Things I learned from my assistant

Things I learned from my assistant

I used to have these daydreams where I would be the influential personal assistant to someone really powerful. But then I realized, good assistants to the rich and famous shouldn’t keep a blog. Or journal notes. Or private thoughts. Or anything evidential, really. So that may not be the best line of work for me.

I also realized that being a good assistant is really hard work. Back when I had these daydreams, I was also a terrible student assistant. And by terrible, I mean… blithely unaware. Sure, I would put in the time, and tick off the boxes. I was smart and worked quickly. I did my tasks well. And I regularly asked Professor Sarah* for more work:

“Is there anything I can do today?” I’d ask, peeking into her textile-laden office with my backpack falling off my shoulder. She didn’t ask me to come in at set times, and tended to handle everything herself. So I just showed up. She looked up and kept on typing as we talked.

“No, just keep working on the bibliography,” she’d say.

“I’m almost done,” I’d say, “so just let me know as soon as you have anything else.”

…But she wouldn’t.

I’d pop in the next day. “I’m finished with the bibliography!”

Professor S. nodded, looking a bit harried, and took three more days to assign a new task.


Had I a do-over, I would have just scheduled twenty hours in the office and then played solitaire if she couldn’t get her act together. But because I had the freedom to work off-campus, I faced that typical conundrum of flexible work: the need to be productive in assisting for 20 hours, rather than just logging 20 hours a ‘assistant’ in a certain place. And because Professor Sarah didn’t have tasks at hand, I quietly and legitimately streeettttchheeed the tasks to fill the hours I was obliged to bill, in a manner that any lawyer or consultant would admire.

… And gradually, I started doing less and less work. And she started asking less and less. And then I was frustrated: it’s not actually that fun to busy oneself with almost-work. And she was frustrated: her assistant wasn’t that useful.

Teaching Assistant Orientation, by Vandy CFT, on Flickr

Coordinating Students

Then, working at Atameken University* last year, I had my first full-time experience in managing staff. I got myself assigned as coordinator of our 12 student workers. My boss, Galia*, still ran the show, but I was given token management tasks such as setting the schedule and delegating work downwards to the students in the evenings.

In effect, I was a shift manager. And it wasn’t easy. Shy Kazakh girls and guys would come to my desk, sling their bookbags under the library counter, and ask if there was any work for them. Often, there wasn’t. What task was I going to assign to a hesitant and overworked sophomore in engineering: developing a research article on post-Soviet libraries? Help professors find elusive articles on Victorian literature? Research current changes in copyright law across countries? I could train them, but training would take more time than it would save.

And suddenly, I was very sympathetic to Professor Sarah. Here were twelve students working ten hours a week for me. I had the power to assign work… but I wasn’t making good use of them. (And neither was Galia, who had them dusting new atlases with a massive industrial-style dusting machine, the sound thrumming across the library each evening…).

So in the evenings, I’d look over at the corner. Kwoz was sleeping on the floor, while Arman crumpled over an engineering textbook on the book-processing table. There was nothing for them to do, so I let them sleep and went back to my research.

Training up Assistants

But this past year (2012-2013), I kicked it up a notch. Working at the Bilim School, I got to work with some wonderful staff, including a volunteer, an assistant, and an intern. Yet because my then-assistant and I both had to learn new roles (assistant, manager), I sometimes found myself getting cross in a very Prof. Sarah-like way:

It seems Gulyana* isn’t working… or I can’t see her working. She argues with me. I ask her to make a display. Her curved mouth forms into an O, and she swishes her hair: “But I don’t know what you want!”

“Just find some pictures of libraries online,” I say. “Paste them on the board with a caption.”

“But…” she wants a step-by-step instructional…

“Why are we doing this?” She asks, after I’d explained it all. “We should do it another way.”

And I think back. I did that too, I realize, with Professor Sarah.

“Why do I have to make all these lists?” I’d emailed her, petulantly. “What are they for?” 

“Because you’re my assistant,” she’d snapped back. “That’s what you do.”

So now I understand Prof. Sarah. It takes a skilled manager to plan for an assistant, giving them an even, interesting, and useful workload, especially when there’s not enough time to get things done, let alone plan. It takes focus and relational skills to train employees not just in tasks, but in work attitudes, higher-level thinking, and a collection vision for the department.

Coming Up: read Part 2, How to be a Good Assistant! 

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