Academics And Their Secretaries

In the preface to The Age of Revolution 1789-1848  (Signet Classic, New York, 1962, p. xvi) Eric Hobsbawm writes:

Miss P. Ralph helped considerably as secretary and research assistant Miss E. Mason compiled the index.

In the preface to the new edition (1969) of Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (University of Stanford Press, Cultural Memory in the Present Series, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, p. xi, 2002) Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer write:

No one who was not involved in the writing could easily understand to what extent we feel responsible for every sentence. We dictated long stretches together; the Dialectic derives its vital energy from the tension between the two intellectual temperaments which came together in writing it. [emphasis added]

In the preface to The Morality of Law (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1964, p. vi), Lon Fuller writes:

In closing I want to express an appreciation for the contribution made to this book (and to my peace of mind) by Martha Anne Ellis, my secretary….[her] dedication and perception have largely lifted from my concern the time-consuming and anxiety-producing details that always accompany the conversion of a manuscript into final printed form.

If you’ve looked long enough at the prefaces and acknowledgements of academic books written in the past century you will often find notes thanking secretaries for typing up the manuscript of the book. Presumably the secretaries in question took a pile of handwritten pages and painstakingly converted them into typed form before sending them off to the publisher for reviewing, typesetting, and then finally printing. (My guess is that the secretaries of Messrs Hobsbawm and Fuller typed their ‘bosses’ manuscripts as part of the ‘help’ and ‘contributions’ they provided.) Matters might be thought considerably different these days when sophisticated desktop publishing software sits on everyone’s desk, and publishers demand camera-ready copies of manuscripts and articles. But you would not lose too much money on betting that where academics can afford it–mostly at private universities–they will draw upon the assistance of their department secretaries in preparing their manuscripts. Most of whom, if not all, will still be women.

Intellectual work is always facilitated by the work of others. Back in the good old days, when most academics were men, they could count on the faithful support of their wives at home who would cook, clean, and bring up their children, and of their secretaries at work, who would type up manuscripts, prepare indices, make coffee and copies, and perhaps place calls to publishers in addition to typing up letters to them. Those with grace acknowledge such assistance in their prefaces and acknowledgments; others carry on blithely, secure in the comfort of knowing they live in a world which traffics in the myth of the ‘solitary genius,’ the ‘lone artist,’ the ‘brilliant individual.’ They imagine their reputation is constructed by their mental labors alone; they do not notice that it is propped up by the labors of others too. Theirs was the glamorous bit; the unglamorous bit is easily forgotten.

It takes a village to raise a child; it took an entire departmental office to write a book.

Workplace Dynamics And The Treatment Of Support Staff

A couple of days ago, my Brooklyn College colleague Corey Robin asked (on his Facebook page):

How many academics would get tenure if the review took into account how they treated the department’s secretarial staff?

A year or so after I had begun work at Bell Laboratories, I told a new hire that she should always strive to keep three classes of co-workers (or ‘staff’) happy: secretaries, computer system administrators, and security guards. Later, I extended this claim to other members of our building’s facilities crew. This imperative suggested itself to me as prudent and moral (and political). It still does in my current location at my academic workplace.

The first two on the list above made our daily tasks much easier; they helped us navigate workplace mazes, administrative, logistical, and bureaucratic; they let us concentrate on our work, which was supposedly technical and creative. The third were the first ones to greet us on our entry to the building, and the last ones to bid us goodbye when we left; being friendly and personable in our interactions with them served to provide a kinder, gentler bookend to our days at work (And if you forgot your ID card on the weekends, in the days before high-speed dial-up connections, you could count on them not blocking your entry to the building in case you desperately needed to get some coding work done in your office that could not be accomplished from home.)

I’m happy to say that over the years I have followed my directives quite faithfully, and have generally enjoyed good relations with most members of my ‘support staff.’ These have made my workday experiences considerably more pleasant. The exceptions to this have occurred with some security staff who insist on taking their badges and uniforms a little too seriously and adopt the demeanor of the police a little too eagerly.

Despite these fairly self-evident considerations, secretarial staff still remain unappreciated, frequently overworked, and poorly treated. (The sexism and harassment directed at female secretaries is legendary.) In my corporate workplaces–which were mostly manned by folks with technical backgrounds–there was a great deal of patronizing and dismissive behavior too. In response, secretarial staff often scorned the head-in-the-air attitude of those they served, decrying their inability to accomplish the simplest tasks by themselves and directed some scathing disrespect at them behind their backs. To the credit of my colleagues at my two university employers–the University of New South Wales and the City University of New York–I have witnessed fairly pleasant and egalitarian patterns of interaction between them and our administrative staff. (Robin’s question above seems to indicate there is trouble in paradise.)

At academic workplaces the power differential is clear. Faculty might imagine themselves, PhD and all, as the bees knees, with administrative staff, possessing perhaps only a lowly bachelors or associate degree, as mere dust to be shaken off their feet. (This was certainly the case at Bell Labs, which was populated by graduates from the nation’s top science and engineering programs.) Faculty are also often overworked too, and their requests for assistance can be made a little brusquely. Status and class anxiety does not help this already complicated picture.

It might behoove all of us ‘non-management types’ to remember that a more equitable and harmonious relationship among ourselves is one of our primary protections against the impositions of our ‘bosses,’ that there are allies here, if we were only willing to look a little closer.