Advanced faculty wrangling techniques

Getting a group of faculty members together to accomplish something has often been compared to herding cats. I disagree. When I want to get my cats all into one room to do something at the same time, all I have to do is stand in my kitchen, open a can of Friskies, and yell “Num nums!”

Three cats in a neat row.

Cats, neatly lined up. Completely unlike faculty.

Not so with faculty. If you have, say, 20 professor cats, and you would like them all to arrive in the same place at the same time, you can’t just send out a general email to all 20 of them that says “Num nums will be served in the kitchen at 6 pm.” Most professor cats will just delete that email, if they see it at all. Only 2 or 3 professor cats will show up – the ones with the most interest in num nums and the most criticisms to offer. They will spend the whole time coming up with ways to improve the num num experience, and at the end of dinner time they will have come to an agreement that next time, instead of opening a can of shredded salmon flavored cat food, you go out, catch a fresh salmon, clean it and gut it, and serve the fresh raw filets on ice. And at least three of the no-shows will complain that num nums were served without them, why didn’t anyone tell them there would be num nums.

The lack of response is especially confusing because the professor cats are the ones that suggested the num nums in the first place. They like num nums. They wrote the grants that got the funding for the num nums. And you already polled them and picked a num num eating time that worked for everyone.

So next, time, you decide to make it more personal. Instead of a mass email, you send individual handwritten invitations to each professor cat, that read something like this: “Dear Dr. Kitty: As per the schedule that is clearly posted on the kitchen website, num nums will be served tomorrow in the kitchen at 6 pm. I have made sure that both tuna and chicken flavors will be present, as you suggested last time. I hope to see you there.”

This time the results will be a little better. Maybe half of the professor cats will show up in the kitchen within 30 minutes of the announced time. But others will delegate the num nums, and you will receive several emails from grad student and postdoc cats asking questions about the purpose of the num nums and whether there will be turkey flavor. A couple of other professor cats will call your office phone at 6:05 pm – despite the fact that you have made it known that you will be in the kitchen, not your office, at 6:00 pm – asking where the kitchen is and how to get there.

Afterwards, you will have some leftover num nums that absolutely must be fed to all of the professor cats who were not in attendance, even if you have to feed them a couple of days after the deadline. So you individually email each of the professor cats who didn’t show up: “Dear Dr. Kitty, We served num nums yesterday at 6 pm, and you were not present to eat your num nums. Please come to my office by 5 pm today in order to eat your num nums.”

At least two will respond with, “Sorry, I didn’t realize the num nums were for me.”

Four cats eating their num nums in an orderly fashion.

It's easy to herd cats.

Now you start getting smarter. You realize that the only way to get all the professor cats to eat all their num nums is to make it a requirement in order to receive funding for future num nums. You develop a complicated – but user friendly – online tracking system so that you will have data on which professor cats ate their num nums and which did not. Now you will have to send even more emails and meetings with instructions on: when and where num nums are served (even though it is in the same place every day and has been in the same place every day for the last 5 years), how to report one’s consumption of the num nums, the requirements for eating num nums, and the consequences of not cleaning your plate.

Some professor cats will complain that you send too many emails. Other professor cats will complain that you don’t send enough emails.

You will still never get more than 75% of the professor cats in the kitchen at the appointed time, and you will spend a large chunk of your day fielding complaints about the online tracking system and answering questions that never would be asked if the professor cats had simply read the 6 emails carefully explaining the process, or went to the kitchen website and clicked the tab marked “Daily Num Num Schedule.”

No matter what you do, you will still have to run down the street after wayward fluffy tails, waving a can of num nums and feeling like an idiot.


Email autoreplies

I understand and accept the usefulness of email “away” messages. But I must admit it drives me crazy when someone emails me, and I hit “reply” and send a prompt response, only to get their “away” message in return.

Especially when the away message says “I will return on September 9 and respond to your email as soon as possible”… and it’s September 15.


Titles and respect

I see a lot of bloggers complaining that their students do not call them “Dr. So-and-so” and how that is disrespectful – and how it happens far more often to female faculty than it does to male faculty. Having done quite a bit of teaching myself, I understand the problem very well and sympathize.

But I would argue that it is worse when you are in an administrative position and the faculty members that you are managing assume you are staff, and address you as “Ms.” in their emails. Even when your email signature clearly points out that you have a Ph.D. When I was hired for this position, they were looking for someone who had a Ph.D. and who would continue to do active research, because they felt that it would be valuable for many of the responsibilities of this job. They are even giving me a faculty appointment in one of the departments to assist with things like getting funding. However, several of the faculty members involved in this center apparently did not get that memo, because they clearly regard me as a secretary of sorts. Which explains why they never fucking answer my emails.

I am disgruntled.


Things that fill me with rage

Day 1: I send an email to all faculty with Request 1 for information.

Days 1-9: No response.

Day 10: I send an email to all faculty with Request 1 for information (Repeated), this time making it sound more urgent.

Days 10-15: A few responses dribble in.

Day 16: I send an email to 4 faculty members with Request 2 for something else needed for an upcoming event.

Day 18: One of the 4 faculty members – WHO NEVER RESPONDED TO REQUEST 1 – responded to Request 2, saying “This would be a lot easier if we had a list of info [that I asked for in Request 1].”

Yes. IT WOULD BE EASIER IF I HAD THE INFORMATION I REQUESTED. Perhaps you should send it to me. GRRRR.


Writing these emails wouldn’t be so bad if somebody READ them

The text of an email I sent yesterday:

For the [funding agency name redacted] report, I need “brief biographical information in one page or less” from all of you. Basically, this is a one-page version of your [redacted]; the conflict of interest info is not required. I am attaching examples from [redacted]. Please send me your 1-page bios in the next week or so.

POP QUIZ:

1. How many pages should this bio be?

2. How many people got the wrong answer to #1 yesterday??

ARGH.


Re: Fwd: Fwd: Re: Email

Lately, if someone were to ask me what my job is, I would answer “Writing emails.”

I write emails. Then I wait for people to answer them. Most people don’t, so I have to write another email to follow up on the first email. Sometimes I make phone calls about why my emails weren’t answered.

When I do get responses to my emails, half the time the responders don’t actually give me the information I requested but instead either 1) ask me a different question or 2) explain why they can’t/haven’t yet/don’t have time yet/don’t know/are not the right people to give me the requested information.

Then I respond to that email and the cycle starts again.

I am pretty sure this is not the most efficient way to get work done.