Wednesday, November 9, 2011

At the feet of masters

Socks went in the top drawer, which was quite far from the floor where I was sitting, so I tossed them onto the bed next to my prattling sister.

"I finally got this room under control while you were gone, so don't you just come back here thinking that you can just stick your clothes anywhere.  There is an order, Sis, do you understand?  An order."

As she continued on with further regulations--"short sleeved shirts, here, by color, dark in the back, light in the front; long sleeved shirts go here, unless they wrinkle, in which case..."--I was not really listening, intent on unpacking my now bigger dreams as I unpacked my bags after a summer of studying at Harvard.  The phone rang somewhere in the midst of this mess, and my sister's recitation of clothing placement restrictions was cut off as my mother yelled, "Beth! Phone!"

Leaving my protesting sister on my bed with the socks, I hustled out.


"Elizabeth? I'm calling from ... School of Business and we'd like to tell you about our secretarial program..."

"I'm not interested."

"Our records indicate that you would be a great addition to our program..."

"I'm sorry.  I'm not interested.  I'm second in my class.  I just came back from Harvard. I don't want to be a secretary."

"But just think of all of the exciting papers you could type!"

"Listen, lady, if anybody is going to be writing papers, it's going to be me."

I hung up the phone.

I was hitherto unacquainted with Matthew 12:36, "But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment." 

Later in life, I was a secretary for six years.  I firmly believe it was the Lord's revenge. 

And yet, with that job came a host of truly invaluable lessons that I never would have learned otherwise (not that I would have minded TRYING to learn them more easily, you know, like from a book and not life...).

So, I want to talk about the lessons that you learn only by sitting at the masters' feet--two different kinds of masters. Two sets of those lessons seem pertinent to me right now, lessons from my bosses--three deans of varying levels--and from some of my secretarial coworkers (not that my other coworkers haven't taught me anything--in fact, I still learn a great deal from one all the time!). 

The Deans

1.  They use rules to include, not exclude.

"Elizabeth," the first of these bosses advised me, "Make sure we get that to her in writing and keep a copy as well.  That will be useful for her promotion."

My first boss ran a committee on appointment, promotion, and tenure, and many feared that she was a gatekeeper barring the path to advancement.  In truth, she was a nitpicker dedicated to making certain the faculty cleared every conceivable hurdle thrust up by higher administration.  Her numbers were phenomenal.  I'm not sure anyone's packet was sent back.

People complained that the process was slow going, but she painstakingly reviewed every piece of correspondence and wrote out magnificent letters on behalf of every candidate that crossed her desk. 

2.  When they're on the team, everyone's statistics rise.

Each of my three bosses were phenomenal at pulling in others to succeed with them.

"This department needs more of a web presence," my first boss said.  "And we need to be more collegial and show our students that statisticians in public health are team players."  Some might have found this last statement at odds with her personality.  In her own words, "It gets a bit boring without a little trouble." But she, who could easily have stayed set in her ways, started a web-based course that was team taught.  It wasn't easy.  Coordinating the professors could be as or more difficult than coordinating the students.  But she was dedicated to it and poured love over those students, the professors, and her own lectures.  She clearly cared deeply for what she did and considered it a true privilege to train up others who would carry on and produce work she truly felt made a difference.

My second boss and third bosses were less into pulling in teachers but they were incredible at pulling up junior faculty and students.  Whatever research they were doing, they looked for a way to include someone coming up.  If the junior faculty weren't co-authoring the paper, my second boss made certain that he cited them. 

"Didn't she write something on that?" he would ask me.  "Pull all her papers, and make certain we find the right one and stick it in there."

My third boss had a nose for those who were gifted but discouraged, and he constantly pulled them into his office to encourage them, suggest various paths to continue, offer to speak again.

3. They love to teach.

My second boss was the dean of the school himself, and yet he considered it a great privilege to teach a course in his department every year.  And he always wanted to grab a TA.  Not to pass off the work.  Far from it!  He wanted to teach these up and coming students what was expected of them, how it was done.  He wanted to mentor them so that the rules were a stepping stone and not a stumbling block.

"Elizabeth," he'd call, "I've got to write this test.  Make sure to get our TA up here.  I want to make sure he can do this."

And he didn't mean he wanted to dictate to the TA.  He would painstakingly delineate his goals for the assessment and the types of questions that they needed to test the various aspects of the materials.  Then he would solicit questions from the TA.  Here was a man who had been in the field for more than 40 years.  He was internationally renowned and could have written that test in his sleep.  But he made certain to include the student.  If the TA didn't come up with a good question at first, my boss would model the behavior, develop the question aloud, and then ask the TA for the next question.  He never gave up.

My third boss also bent over backward to include students.  At every turn, there were more students in his office.  He was utterly invested in developing their writing.  "They need to get it out there, and it needs to be understood," he would say.  "It needs to be simple."  He should know.  He was included in the Web of Science--a position received for frequent citation in your field.

The Secretaries

1.  Love your enemies.

So often, secretaries are overlooked as pieces of office furniture.  It's not only their bosses, although some bosses certainly do see those who work for them as less than human; many times, however, it's other people who simply need something or who are angry with the secretaries' bosses but can't get in touch with them.  The best, happiest secretaries did not escape this behavior.  They managed to transform it. 

One secretary I knew never yelled at anyone, even though she was frequently berated.  She managed to provide for almost everybody--and they nearly all came to love her. 

The funny thing about it was that she did this mainly by appealing to their most basic needs--needs that the average university skips over since they are educating the mind.  She had an uncanny way of knowing when someone was hungry or thirsty, when they needed to simply feel that they were part of a community, or when they simply needed a quiet place to sit.

One of my other coworkers, too, taught me that the fastest way to disarm someone was to save them something (usually food).  She simultaneously met their need for nourishment and their need for community--or, perhaps more importantly, their need to know that someone CARED about their base human needs and did not see them as any less because of it.

2.  Pray for those who persecute you.

Without revealing anything, the secretaries I most admired were the ones who knew all there was to know about their bosses and who took flak for (and from) them on a daily basis and yet came to work every day trying to make the next day better.  They were always rewarded (not necessarily--and in fact hardly ever--from their bosses).  In the great karma of life, whether it be fairness in the universe or love covering a multitude of sins, I have never seen this fail.

3.  Love not your life unto death.

The harder you defend yourself, the less effective it is.  When you are truly powerless, when most people don't listen to what you say or believe it, then you need to rely on the wisdom of your boss to understand what has happened and to make appropriate judgments.  I have been on both ends of this--of bosses making both the right and wrong assumptions and of making the right and wrong assumptions as a teacher/coworker myself.  But this world is not our home.  Life exists outside of the little system we currently navigate, and I truly believe--and have seen with my own eyes on the lower levels--that if we are pushed out, so what? God, karma, synchronicity, whatever you want to call it, SOMETHING BIGGER catches us.  Do what is right.  Make the loving choice.  Hand over your extra cloak and turn the other cheek.  Not only is this not the end of the world, it just might be the start of a better one.

And I have been pondering these examples for a while now because we see them on the bigger stages.  Sure there are some in power who are greedy, but that is not everyone in power.  Certainly there are some underneath who are jealous, malicious, power-hungry, and lazy, but that is not everyone underneath either.  In each group are masters of skills that are required to make the community as a whole function, masters whose lessons are worth learning and whose footsteps are worth following.  In this time of upheaval, I suggest we sit at (or better yet, follow after) the feet of the masters.

1 comment:

  1. Love it, Elizabeth! Of all my bosses, Bernie is the one I respect and admire the most, not only for his accomplishments as a scientist, but for the way he deals with people. He's always eager to give credit to others, to make sure people are recognized for their contributions, and to push his staff and students to achieve all they can. He can be challenging at times, yes, but overall he's a great guy and a very effective boss.