So with all my AD(H)D idiosyncrasies, I’m a sketchy employee sometimes. For those just joining us, here’s the short list:
- May or may not return email and phone calls
- Will tell you I’ll do something and then forget all about it
- Does work at the last minute
- Not great at small details
- Often overwhelmed by large projects
- Sometimes just doesn’t do the work at all
- Often will not remember names, dates, appointments, meeting locations . . .
[nervous laughter, crickets chirping]
Somehow, though, a few years ago, fully aware of all these problems (but not knowing about adult AD(H)D) I got myself elected to the hiring committee for my department. And not just any old hiring committee—it turned out we would hire four tenure-line positions.
Now, this is higher education at a state university (in the U.S.). That means we had to do a national search, and that all of our work had to be reviewed by human resources to satisfy EEOC requirements. The work involved sorting through all the applications that came in, narrowing the big list to a dozen or so, conducting phone interviews with that group, then bringing three or four candidates from each group for two-day campus visits including meal interviews, teaching demos, open sessions with the department, etc., etc., all multiplied by four.
I don’t even know why I put myself on the ballot for this committee. I have to do some committee work (to count toward promotion) and the work I had been doing elsewhere on campus didn’t pan out in that they didn’t ask me to come back. In true bureaucratic fashion, I wasn’t asked to leave, just showed up one day and was told that the funding for that particular project had, uh, been redirected and by the way we need your laptop back and there’s someone else in your office already, so could you clean that out too?
Hiring and doing human resources stuff runs really against my nature. I teach business writing well enough (I love teaching and thinking about how language creates tone, for example), but my rebellious streak runs against that sort of stuff. I’m anxious enough to know and generally follow the rules, but independent-minded enough to wear jeans to work most days and manage to avoid ever wearing a necktie. My main thing is poetry, after all. And if I could get a degree or two in writing poetry and make a living some way related to that, I thought that would be a good joke on everyone who had such practical aspirations for me.
So when I met the committee for the first time, I was not feeling too confident about my ability to do the work, and the chair informed us that we had three positions to hire for (a fourth added later). She let us know that the department could form additional committees for the work or we could just do all the work ourselves. Everyone went along with the decision to do all the searches ourselves, so I did too.
In reality I was terrified. I imagined letting all of them down. I worried that I would get overwhelmed with my part and screw up, and they would have to pick up all the slack and I would be exposed as the fraud I am. He’s a good ideas person, but totally unreliable. I had to do a good job because I was applying for promotion the next year (because we need the money) and I needed the chair’s recommendation and there was a good chance that someone else on this committee would be on the promotion committee as well.
When the applications came rolling in, the news was bad. For one of our positions, we had more than eighty applications, and there was a reasonable number for the rest, too.
So, what happened? To my surprise, I did a really good job.
How the hell did that happen? I didn’t know at the time, but it makes sense in retrospect.
The simple answers: I was accountable to other people, the deadlines were real, and I found the work interesting.
Let me repeat that last clause: I found the work interesting. I thought that it would be more likely for me to grow extra fingers than to find human resources kind of work interesting, but I did (find it interesting; I still have only ten fingers). I never thought, being that I have to slog through piles and piles of student papers every year that a committee assignment that would require me to slog through even morepiles of papers could be interesting. (And for the record, no I won’t help you edit your book because after a day, week, month, and year reading student papers the last thing I want to do is more editing work!)
But I did find reading all the applications and vitae interesting. Here were people who might be my future colleagues, and I got to know everything about them. It was almost voyeuristic seeing everybody’s business like that.
Plus, there’s a bit of ego involved. Doing phone interviews, the candidates were the nervous ones, mostly. And I really liked doing all the in-person stuff: going to meals, walking around campus, driving around Big Rapids. I got to be the tour guide, and I got to see people experience for the first time what I see every day. Some of them lived in warm states and were excited to see snow during their January visits. “Look at those icicles!” one candidate exclaimed. Pretty cool for a Californian. Four months of icicles, kind of boring for me.
Did I mention meals! Oh, I got to eat to. I loves to eat.
This committee involved countless hours of work, and even though I struggled with all my other responsibilities (like teaching) during this time, I looked forward to these meetings, and I was always prepared.
Here’s why: when I have to do work during a meeting, I do really well. I find it easiest to answer all my email in the computer lab when my students are there working on something for example. It’s called the “body double” effect in the AD(H)D literature.
Also, the applications I reviewed could not be removed from the main office for confidentiality sake. They set aside time and a conference room for us to go through the applications. I really had no other choice during those times; I just had to go do the work, and there really wasn’t any other work I could do at those times. Pair that with my curiosity at peeking in all these files, and the work seemed fun. I got a rush from being so engaged in the work, from being so productive.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I like being productive. I enjoy having done a good body of work, especially when I can do it in a calm, focused manner. Often, though, it’s hard to create the conditions where I can achieve that.
And the deadlines were real for this committee. In general, there is so much permissiveness for my job, too much for me. I generally set my own deadlines. Even when I get a form to fill out for the book request, for example, the deadline is on the sheet, but I know that’s not the real deadline. Or that if I say that I’ll grade papers by Monday, and I show up on Monday and haven’t started them and say “I’m still working on them,” that most of my students will shrug and go back to texting. But this committee had real deadlines that were non-negotiable.
I responded positively to three things: structure, presence of others, and intrinsic interest in the topic. When my interest waned, the structure or the others kept me going. And I like a long, productive meeting. (But not any sort of unproductive meeting; I’ve been to plenty of those where we spent 48 minutes of a 50-minute meeting trying to figure out what we’re supposed to be doing.) Plus there’s food involved. I think I have an oral fixation, but I work best when I am eating or drinking or even chewing on a straw.
When I look back at that time, I don’t have many feelings of regret either, which I usually do for most projects I’m involved in (dysthymia, anyone?). The only negativity I feel is about some of the scheduling faux pas that happened when the candidates were here, but that had nothing to do with my effort. It also helped that our committee got along very well and that we were indeed successful in hiring four good professors.
Since then, I’ve learned that the sort of committee work I’m good at is the kind where the task is well defined and there’s a lot of in person work. Someone nominated me to work on another search committee, to hire a dean of the library. That ended up being unsuccessful, but I felt good about the effort I put in. Likewise, I got myself on the promotion committee for my college. Some people told me “I don’t know how you could do that; it’s so much work and people get so wound up about it.” (Unlike some universities, our promotion process is competitive; we only get a certain number of promotions per college each year.) Again, though, I found it easy to get started on the work and sustain my effort and do a good job. The task is so well defined that there is a preexisting rubric we use for scoring the applications. Again, a lot of work, but work I can apparently do.
This experience began an inkling in my brain that eventually led to my seeking a diagnosis: it wasn’t the work itself that I had trouble with. Grading papers is not too far off from ranking applications. It was the conditions of the work that mattered more. The in-person bit seemed especially important, so I started doing conference grading with my students, even the online ones. It has transformed the work for me.
And now I am on another dean search committee, again nominated to do so by someone in my department. And again, I look forward to the work. And the food.