In keeping with the practice of my two predecessors as chair, I keep my office door open unless I absolutely have to work without distraction. So faculty stop in. To chat and say hello, but also to seek validation and a patient listener. They want recognition of their achievements (a funded grant, an article accepted). Sometimes they’re struggling with a problem (they didn’t get the grant, the article was rejected) and they need a place to vent. And in all of this they want to be heard.
In my first months as chair I found this a bit overwhelming. As much as I believed in the ethos of the open door office, I often wanted to close my door so that I could get on with the Things I Needed to Accomplish and Changes I Wanted to Make. I had not anticipated this part of the job. And then I realized that listener was part of my job description. And that it would actually help me to achieve with the Things I Needed to Accomplish and the Changes I Wanted to Make. As a chair who takes seriously her role as advocate for the faculty, it doesn’t hurt to applaud their achievements and to validate their disappointments and challenges. And faculty who feel valued and listened to, are more likely to be engaged and responsive in their various roles. And so I take a deep breath and I listen. It is also, if you pay close attention, an excellent way to gain insight into the priorities, plans, and attitudes of the faculty without having to ask stilted questions like “what are your priorities?”
This listening is not without perils and challenges. Particularly as a female chair, I am cautious in what I am proposing here. You have perhaps noticed that I have studiously avoided words like “nurture.” I do not want to conflate my willingness to listen with the assumption of a parental, or more dangerously, maternal role. And, yes, regardless of any gendered overlays, there should be limits. I cannot spend all of my time listening, and there are times and circumstances when faculty should turn to other people in their lives to fill this need. And all of this ultimately begs a very important question: what is the role of the chair in relationship with departmental faculty? Advocate? Manager? Peer?
A future post will ponder that broader question, but for now, after five and half years in this role, I can safely say that I have rarely regretted taking fifteen minutes to listen to what a faculty member needed to say and have heard.