academic reorganization · academy · altac · empowerment · ideas for change

Professionalization and the Skillz to Pay the Bills

My first email address, that I got at York in 1993, was this: I probably only remember it because it was my very first email address, and I only knew, like 10 other people with email addresses, pretty much my friends who were geeks and who were at university:, We memorized each other’s weird handles and it all felt very computery and The Future. We were emailing with command line Lynx.

When I got to Guelph for my MA, I had a new address: The first thing I did was go into the settings of my mail program (Pegasus!) and configure the account so that the name “Aimee Morrison” attached to the email address That way, if you got an email from me, it would list my actual name in your inbox. And if you were on campus and typed part of my name, it would autocomplete the address from the directory. When I got to the University of Alberta (in 1998) I did the further trickery of registering an actual alias address: worked, but so did People marvelled at my astonishing computer skills.

None of this was hard to do. And it was the professional thing to do. Last week, I was ranting on Facebook about the number of students who won’t check their emails at all (YOU ARE ALL GOING TO FLUNK OUT BECAUSE THAT’S WHERE WE SEND DEADLINES), who won’t use their university accounts (FORWARD TO YOUR GMAIL IF YOU WANT BUT THIS IS A WORKPLACE), or who just never attach their names to their emails so that everytime I want to email them, I have to actually look through the university directory. Or they email me, and I have to reverse lookup the email address to figure out the name of the student.

Honest to god. Stop this. This is why people think we’re useless.

It got me thinking about bigger issues, about a different kind of professionalization, and institutionalization. One of the ways, I fear, that graduate students become institutionalized to think that there is no good life for them outside of the university is that we both passively support and sometimes actively encourage a very high degree of practical uselessness in them. You’re 30 years old and wrote a book length treatise on cycle plays but didn’t get paid in September because you never told HR that you moved, and they still have your email address from high school? Yeah. You might not be ready to have a regular job.

My sister works in the private sector. She wears real pants to work every day, uses a corporate intranet, meets deadlines, writes professional emails, uses spreadsheets, runs meetings. She has no patience at all for the life of the mind I describe to her, where everyone habitually misses deadlines, no one is trained on the main parts of their jobs, no one knows the org chart or the policies or the paperwork. Use a spreadsheet. Add. Their. Names. To. Their. Emails. And it is ridiculous, really.

Perhaps when we claim that our careers must take place in universities, we are as much about the negative valuation as the positive: we literally cannot function in office environments, because we don’t even know how to do a hanging indent in Microsoft Word, let alone create a pivot table, or use Excel functions to sort a table along two axes. Maybe we are unemployable.

This is depressing. Yes, academics are eccentric. One of my dear dear colleagues (love you!) knows how to ride a horse, but not drive a car. This type of thing is endemic. But can’t we be both eccentric AND competent? Paleography AND touch typing? Multi-modal poetry AND hand your grades in on time?

It begins with training. You know, when I started as grad chair, I was handed a master key, and a password to an email account, and left at it. Unacceptable. This work is complex, collaborative, multi-departmental, deeply financially implicated, full of ethical pitfalls and legal duties. Not one minute of training. I didn’t have the knowledge to run a lemonade stand, and I found myself in charge of a whole graduate program. It doesn’t speak well of the professional standards of my profession, truly. Just this year, the university is beginning to offer formal training for these roles. Next week, two and a half years into my three year term, I’m going to a workshop on how to lead meetings. Thank god.

We can do better by our students. The number one thing would be to inculcate the idea of the university *as* a workplace, and all of us as professionals in it. And of course, many professors (me!) need a lot more training in the mechanics of the workplace than we ever get. The next, and much easier thing, would be to offer opportunities to acquire basic workplace technical skills: using software, running meetings, emailing like a grownup, navigating the org chart.

Somewhere between debauched bohemian and corporate drone, there’s got to be some kind of middle place, some kind of basic competence in workplace skills and behaviours, so that we have more opportunities open to us, rather than fewer?

What do you want training in?

19 thoughts on “Professionalization and the Skillz to Pay the Bills

  1. Spot on, Ms. Morrison. I spent about 15 years in higher education, first as faculty, then as a Director. I found myself using the phrase “prolonged adolescence” to describe the mindset of many of my colleagues.
    This state of affairs, though, likely transcends “learned helplessness” – it's about the nature of the profession. The desire to be an academic is not solely, as many would like the world to believe, because of an interest in a discipline and certainly not extraordinary intelligence. It's an occupation that allows people to work largely without interference (“you 're not the boss of me”), to pursue personal interests above all else (“I, alone, determine what is worthy of study”), and to have your opinion matter (See the continued use of the lecture format). The similarities to the artist's lifestyle (imagined, not actual) are apt.
    I'd love to see someone actually dig into these issues more deeply, but turning a critical eye toward other academics in this manner wouldn't make many friends in the academy.


  2. I hear you! One of the reasons I am staying in administration is because for the most part the work place feels like a work place and I need that structure and that level of professionalism. And it's a good balance between a) do your job and b) be a decent human being and c) think creatively.


  3. While I am fist bumping with agreement, I'm not 100% comfortable with phrases like “learned helplessness” – it lays the blame on the individual. I'd say most people are following the path of least resistance. And systems allow it; as people up and down the org chart almost boast of their technology ignorance as much as their fear of math.

    Nor do I think “training” is the full answer. It's out of the book of obedience. For Prof Askey the answer is not training in Excel for the case in Excel but to help him use it in the areas that interest him the most, I'd bet his subject area.

    The missing piece IMHO is putting things into place to make understanding using your email matters to the individual, the design principle of “whats in it for me”. Not not in a punishment mode (“YOU WILL FAIL THE COURSE”) but in how it gives the person power to do something for themselves.

    Of course “how” to do this is the elusive grail. I do not see anyone as learning to be helpless; they just have not learned anything else.


  4. I think sometimes the helplessness is actually taught: the culture in grad school is that it's all life of the mind and none of the rest of it matters. But we work in large and complex organizations, and we have to learn to do that together, and using the appropriate tools.


  5. Here'a another thing: if you can find a place between “debauched bohemian and corporate drone” you can get a lot done within the university to make it into a better place, the kind of place we all say we want.


  6. So interesting!

    As a consultant working with companies with a lot of recent grads in the workforce, I can say that the American workplace has the (unrealistic?) expectation that college is preparing young people on a dimension that I call “How To Have A Job,” which is about showing up on time, responding to emails, and so forth.



  7. I think profs might want to turn to their mature students and see how they do things? I was a mature student. I worked at Global Television (research); I worked for radio stations; I ran my own (very small) business. I find academia lovely in some of the freedoms, but baffling in terms of communication (lack thereof); petty squabbles; and weird hierarchies. Anyways, great post!


  8. I spent a long time in the university system and left for the private sector because it turned out I was terrible at the politics. I do far more of what I actually was trained to do in grad school – which is epistemology and philosophy of logic – than I ever would had I stayed in the system. Part of that is because you don't get paid if you don't learn tools, and you have to figure out why someone might value what you're interested in. That isn't to argue against the utility of pure research that maybe no one is interested in, because there's a lot of value in that too (although you'd be surprised what is valuable in the private sector).

    But your piece reminds me that one of the problems I had with the university system was its near-endemic anti-intellectualism. I think learned helplessness is a facet of that. Why should someone learn to use a tool like Excel or god forbid an actual database, when the only people who use stuff like that, as one of your commenters tellingly put it, are “corporate drones”?

    I'm a long way from a corporate drone. I get paid a lot more to do philosophy than most of my former grad school colleagues, I get to see the impacts of my thinking on my coworkers pretty much right away instead of hoping for admission to a clique at the APA Pacific, and as an extra added bonus I'm not grading intro logic papers until the day I die. So who's the actual corporate drone? Moreover my colleagues are vastly more diverse than my grad school cohort or the faculty in pretty much any US humanities department, and people would never get away with the kind of harassment and bullying you find in pretty much every university system.

    But more to your point, why would someone intentionally pretend they're living in a late-medieval technological environment when there's so much interesting stuff to learn? Well, Occam's razor suggests that maybe because they just don't want to learn it. There may be other reasons too, like training. But as we corporate drones are fond of saying, “I just looked on Google…”


  9. Yes! I learned how to lead, how to organize, how to maintain a spreadsheet (in Google Drive, no less), how to run an efficient, productive meeting through my work with a statewide project and another digital pedagogy project. Deadlines and communicating with colleagues about missing those deadlines is imperative. (Making someone chase you down to get work or never responding is inherently unprofessional and causes damage to professional relationships.)

    My students have a strict protocol for emailing me (as I do them) and instructions to check their emails daily. For the most part, they do this. We have a discussion about modeling professionalism, even when emailing from their phones.

    In the other statewide project, I pushed, prodded, and cajoled professionally. The result was stupendous. Though some grumbled at my strategies, we actually achieved something as a team of 10 faculty from disparate backgrounds that had never been achieved.

    I have much more to learn and now have a wonderful new role model in our recently-hired department chair who has wrangled the irascibles in my department to the point that we're actually productive and collegial.


  10. Plus, it's wonderful to see a woman leading the charge in my department. She doesn't have to resort to catering to the irascibles. In the past these cranky faculty completely bogart our meeting agendas with their pontificating and voice raising. Zero collegialty and ability to listen to others. So glad that my department is now out of the toxic zone!

    Now, if the administrators on the statewide project could demonstrate some aplomb and respect at the conclusion of a 3-year, arduous project, this would all be a win for 2016!


  11. I agree to an extent, especially having come to academia following a change of career (I spent 15 years working in IT before becoming an academic philosopher). But, at the same time I'd also quite like for the professional competencies I do possess to simply be acknowledged without me having to fill-in a lengthy form and go through an accreditation process every time. I'd also quite like not to be treated like a helpless eccentric, out of touch with reality, by the wider world. My academic skills have turned out to be really useful in researching and teaching myself how to do all manner of things without needing expensive training courses or certificates. Help when we need it would be appreciated, but we aren't quite as useless as the world thinks we are!


  12. This was great, Aimee. I think one other factor that comes into play is just a fear of failure, at least when it comes to technology. I think the excuse that only those lowly corporate drones do things with Excel is just a cover for being afraid to learn something they may not be good at. Of course, this is hardly what we want our academics to be, but it is a very human reaction. The most success I've had with these individuals is through one-on-one coaching/mentoring. It's not scalable, but it's the only thing I've seen with true, lasting results.


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