Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Day 56 "In the trenches" (Steppin'-in steppin'-up edition)

Day 3 of week 13 and the kids are seeing the end of the track looming here. Around April 1 is typically, in the annual calendar, when students who want to graduate in May or in August realize that there are finite deadlines (mostly occurring b/w April 15 - April 29) which, if blown, mean another semester or another academic year in school. So they finally buckle down. And even the really bright and conscientious ones, the ones who've been working their tails off through the year, start to get a little panicked.

Particularly when they have meetings where they think they've been told that the copious research / reading / writing they've been doing is off the mark.

Years ago, the revered Tom Mathiesen, who was an important mentor for both Dharmonia and myself, had a research assistant--a very talented guy--who couldn't get his paycheck cut. For whatever reason, the subhuman drones at the IU School of Music payroll office had him in some Catch-22 situation where he couldn't get his paycheck because he "wasn't yet in the system," but couldn't be added into the system until he had received his first paycheck...or solipsisms to similar effect. This had been going on for weeks and the poor guy had been shuttled back-and-forth between various offices staffed by Hydras who'd say "no, we can't help you here, you have to go over there," only to find that the Gorgons "over there" needed some piece of paperwork they'd forgotten to give him "over here," and so on ad nauseum ad heartbreak.

15 years ago there were three "Toms" at the IU SOM: "Big Tom"--Tom Mathiesen, who slept three hours a night, had a photographic memory, and basically invented the technology for an online full-text database of Greek and Latin music theory--in 1990; "Little Tom"--Thomas Noblitt, who taught early notation out of the same notebook of yellowed assignments he'd written for his college notation course--in 1963; and "Mad Tom"--our beloved and exasperating medieval music teacher Tom Binkley, about whom I've written elsewhere.

Big Tom shared the shit out of anybody with any brains--only the dumb ones didn't realize just how much smarter he was than they. So when he eventually heard Brad's tale of woe, he decided to take things into his own hands--he went down to see the Dragon Ladies in the music business office, to inquire politely if something couldn't be done (on top of everything else, he's a remarkably articulate man with a basso profundo voice). They assured that it "couldn't" be--that Brad would simply have to wait until "someone else" solved the Catch-22.

So Big Tom just simply shifted the frame: he said, "well, I see there's nothing else for it," and pulled his checkbook out of his jacket pocket. The snippy Gorgon Lady said, "Professor Mathiesen, what on earth are you doing?" To which he replied, "well, you've told me there's nothing else that can be done--but Brad is entitled and long overdue to be paid for his work for me. So I'm paying his salary myself."

The Ladies just about took an infarction: "But you CAN'T do that!" Tom replied, "well, what else can be done?" and the Ladies were so freaked out they went into the Inner Sanctum and returned with the news that Brad's check would be cut by End of Business that day.

I learned--yet again--another lesson from my great teachers: when you finally have power (button Dharmonia gave me years ago read "Laugh while you can, be we will be in charge some day"), make sure you use it: use it smart, use it right, use it for the right reasons. But when it's called for, use it" (come to think of it, it's not dissimilar to the lessons my martial arts teachers taught me about violence).

So to today. Confidentiality issues preclude me giving me much detail, but suffice it to say that, when Student A calls you distraught from the bus, after having been told (she thinks) that her Honors thesis needs to be re-written, and Adviser B doesn't return your voicemail asking for a call back, and that same Department has repeatedly changed, updated, amended, or contradicted the previously-cited guidelines, you don't keep politely requesting a meeting through the channels that aren't working. You flat fuckin' change the frame.

You show up in the Department's office, ask for the Adviser, and, on being told "he's with a student," you say, "I'll wait," and you sit in their (much posher than your own Department's) lounge reading the New Yorker, and when Adviser B finally comes out of his office, you say "In reference to Student A's thesis, I thought maybe we could fix this if I just came over," and they're so shocked-and-awed that you've actually appeared on their doorstep--that you, a tenured professor and Chair, have actually put forth a little human physical effort on behalf of a student--that they actually fuckin' do fix it. And then you can call Student A and say "you don't have to rewrite your thesis" or "you're going to get your check" or "you're going to be able to graduate." That's part of the job: to step in, step up, and make positive things happen.

Big Tom taught me that.

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