academic work · administration · emotional labour

Kindness and bureaucracy

Paula Krebs has written an interesting opinion piece over at Chronicle Vitae. In it, she argues for approaching administrative work (she’s a dean) from a position of kindness. I think by kindness she means empathy, or the capacity to enter into another’s perspective to understand their context and motivations. So much of the work of administration is interpersonal: it’s about getting people to buy into ways of doing things, of getting along with each other, of working toward a common goal. This work must start, Krebs suggests, by looking at a given problem not from the angle of what the correct outcome is, but of where the other person is starting from. Maybe this professor found out she was underpaid relative to her male colleagues for years, and now doesn’t much feel like going on a team-building retreat with any of them. Maybe this student is seriously ill but wants to stay enrolled full time anyways because of the financial implications of changing status. Maybe this TA is grading to the beat of his own drum because he has pedagogical qualms about the standard rubric. These are good things to know.

There are dangers, though, to such inquiries and conversations, as Krebs suggests:

It can lead to a focus on individuals rather than on policy and procedures. That problem is especially troubling for me. I want to understand people and their needs and motivations, but I also need to remind myself that the best way to handle conflict is not to be a counselor or even a mentor. It’s more effective to prevent conflict in the first place, with structures that we all agree on and guidelines both for the way we treat each other and the way change happens. 

Man, did this resonate for me. Rounding the home stretch of my first year as Associate Chair, Graduate Studies I can say that one of the biggest joys has been devising and implementing policy that create supportive structures in our shared workspace: a policy for granting grades of ‘Incomplete.’ new checklists and timelines of degree requirements, explicit contracts outlining responsibilities for Area Exams, policies around residency and availability to be on campus.

I’ve been working (with the graduate coordinator, and the chair, and the graduate committee, and the associate dean) to figure out where our trouble spots were: and this was largely a matter of listening to students, and staff, and faculty tell their individual stories. And I had to listen with kindness, then figure out what to do next.

It’s hard to blend an attention to the unique circumstances of individuals, with the construction and maintenance of an appropriate and supportive set of policies and procedures. (Wow, that was the most boring sentence I’ve ever blogged, I think.) This involves the often deliberate practice of empathy and attention to human behaviors, while I have a tendency instead to jump right to the abstraction, the pattern, and the rule. But I find that if I listen to enough stories, or follow up on enough individual cases, a pattern does eventually emerge, and generalized-enough policy and procedure often then suggests itself.

What I’m getting at is that I’m drawn to administration because I like to find efficiencies and patterns and rules and organize things. I’ve discovered how much interpersonal work and support is actually required of me, and now, like Krebs, I’m finding that these are not opposing practices, but complementary ones. Better policy comes from better listening; better compliance and outcomes come from better policy.

Krebs writes: “Waiting for trouble to boil over before creating policy to deal with it is lazy. Of course, creating a bunch of rules for civility is worse than lazy. Rules don’t make people treat each other well. Culture does.”

Culture is hard: it’s the base as well as the superstructure. It’s both overdetermined, and spontaneous and individual in its manifestations. Balancing these truths is something I’m working on, and I still default too often to rampaging world controlling ENTJ tendencies. But as I keep trying to soften and listen, everything seems to turn out better. Kindness for the win.

One thought on “Kindness and bureaucracy

  1. Wow, great post! I have a lot to add to this, having just finished a contract admin role myself. Rules and policies are only as good as how universal they are. As an admin you see a lot of these situations that don't always fit the status quo. As educators we get this because we see this every day in the classroom, as admins we are supposed to shut that off. That's the difficult part. You have wonderfully summarized how synchronous this should all be. Sadly it is not the case in many places in Higher ed.


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