Admin, at work and at home

There’s an old joke that an academic career is 50% research, 50% teaching, and 50% admin. From this quart-squeezed-into-a-pint-pot, it is the final third that is typically spat out with most obvious distaste. We got into this for the research; the value of teaching is clear enough; but the admin?!

One reason for this I suspect is that we tend to instinctively equate ‘admin’ with ‘clerical’, and might see such apparently menial tasks as a waste of our intellectual gifts. (I hope you will perceive that the arrogance here is affected.) But although there are of course frustrating mornings spent filing expenses claims and booking flights and accommodation, ‘admin’ is really much more about management. In fact in my department we now tend to call it ‘leadership’, to emphasise that it is all of the things that keep our institutions running, all of the meetings and briefings and committees and meetings and policy decisions and recruitment and review panels and meetings and reports and - did I mention meetings?

Such activities, while they can be high profile (and are increasingly valued with concomitant rewards), seldom make us spring out of bed in the morning and skip to work full of anticipation. Yet we all muck in, realising that they are essential and that contributing goes with the pay grade. In order that we all get to show off our research and teaching talents, we all must put some effort into maintaining the stage and directing the spotlights onto others.

And then we go home, and we zoom out, and the triplet of academic jobs recedes to become just ‘work’ - merely one of several quarts competing for space in the pint pots of our lives.

I draw this analogy because we’re all deeply suspicious of anyone who appears to be getting a free ride on the admin front at work. But at home we can be less vigilant, less conscious of inequities. That’s perhaps especially true for those of us with pint pots overflowing with a firkin or two marked ‘children’. Six years now into this state, and all the flashy, feel-goody, visible stuff - the nursery drop-offs, the school parents’ evenings, the cancelling meetings due to kids being sick, getting in late and leaving early - are routine enough. And while it all takes a little organisation it’s nothing that google cal can’t cope with. It’s what you sign up to, and (on a good day) it’s fun. It is, in short, the ‘research and teaching’ part of your life outside work.

But of course it’s the admin that keeps the household afloat. And it’s the admin that kills.

For example: keeping everyone well fed. Now I love to cook, I love to feed people nice food. But it’s one thing producing something a bit Heston when you have guests (in my circle of friends we call this ‘glory cooking’). It’s quite another feeding your family every day, which means thinking several meals ahead (and not just dinner - the little gannets often insist on breakfast, lunch, and regular snacks too) and shopping accordingly, bearing in mind allergies and foibles and calcium and vitamin D and everything else.

And life is full of this tedious admin - the purchasing and laundering of sufficient clothes of appropriate size; the monitoring of and responding to school communications; the assembling of fancy dress and nativity costumes at appropriate times; the organising of parties for your own offspring and RSVPing and present buying in advance of the parties of their friends; the sourcing of suitable swimming, piano, capoeira classes; the booking months and months in advance of any kind of holiday or other visit that now has to take place during school vacations; the provision of some kind of stimulation beyond CBeebies at weekends.

I raise all of this because my suspicion is that, just as glory cooking seems to be largely a male preserve - a conspicuous way to say “Hey, I do my bit around the house, see how modern I am!” - so we (I am seeking the safety of solidarity here; what I really mean is I) have been quick to pounce on the easy gains of conspicuous good parenting only to continue to avoid the more mundane quotidian, the dreaded admin.

In the essay William and I from his wonderful collection Manhood for Amateurs (if you are, or know, a man, I recommend it very highly), Michael Chabon discusses this disparity between the visible and the essential parenting. “The handy thing about being a father”, Chabon begins, “is that the historic standard is so pitifully low.” He goes on to recount a story about taking his youngest son to the market in Berkeley, California (“a town where, in my estimation, fathers generally do a passable job, with some fathers having been know to go a little overboard”):

“I was holding my twenty-month-old in one arm and unloading the shopping cart onto the checkout counter with the other… I wasn’t quite sure why this woman in line behind us - when I became aware of her - kept beaming so fondly in our direction… ‘You’re such a good dad,’ she said finally. ‘I can tell.’… I thanked her. I went off with my boy in one arm and a bag of groceries in the other, and when we got home I put a plastic bowl filled with Honey Nut Cheerios in front of him and checked my email. I was a really good dad. I don’t know what a woman needs to do to impel a perfect stranger to inform her in the grocery store that she is a really good mom.”

Like Chabon, I am not above being grateful for these double standards, basking in the approving glances of elderly ladies on the tram as I shepherd a child or two through the morning commute. Like him I really do try to contribute not only to the picking up and dropping off and generally being visible with kids on my arm, but also to the daily admin: “I have made their Halloween costumes and baked their birthday cakes and prepared a dozen trays of my mother-in-law’s garlic chicken wings for class potlucks because last names starting with A-F had to bring the hors d’oeuvres.” But like him, I know too that if I drop the ball, if at any time I check out, someone - their mother - “…will still be there making those dentist appointments and ensuring that there’s a wrapped, age-appropriate birthday present for next Saturday’s pool party… All I need to do is hold my kid in the checkout line - all I need to do is stick around - and the world will crown me and favor me with smiles.”

And although, as Chabon notes, “…over the past few decades a handful of items - generally having to do with cooking and caring for babies - have been added to the list of minimum expectations for a good father”, let’s not pretend that the imbalance is in any way redressed. Women still do far more of the unpaid work that goes into running a household than men (see for example this recent EU report on the ‘double burden’ faced by women). I used to respond to such studies by muttering about all the traditionally ‘male’ unpaid jobs I did, typically centred around powertools, holes in the ground, and pieces of wood. But that’s to miss the point entirely: it is the full time job of what used to be called ‘Household Management’ that men still shirk. The difference, if you like, between cleaning a toilet, and ensuring there is a reliable supply of toilet cleaner in the house. Perhaps we should rebrand all this stuff as ‘Household Leadership’ to really get men on board?

Of course, I am not dismissing the importance of the more conspicuous aspects of parenting, just as it would be ridiculous to claim that research and teaching are less important than admin at work (or indeed that you should never spend 3 days planning and cooking a meal for your friends…) But all of this needs to be underpinned by strong management, and an attention to the mundane essentials of work and life.

I guess what I’m saying is, nobody likes an academic who only does the flashy stuff and who never contributes otherwise. By the same token, glory parenting is great, but only once the admin is attended to.

Or as Chabon puts it, “I define being a good father in precisely the same way that we ought to define being a good mother - doing my part to handle and stay on top of the endless parade of piddly shit.”