from the A&S dean but after that, she just ignored them. Didn't stop that guy though. Of course, we're all sort of sympathetic but if there's no other way but to cut programs, you cut off the ones that bring in little or no money first.

Anonymous said...

I've seen both "yes men" and independent cusses on both sides of C.P. Snow's divide. I've also seen caring for students more than administrators on both sides. I think it is true that humanities and social science faculty are more reliant on administrators for resources, and that this does tend to color their priorities.

In engineering, the department chair tends to be whoever doesn't leave the room fast enough, and the dean is someone brought in from the outside by the higher administration and imposed on the faculty. We ignore him as best we can, though he has been given too much power and does not use it wisely.

EliRabett said...

Bringing in money includes tuition, thus the balance is not as weighted to STEM as one might think.

Anonymous said...

In my circle it is also that humanities profs have far more regular contact with students in crisis and classroom emergencies and so would not see the student emergency as so urgent - it happens all the time! But, an administrator! That is URGENTY!@#!!!

Victoria said...

OT, but one of your colleagues from Scientopia posted this: