perpetual crush · solidarity

I Heart Academic Administrative Staff

Some things that my (yes, I think of her as mine even though I know she isn’t mine at all, but I can’t help feeling a little possessive) Research Officer has said to me over the course of assisting me as I lurched towards clicking the “submit” button for my SSHRC grant application:

“Naughty, naughty for trying!”
I tried, twice, to sneak something into my budget that is not permitted.
“sigh, ‘hope’ appears again.”
One may anticipate or expect to do things, but, really, there is no hope.
“You didn’t sleep last night, did you?”
When I couldn’t remember my password and was two attempts away from being locked out with only hours to go before the submission deadline.
“We were worried about you.”
For a while there, every budget document turned to magical mush in my hands.
It is no exaggeration to say that, without the support of my RO, and the coordinator of the research unit that hosts my application, I would not have submitted this application. Aside from little old me, no one cared more about my application than Janet and Alicia aka Goddesses of Research Support. I cannot think of the last time anyone read anything I wrote line by painstaking line and edited it with so much care, again and again and again and again and again.
They also insisted that I sing my own praises more fully. It seems so obvious now, but it never occurred to me to include positive quotes from reviews of my book when I was asked to think about the impact of my research. It wasn’t even modesty, false or otherwise, that made my first draft of the attachment that talks about my record as researcher so lame. I honestly just didn’t know that one could include reviews. I needed someone who had seen a lot of applications to tell me.
In the days before the deadline, I got more emails (each one action-packed with stuff that helped me along) from them than I got from my husband in the heady, early days of our courtship. The day before the deadline, when I showed up at their offices clutching my laptop with that quiet air of desperation that only SSRHC can engender in me, they asked me how I was feeling and I was so grateful that they thought to ask, that they knew exactly where I was at – right down to the number of characters I still had to cut on one of my attachments – that I almost cried. The night before the application was due, they emailed me to let me know when they would be stepping out for a few hours, and when they would be back on email to help me through any last minute crises that would erupt. They were totally there for me. They had my back.
Yesterday, Aimée wrote about the pivoting that is part of being a midcareer feminist academic. In the quiet hum of panic that preceded the hours before I submitted my grant application (I blame that feeling almost entirely on the countdown clock on the website which made me feel like I am in a boring academic version of 24 where the logic of the ticking clock leads me to moments of intensifying absurdity), I was thinking about her post and how incredible it is to be in a career where there are unbelievably brilliant and competent people whose whole job is about making me look good, or at least less of the dope that I would be if left to my own devices.
Hook & Eye has known about the power of academic administrative staff for a long time. We are lucky to count among our crew someone who is, among many other things, an outrageously awesome Research Officer. When Melissa wrote recently about the challenge of unconscious bias in reference letters, I was reminded all over again about the kind of crucial behind-the-scenes work that academic administrative staff do every single day. In a lot of ways, they know the stakes better than most of us because they see so much that academics just don’t see. Melissa reads thousands of reference letters a year. She lobbies funding agencies on our behalf for anti-bias practices and guidelines. She is totally there for us. She has our back.
We are a long way from Administrative Professionals’ Day (April 27, 2016 – put it in your calendar to buy some chocolate) but, in the hazy glow of my post-application submission moment, I want to remember how much we owe to the people who are at work every day making our jobs easier and better, who actually make our universities run, who make us look good because they are so freaking good.
And, of course, this is a feminist issue. It has not escaped my attention that the people who had my back with my latest research hurdle are women. Overwhelmingly, academic administrative staff members are women. There are vulnerabilities and actual silences for academic administrative staff in general. But, because we are really talking about a group largely made up of women, we have to attend to how these vulnerabilities are gendered too.
Of course, we also know that you cannot separate gender from class. Last week, I was at a Faculty Council meeting where the Provost and Vice-President of Finance for my university presented a new budget model. But it was also a presentation of our many budgetary crises and a general narrative of the need for more austerity. At one point, it was pointed out that “there was a lot of duplication” in the ranks of academic administrative staff. I thought about that comment, and how any of the staff members I work with would feel about the view that there wasn’t enough work for them. So, we as tenured academics, were being told that we were spending more money than we had, and that we had more staff (who have significantly few protections than tenured profs) than we need. We talk a lot about precarity on this blog, but it tends to be in the context of Contract Academic Faculty. Let’s also remember that academic staff live with precarities too.
Last spring, when the strikes by CUPE 3903 were over but still fresh in the minds of everyone on my campus, almost no one I knew was aware that the academic staff association was also in bargaining and that the bargaining had been going very badly. They were going to a strike vote. No one I knew who was not a staff member seemed to be aware of it. I remember talking with a staff member about what might happen, about how hard it was for them to communicate to the public, and to students in particular for whom staff are often the face of university administration, their position. Thankfully, it never came to a strike and an agreement was signed. But the shadow of that near-miss, and the realization of the way in which staff are so often caught between competing institutional agendas, remains with me.
So. Let’s be there for them.