A colleague recently shared with me a model of triage that comes from public health management. The model posits that 80% of people with a problem will come through it just fine; 15% will need some special attention to manage their specific context; and 5% will be in real crisis.

Hold that thought.

Another colleague recently shared with me an experience of writing a grant proposal on her own area of scholarship, but including her department chair as co-author because of larger curricular ramifications of the project. The chair did virtually none of the work, but whatever, that’s the political things you have to do. The proposal was not funded. A new dean was hired for that division, that dean has put pressure on department chairs to get more proposals out the door, and so now this department chair is writing a grant proposal—on his own—that’s based on my friend’s scholarship and the earlier proposal that my friend created.

Hold that thought.

Another colleague recently shared with me her experience at a strongly unionized college of dealing with a truly unhinged faculty member, a conspiracy theorist of the fullest Alex Jones pedigree. That faculty member has now filed a grievance against my friend for requesting that any future meetings be in the presence of a third party.

Okay. Got all three? Let’s put them together.

Eighty percent of your colleagues are going to be perfectly lovely, graceful, generous people. Funny, intelligent, good to be around. You’ll forget that, because your time will be taken up in dealing with the others. Please don’t fall prey to the exhausted belief that “all of my co-workers are crazy.” Most of them are not; they’re just the quiet ones who don’t e-mail you six times a day in all-caps. You lose sight of the good ones, but they’re everywhere.

Fifteen percent of your colleagues, like my friend’s department chair, are probably reasonable and rational people who are momentarily off the rails, usually because of unseen pressures we can’t know. Whether externally rooted (a sick child, a failing marriage, a recent diagnosis) or internally rooted (the demands of a dean, an accreditor, a president), our goodwill is subject to occasional and usually temporary disability. So that 15% is a shifting cast of players… they’ll fall back into the 80% pool of reasonable colleagues soon enough, to be replaced by another temporary 15% dealing with a brief crisis of their own.

But five percent have real problems. Malicious, paranoid, narcissistic people for whom non-collegiality is the baseline mode, the default setting. These people will eat your time, will never be reasonable, will always manufacture problems where no problem ever existed. (And in a complex mathematical relationship, our dealings with them will make us into a 15-percenter, momentarily unhinged and unbalanced.)

Policy manuals are written largely in response to the 5%. Those people take on massive proportions in our psychic representation, they become malicious giants in our minds when really they’re just biting flies. Figure out strategies for identifying and avoiding them. When you can’t avoid them, bring your 80% to bear upon them.

And think deliberately about how you can manifest the joys and pleasures of being one of the 80%, to make your colleagues’ lives just a smidge better rather than a little more difficult.


Every so often, people ask me if there are other terms I’d add now that the book’s been completed. Based on conversations I’ve had in the past few days, I’d say yes. Here’s one…

Summer. The traditional model of school, at all levels, is that we went to class around Labor Day and finished around Memorial Day, and that we could do as we pleased in the summer. Beaches, summer jobs, research and writing… our time was ours to spend however we chose.

A whole culture arose around this agricultural model of school, in which summer chores were so demanding that families couldn’t afford to be without their least expensive workers—their children. And part of that culture, as it spilled over into higher education, was that summers were the time when we were free to do our research without the demands of teaching and departmental service.

This is not so often the case now. First, as we discussed in the entry for Contracts, an increasing number of academic jobs are now twelve-month positions, in which being on campus every day is the expectation. But even for those faculty with traditional nine-month or ten-month posts, summers are burdened in surprising ways. Conferences often occur during the summer, both for ease of scheduling and so that your family can come with you and pretend it’s a vacation. Professional societies are often busier during the summer, since that national or international service load is presumed to simply take the place of your on-campus service load.

But the big hindrance that I hear over and over is simply e-mail. Your college is a 24/365 enterprise, and expects that you will be as well. It takes a fierce discipline to be able to ignore the inbox for eight weeks or more, but if you cannot, then you will be at the emotional and logistical service of your chair and dean every single day.

A friend works at a campus whose union contract makes it inadmissible for an administrator to send an e-mail to a faculty member from May 20 through August 1. That’s a little bit rigid, but it’s way preferable to the constant whining demands of the inbox. If your own school isn’t quite that firm about things, you can simply put up an out-of-office message on your e-mail that says “I will be away, at work on my scholarly life, until August 1st.” Don’t promise that you’ll respond when you get back, because you’ll have 6,347 messages and it’ll take you all fall to get through them. In fact, the second line of the autoreply might be “Please contact me with any items of importance after that date.” Keep a personal e-mail account so your friends can find you, but don’t share it more broadly than you need to.

Your time is the most important resource you have, and you need to fence off some blocks of it for your own use. Summer is the block that supports scholarly life—don’t let it be eroded by the drippy faucet of managerial whimpering.

Copying the masters

One of the things I think we do poorly in teaching young people to write is that we either teach it as a mode of self-expression, in which anything goes as long as it’s authentic… or as a mode of linguistic science, a series of parts of speech and moods and tenses and rules with nothing of interest to apply the rules to.

I think there’s a middle ground. It’s called reading.

Specifically, a guided, structured reading in which we learn to copy the masters, a sort of Beaux-Arts approach to writing in which we discover the writers we really love and then put their words through our hands. One of my practices for years when I was teaching myself to write was actually typing the most beautiful paragraphs or sequences I encountered. I got to feel those ideas coming through my hands; the fact of typing made me consider the author’s decisions, and how those were different than my own habits; I just got used to managing language beautifully and elegantly.

How do you learn how to write a CV? By reading them. How do you learn to write an abstract? By reading them. How do you learn the genre you want to participate in, from computational chemistry journal to literary short story to NIH grant proposal? By reading them. And intuiting their rules, and making those rules your own.


I love driving. It was the first thing I remember really, really wanting as a child. Now that I live in the boonies and have a big yard, I have a riding mower, which is the perfect eight-year-old fantasy toy: a combination of loud vehicle and coloring book, back and forth between the lines, so pretty…

Anyway, I just got out of the car after ten hours, from Vermont to near Baltimore. According to Google Maps, I could have made it in seven hours and four minutes, but a) I am neither a camel nor a twenty-year old, and need to stop periodically, and b) it took almost two hours to go the last fifty miles, with crazy traffic problems.

Nonetheless, I’m glad to have driven instead of flown, because I HATE flying. Actually, that’s not true. I like being in the airplane. I get to do the crossword puzzle in the in-flight magazine instead of answering e-mail.

It’s the other things I hate. I hate being on Travelocity and trying to figure out how to time my flights. I hate parking at the airport. I hate checking in, and wondering if I’ll get bumped from an oversold plane. I hate security, making sure I have everything out of pockets and managing the laptop and where’s the little baggie of toothpaste and dammit my belt set off the metal alarm again and now I have to carry my briefcase and my laptop and my coat and my shoes and my belt and my jacket across the room to get re-dressed in public. I hate the food, I hate the baggage claim, I hate figuring out what the driver’s local name for the hotel is. (“I’m at the University Suites.” “Oh, the Marriott?” “It says University Suites.” “Yeah, the Marriott. Hop in.”)

I hate making sure that I’m flying on the right day to the right city. I actually, years ago, booked a flight on the wrong day to a job interview (fortunately, I’d given myself what I thought was an extra day to explore town, so it turned out that I made the interview anyway and no one was the wiser).

So if I’m going to waste a day traveling—and I live two hours from the nearest airport, so every flight is a full-day commitment—I’d prefer to spend it in my fabulous car (2007 Civic Si) with my own music and my own pace and no security lines and a trunk that doesn’t charge $25 for each extra bag.

You, too, young scholar, will be traveling. You’ll be going to conferences and workshops and research trips, and you will also need to develop your own strategy for preferred travel. You probably won’t have anybody to book your flights for you unless you’re a permanent faculty member at a relatively high-end school, so get used to the joys of travel websites. (I use Travelocity and go cheap, so I’m not a member of any of the Emerald, Topaz, Ruby, Vanadium, Tanzanite, Admiral, Princess, Emperor, or Cyborg clubs; if this were an ocean ship a hundred years ago, I’d be in steerage.)

I say drive and be done with it.

The Bright Side of Office Politics

I used to work pretty hard at managing upward—saying the same thing, gently, to my provost or president enough times to eventually hear those ideas come from them as though they’d just thought them up. You can take credit for the work, or you can get the work done.

From The Office to Dilbert to Parks and Rec, the comedy of office politics has developed its stock characters:

  • a preening, oblivious manager;
  • a scheming but insecure underling always on the lookout for self-advancement;
  • half a dozen colorful eccentrics who just keep their heads down but get dragged into things anyway; and
  • the well-meaning, heart-of-gold naif who acts as the audience’s surrogate, trying to do the right thing but never certain exactly how.

Not unlike Gilligan’s Island, in fact.

So, you know, wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just go in and do our jobs and not have to deal with all of this other stuff? Well, no, I actually think it’d be pretty awful. There are a handful of things that we can do on our own with no outside influence. Woodworking, for instance. Writing. Gardening. Those are all lovely things, but if we skew too strongly to only those practices, we become hermits, unwilling and unable to enter the fray of the interpersonal world.

Most of the things we do involve collective effort; we have to work with others in order to get them done. And since we don’t have USB cords going directly between brains, we all have slightly different definitions of the problem, and slightly different goals for its resolution, and slightly different work lives that we have to fit this collective problem into, and pretty soon the team is pulling in twelve different directions at once.

If we think of office politics as a competition to be won or lost, our workplace will rapidly become bitter and secretive. If we leave someone out of the decisionmaking, they’ll find a way to subtly resist the enterprise.

But (to reach back to my Lutheran upbringing), what if we saw office politics as a vessel for grace? As an opportunity to leave aside willfulness, to exercise gratitude, to offer generosity? What if we learned to say, regularly, thank you… good idea… go for it… let me help… what do you think? What if we didn’t always have to be the smartest person in the room? What if we didn’t always have to raise the subtle, oppositional nuance?

Every day, we all have the opportunity to turn down the snark-ometer. We have the opportunity to make someone else’s life a little easier. We have the opportunity to leave our little cubby and come out to see what the larger organization is up to. Office politics is inevitable any time there’s interpersonal work to be done; the tone of those politics, though, is under our control.

Competitive Bids

I’m on the Select Board in our town of 740 people, which means that I get to take care of a bunch of unpredictable things as they arise. For instance, there was a house fire last month next to the town’s library, and the heat from the fire broke a few library window panes and warped the plastic rain gutter. Our municipal insurance carrier needed repair estimates. I got two. On one, the windows were $515, and the gutter was $125. On the other, the windows were $535, and the gutter was $135. So aside from marginally different materials and practices, it’s clear that both of these repair shops were seeing the job in pretty similar terms, and willing to do it for pretty similar prices.

But let me put another industry on the table for you. I’ve been involved in negotiation for three book contracts, and it’s pretty clear that the three publishers saw the world in radically different ways.

  1. Publisher A set a hardback list price of $100 and a softcover list price of $40. The author’s royalties on either were 3% of the publisher’s net proceeds (after discounts, etc).
  2. Publisher B set a hardback list price of $60 and a softcover list price of $20. The author’s royalties on the hardcovers were 5% of the publisher’s net, and 2.5% of the publisher’s net on the softcovers after the sale of the first thousand.
  3. Publisher C set a hardback list price of $60 and a softcover list price of $20. The author’s royalties on the hardcovers were 10% of the publisher’s net, and the softcovers went from 8% of net on the first 5,000, to 10% on the next 5,000, and 12% on anything beyond.

This is why fiction writers hire agents. Any individual offer for a book is seen in isolation, and so you just don’t know what’s possible, what others do. Your agent does. But literary agents aren’t so interested in academic books—it’s not their market, and there’s not nearly as much chance for a big return. So you, scholar, are on your own, adrift in a black, informationless sea. But at least now you have three data points that you can use to compare your quotes.

You’re welcome. I live to serve.

In other news, there’s been another sighting of the book, this time in the Granite State.

Photo in the wild Granite State

I also tried to upload a picture I took of a mating pair perching side by side in our local bookstore (Northshire Books, Manchester VT!!!), but I can’t figure out how to get the picture from my (non-data-plan, non-smart) phone onto the computer. Too bad, too… it was beautiful to see how their brilliant teal spinal plumage set them apart from their drab neighbors. I’ll keep trying. Maybe there’s a twelve-year-old around the neighborhood who can help.

Women’s Work

I tend to be kind of an observant person, a good character trait for an ethnographer. But I don’t always know how to turn it off, and my wife occasionally says that I’m sounding like Andy Rooney, which is a gentle way of saying that I should be quiet for a while. (Andy Rooney, children, was a curmudgeonly commentator on the CBS “60 Minutes” TV show, whose common opening line was “Didja ever notice…?”)

But you get to suffer my occupational traits. Sorry.

Didja ever notice… that once women enter a profession, the profession suddenly doesn’t get paid as well, and has more bureaucracy and more regulation? It’s no accident, I think, that as we’re getting more and more women physicians, the medical industry isn’t as highly respected; that it’s losing room for judgement and becoming more “systematized?” That it’s gaining a whole new group of professional categories like “physician assistant” and “nurse practitioner?” I think our culture simply defaults to the idea that men are important and women aren’t, and so any job that a woman can do isn’t all that important, either. (You can read a great, brief, discussion of this at the blog Crates and Ribbons—click the italicized words for a link.)

So it’s no accident, either, that as more and more women succeed in higher education, the terms of engagement in higher ed shift beneath us. The American Association of University Women reports that in fall 2011, 52.5 percent of part- time faculty members were women, while women composed 44.2 percent of full- time faculty members. The shift from the tenure-track to temp work occurred at roughly the same time as women began to enter faculty eligibility in larger numbers (and also at roughly the same time as undergraduate populations started to become less male-dominated as well). Coincidence? Is it a coincidence that we now talk about “K-16” or “K-20” education, so that we can pay college faculty as badly as we pay high school and grade school teachers?

Now I know that in a social ecosystem, no single variable carries full explanatory power. But golly, maybe we should think about what we see when we see it.

Bookshelf—The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

It’s been a month or so since I recommended a book. This edition of Bookshelf features The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, by Alain de Botton (2009, Pantheon). For those of you who haven’t read de Botton’s other work—and he is prolific—you can think of him as a British version of Malcolm Gladwell with a broader emotional range.

In TPSW, de Botton takes a careful look at the daily experiences of the ways we make our livings, and the meanings we draw from it. He loves to look at the work we take for granted. For instance, he follows one yellowfin tuna from the Maldives Minister of Fish to a fishing boat in the Indian Ocean to a Maldivian fish processing plant to a Qatar Airways cargo jet to Heathrow to a grocery in Bristol to the table of Linda Drummond and her eight-year-old son Sam, wise beyond years:

He also makes the ancillary suggestion, less often remarked upon by marine biologists, that our perpetual killing of fish has left the seas choked with an array of pallid oceanic ghosts who will one day gather together to exact terrible revenge on humanity for shortening their lives and transporting their corpses around the earth for supper in Bristol.

He finds a deep and powerful joy in work we think of as demeaning, and a brutal sadness in work we might find more professional. The deepest sorrows in the book come in his discussion of manufacture and packaging for a new brand of cookie (“biscuit,” in British usage), in which dozens of people come together in what is clearly an exercise in consumer psychology rather than nutrition or pleasure. They are simply making a thing to be sold. The nature of its uses is irrelevant, the same labor system applies to skirts or shirts, sheets or snacks.

It is surely significant that the adults who feature in children’s books are rarely, if ever, Regional Sales Managers or Building Services Engineers. They are shopkeepers, builders, cooks or farmers—people whose labour can easily be linked to the visible betterment of human life. As creatures innately aware of balance and proportion, we cannot help but sense that something is awry in a job title like “Brand Supervision Coordinator, Sweet Biscuits” and that whatever the logic and perspicacity of Vilfredo Pareto’s arguments, another principle to which no one has yet given a convincing name has here been ignored and subtler human laws violated.

In academia, we too are engaged in work, the provision of our time and talents to accomplish… something. What will that something be? How will we find meaning within our days? After doing research in which I was engaged for ten hours a day among teenagers, I found myself as a director of research for a school reform organization, and in the heart of the deepest despair I had ever known. I was an adult who worked with adults who worked with adults who worked with adults who worked with kids, the equivalent of the Brand Supervision Coordinator, Sweet Biscuits, paid well to make no lives better. Much of the white collar world is this way, engaged in coordination rather than identifiable labor.

So as you move forward with your “career planning,” think perhaps instead of your service planning. As de Botton says, work is meaningful when it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering. How will you best do that?

Intellectual Genres

I was at a writers’ conference a few years ago, in a session led by an acquisition editor from Penguin. (Don’t you just love the idea that the publisher is called Penguin, by the way?) Anyway, she was telling us about the shelving codes used by publishers to help booksellers departmentalize their material. The big categories, of course, we know: genres like mystery, thriller, travel, biography, supernatural, and so on. But she surprised me by talking about the subcategories as well. For instance, within “mystery,” there are noirs and procedurals and capers and historicals and romantics and… and “cozy mysteries.”

W.   T.   F.   F.?

Yes, friends, the cozy mystery. Amateur detective, usually an older woman, no visible crime or violence, no sex, no profanity. Just a cheerful little murder to solve, within a scatter of chatty and eccentric neighbors in a picturesque inn or seaside town. Murder She Wrote, basically. Sometimes the books actually contain recipes, or knitting instructions! This is a major genre, and you had better not disrupt the expectations of your readers if you expect anyone to get past page ten.

The genres of higher education, of course, are our disciplines. And you had likewise not disrupt the expectations of your readers if you expect anyone to get through your CV.

I’m right now in the midst of trying to market my fiction writing, an utterly different world than nonfiction (although literary agents are as anonymous, and as non-communicative in their rejection, as faculty search committees). And there’s a way in which the pitch letter is making two opposing cases at once. This book is fresh and innovative… and fits right in with all these other books you already know how to sell. As you market yourself as a candidate for a faculty position, you also will be making exactly that same divided case for yourself, that you’re an exciting and challenging scholar who’ll fit right in.

It’s an exacting line to walk, especially with so little feedback. So here’s my suggestion. Your department should have a folder (literal or virtual) with every single CV of every single tenure-track and tenured faculty member, available for the study of its graduate students and pending graduate students. Bio statements, too. Not only for their ostensible utility, to help your students know what you do so they can more wisely choose advisors—but more importantly as a study guide to the genre of your discipline. Which journals show up most often? Which doctoral programs did people in your department most often come from? How are research interests framed? How does your discipline define itself through its actions and allegiances?

You can learn to write a cozy mystery. It isn’t hard; you just read a hundred of them, and you start to learn the form. So too with your discipline; you learn the basic moves, and then figure out ways to do exactly those things, but with enough elan to be noticed among all of your shelfmates. To do that, you have to have the reading material to learn from.

Here’s another hint. Your department members won’t do it. They’re busy, and it’s not a priority. So some graduate student is going to have to make it her project, to go door to door and beg until she assembles a critical mass of CVs and bio statements from her masters, building a reverse-engineered guide to her genre. Get used to lifting your own bootstraps, kids.

The space between

The world of the student is filled with mechanisms for identifying and rewarding talent. Talent on certain terms, of course, but talent nonetheless. We pack thirty kids into a room and we ask them all to do the same thing. Some will do it better than others. We repeat that dozens of times a day, 180 days a year, thirteen years, and we have a relatively effective means of identifying who can do the things we value.

The ones who do it well—the gold that remains in the pan—get to do it some more, get tasks of higher level, greater focus, more sophistication. The machine winnows yet again for another four or five years, and a few of those participants are invited to continue even further, for another five or more years of the same.

In every case, the machine is designed, like a quiz show, to continually feed its participants challenges that they can identifiably do better or worse at. It is a virtual reality, a protective pod that seems like the whole world but is actually an illusion. We do not know this, because it seems so real—we’re immersed within its structures, it gives us the positive feedback that we crave, it rewards the odd blend of curiosity and obedience that we have cultivated so carefully.

But ultimately, the day comes that we have passed all of those challenges, and there is no more machine feeding us, challenging us, praising us. There is only the vast, incoherent, airless ether of “the market.”

The market rewards what it rewards, in a peculiar, circular, unknowable fashion. There is no conceivable explanation for why more people like Justin Bieber’s music than Kaki King’s, except that it’s true. There is no conceivable explanation for why E. L. James has sold a hundred million copies of shabby, secondhand vampire fiction, except that it’s true. The matrix—the logical, structured system of challenges and rewards—has finished with us, and we have entered an entirely different logic system, one we were never informed of. One that will comfortably dispose of the majority of us.

In the market, the tasks are less structured, the opportunities for challenge are less frequent, the feedback less defined. Instead of a a dozen papers a year to write for professors we’ve come to know, we have cover letters to write for the three jobs a year in our field, written to people who are anonymous to us and who do not themselves know what they want, which will receive no feedback of any sort aside from “no thank you.”

If you manage somehow to cross that wilderness, you will, surprisingly, re-enter the matrix. You will once again be given specific tasks in a reliable sequence—creating and teaching courses, conducting and submitting your research, serving on committees and preparing for promotion. And you will get regular feedback, if you’re paying attention, and thus be able to learn, to re-energize the paired muscles of curiosity and obedience. You will be welcomed back into to the pod, the virtual reality, the loving arms of the mechanical mother. You will, in fact, now help to shape it. And you will forget the terrors of the space between.