It’s after 5 P.M. on Tuesday, and I anticipate working in the office for at least a few more hours. Today has been typical of many MLA working days, including pizza for lunch (don’t judge me) and a chocolate bar for late afternoon snack (alright, judge me!). Usually there are some better food choices in the mix, but it’s been that kind of day!
Following Monday’s Program Committee meeting, I had a good deal of data gathering and trouble-shooting ahead of me, so I began the day working on these issues with staff members. My colleagues are experts at the art of data collection, presentation, and analysis, and it never fails to astound me what they can pull together on short notice. Mid-morning, I spoke with President Marianne Hirsch and Vice-President Margie Ferguson about the progress that the Program Committee had made. We also discussed specific issues raised by MLA members concerning the remapping of the divisional structure. Whenever the MLA proposes major shifts in the way scholarship is organized, we engage in a lengthy process of consultation and revision. It feels good to work on one small piece and see the large puzzle take shape.
I rarely leave the office during the day unless I have an appointment “off campus,” as I like to say. During my conference call, I walked around the office, glancing out the window onto lower Broadway. I have a direct view of the iconic Charging Bull. It still amuses me to see people line up to have their photos taken at the horns or, um, the back end of the massive sculpture. I took a picture of people taking pictures (a very New York thing to do, by the way!).
The senior staff (my “cabinet”) had its first meeting of the new academic year today. It’s a great feeling to reconnect with my colleagues as a group and to get going on our agenda for the year. In associations like the MLA, broad strategic planning and financial oversight happen at the board (or council) level with staff input. Part of my job is to direct and supervise the 90 + staff members as we carry out the council’s priorities and directives (for example, “bring us a balanced budget”). I work with the council to update them on our progress on the association’s projects and administration, and council members, especially the president, assist me daily in moving forward.
Together, the senior staff and I think about all matters that concern the MLA, and we often spend time figuring out what the next steps are (and in whose departments the work falls). Half of us on senior staff have PhDs in the fields of languages and literatures; the rest have postgraduate degrees in areas such as management, information technology, and library science. The think tank environment at the MLA is perhaps the most important factor in my job satisfaction. We support one another, we share ideas and give one another credit, we find ways to make our colleagues’ work lives easier, and we laugh a lot. Many staff members stay at the MLA for decades: I have colleagues with 45 years of service! One senior staff member started out in the mailroom (yup, a true story!) and earned his way to overseeing four operational units at the MLA. People say the MLA is a great place to work. The credit goes to an institutional culture created and sustained over decades (heck, centuries – we were founded in 1883). I have learned through the good example of my colleagues.
Three of us on staff work with a media consultant on the annual convention. We had a planning meeting today at which we reviewed our work leading up to Chicago in January. It takes an incredible amount of coordination and planning to interact with members of the press who cover the convention, to disseminate press releases, to facilitate interviews, and so on. Our media consultant handles all this and more: he learns about the “hot issues” in higher education in general and among MLA members specifically so he can help us in our communications. He runs the press office on site at the convention and credentials reporters. I’ve even seen him visit the Delegate Assembly (which everyone should do, in my opinion!).
Media work takes up a good deal of my time, and I find that being a spokesperson for the association is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable aspects of my job. There isn’t a week that goes by without my being contacted by a higher education publication or other media outlets (including television and radio). I am comfortable and confident speaking in public. I’m fortunate that it comes naturally, yet I’ve improved by working with our media consultant and learning from years of practice.
It’s now 10 P.M. and I’ve been working for 13 hours, with a 10 minute pizza break, a half-hour of Web surfing, and a 20 minute dinner (delivery from the corner restaurant). I also visited Twitter a dozen times and tweeted on topics related to higher education, worked on a report to a foundation that is funding one of our current projects, communicated with Program Committee members on MLA Commons, sent about 60 emails, and read today’s Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. And I confess to spilling a glass of water for the second time this week!
I work long days, and it feels just fine to me. I bet your days are filled with many of the same kinds of activities, and I know from experience that if you are an academic you routinely work long days, too. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I love the MLA and am privileged to do this work. People think I must experience a lot of stress, but the truth is I don’t – at least not negative stress. Yet without some stress or pressure, stuff doesn’t stick—just ask my dentist how he got that cap on my tooth yesterday!