Open Door Policy

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/eb/Open_door_button_1996_Stock_(cropped).jpgIn 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.

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4 thoughts on “Open Door Policy

  1. Heading off on a tangent already, but I’m interested in the sentence with which you began this post. As chair, how much are you guided by the habits and customs set by your predecessors? How much did you try to set yourself apart? I ask because I’m very likely to be our department’s next chair (starting fall 2015, so I have the chance to use this coming year as training). Our current chair is excellent, so of course I’ve been imagining the ways in which I can imitate and maintain the best things he’s done. But with this post it occurs to me that that kind of listening is perhaps something I can bring to the position that hasn’t been there before.

    And speaking of the listening, in general, how much do you find that people want you to actually jump up and do something about what they’re talking about, and how much do they just want to be heard? I tend to assume the first, but I bet there’s a lot more of the second going on.

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    1. Pilgrim/Heretic: great questions and observations (and sorry for the delay in responding–I was away at a conference)! I was somewhat guided by the example of my predecessors. But I also knew that I had a different style in certain areas. I was keen, for example, to run meetings differently–trying to hold them to only 1.5 hours (I have strong ideas about what constitutes an effective meeting), etc. So it was definitely a mixture of what they had done and what I wanted to do differently.

      As to the listening, I’ve found that with everyone from students to faculty it is *often* the case that people just want to be heard. I was surprised at the number of times that the person in my office actually didn’t expect me to come up with a solution.

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