Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Desperate, But Not Serious

The old Adam Ant song describes a lot of what goes on in academic administration: desperate, but not serious.

What follows is probably not an original formulation, but it is one I have found useful in being an academic administrator, or for that matter a junior faculty member.

There are TWO dimensions on which we evaluate projects and obligations. The first is urgency. That would be time-sensitivity, deadline pressure, and so on.

The second is importance. Actual significance. Will anyone care a month from now? More important, will anyone read what you are writing ten years from now, or more (the Buchanan test).

So, it works like this:

Desperate Is Not Serious
. Important? Yes No
Urgent? Yes 1 2
No 3 4

Nobody pays any attention to cell 4.

And everybody works right away on cell 1.

The question is how you trade off cell 3 and cell 2.

The point is that nearly all real work academics do, or should do, is in quadrant 3. Journal editors don't have deadlines. They don't care if they NEVER hear from you. You can do it tomorrow. But you won't.

Because what everybody wants you to do is in quadrant 2. "Can you talk to this person we have on the phone? They want to know about the _____ program." Can you attend a meeting of the letterhead control committee? (Yes, my children, that is a real committee. We have to have standards.)

And the problem is much worse for administrators. The electronic revolution means that you are never out of touch. And, incredibly, lots of administrators willingly buy crackberries, or treos, so that they are always on call. But that means that every waking moment is spent answering, or at least reading, some stupid crap from some other administrator who does not know the rules of academic work. And (a bonus for readers of the End), here those are:

1. Work is what we do between meetings. Repeat this to yourself every day.

2. Reading email is a virtual meeting, of the most time-wasting kind. We had an assistant prof here at Duke that checked his hand-held device every two or three minutes (I'm not making this up). So, he appeared CONSTANTLY busy, when what he was doing was living in cell 2 of my little table: urgent, but not important. The reason they are called "crackberries" is that if you have any trace of self-importance (and what prof doesn't?), then taking out your hand held device and then saying, "Excuse me, I have to answer this" is so appealing you can't help yourself. Don't buy rocks of crack, and use your treo only on trips, and then sparingly. People don't think you're important if you have to check email every 3 minutes. They recognize that you would rather be in a permanent meeting than do your work.

3. Most emails will wither up and blow away in 24 hours. People don't really need you. Same for phone calls. If you are a professor, just don't read your email, or delete almost everything after reading the first line. Tell everyone you know: any email that blathers on for more than three lines, I'm going to delete unread. Do not read and respond to emails every 2 or 3 minutes. If you do, you are in a permanent meeting, Dante's secret 39th circle of hell.

4. If you are an administrator, design a filter system. Raise transactions cost of contacting you. There are type I and type II errors here: how many urgent but unimportant messages will you have to pay attention to, to ensure that you get all of the urgent AND important messages? And the main thing is to preserve some time for important but not urgent tasks, LIKE WRITING! Your assistant is your filter; depend on her/him to take care of you. If you don't answer your email (it was more than three lines long, so it got deleted), or you are not in your office/didn't answer the phone, the next person who gets called is your assistant. She (in my case) knows where to track you down. And LOTS of times the irate person is not willing to pay the transactions costs of setting up an appointment and coming back next week. You are doing them a favor, because they don't really want to have this meeting. It is urgent, in their minds at this moment, but not important.

A final note: meetings are an important part of what we do. We talk, we get together, we share. We perform service. I don't mean to say you should shirk your service duties. What I do want to say is that you have to filter out all the urgent, but trivial, things that will take up all your time. If you retire and wish you had written something more significant, that regret will hurt for a long time. Don't let the reason for your failure be that you spent all your time in meetings, or checking your $%^$&#$ treo.

1 comment:

Dirty Davey said...

There is an interesting contrast between fields of study here, with respect to the urgency of research.

Journal editors may not have deadlines in political science, but if someone else sends in an article identifying the gene sequence you're working on, you get to toss it all and start anew.

In fields where the goal of research is to find a specific, correct, verifiable answer first, and where multiple people may be working on the same exact thing, research can move itself from quadrant 3 into quadrant 1.


(formerly a political scientist, but a child of biochemists and romantically linked with a biologist)