clerical skills

Dr Crazy recently wrote about the fact that she, like most academics, has to function as her own secretary. This is something I've been thinking about a lot, especially now that I've had an administrative post for a year. There is a tremendous amount of clerical labor involved in academe, and a number of factors have shifted much of that labor to faculty, at least in some institutions. (Mine is probably more like Dr Crazy's, where faculty do their own copying, filing, etc, than New Kid's, where they have some staff support).

Technology has dramatically changed the workplace landscape in all professions, "allowing" (and therefore often requiring) professionals to handle much of their own correspondence (especially with the widespread use of email rather than paper) and to create presentable versions of written documents. These tasks used to take up a lot of time and energy from support staff. Other secretarial duties, like managing appointments and fielding phone calls, are still sometimes taken care of by assistants depending on the workplace situation (i.e.,doctor's offices, high-level execs; in my own institution, Deans and some Chairs have secretaries who can set appointments), but many professionals now manage their own calendars. The growth of productivity solutions, self-help paradigms, and so forth helps us do all of these tasks, and possibly achieve better focus, better outcomes -- but also there is a tendency to make a virtue out of necessity in all this. I myself can't imagine having anyone else messing with my filing system, my calendar, or my email -- it would be an invasion of privacy, among other things. But if I had never handled all these things myself, maybe I'd feel differently.

Writing has changed, too. I'm old enough to remember watching my parents literally cutting up paragraphs from a typescript draft and taping them on new sheets of paper to rearrange blocks of text. When you had to type each draft yourself, or hire someone to do it, it meant that each draft was a much more final and stable state than what many of us produce today. Our expectations for well-crafted prose have increased, as have our expectations throughout academia for what a presentable document looks like. This is labor that we've absorbed into our ideas about the writing process, not always to our benefit. I went off to college with a new electric typewriter (a big step up from the manual I'd learned on and had been using in high school) . Until graduate school, my course papers were written out in longhand draft, revised once or twice, and then typed. There was a finality to the revisions -- once I was in the typing stage, I couldn't change anything more than the occasional word here or there, without having to go back and retype earlier pages. That was definitely late night labor you didn't want to repeat. But I always found the typing stage sort of soothing, too, because it meant that the hard work of writing was over. That's never true for me today.

I suspect academia tolerates Luddites more generously than other professions or workplace situations. In my Department (as in most) we have a handful of faculty who refuse to use email, or who refuse to use a computer at all. They are the extreme, but I have been amazed at the number of faculty who claim not to know how to put a ream of paper in the printer, or into the copier. (And then of course there's the guy who can't even use the microwave properly, but he's a Special Genius.) The stereotype of the absent-minded professor lets people get away with all kinds of crap. But really, it's sexism. Because these faculty are old men, the female support staff coddle them -- the older ones because they were trained that way, and the younger ones because they are intimidated. Female faculty, and the younger faculty, tend to be more aware of the constraints on the support staff, more sympathetic to them, and less likely to ask them to do things that are not in their job description. The overworked secretaries in my department are not there to support the faculty. They are there to answer phones, direct students, and manage the accounting paperwork generated by the bureaucracy. But some faculty get special treatment because they are so old or so rude.

Is it good to be clerically competent? I took two years of typing (on manual typewriters! with carbon paper! and erasers!) in high school, which was the best thing I ever did vocationally. I have worked as a secretary in several hospitals and business offices. I have also done freelance typing, data entry, and transcription. I am comfortable working with spreadsheets, with complex tables and layout designs, and can learn my way around any new office software very easily. In fact, my clerical skills outstrip those of most of our support staff. All of this has definitely assisted me in my own career. Formatting a document to meet a new journal's standards is no problem. Making a table with the results from our latest instructional effectiveness survey is easy. If I'm going to be my own secretary, then I'll be a good one. Some of my colleagues have, I think, deliberately chosen incompetence, preferring to have to ask for help. It seems to have worked for a few of them, but I think it's a risky bet. Do you really want the appearance and organization of your tenure notebook to be left up to the cell-chatting work-study student who comes in for a couple of hours on Tuesdays?