The University Record, June 3, 2002

Interdisciplinary project focuses on staff movements

By Martin May

“A career ladder is so limiting, I decide. What we really need is a gerbil wheel,” writes Jill Oviatt, former assistant project representative at the Division of Research Development and Administration. Oviatt received the first-place prize in a writing contest for U-M staff that was part of the Mapping the Invisible University—a project from the Rackham Summer Interdisciplinary Institute in which faculty and graduate students were charged with studying the theme of motion and emotion on campus.

The Mapping the Invisible University project focused on the movements of staff at U-M. Project members wanted to find out the different ways staff approach working at the University to make the ‘knowledge factory’ work. The project team included four members—Sharad Chari, assistant professor of anthropology; Catherine Squires, assistant professor of communications and of African and Afro-American Studies; Kevin Kolben, graduate student and law student; and graduate student Meredith Martin.

Project members conducted detailed interviews of 16 staff members throughout different work areas in the University. They also held a writing and art contest for staff as another way of soliciting expression. In all, 30 entries were submitted for the contest.

“Many of the staff we interviewed get a feeling of community from outside the University,” says project member Catherine Squires. By contrast, Squires says, faculty and students seem to look more within the University for a sense of community and attachment.

“A good number of people we interviewed said they feel overlooked by faculty and students who consider them extraneous,” Squires says. But there are instances where students confide in staff. There are times when some staff take on the role of a listening ear, much like the role of a bartender says Squires.

All the art and writing submissions were on display last month at the Michigan Union Art Lounge. The project team also gave a final report on their findings. Squires says she hopes the University will provide Web space so that she and her team members can display the submissions and their report.

Contest winner entry: To Work (and back)

By Jill Oviatt

My morning alarm: the hum of commuters passing my house. No snooze button,

I’ll get up, at the crescendo, or after.

I wait my turn, or don’t, and the motorist behind me hits back. “Get out of my

vehicular space,” I say. Bumper cars, the training ground for road rage.

Two of my neighbors, dead. Must’ve happened last night. Just groundhogs, some say. I told him! “Off the shoulder! You’re going to get killed!” And that other groundhog, a half mile up, same thing! Geez.

School bus. I’m way late now.

I get to the parking lot—Wolverine Tower—Orange, not so important—and I will find my place, a place, to park. And then begins the walk.

Here I am, I think. Is there something funny about that? My walk TO the building, each separate step TO, is the most deliberate walk of my day.

I’m going into the building, I think. Here I am, going to, going in, now gone—inside the building I’ve gone.

There’s a long, brick path inside. My heels click like horse hooves, no one at the reins. Is it real brick? I know the path isn’t yellow, and I know where it’ll take me.

My office. Mine. There’s my name plate, there’s my number. There’s my chair, and I sit down. A twirling chair, a working adult’s Sit and Spin. And if I sit long enough, I’ll spin and keep spinning until one day someone reaches out their hand and STOP. The chair stops spinning and I’m 65, time to retire, an e-mail: Congratulations. 30 years. Cake and ice cream in the small conference room at noon.

And so I move.

I get up from my chair and I walk to the copy machine, then back to my office, then to the printer, then back, then to the printer again, then to the FAX machine, back to my office, to the printer, to the file cabinets, to my office, OUT OF CONTROL! I call it The Dilbert Shuffle, and I’m thinking of taking it to the clubs. Like The Hustle, anyone can do it.

There shuffles Lenore, proud in her perfection, she’s got the dance down. I suppress an urge to line up beside her, join her dance. NSYNC.

I’m given an hour lunch. What a weird concept. What am I suppose to do with this HOUR IN BETWEEN? It belongs to you!—you say—Do what you want! So I go somewhere, ELSE.

Why—in fact—does time move slowest between 1:00 and 5:00 PM weekdays?

More time to get things done.

An email from our Department Director: A new title has been added to your job category. SENIOR Staff Manager. There are now four titles, not three. We are pleased to provide more movement in your career ladder.

A career ladder is so limiting, I decide. What we really need is a gerbil wheel.

The elevator voice outside my office door: Floor One, Going Up. A few minutes later: Floor One, Going Down. And the computer voice lets me know—by her tone—that UP is better than DOWN.

A co-worker steals my secret, but hands me his in exchange. I won’t tell.

Staff Appreciation Day. The email says: Thanks. Come get your shirt. One size fits all, golf-style, block M on the left breast. Nondescript. So I tie dye mine, maize and blue—team colors—and wear it back to work. On Casual Friday. “Why’d you do that?” someone asks. I laugh. Because it’s a darn funny joke.

I could leave at 5, I’m allowed. But I stay past. It’s quiet after 5, conducive to increased productivity. So I stay, for a little longer. But not too much longer, because I’ve got a dog, waiting, unproductively so.

Same route back, big deal. (The way Home always feels shorter than the way To, or is it the other way around?)

I step into my house, greeted by a yawn. “Good morning!” I inhale and hold

the best stink in the world. Dog breath, some say. I say, home.