I confess: the first day of fall term always gets me. I love the shiny new-ness of it all. The term and the academic year lie in front of you–anything is possible!
But I will also confess that as an administrator, a little bit of that fall luster is lacking. When I was a full-time faculty member, I usually had been away from campus for big chunks of the summer. I’d also been in a different kind of headspace: doing research, taking time to think, and with any luck, do some writing. I would return to campus with renewed resolve. I was all about the bouquet of newly sharpened pencils that Tom Hanks describes in “You’ve Got Mail.” This would be the year that I would get all my lecture notes organized! This would be the year I would stay current with the journals in my field! (we will put aside, for now, whether or not I achieved these things. I suspect you know the answer).
But as an administrator, I work on a 12-month contract. Sure, I take vacation in the summer, but I don’t really get long breaks from campus. And yes, I try to carve out a little bit of time for my research, but it usually takes a back seat to more pressing administrative projects. There’s a continuity to my work life now that means fall doesn’t feel like the dramatic shift that it used to when I had been away geographically and cognitively during the summer.
Administrative work, in addition to its continuity, can also easily become drudgery. Reports, meetings, spreadsheets, and other bits of administrivia can wear down even the best and most enthusiastic administrators.
So rather than get mired in my meh-ness or let my 12-month contract define me, I’d like to propose some strategies for recapturing some of the fresh start-ness of fall term. Consider this a back to school primer of sorts, for administrators (though faculty may find some useful tips here as well!).
- Identify something about your administrative work that brings you joy. It can be big or small, but you need to find it and make time for it. Maybe it’s helping faculty connect with grant opportunities. Maybe it’s developing new curriculum. Maybe it’s finding a new way to make a cumbersome university process more streamlined. Use the start of a new year to reconnect with the part(s) of your job that you enjoy and let that provide a jump start for the next twelve months.
- Identify something that you could be better at. If you’re like me, graduate school didn’t prepare you for administration, so the learning curve can be steep. For example, when I started in administration, I was AWFUL at Excel and spreadsheets. I have worked on cultivating this skill. Embrace the start of a new school year to say that this will be the year that you learn how to do a certain task or figure out a certain problem. It’s okay to be bad at something. It’s not okay to continue to be bad at it if it’s essential to your work.
- Pay it forward. If you’ve made it into the ranks of administration you probably have some seniority at your institution. One thing that can restore a sense of resolve and purpose to the start of the new year is reconnecting with your faculty colleagues and helping those individuals thrive. So reach out to those junior to you and be a mentor or an ally.
- Find a way to teach or interact with students. I have strong feelings about why administrators should teach (which I will save for a future blog post), but for now, I will just say that much of what is missing in higher ed administration could be remedied by administrators reconnecting with the classroom and students. And it’s good for you, too. Nothing helps me transcend administrivia and spreadsheets better than the unscripted and unvarnished perspective of students. So maybe you don’t have time to teach an entire course. What if you guest-lectured for a colleague in your disciplinary area? What if you sponsored a co-curricular activity that gave students the opportunity to meet and provide feedback to the dean/associate dean/provost?
- Vow to do one thing that is about taking care of you. Maybe it’s getting regular exercise, or drinking more water, or taking time for a hobby that makes you happy. Whatever it is, take advantage of this time of fresh starts to make it a priority.
I hope these strategies or any others you might identify will help you reconnect with the newness of the fall term. May it be a year of sharp pencils, well-written reports, and easily comprehended spreadsheets!