There is a little narrative many of those within and outside the institution like to tell: If it wasn’t for the receptionists, the janitors, the assistants to the [insert whatever position here], this place just wouldn’t be functional. We claim these people and others like them “run the place.” Yet, for all of the narratives of the people who are “under” us truly being the foundation and glue that holds everything together, we rarely see and certainly do not ask them about the significance of their jobs, or more importantly, the significance of them as individuals.
When I began this interview series in the fall of 2014, my goal was to make visible those women in the Writing Center at Michigan State more visible. I did this because though considered minorities, writing centers are dominated by female consultants. About halfway through last semester, I started thinking: “I say I wanted to talk to the women of the Writing Center, but I never thought to talk to the receptionists or the assistants who work here every day.” Even though I, myself, engage in “playful banter” with them on nearly a daily basis, getting their thoughts about the Writing Center never came to my mind. In all honesty, I was angry with myself, or as I like to say “I was angry with my own self.” And because of this anger – and knowing I had an ability to change it – I decided to interview those whom I had, in my own mind, so wrongfully neglected.
The following is an interview with Writing Center Administrative and Office Assistant Judy Easterbrook:
Getting the Job
How long have you actually worked at Michigan State?
Judy: Forty-One years.
Judy: I was 12.
Of course. We won’t talk about the child labor laws or anything like that.
Judy: Exactly. They didn’t exist then. We’re talking horse and buggy days.
When you started here was there a writing center?
Judy: No. The Writing Center is twenty-one or twenty-two years old.
So twenty years into your time here came the Writing Center, so obviously you worked in previous departments. Did you do somewhat of the same thing?
Judy: I did, but I’ve always had more student involvement that I actually do right now. I worked in an academic department, so there was a lot of student involvement, which in some ways I miss, well in many ways I miss.
Well, you know students are right out there around the corner.
Judy: I know, but I can’t hang out there. Dianna will come looking for me.
So when did you actually shift over here?
Judy: I’ve only been in the Writing Center since 2010. What happened is a woman retired here who’d been here quite a while, she was half time and they moved me over here. Poor Dianna and Trixie. I was imposed upon the Writing Center.
Oh you were imposed?
Judy: I was, but they redistributed my duties and move me over here to take over this. The college did it.
That’s interesting. You didn’t choose to come over here, so how was it working here, since it was a new kind of space and not as much interaction? I mean, clearly you’ve stayed. So what is it like?
Judy: Oh, I like it. I like it a lot. The Writing Center is a great place to work, but it was an adjustment at first, it really was. I mean, when something, and probably not everyone is like this, but when something is imposed upon you, you think “grrr.” But, I’ve always had an interest in the Writing Center. In fact, when it was first created, I applied for a job in the Writing Center and I didn’t get it. How ironic is it that all those years later, I’m here?
You said you applied before because you had interest, so why did you actually have interest in the Writing Center?
Judy: I don’t know. I knew the women who started the Writing Center and from day one it just seemed like a really interesting space, and it still is a very interesting space.
With a lot of interesting people.
Judy: Right. It just seemed different to me from what I was doing before. Everybody needs a change once in a while and I wanted to work for the woman who had a hand in starting this, but they chose someone who had a lot more computer experience than I did, so I didn’t get it.
But the irony is you really did get it.
Judy: I did. They made me queen for a day a few years later.
The Hurdles of the Job
Now of course we had a little difference of opinion just a few minutes ago on the receipts and the checks and balances that you have to do and I was like “Oh the loopholes that the academy must send you through day in and day out. And of course I think that people in these kinds of positions know more about these loopholes and hurdles sometimes than teachers and students do because those are different loopholes and different hurdles that students and teachers have to jump through and go through.”
Judy: They are. They are completely different.
So how are they different because you know I’m a grad student and I hope to be a teacher and I’ll learn about some of those hurdles, but how do you think they are different?
Judy: Well, you’re not dealing with financials as a student, right? Only your own. And your paycheck, which you don’t have to worry about if someone is doing their job correctly.
Right. Like you, because you do payroll.
Judy: Well, Cathy does payroll but I put all of the consultants in the system. I do the paperwork to hire you. And that is a whole other story. But that is the part of my job that I take very seriously, because I wouldn’t not want to get a paycheck when I was expecting one, and I really will go the extra mile to make sure that you get a paycheck. I don’t see this as a hurdle because I’ve always done it, and it’s difficult for me to know what you don’t know.
Well think about when we were talking about the receipts and you were like “you know, people embezzle.”
Judy: They do, or rather they did.
And I was like “yes they do.” But I guess from my perspective, it’s like they already think you’re up to no good, even if you’re on the up and up.
Judy: Yeah, but I don’t think they feel that I’m up to do no good. I think they know that there a people that have done no good. So, not to be corny, but one bad apple… I don’t take it as a personal kind of thing and I actually think it’s a great thing that we are able to provide the information to show them that we made a charge. I think it’s a great thing. Does it create a lot more paperwork? Well, absolutely it does, but that’s job security, you know?
Is it tedious as well?
It can be. It can be tedious, of course, but still I see the reason for it, so I’m not resentful that I have to do any of that. Having worked here as long as I have, I’ve heard about many people who have embezzled money from the university and as I’ve said previously, that’s very sad to me. This isn’t big corporation. This is state funded; funded by the students and you’re stealing from them, essentially. I don’t have any problem having to provide all these little nit-picky things that show we’re on the up and up in the Writing Center. It’s a great thing for the university.
The Responsibilities of the Job
Now take us through the process because you mentioned the travel vouchers can be difficult because at times there might be 26 receipts you have to get, scan and attach to the proper forms? Take us through the process of how that works.
Judy: Well, the university always has the potential to be audited, so they have to show for every dollar they paid out why they paid it out. Well, that can be a little complicated when it comes to travel. Cathy does most of the Writing Centers travel, though I still do some for Jeff Grabill. You might have a five dollar taxi receipt and at the end of a trip there are a lot of receipts, and everyone has to be scanned and attached; it gets a little complicated and messy, but again you have to look at the big picture. The university has to show where their dollars went and that’s every one of their dollars.
Now with the justification, since you have to show why, do they want some type of a narrative or essay attached?
Judy: It depends. If it’s not clear cut, then you do have to attach a narrative, called a worksheet, to explain the expenses in a way that the person processing the travel will understand, but it’s our job.
And everybody has one.
Judy: Everybody has one.
And this is why it’s said you all run the place, because you hear all those things that us consultants aren’t involved in, praise God, but this is why I thought it was important because what would we do?
Judy: Get another Judy is what you would do.
Ah, but there’s only one.
Judy: Well, I bet Dianna [Baldwin, the Writing Center’s assistant director] thinks: Thank God for that!