I am the least admin-savvy lecturer I know. It’s dead frustrating, not least because I have a grasp of the separate components to a reasonable degree:
- I know my way around a computer.
- I understand what information is important to record, monitor and share with colleagues.
- I have passable knowledge of the processes required in the various places I work.
But bung those three elements together and my brain starts sniffing, has a tantrum and takes on the persona of Danny Dyer to tell whatever admin task I’m grappling with to "do one".
I’ll admit that I knowingly let some of it slide off my desk: only the tasks that I consider to be "busy work" and that don’t impact anyone else’s workflow, but are done because they’ve always been done. If I’ve misjudged their importance, I feel sure that someone will let a not-so-subtle hint slip into my inbox, a passive aggressive email reminder with 400 other members of staff copied in.
I’ve been schooled in admin navigation on multiple occasions by patient colleagues in various colleges, but I can only seem to retain the info in the short term. You know the sort of complicated, admin labyrinth I’m on about. When a student has been placed on a PK17 level code on the register system because they require extra exam time, but their exam request should be completed by issuing an R48 form on a different system, which is only available from the BF72 requesting portal by accessing the blah blah blah… That sort of thing. It makes me want to simultaneously thump myself in the skull and have a nap.
I have an excellent memory for the things my brain concludes are either urgent in the short term, or useful in the longer term, but it wangs everything else over next door’s fence. I suspect it’s a brain hangover from my acting days. Like most actors I could spend a run of a production without ever dropping a line. Then the day after the show ends I’d have only the vaguest of dialogue recall. The same was as true for three-week productions as it was for a six-month run of eight shows a week. And telly scripts were even more fleeting, the memory equivalent of single-use plastic.
I remember students’ names almost instantly and retain that information for the length of the course because it’s important; to forget their names might feel like a rejection. But there are colleagues who I care about and whose names I sometimes struggle to reach. I assume that’s because my brain has ranked the impact of my forgetting under "whatevs", those colleagues know me and know I care about them.
The same is true of admin. I understand the vital stuff – the register taking, the tracking of work, the recording of incidents, or reporting absence. But I’m so bad at the less urgent, less important stuff that I worry that it comes across as hostile. It’s not. I’m simply incompetent.
My only defence is that I work in a lot of different places, mainly on a freelance or sessional or short-term contract basis, and to put the hours in learning the nuances of systems in every place isn’t possible. It doesn’t make the best use of my time either. And though my rubbishness is easy to rationalise, and while some systems are not as efficient as they could be, it’s irrelevant when we can only work with what is there in order to get on with whatever action is needed. And sometimes my lack of admin acumen gets me in a pickle.
So this is a massive thank you to all various administrative professionals who patiently help repeat admin-offenders like me. People who work in registers, enrolment, attendance, exams, payroll, finance and countless other admin roles who put up with me and my fellow incompetents.
Those, sometimes lesser-recognised, lesser-celebrated administrative roles are essential to the continued function of education and pastoral support provision. I love my admin colleagues, and they tolerate my never ending neediness with effortless grace. They’re used to it.
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons