Keeping seven people out of your head


I recently declined to seek an opportunity to become a 50% time administrator. Why did I turn it down? I want to keep seven people out my brain. My dean is wonderful, and the interim provost is a nice guy, and the chairs of other departments are very congenial. But I don’t want them in my head. Let me explain.

dear_mr_wattersonSeveral weeks ago, my family and I went to see Dear Mr. Watterson in the theater. This movie is a Kickstarter-funded fan-film homage to perhaps the greatest comic strip of the latter half of the past century, Calvin and Hobbes. (If you haven’t yet read some Calvin and Hobbes, get thee over to a used bookstore pronto, where you should be able to pick up a tattered collection on the cheap. Trust me, it’ll bring you joy.)

The creator of Calvin and Hobbes famously refused to license the production of paraphernalia. Every sticker of Calvin peeing on something is bootlegged. You can’t buy a stuffed Hobbes, and Calvin isn’t shilling insurance like Snoopy. Hobbes isn’t selling candy bars like Bart Simpson does. Because of this decision, Bill Watterson walked away from tens of millions of dollars, and perhaps a lot more.

Depending on the audience, Watterson’s decision provoked admiration, consternation or puzzlement. The fascinating parts of Dear Mr. Watterson are interviews with syndicated comic artists who are big fans of Calvin and Hobbes.

The most enlightening interviewee was Stephan Pastis, the creator of Pearls Before Swine, one of my favorite strips in current syndication. Pastis was discussing his own experiences with syndication, and his experience authorizing the production of Pearls Before Swine merchandise. He remarked on what Bill Watterson got by saying no to merchandising.

Pastis explained that merchandising brings profit, but also takes your attention. When new products get developed, a bunch of them are going to stink, or otherwise misrepresent the strip. Even if they don’t suck, they need your input. The syndicate will have questions, the graphic artists will have sketches, and the manufacturers will have samples and suggestions.

As Pastis explains, once you agree to sell merchandise, then you’ve just invited seven new people into your life.

Even if you’re not on the phone or meeting with them that often, these seven people are on your brain. You think about what these people want and how to respond to them. They generate a whole set of questions and issues for you to consider and take care of. You become a business person, managing a money-making operation.

Pastis explained what Watterson got from not merchandising: control. He got the freedom of his time – and his brain – to create Calvin and Hobbes. This comic strip is a sublime creation and its gorgeousness and excellence was enabled by Bill Watterson’s unfettered ability to focus on art. Perhaps Watterson wanted to keep his art untainted by the machinations of salesmen, but in addition he also kept his own mind free of the clutter of a supply chain.

If I ended up taking on a half-time administrative job at my university, there’s no way the job would end up being a half-time gig. Even if I somehow only spent twenty hours per week working at it (and fat chance at that), far more hours would be sucked away by the seven administrative sausage-makers taking up space in my head. I’d be worrying about preventing one person from trying to gain access to another person’s budget. I’d try to sort out who I could cajole to join a committee. My calendar would have deadlines for reports popping up. Even when not in meetings with people who wear suits, I wouldn’t be able to eliminate the conversations with suits from my consciousness.

I want to think about manuscript revisions, my next lesson, the next grant and keeping tabs on the projects students are doing over the year. This last semester had more admin work than I’m used to, and regardless of the time I spent on it, the administrative stuff handicapped everything else. I could be a part-time administrator by the clock, but not by the brain.

I’m sure people with lots of admin experience know how offload admin duties from the brain when not on the clock. But I’m inclined to agree with Stephan Pastis, that if you can keep those seven people out of your head, you’re a lot more able to focus your mind on things that are of true interest to you. I’m not ready to put ecology, ants and rainforests – and my research students – on the back burner. Maybe someday, though at this moment hard to imagine such a day.

7 thoughts on “Keeping seven people out of your head

  1. Dear terry,

    Nice post, as all the others (your blog is amongst the very few I follow, and it always positively surprises me). Sincerely, I am not a typical fan of these cartoons but definetely I am with the crowd which has “admiration” for creator of this work. American culture has *so many* wonderful productions, why *everything* should have a price tag attached?

    “Culture, like software, wants to be free!” (Old GNU proverbe) ;-)


  2. A nice post, Terry. My first thought on reading the first line, however, was not “why didn’t he take the administrative position?”, but “why would he even consider the offer?”.

    To me, the reason for avoiding administration seem obvious. In addition to the time taken away from things you’re passionate about, it seems to me that the new responsibilities all likely to be dull or unpleasant.

    I’d be very interested to read a post about the up-sides that made you consider the half-time admin position.

    • Good point. I didn’t mention this, but this is actually in my view a really important, if not critical, position, and close to my goals.

      My campus is (finally) launching an office of undergraduate research, which I and a few others have been lobbying for for a couple years. Amazingly, it’s happening.
      ( )
      And there will be two faculty co-directors. At one point I was thinking I’d be applying for one of the slots, as I (if it isn’t obvious) have a vision for how to get more and better undergrad research on campus and I really want to provide support structures throughout the university to make that happen. It really matters, and it has to be done right. I don’t think I’m the best person to do it right, but if I tried to do it right, then I wouldn’t be able to do anything else. Many grants need to be written, lots of politicking, and managing people, and reports, and at the same time plan for the future while it’s really fragile with contrasting visions on campus among people. In person, I am not even close to mastering the art of gentle persuasion.

  3. Terry, good post. It hits on (or hints at) some key pieces of an ongoing debate about administration, in which there are some new mantras. One of which is that administrative growth is far outpacing other aspects of academic growth, to the detriment of the core missions. And I think there is some truth to that argument. It’s also true that if one’s desires and priorities are about maximizing time for research and teaching, administration will usually take a hell of a bite out of both, if not swallow them completely.

    However, I’ve also seen firsthand the difference between great and not-so-great administrators. It matters enormously. Those who lead (not just manage), those who are there to give back and support a mission and/or community (as opposed to further their own career in some way), those who approach the job with the kind of passion we see in many for research and teaching….well, they can make a hell of a difference in a lot of good ways. At times in ways a single class, study, even an entire research/teaching career cannot. A great administrator can set the stage for the success and happiness of many other people, for a long time. A worthy goal indeed.

    My dad is a retired academic, and I grew up repeatedly hearing jokes about avoiding being chair. In the first few years of my faculty career, I thought “gah, I would never go near administration” and cracked many of the “what good are they” jokes that are so common. Then I watched my dad finally be chair and do it with grace and balance. Aroun teh same time, still early in my career, I directly benefitted from the vision, courage and generosity of a couple administrators here at CU. And I watched a few of the scientists at the absolute forefront of my field turn away from a primary research focus and pour their energy and brilliance into program building and broader visions. It changed my view of not what administration often is….but what it can be, for good.

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