The Game of College & How to Play It

Insight and advice from a former professor who shares the ins and outs of the college game your advisor won't tell you about.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Professor Stereotypes

Stereotypes are dangerous exaggerations based on over-simplified generalizations. Still there can be a grain of truth at the heart of a rational stereotype. This chapter is about those grains of truth.

If you’re going to succeed in the game of college, you must become intimate with the other players. No group will appear to be more important than the faculty. However, if you’ve read earlier chapters, you know that secretaries, staff, janitors and security guards are arguably as important as anyone else to your survival.

Professors come in three primary flavors according to the official rite of passage governing the careers of all tenure track faculty. A word about tenure, if you don’t mind. Tenure is an ancient concept with the purpose of protecting faculty from being fired because of their research or related intellectual efforts. Tenure was very important as a means of empowering faculty to ask unpopular questions. As the smartest of the smart, university and college faculty’s role in society is to explore the unknown and challenge all assumptions.

When your job is to think differently, including to often challenge the widely held views of the politically powerful, it helps to have some protection. Enter tenure. Problem is, you don’t start out with tenure. You have to earn it. So, when you start your career your research has to be main stream enough at least to get the other faculty to approve it. Think about it.

The faculty equivalent of a rookie is the Assistant Professor. Problem is that this rookie season lasts a long time. At most schools you have five to seven years as an assistant professor to publish enough research to gain the respect of your peers within the department, college and university. This is accomplished by demonstrating that your contributions to the body of knowledge are so important that your host university should count itself lucky to have you. Your reward: Tenure.

Tenure doesn’t protect you like it once did. Suffice to say that administrations (boards, presidents, provosts) have found ways to crack the iron guard that once was tenure. Getting fired is still very, very difficult, and tenure helps a whole lot more than not having it.

If you don’t get tenure, which is a vote of your peers and then the university committee, you’ve got to find another university to give you another shot. Happens a lot.

If you get tenure and are promoted, you move from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor. Then after another three to seven (or more years) you can get promoted to Professor—also known as Full Professor. It’s a long journey. There’s no real clock ticking for the Associate Profs as there is for the Assistant Professors. In fact, you can stay at Associate for your entire career, assuming you have tenure, of course. Get it.

In addition to the three ranks of the professor lineage, you’ll find the classrooms of your school populated by other non-tenure earning faculty types. These include lecturers, instructors, associates, adjunct and a host of other names that describe folks who are paid a pittance to teach each class.

In communications, the average income for teaching a class as an adjunct faculty member, which means you teach but nobody recognizes your rights as a full-fledged member of the faculty fraternity, is $2,500 per semester. Who would teach a class for such poor pay? We’ll explore that masochistic personality type in another chapter.

Each of the ranks along the professorial rite of passage has characteristics that are used to form the stereotypes presented here. You must keep in mind that, like most stereotypes, not everyone exhibits the traits described throughout these posts. In fact, virtually no one will have all of them. Most will have some.

You are learning them so that you can build more meaningful relationships, plot strategies to navigate the down side of dealing with each, and orchestrate whatever you can to sail smoothly through the paths guarded by the various ranks. Read on.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Seats of Power

Power rests in unlikely places. Rather than wasting four or five years and never figuring it out, you can take the following short list of the most powerful people in your school as among the most useful guides in this book:

a. Departmental and Dean’s Office Staff

b. Janitors and Security Guards

If you were thinking the list would include Deans and Department Chairs themselves, their power pales in comparison to the iron fist with which these other seemingly lesser players rule. We’ll discuss later the minor role the formal college leadership will play. We start with the real emperors.

Departmental Office Staff

Power isn’t necessarily earned because of education. It’s not deserved because of achievement. It’s something you and others acquire. For example, some power structures are based on seniority, others by fiat, and it is signaled simply by title or rank. Just ask any member of the military where the brightest of corporals can find himself following every order given by a sergeant with half the education simply because of the stripes.

Both in the military and in the game of college, when you’re working your way up the ladder, everybody has more power than you do. By the way, don’t spend any time worrying about whether someone deserves the power they have. Even though too many, most commonly in government offices, have the job because they can’t do anything else, if they’ve got it, you don’t. Fixing the inequities in the world isn’t your job. And if it were, you’d fail miserably.

Secretaries and staff have power. Now this doesn’t mean they’re particularly bright. And whether they are or not means nothing to you, remember? Some, but only in equal portion to the rest of humanity, are rude, a few are too new to know anything, and even more appear too old to be of any value to you. Regardless of the countless personal shortcomings, the fact is that they’re sitting in the office chair that represents the key to your college career, because they have the one thing you do not: access.

Access is everything. They have access to the stacks of forms you’ll need to complete as the semesters pass. They know the short-cuts. They can also send you on wild goose chases. They’re the gatekeeper between you and the Chairs and Deans. Ultimately, the secretaries and staff are number one on our list of power brokers, because they’re your only lifeline to getting things done or getting things fixed. No relationship with the secretaries? Then you’ve ignored the most important ally you could have. And you can’t win this game without a network allies.

By the way, you must build your network early, rather than when it’s too late. The old adage is, “dig your well before you’re thirsty.” See Chapter Three: Building Relationships and Laying Tracks

Not every problem can be fixed at the department level. You’ll need help from others, but the departmental secretary, especially the antiques sitting behind the desk, will have the relationships built with players in other departments that will be needed to get things done. You learn that the wrinkled face behind the desk with 20 years on the job is the most valuable of them all.

Borrowing from the line in the Wizard of Oz: Nobody gets to see the wizard, not no way, not no how if the secretaries don’t want you too. And the problem is that most of the time, you’ll have no idea which wizard you really need to see to get help. They will.

A relationship with the secretaries and staff can create secondary relationships with other key assets you’ll need later in the game, even if you never meet them personally. That’s power.

The self righteous part of you may be thinking that you shouldn’t need special help to get things done the way they’re supposed to be done. Indeed, you may be able to accomplish some things in the game on your own. The rules and processes surely work without special favors, right? Most of the time. But know that whenever human beings are thrown into a process, politics, error and all the other things that come with being human get thrown into the mix. At that point, what does happen resembles very little what should happen. And don’t be mistaken, nobody in this game is playing with any real sense that they owe you anything, especially if you’re a pain in the ass. (See Sidebar: You Are a Pain in the Ass.)

Sidebar Title: You Are a Pain in the Ass.

Word to the wise: No matter how special you think you are, you are indeed a pain in the ass.

Watch it, now. Don’t get caught arguing with the words on this page. We all know you deserve respect and you certainly shouldn’t have to tolerate being treated with disrespect. There’s no denying you deserve to be treated fairly, after all, someone (maybe even you) is paying a lot of money for your education. You have rights, right?

Not really.

The realization you must grasp to fully understand this guide—and life itself, really—is that what you deserve doesn’t matter at all. None of us get what we deserve. Hell, most of us don’t even get our drive-thru orders at McDonalds right most of the time. Sure, you deserve better. Doesn’t mean a damn thing.

You’re not going to get graded fairly every time, even though you deserve it. You’re not going to get into every class you want, despite having taken all the prerequisites. You must remember it’s a game that you’re playing with imperfect players and imperfect rules. So, if you think you’re going to fix even these injustices in the world, put this book down now and go begin your endless crusade. Best of luck.

If you’re willing to press on, just remember that your momma or your grandmother doesn’t work at your school. Nobody loves you here unconditionally. Nobody is obligated by policy to put up with your whining. With extremely rare exceptions, people in this game will help you if, and only if they decide they will. This is something you can surely influence, but not something you deserve as a birthright, regardless of what’s written in the student handbook.

[End sidebar]

You must do everything you can to endear yourself to the departmental staff. They own you for the next several semesters simply because every process, every record, every form—everything—that happens to you is touched by one of them in some way. You’re going to need their help, and how much you get is going to depend on how much you understand their role and how much respect in advance you give them. The beauty of this rule in the game is that if you treat them with respect first and continuously—not just when you need something—then you’ll have a considerable advantage.

Janitors and Security Guards

Janitors and security guards are key to your winning game plan for similar reasons. They have access. Not in an espionage or illegal way. Just in a very practical way.

Janitors and security guards have keys to literally unlock doors. There are several things you can count on happening to you or a friend during college. You’re going to lock yourself out of the building or out of an office in which you’re working or interning. You’re going to need to get into the computer lab some night after it’s closed to get your backpack holding the memory stick with your paper on it.

You’re going to need access. What you’ll need from these folks isn’t illegal, it’ll simply be a favor to get you out of a bind. The student who has to introduce himself for the first time when the favor is needed, isn’t likely to get what she needs.

A Day in the Life:

Even though I understood the power of relationships very early, here’s an example of where I blew it.

During grad school, I was working late doing research, writing or grading every night until 10 p.m. or so before driving 30 minutes to my apartment. One night, I completely lost sense of time. I turned off the office lights and shuffled to my truck in the parking garage at 12:15 a.m.

I recognized a potential problem when I found the rolling metal door that covered the entrance to the parking garage had been pulled down and locked. My usual entry and exit door was clearly not available. I walked around to the other door on the opposing side of the garage. Closed.

Then luck fell my way. Or at least I thought. A security guard walking his rounds turned the corner and was headed my way.

“Excuse me, officer, I’m trying to get into the garage to get my truck. Worked too late I guess.”

“Yep. Gates are closed at midnight for security purposes. You can’t get in or out now.”

“Yeah, well, I can appreciate the need to do that, but I just need to slip in quickly. I’m on the first floor. I’d be in and out in a second. Can’t I get in there?”

“Nope. Gates are closed at midnight.”

“I got that part, thanks. I need a favor. I’ve got a long ride home. Can you or your supervisor help me?”

Big mistake. The little slice of attitude in the first part of that last response was topped by a reference of going over his head. I was screwed. But this wasn’t my biggest mistake, which I wouldn’t learn until morning.

I spent that night on the futon in my tiny office. No pillow. No sheets. No cover. No sleep. At dawn’s first light, I rolled out of the futon, tried to hand press the wrinkles out of my clothes and made it back down to the parking garage. With my building only a hundred yards away, I could see that the door was OPEN!

Here’s the real bitch of it all. As I got halfway across the walkway, I glanced across the street to see my truck sitting in the side parking lot. Only vehicle in the entire lot. Just waiting to be driven home.

What the security guard didn’t bother to tell me was that while the garage was locked down at midnight, any vehicles left in the garage were towed to the side lot. No ticket. No fee. Just a safety issue. My truck had been there the entire night.

Lesson learned: My biggest mistake was not knowing the name of the security guard covering our building. Even if it weren’t the guard I met that night, I could have asked about “Steve” which would have put me in a better position to either find Steve or get some help because I was a rare person who bothered to get to know security staff. All I needed the guy to do was tell me my truck was across the damn street. Power. Often it’s more about access than anything else. Access to places, thing—and most of all—access to undeserved help.

Thursday, June 30, 2005


College is freedom. Ah, the thrills of campus life and living virtually without a single worry drawn from the reserve of adult angst that will haunt you the balance of your years.

College is a game. A great game. One that you retire from wiser than you were during your rookie season—even if you flunk out. Yet it’s a game with a very brief window of opportunity. Of course, you can extend it, depending on how much money or debt you’re willing to leverage in pursuit of one, two or three degrees. (Later, we’ll talk about the master’s degree as a guise for avoiding life and the Ph.D. as an avenue that should be avoided, if you can do anything else.)

Winning in college, like all games, is much easier when you know the rules. The rules vary according to the Caesars and Napoleans who run the colleges (small “c”) that run the departments that run the classrooms in which you’ll sit. This blog is about understanding the inner workings of the empires dotting each collegiate landscape. It offers insight that will make the journey easier. You’ll be exposed to the different types of professors and what makes them tick. You’ll learn how to pick the classes that promise more learning and less mind-numbing wastes of time. And you’ll learn how to leverage it all to get a job. Guaranteed.

Yours can be a life in college maximized on the way to alumni status some future homecoming with the knowing grin that you captured every opportunity the game of college offered you.