Tuesday, July 11
When I was a teenager, I made the mistake of serving delicious coffee to the occupants of my first home-away-from-home, and instantly I was stuck with the job of making coffee for the duration of my stay in that house. It's okay. Everyone else's coffee was nasty, and I learned one of the most important lessons of my life: Never make delicious coffee for someone who might ask you to repeat the task.

When I got my first tenure-track job, I met a woman, about 100 years my senior, who put me to shame in the that respect! If you told her that she was too late ordering copies of her exam, so she'd have to make them herself, the copier would be in flames within 20 minutes--guaranteed. "Whooopsy Daisy!" I have never met anyone who was so good at screwing up. My hero! (I think.)

And let me tell you. This woman does absolutely no service work in the department. All her efforts go toward her research. She does get teaching assignments, but similar embarrassments ensue to keep those in check. Lest you think she really is incompetent, however, let me just say it's not true. She can do anything she wants to do. She pulls down almost $200,000 in raw salary, not counting grant income, frequent flier miles, etc. We are not talking about a flake, or an absent minded professor, we are talking about a shark in sheep's clothing.

My friends and I call it strategic incomtetence and we've been trying to emulate it, but it surprisingly difficulty to screw up on purpose.

8 comments:

Navy Blue Blob said...

Wow, that is amazing. I've heard of people doing this, but to such an extent? I think this person's got the chair/dean/whomever eating out of their hands. Maybe it's smart. It sounds a bit icky and nasty, but if they'll let her get away with it, can we blame her? Doesn't sound like something I'd want to emulate fully, but I'm actually conflicted about that response.

Clear said...

Yes, I've also created way more work for myself by knowing how to do things like make copies and transparencies. Moreover, when I first started, it was hard for me to ask people to do tasks that were mindless and that I could do myself, although I have to admit with time I have come to appreciate that this is, after all, their job.

thistle said...

I think this phenomenon is very much alive and well, but more often than not I think it's the male academics who feign incompetence at both secretarial and emotional work-type things. I think this is part of the reason that women faculty have a much higher advising and hand-holding burden than male faculty.

Turquoise Stuff said...

Thistle, you are SO right to point out the gendered aspect of all this! Of course, one could argue that men have conveniently perfected these skills in the household and so it's not that hard to then play it out in the work environment as well. Unfortunately, many female administrative assistants (and they're almost always female) are happy to perpetuate the gender divide and rush to the aid of male incompetence instead of spending equal amounts of energy assisting female faculty. Ugh.

Total said...

I don't know that it's a tactic particular to one gender over another. I've seen both male and female professors play the same strategy.

Who's she, the cat's mother? said...

Speaking as, you know, a university secretary (but I have graduate credit! And a fancy undergraduate degree in a challenging field!)...well, speaking as a university secretary, it really annoys me when someone pretends she can't work the copier. (In the sciences at least, women seem to do this more...possibly because it's harder to be taken seriously as a female professor and they wish to distinguish themselves sharply from secretaries) I will certainly make copies and do busy-work on request, but I was hired to prepare grant applications, audit accounts, support the website, and design promotional material, and those tasks usually fill my day pretty well. There's a widespread perception that secretaries are stupid (in my copious experience, this is worse in the humanities, because you-all often see us as failed copies of you) and that we do nothing but Internet-shop at some downmarket destination and turn down legitimate requests. So when I get handed some inane task from some strategic incompetent, it does not, you know, dispose me kindly towards him/her. And it's never a really good idea to alienate the little people, no matter how much tenure you have.

Salmon Ella said...

I really AM incompetent at using copy machines, mainly because I don't have a lot of experience making copies, and no one has ever taken the time to show me how to do all the fancy tricks with them. At my first full-time job, I often experienced the opposite of what some you are describing. I would ask for help using the copier, and the secretaries would make snide remarks that basically amounted to, 'You mean you have a graduate degree and you don't know how to use a copier?' Or, 'Didn't they teach you anything useful in grad school?' Okaaay, so I'm sure I could eventually figure out how to shrink these documents down and make them come out on the front and back and all stapled together, but it would be a lot faster and waste a lot less paper and ink if you would just show me how. Maybe they thought I was feigning incompetence to get them to make my copies for me!

redeye said...

The strategically incompetent exist on all planes. Notice a state highway crew. One is digging, two are leaning on their shovels, and three are gathered around the pickup talking about the highway job they did in '96. Getting out of work is not rocket science it is gall. It does tend to share characteristics regardless of the plane on which the game is played. First and foremost, is to make friends with the person in charge. Second, is to have a ready handicap i.e. bad back, klutz, inexperienced, fear, or just plain lazy. Third, is to have no shame. Without shame any of your two's can be used to your advantage and the other poor dope is left to cover for you. Four, be kind, courteous, and praising of other's capabilities. That way they will be happy to be duped again. Now that you know most of the skills involved (I wouldn't dare share the higher plane skills) enjoy your new found method of being the office a$$. Oh and believe it or not I read this article as part of a graduate class in education leadership. This is the "active disengaged employee" we are talking about here. Go WSC!!!

redeye

Blog Archive