The Invisible Life of a College Professor

Lately I’ve become obsessed with what I’ve started calling the “invisible work.” All the non-evident administrative tasks that are needed to the move processes forward. Lest you think this is going to be one big whinge-a-thon, you can relax. I’m gonna peel back the curtain and let you see some of what we college professors really do. Disclaimer: I love my job so those of you sniffing around the edges for a potential job opening, it’s not here. I hopefully have many more years of happy invisibility. But, having said that, it riles me to hear someone say,

You professors have really cushy jobs.

IMG_0053
Disclaimer: Quite old photo of this college professor at her desk and at her target weight.

Context: Spring Semester classes started last week. We’re completing the casting of the 13 spring productions. We’ve just sorted the 130+ students in our Introduction to Theatrical Production class into their crew or shop assignments. This week the shop track students began tool training in shop, working through our own stations of the cross, and last night at 5:00PM, we assembled the crew students along with all the cast members of all the shows to celebrate our Company. Witness the gathering above. Things are moving forward with a collaborative spirit of excitement and anticipation.

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Stephanie Shroyer, Artistic Director of SDA and Director of the BFA Programs (also the hardest working professor at USC)

I puzzled as I typed up the contact sheets for the crews for each of our shows, harvesting phone numbers from their submitted “dossiers.” Phone numbers typed without the hyphens between the area code and subsequent numbers. 1234567891. Why? Of course! Our smartphones  automatically insert those hyphens for us. Perhaps students have forgotten where the hyphen character is on their keyboards. These are the types of impenetrable thoughts the invisible college professor who’s deep in the weeds ponders.

Here in Southern California, some of our better-heeled citizenry are reeling from the aftermath of the first season’s serious rain following devastating fires. Sections of the 101 Freeway normally passing through sunny, palm-fronded hills near Santa Barbara lie under a thick concrete-esque slab of drying mud, with an unpredictable re-opening date.

la-me-evacuations-montecito-20180110My desk looked a little like that after the first week of the Spring semester.
You know, back when I was in college, back in the stone age, I realize, with the acute hindsight that only ten years of teaching can give you, I had zero appreciation for what my professors did outside of the classroom, studio and lecture room. They showed up for their lectures, filled my still-evolving brain with factoids and provocative questions, or in the studio classrooms, guided me in acting exercises that blew open the portals of my evolving practice. (I can’t use the word “art” because I definitely didn’t merit that level of accomplishment as an acting student.) Class ended, and we students went on to the ice cream shop next door for a blended ice cream with M&Ms or something equally unhealthy, or on to our work-study jobs to support our rich college experience. Where did our professors go?

I never really gave a thought to what my professors were up to in between my contact with them. Don’t get me wrong, I liked them (or most of them) enormously; it just wasn’t something I thought about. I attribute this to the natural narcissism of the college student. One exception was our trip to Edinburgh, where we mounted five plays in the fringe, supervised, cheer-led by our professor, Carol, during the eighteen days in the rainy Scottish city. She was in the trenches with us there, and I so enjoyed the time spent with her and the privilege of seeing her made visible to us in all her humanity.

Even when I started teaching, I didn’t understand what was necessary to make the various facets of our school function. I knew that there were faculty committees, both in the school, and at the university level. I knew that there was a Faculty Council, responsible for the review of the Annual Merit Reviews, the self-assessment of our contributions to the school and university.

I knew that each year faculty worked to review and assess the applications of next year’s incoming class, a cycle which I soon learned included portfolio reviews, decision making, followed by the annual ritual of courtship of accepted students to encourage them to join us in the fall.

So what do I mean by invisible work?

Both of our semesters begin with what my recently retired colleague, Jack, referred to as “casting benders.” Three nights of auditions for each show, followed by a night or two of callbacks; all of this happening in adjacent rooms, eager students outside lining the halls, lips moving in synchronicity as they prepare to read a scene for the director. Our stage management students sit with the directors after the callbacks as they cull the lists, and funnel their prospective casting choices on to the ad hoc committee of invisible professors, who then spread out the casting sheets and tenderly sort the lists to come up with the ultimate casting solutions. Tenderly might not be the best word. Hmmm…. Let’s see:

  • Passionately
  • Excitedly
  • Caffeinatedly
  • Thoughtfully
  • Seriously

Seriously, this process this time took about 8.5 hours. It happened at my dining room table. I fed us intermittently throughout the day. At one point, the theme was orange food – carrots and tangerines. They brought beautiful baked goods which we inhaled within the first hour. My husband, exiled to the living room, watched the captions of CNN scroll on as the three of us, the Artistic Director, Head of Production and Head of Undergraduate Acting combed through the lists, broke into subcommittees of one or two to consult with the directors by phone, and then re-united to finalize each list with care and consideration.

Those of us doing this invisible backroom work are freighted with the knowledge that literally hundreds of students and staff and faculty are waiting for the results of our conferencing. The stakes (and we like to talk about the stakes in the theatre, right?) are high.

Again, don’t get me wrong. What I love about this invisible work is the unclear, diverse, yet completely cyclical nature of it. When I started my job at USC, I created lists of processes that needed to be completed and in what order. Now, after thirteen years, I start to feel the cycle, almost like (pardon my gender narcissism) a menstrual cycle.

Oh, now’s the time when I should be assembling the calendar for next year’s productions.

Oh, now’s the time for me to revise the syllabus for this class and upload it into Blackboard.

Oh, now’s the time for me to ask a work study student to replenish the first aid kits.

Ah! Time to tune the pianos!

It goes on and on. As I said to Stephanie the other day, we need never fear getting dementia. Our brains are too actively engaged in puzzling through big and little logistical, emotional, political challenges to ever atrophy into dementia. (Though with the new research about multi-tasking, the perils of the job are real.) The flexibility, humor, big-picture thinking and appreciation of learning through mistakes required as a director (in Steph’s case) or a stage manager (in mine), has quite beautifully migrated us into the medium of college professor in a Theatre program.

The work is taxing. The days are long. The sleep is welcome. I always tell Jimmie my favorite part of the day is just after we turn the lights out and I grasp his hand in the dark and allow my body to melt into the sheets. (It’s a lie that it’s the best part of the day, but it feels like that every night.)

This morning, when I returned home from the gym after my 58th birthday ride, carrying a piece of cake given to me by my cycling trainer and friend Allyzon (the irony is great here), I found this display at my door, a gift from two of my workout buddies, one of whom lives next door, and it reminded me that though the work we do as college professors may be invisible, we are not. And that’s quite a lovely way to begin one’s birthday.

 

 

 

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