Friday, July 30, 2004

So, What DO you do?

"What do you do?"
"I work in computing at Swarthmore College."
"Oh, you teach?"
"So, what do you do?"


I'm sure everybody has a mundane question that pops up in conversation more often than they'd like to answer it. For some, it might be "How are you?" (If you're depressed, going through a breakup, just lost your job, have been diagnosed with a serious illness.) For others, it might have to do with some aspect of their appearance. "What does that tattoo mean?"

For the contemporary "knowledge worker" with a somewhat unusual field, "what I do" can be an exhausting question to answer. People can relate to some kinds of information technology jobs from their own contexts. If I worked at a help desk or did computer training, for instance, I wouldn't be so hard to figure out.

The accurate answer is the one I've stopped giving. At least, I've stopped giving it to anybody who doesn't work in higher education:

"I head the team of people who assist faculty (and librarians and students) with their curricular and research computing problems."
[Puzzled look.]
"We run the servers that students use to pick up their online readings and assignments from their professors; we help people learn how to use statistical software, multimedia, databases, and the web for their research; we help faculty start up new computing projects; and we run a bunch of computing classrooms and labs."
"Well, okay then...." they respond, as if to follow with, "I'm going to stand over there now."

The funniest reaction I've ever gotten to my description was from one of my father's cousins, an intermittent farmer. After hearing my spiel, he translated to his wife "He's the kind of guy that could write a program that would calculate how much silage you need to hold the corn for your livestock." I didn't want to embarrass him by pointing out that you didn't need to write a program to solve a problem that required, at worst, a calculator. I instead said, "Well, I'm not really a programmer, but I could probably work up something in a spreadsheet to help you figure that out easily."

Let's be clear about this, I have a great job. Whereas many I.T. jobs push people into defined specialties, tending to an entire college curriculum gives you lots of avenues of exploration. One morning, I'm forced to brush up on digital video to assist an anthropologist. Two hours later, I'm meeting with a visual resources librarian to solve the challenges of databasing thousands of art images for teaching. After lunch, I could be talking with a colleague about problems with the equation editor in our course management system. That conversation might end with an update on how updates of the UNIX systems are going in an Engineering lab.

Unfortunately, the Coolness Quotient of my job is not easily discerned in small talk. Sometimes, I feel a little sheepish about my limitations to explain what I do. I'm convinced that a lot of people have walked away from me thinking, "That's a job?"

I've got a new response now.

"So what do you do?"
"Email and meetings."
[Flash a disarming smirk.]

It usually gets a chuckle in response. The scary part is, it's not that much of a reductionism.


Blogger L. said...

I'm pretty sure I get what you do.

At the same time, I've only been out of college for a year now, and we had a very similar program called PAWS. I forget what it stands for, but I'm sure it's one of those acronyms that was made to fit the word PAWS because our mascot is a tiger.

Anyway, this program allows us to use Semester book which kept all of our informaiton on the class, including grades if teachers so chose to post them. PAWS also had other programs, like email, financial statements, ride trakers, ticket exchages, and a variety of other things that were useful to a college student at a large university.

Semester book was very useful though because many professrs were able to put all their materials online for us, and sometimes we could even turn assignments online. What I mostly used semester book for was keeping up with my grades. As a student, that's what I cared about most.

Now that I've gone on and on about something you probably don't care about, I'm going to sign off. Thanks for checking out my blog, even though I'm not really sure how you came across it!

12:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

from anonymous VRC in NC. Now I know who you are. You do the same thing that the people I'm trying to work with in the library do. But you have some sense.

11:25 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home