Over the holidays, my husband was telling me about an article he read in defense of the absent-minded professor. Apparently, since professors are always pondering such big, weighty things all the time, it’s no wonder they forget to do such rudimentary tasks as make a dentist appointment, or check when exactly their lunch meeting is set to take place the next day. That’s why they need to rely on other people to take care of the “administrivia,” to free them up to think about the truly important things in life.

As a professional administriviatrix, I took deep offense to this remark. I agree with the underlying sentiment wholeheartedly. But by calling it “trivia,” you quite literally trivialize how crucial these every day tasks are to the overall running of an institution, whether it be a huge university or a single household. I put up a spirited defense for myself and my colleagues, and finally got my husband to retract his use of the offending word. This conversation has since become something of a joke between us, as I often refer to the “administrivia” of running the household when my beloved overlooks some minor but crucial task.

I had occasion to reflect on this conversation again today when I was leaving the office. I ran into a friend of mine who works just down the hall, and we agreed that we should have lunch this week. Instead of turning to our computers or datebooks, both of us stood there in the hallway with that trademark look on our faces: eyes unfocused and rolled upwards, face scrunched, mouth pursed. Both of us were consulting a calendar that we hold in our heads, dancing just in front of our eyes. Chances are, if you asked either of us to do so, we could tell you all about our bosses’ calendars for the rest of the week as well. As for next week, well, hold on, I’d have to check.

After working in office environments for a number of years now, I know that an ability like this to handle so-called administrivia is a true talent. Almost every day, I stop for a second to marvel at the sheer volume of tasks and facts that the people I work with can hold in their heads and complete at any given time. We are all constantly juggling overlapping tasks, calling one person while emailing another, answering a second call while receiving a fax that needs to be sent back signed in three places NOW, etc etc etc. And when our boss stops by to check on the results, we can instantly lay our hands (mental or physical) on the relevant information within seconds. It really is quite amazing, and I’m sorry, but no number of rocket scientists or computer geeks could ever figure out how to duplicate that talent in a machine.

So while absent-minded professors may make the earthshaking discoveries, it is their assistants who really make the world go round. I am an administriviatrix, and dammit, I am proud.

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