Invisible Work of Professoring: Management and Soft Power

When I tell people I used to be a professor, especially in my recent activities that have been more about product management, software development, user research and the like, I think there are two big blind spots people have. Professor reads as either 1. researcher or a scientist who spends the whole day “researching” (whatever idea that conjures up exactly) or 2. teacher, as in the fleeting glimpses of professors that most students see in college when professors are doing the lecture or seminar thing, maybe grading, maybe a mentor or possibly just a pain to be overcome. But the fact is that most of the job of being a professor — vs. the ideal or fantasy — is not that at all. It's invisible labor, and it's a lot more like the kind of labor that professionals do outside of academia than most may think.

Put simply, the university is one of the most oppressively hierarchical types of organizations around; management skills are the bread and butter of surviving in that world.

What Do Professors do again?

The work of professors is often opaque, even to those close to it.

I am often reminded, though not surprised, that even people who spend careers teaching adjacent or, for higher ed, around professors in various capacities, have significant blind spots as to what it is that professors actually do. For many college students or ex-college students, they see a public view of professors as teachers and imagine that this is the sum total of what goes on. But for most tenured or tenure track faculty, teaching makes up a small or smallest part of their work (depending of course on institution). For other faculty, typically adjuncts, teaching may make up the bulk of their hours each day; but what students tend not to see in the case of adjuncts is then the inverse, i.e. the pressures and hours spent trying to do research or in semi-exploitative administrative and logistics work. There are many many configurations.

My point isn't to focus on those varieties so much as to emphasize the way that insider/outsider distinctions are just as prevalent in education as in any other field. Being a doctor is different from visiting a doctor. So too being any kind of teacher is very different from having been in a classroom as a student. The difference is that I think people tend to imagine that they know what being a professor (no work! summers off!) and being a teacher (classroom stuff!) is like, in part because of the long periods of time people have spent in school themselves. Anyone who has had a negative educational experience has opinions and judgements about how to make it better. Anyone who had a good experience has opinions as to why those teachers were so good. They've gamed out their impression of the profession or the activity in ways that reinforce the biases of a consumer rather than an insider and educational professional.

This is not confined to any particular field. I remember thinking at one moment nearly 15 years ago that maybe it would be a good idea to purchase a coffee shop near me. Why? Because I am a career cafe rat and it was a bargain basement price. The couple who did buy that business proved to me how much I had to learn. They bought that place and did an amazing job, and they made clear, with hints of their invisible labors, over many years as a patron and friend, how very different the business of running such a place was from the enjoyment of it.

Soft Power

The daily work of being a professor is nothing but management skills in action. Those who haven't lived in that world might assume that it's all about teacher to student or researcher to student relationships. But those are just one facet, one where growth is particularly important and which aligns with management styles and methods where the point is to activate the best version of each member of a team. But outside of that, much more daily and constant are the series of downwards, lateral, and upwards management relationships. As a professor you need to cultivate relationships at your level, at levels above your own, and also have a light touch with those who may be just entering the system (graduate students especially, with emphasis on the fact that graduate “students” are in fact proto-professionals whose division of labor itself combines elements of students, teachers, and, more minimally, admin). It's particularly complicated as the division between university professionals (e.g. in various offices) and faculty can be stark. Powerful individuals within certain offices might have less academic status but have vastly more actual power. Everyone is overburdened, understaffed, under-resourced. So getting things done requires herding the cats at every level.

Again, a romanticized view might make an outsider imagine that it's all about faculty acting as peers. But anyone who has worked in a university knows that these are among the most hierarchical of institutions in the history of the world (I'm not prone to those kinds of statements— in fact, I usually excise them from student writing, but in this case, I'm willing to make the claim). Faculty use affectations like talking about their coworkers as “colleagues” in part because they are so constantly aware of and anxious about place in the hierarchy. All part of the charade, except when it isn't; but otherwise, as potentially sugary as a “bless your heart” uttered to your lifelong enemy. In fact dealing with “colleagues” always involves careful negotiation of status. Working together with other academics requires building trust and good practice because so little in that work is binding or structured and because so much in collaborative work at the university could — in the absence of agreement to move things along — proceed at a glacial pace.

Even graduate students tend to have this blind spot about what professors actually do. There's a big change between doing your graduate degree and taking on an academic position. To put it bluntly, you've got to deal with the shit now. You have to deal with the bureaucratic stuff, the paperwork, the minutiae that eat away brain cells. But you also have to become adept at working with multiple stakeholders within departments, across campus, in various subgroups of an academic discipline. If you do something like run a program or run a department, then you have all the administrative hassles of any white collar management job and also the joys of trying to get a group of (often) radically individualistic stakeholders, many of which can't be fired, to do something kind of sort of together.

Even where we might think that there is the most professorial power, in the classroom, in fact this tends not to be the case.

Teaching is itself an exercise in soft power.

This is not what most students think. When you're a student everything seems to point in the opposite direction. Grades, rules, curriculum — these are all hard guidelines, things to rebel against, resent, or rely on in varying degrees and depending on your predispositions.

But as a teacher, one of the most important realizations early on as you gain experience is recognizing that all you have is soft power.

As a professor or in higher ed, where everyone is a “colleague” and lines of management among diverse stakeholders (staff, faculty, graduate students) can be tricky to navigate and negotiate, all you have is soft power. As an administrator of any program, it's soft power. Within a discipline or field, working with people at other institutions, it's soft power again.

All you have is soft power. And all you need is soft power.

At least, that's the only way to get things done.