• Issue #35

Which jobs in Higher Ed are Bullsh*t?

A sad bear slumps over a long, wooden table in an empty boardroom. On the wall is a painting of an open flame.

Succession, Bullsh**t Jobs, and Higher Education*

Like many of you, I watched the final episode of Succession this weekend. Late in the last episode, after the siblings’ final chance at putting forth a plan for management falls apart, Roman Roy speaks the truth:

"We are bullsh**t. … It’s all fcking nothing, and I’m telling you this because I know it, okay? We’re nothing."*

The whole show was very Shakespearian. The siblings created a lot of sound and fury drama, but ultimately signified nothing. Let’s pivot for a second to higher education. I remember many years ago taking minutes for an affinity board meeting of a department-level research center. I was new on the job and stressed because I didn’t know anyone and couldn’t attribute comments to specific board members.

My boss at the time said, “It’s okay. We’re not saving baby whales.”

I tell this anecdote because those minutes felt important in the moment. Important people were expecting a recap of everything they discussed, and I didn’t want to make a mistake or cause anyone to feel misheard or insulted. But the truth of the matter was that those board minutes were rarely read. We didn’t revise the minutes at the next meeting. We weren’t even making important strategic decisions for the center in those meetings. Those minutes were pageantry.

There’s a decent amount of that kind of work in higher education. I’m not saying that we are bullsh**t and that it’s all fcking nothing. But there’s a reason that Sayre’s law is a thing: The drama is so high because the stakes are so low, or in his own words, “that is why academic politics are so bitter.”*

Coincidentally, Vox had an article out last week, titled How some people get away with doing nothing at work. This article looked at the experiences of those folks who do basically… nothing at work. They are not asked or required to do much, their tasks don’t take up much time, and they exist to collect a paycheck, more or less.

The article references a pre-pandemic discussion on bullsh**t jobs. You might remember this topic. The book and its author, David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, were a pop culture talking point for several weeks. Graeber defines bullsh**t jobs as, “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”

I am sure that everyone reading this hot take has run into people at work who don’t contribute much. I’m sure many of you have also run into people who do contribute a ton of work and effort - it’s just not work that amounts to change or results.

*I guess what I am trying to say is that our industry - higher education - and our sub-industry? - higher education digital strategy - has some bullsh**t, and I think it’s time to call a spade a spade.

David Graeber actually created a typography of b*ullsh**t jobs.

  • Flunkies are jobs that signal prestige for the boss.
  • Goons are jobs meant to signal that you’re keeping up with competitors.
  • Duct tapers are jobs that apply small, temporary fixes to kick the metaphorical ‘bigger problem’ can down the road.
  • Box tickers are jobs that create the appearance of significant work.
  • And, taskmasters are jobs that add extra steps just to manage those steps.

I can see examples of some of these in my previous work environments. I also see unique ones in higher education:

  • Committee work - you’ve shared thoughts and ideas, you’ve brainstormed, and you’ve even established recommendations. But nothing gets implemented or changed. The following year, the committee stops meeting and it’s as though it never happened.
  • Data collection tasks - you’ve collected data, but people are all too busy to interpret it, let alone make strategic changes based on it.
  • Great hire meets great blockers - your organization hires a talented person who can’t fulfill their obligations because their success requires organizational change that the culture is resistant to.
  • Jam-packed schedule managers - you’ve seen the calendars where every free minute is spoken for and leaders arrive late just because they need a bathroom break. If you’re in meetings all day long, how can you be effective in any meaningful way?

*If any of this sounds familiar to you - if you find yourself in a Bullsht job, with *Bullsht responsibilities, or with less and less work to do, here are some steps you can take to add meaning to your work.

  1. Get courageous. Sometimes, the person holding you back from doing meaningful work is YOU. This is because doing something different requires risk taking, trying something you’ve never done before, or learning a new skill. There are so many free resources available for professional development and communities that share your work and ideas. Don’t be afraid to try something else if your efforts are not creating meaningful results.
  2. Get skilled in attribution. You know the outcomes you want. Have you planned the inputs and outputs you need to realize those outcomes? Do you know how to tell if your strategies are working? Map out what you expect to see from the strategies you’re currently employing and any future strategies you might try. Ask yourself if the activities you’re currently doing will affect your outcomes. Develop your own tools for benchmarking and measuring your effectiveness.
  3. Get skilled at educating up. Managing up is being proactive in managing the relationship you share with your boss and other superiors. Educating up is getting skilled at presenting your boss and superiors with knowledge they didn’t have before. For both managing up and educating up, you need to establish a trusting partnership. Your boss and other superiors might have limited time and bandwidth to accept your strategies and ideas. Take their constraints seriously and provide them with easily digestible and memorable knowledge. Provide sources, articles, and case studies to support your positions. And be cognizant that, unfortunately, your boss can’t share all their organizational intelligence with you. Always keep in mind that they might be privy to information you don’t have access to.
  4. If you do all of these things, and your job is still feeling like total bullsht, talk with your friends.* Do they think there is a way out of the Bullsht *that you haven’t seen or tried? Or is your job a one way ticket to Bullsht City? I recommend asking for outside perspective. If your job is really Bullsh**t, asking coworkers or your boss might put you in a vulnerable position. So, hold off seeking changes or internal perspective. If you have a boss who doesn’t respect you or anyone else on your team, if there are toxic elements, or if there is no possibility of career advancement, it may just be time to look for a new gig. Life is short and our careers are even shorter. Don’t spend too much time at a job that isn’t giving you the chance to do something worth doing.

*You don’t have to be saving baby whales to feel good about your work. Making a process easier for a prospective student or increasing applications to a program can be truly satisfying. Bullsh**t in our work is our responsibility to eliminate. The less of it we have, the happier we will be.

- Kristin Van Dorn