Thursday, August 21, 2008

Rules of work

a kind friend loaned me a book called the rules of work: the unspoken truth about getting ahead in business. it's so easy to make fun of it's almost not worth the trouble; it's one of those books that more or less makes fun of itself, with advice from pithy (don't wear hawaiian shirts to the office) to pious ("the right attitude is head up, never moaning, always positive and upbeat, constantly looking for the advantage and the edge"). some of it is downright creepy, like how to practice your smile (videotape!) and mimic the boss (if he takes his jacket off in a meeting, you take your jacket off in a meeting; if he rolls up his sleeves, you roll up your sleeves). if you're looking for stalk tips, here's one: know where the bosses socialize and be there first. some of the advice might have been better left "unspoken" like the subtitle promises, such as the section on having your warts removed and checking your facial hair for crumbs. some of the advice is startling; i underlined the bit about never dressing up for halloween if you're looking to get promoted. and there's bad news for ambitious vegetarians: your avant-garde lifestyle will amost certainly stand in the way of advancement -- unless, presumably, you're looking to advance within greenpeace, since conformity is all. some of the book just goes to prove, yet again, that the english are weird.

but underneath the egregiously facile bits is some useful stuff. for instance, it's probably a smart idea to cultivate diplomacy, think one step ahead, and have a game plan. i've never been very good at sussing out other people's motivations; being reminded that some folks are motivated by power, money and self-glorification is helpful. (well, okay, i'm in the academy, i know all about glory.) and i did love reading the bit about leaving on time: resist presenteeim, "wave boldly and [say] that whoever leaves last shuts off the lights!"

the real problem with a book like this is that we professors in the humanities don't really think of ourselves as workers with jobs. we know too much, we're smarter than the average bear, and we really do believe, like the rubes mocked in the rules, that our opinion "counts for something, has an audience, is important, will make a difference." idealism matters to us. frustrating as i find it to listen to some colleague offer a principled objection to, say, signing a conflict of interest form (rule #18: be cool, be cool...), i am ultimately on the side of the thoughtful, idealistic and dismayingly fuddyduddy.

as i contemplate the year ahead of me (and believe me, i'm quaking) i realize that the main challenge is going to be to save me from myself. it's not just that i'm stuck at rule #32, "don't bitch" (bitching, says the rules, identifies you as petty, idle and trivial, and makes you a magnet for moaners); it's that i think of teaching, learning and serving as noble callings and i believe the role of university administration is to foster these things. it follows that i want my job to provide things like a sense of purpose, a sense of worth, and a sense of possibility for progressive change in the world. it's not the only area in my life where i seek these things, but it's the one that takes the largest number of waking hours.

so the grim truth is that checking-out isn't going to work for me and neither, probably, will the rules. still, i'm going to learn how to "volunteer carefully" (rule #3) and, just in case, you won't see me wearing green on st patrick's day.


jen alabiso said...

i love your integrity - it is one of my favourite heatherisms. i wish (with my eyes squeezed shut and my fingers crossed) that the university administration (and here, i mean ANY university administration) had the same values around teaching, learning, investigation. we might all be bright, curious and excited about the world, in that case.

Adam Snider said...

Don't dress up for Halloween? I think that rule depends on the culture of the office. I once worked in an office where people actually thought less of you if you didn't wear a Halloween costume to the office. It was strange.