Monthly Archives: April 2014

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

I am waiting.  I am waiting hopefully and patiently for the pendulum to swing in the other direction.  I am waiting for a cultural shift that will stop glorifying busy and that will stop measuring our worth by our ability to multitask, work long hours, and turn our smartphones into near-permanent appendages.

(And rest assured, I am guilty of all these things).

For now, however, I know that this means tilting at windmills.  So instead, I will write in defense of sabbaticals–both big and small.  At its most literal sabbatical comes from the Hebrew word “shabbat” or sabbath and means ceasing or taking a time of rest–typically, ceasing from work, so that attentions can be devoted elsewhere.  In the academy, of course, it is a break from teaching and other quotidian responsibilities, so that you can take time to do research, travel to archives, work in the lab, develop new curriculum, finish your book, etc.  Arguably, that ceasing from other tasks and obligations, opens up time and space for productivity to flourish.

But it might also do something less grand, but no less essential.  It might create space and time to think.  But, wait, isn’t that what we, as academics do all the time?  I’m going to guess that most academics would not answer that question in the affirmative.  Yes, I have to think about the student thesis I’m reading or the agenda I need to prepare for the department meeting or my lecture notes for Western Civ.  But careful, reflective thought that would help me finish that book chapter or outline that new course proposal?  Thought that would result in creative and innovative ideas/solutions/brainstorming?  Moments for that are few and far between.

And yet, we all need exactly that kind of time, as a recent study demonstrates.  In a compelling piece in The Atlantic, Rebecca Rosen investigated the dilemma of  feeling overwhelmed and overworked.  The big takeaway from that piece: “The brain is wired for the ‘A Ha’ moment to come, not when our noses are pressed firmly into the grindstone, but in a break in the action. When we let our mind wander. In the shower. On a walk. When we are idle, neuroscience is showing that our brains are most active.”

So if a semester-long or better still, year-long, sabbatical opens up space and time for that kind of thought?  So much the better.  But what about all the years, months, and days that separate us and our faculty from the next sabbatical?  If we really intend to spur creativity and innovation both inside and outside the classroom (and I’ll be honest, I’m not always sure this is the goal of my upper administration, but that’s a subject for another blog post) we must go about it differently.  As chairs we must find ways to encourage our faculty to create these open spaces when they cease from multitasking, put down the smartphone, and give themselves a break.  How do we do this?  By modelling it and talking about it.

As I noted above, I am as guilty as anyone of these overwhelmed and overworked practices.  We all have to-do lists that are a mile long.  But if my faculty see me disconnecting (even it it’s as simple as not eating lunch at my desk and instead going into the break room) there is power in that example.  And we must talk about this, too.  As most faculty prepare to depart for the summer, what if we encouraged this kind of openness instead of asking when the book is going to be finished or the new course proposal drafted?

Now certainly, we cannot encourage endless mulling that results in nothing.  I know that every reader of this post could present an anecdote about that faculty member who took three sabbaticals and never finished the long-promised book.  You might ask, why create a system that caters to these types?  The problem with that faculty member may be that he/she is overworked and overwhelmed, but there are also issues of procrastination and perhaps even project conceptualization at work there.  The question, then, is which faculty member should dictate the terms.  I will reach out to the faculty member who is always stymied in completing a project.  But overall, rather than a culture that penalizes procrastination, I would rather foster one that encourages creativity and time to think.  In the best sense of the word “sabbatical,” whether they last twenty minutes or a year, we all need more of them.


It Goes to Eleven

Faculty morale. For the past couple of years at my institution it has plummeted. For the purposes of this post, the reasons don’t really matter. What does matter to me as chair is trying to remedy this. How is morale remedied in other environments? Financial incentives, a corner office, a designated parking space. Hmmm…as chair, I have no additional funds, space is already limited and constrained, and don’t even get me started on parking—the bane of most campuses. So what to do? Given my lack of resources, I decided to go small. Let me explain.

Inspired by my time spent doing research in England and Spain, I instituted the practice of Elevenses. In the UK, tea and biscuits are advertised as being perfect for Elevenses—that mid-morning snack when folks gather around the electric kettle and share a cookie and a few minutes of conversation. In Spain, the reading rooms at most archives empty around 11am when everyone goes to get a cup of coffee and have a chat.

An invitation went out to all the faculty and staff (full and part-time) in our department and to some other nearby colleagues inviting them to gather in our break room on Wednesday mornings (popular teaching when lots of folks are on campus) from 10:30 (our class block schedule doesn’t quite work with 11am on the dot!) to 11:30. Tea, coffee, and cookies would be available (now that it’s caught on, we take up a modest collection of $5/semester from regular participants, which is plenty to keep us well-supplied). Folks were encouraged to drop in on their way to or from class or to linger if they wanted to.

We are now in our second year of Elevenses—so it seems to be working. Here are some observations:

* Informality is the key. Unlike brown bag lunches, seminars, or other events that are more formal, Elevenses allows people to participate as much or as little as they like. It is one of the most successful examples I’ve ever seen of full and part-time faculty socializing.

* For similar reasons, the small window of time is essential: one day a week for an hour or less. No one has to make a big commitment. If all you do is drop in, make a cup of tea, and exchange some pleasantries, that’s okay. It still gets you up, out of your office, and talking to your colleagues.

Would I like to be able to improve morale with more money for travel to conferences, new computers, a reasonable teaching load? Absolutely. But in the absence of those things, I have also learned that sometimes small is okay.

Show Me the Money…or at least the course release

Since starting this blog several readers have urged me to take up the question of chair compensation.  So I conducted a completely unscientific poll on Facebook and discovered what I had suspected all along–it varies widely and in distressing ways.  Some chairs receive almost no monetary compensation and only a slight reduction in teaching.  Others get higher salaries (usually the result of going from 9- to 12-month contracts), generous stipends and course releases.  At some particularly enlightened institutions, chairs get to “keep” their increased salaries and/or are eligible for an immediate sabbatical when they go back to faculty status.  I am sure that a more systematic review would only increase the depth and complexity of this variation.  Within my own university, for example, it varies enormously among our six colleges.


Now certainly some of this variation is a function of department size.  And that makes sense.  If you chair a department of 4 at a small, private college your compensation will probably not be the same as someone who chairs a department of 40 at an R1 institution.  This distinction and others point to several key questions and issues.

The first: what is chair compensation meant to acknowledge or remedy?  Generally speaking, becoming chair represents an increase in workload and often an expectation of more time spent in the office.  I could do some of my chairing tasks from home, not unlike how I used to write and grade from home on the days I didn’t teach, but my presence in the office is more necessary now.  Questions to be answered, fires to be put out, you get the idea.  And certainly, all the chairs I know, both here and at other institutions, say that with the increase in demands for accountability and cuts in staff positions at the department level, there has been a marked increase in the amount of paperwork, report writing, and general administrivia they are required to complete.  And so, compensation is typically a combination of some increase in pay and a reduction in teaching load.  But–and this is an important observation–chairs still teach.  At most institutions this makes them different from associate deans, vice provosts, and certainly deans and provosts.

This brings me to the next question: how do we understand and envision the role and responsibilities of an academic chair?  By asking them to continue teaching we clearly see the merit in keeping them connected to the essential mission of the department: educating students.  As we increase their administrative burden, however, we pull them in a different direction.  And somewhere in this mix, I would contend, they also need to think about the difference between simply managing (staying on top of the paperwork) and leading their departments (helping the curriculum, research, and programming stay vibrant and engaged).  And all of this completely ignores the question of research.  Are chairs expected to keep up on this front as well?  At some institutions (my own included), the answer is “yes.”  While finding time for research amidst these other demands is undoubtedly a struggle, we risk disrupting or derailing the research potential and agendas of these individuals, if they chair for years at a time.  At most institutions they will not serve as chair for the entirety of their career–what happens when their term is finished and they have to jump start that part of their faculty profile?

So with all of this in the mix, what exactly is our understanding or vision of the academic chair?  Administrator but also teacher but also scholar?  This is the crux of the issue.  We can negotiate, bargain, and fight for better and more just compensation that is commensurate with our workload and performance expectations and that compares favorably to best practices at other institutions.  But this is just haggling over details.  Until we have a clear answer to this question–which would necessarily vary by institution and department–any discussion of compensation and the combination of components (salary increase?  stipend?  course releases?  some combination thereof?) will be limited at best.  Each institution needs to define the role of the chair in this fraught academic environment of mission creep, administrivia, and accountability and then compensate accordingly.

Being Chair Means Having to Say You’re Sorry

One of the claims I make on this blog is my intention to share lessons learned.  In almost five years as chair, I have learned many lessons, some of them the hard way.  Two of the hardest?  Having the good sense to apologize when it is warranted and knowing when not to.

Apologizing has negative cultural connotations that equate it with weakness.  When coupled with positions of leadership or authority, it becomes that much more complicated.  And yet we know, for example, that when doctors apologize for their mistakes (when warranted, of course), the incidence of malpractice and the size of claims sought both decrease.  While many of the victims of these mistakes want financial compensation, it turns out they also want something less tangible, and yet quite powerful: an acknowledgement that a mistake was made.

Thankfully, as department chairs we do not hold people’s lives or physical health in our hands, but that does not excuse us from acknowledging our mistakes.  My most embarrassing mistakes tend to be of a particular kind: responding too quickly (and usually with some anger attached) or responding without adequate information or some combination of these two (the corollary to the apology lesson, then, is wait to send that email!–more on this in a future post).  When I first became chair I was reluctant to acknowledge these mistakes because I thought it would compromise my authority.  But I quickly learned that I gain nothing from doing something like this and then trying to cover it up, excuse it, or pretend it didn’t happen.  I own it, apologize, move forward, and try to learn from it.  Doing so does not seem to have harmed my relationships with colleagues or students.  In fact, after my first few insecure years of full-time teaching, I became increasingly willing to admit when I didn’t know the answer to a question posed by a student.  I would also, however, find an answer to that question and report back during the next class.  Student evaluations have often commented on this favorably, noting my willingness to say when I don’t have a ready answer.  Humility may trump the supposed weakness attached to apologies.

There is, however, a problem that lies at the other end of the spectrum: apologizing too much or for the wrong things.  Oddly enough, I am also capable of this.  My desire to keep the peace and minimize conflict often leads me to offer unnecessary apologies or to apologize for things that are not my fault.  This is equally dangerous.  Apologies that are not genuine or necessary can be read as weakness, or at the very least as unwise.  And this probably explains why a sincere, humble, and warranted apology is well-received and doesn’t necessarily compromise the apologizer’s status or reputation.  Additionally, if you are someone constantly offering apologies, the chances are good that the ones that are sincere and necessary won’t fall on receptive ears.  Don’t be the chair who cried “Sorry!”  But do be the chair that has the grace to accept and acknowledge when you get it wrong.

How Much Longer?

I just returned from a conference.  This time it was not a professional development opportunity for academic chairs, but rather a conference where I presented on my own area of research.  It was a welcome chance to recharge my scholarly batteries (more in a future post on trying to be an administrator and a researcher–it can be done!).  While there many colleagues asked a familiar question: “so how much longer are you chair?”  File:Kitchen timer.jpg

This question was usually accompanied by a sympathetic tone and facial expression.  Yet sympathy shifted to incredulity when I revealed that (1) I have two more years and (2) I’m enjoying myself.

Well, not all the time.  But most of the time, I am, due to a combination of circumstance and deliberate decision-making.  The circumstances are such that I have great departmental  colleagues and inherited a department culture where most everyone participates, steps up, and is committed to teaching and research.  We are not without our problems, but we are not dysfunctional or factionalized.

It is my good fortune, then, to benefit from these circumstances.  But that is only part of why I enjoy my role as department chair.  I made a conscious decision when I pondered becoming chair that I would pursue some specific objectives–with the participation and input of my colleagues, certainly.  But I intended to lead, and not simply manage.  I have written about this distinction previously.  Aside from having a personal preference for this style of chairing, I also think it is most of why I enjoy what I’m doing.  Managing–be it paperwork or other parts of the university’s bureaucratic behemoth–is necessary, but if it was all I did, I would be very unhappy.  Thinking about the future of the department and its programs and curriculum, fostering the research aspirations of my faculty, and investigating and implementing innovative pedagogy, are the objectives that animate my days and keep the management tasks from devolving into sheer drudgery.

I will admit to being unusual and inclined towards administrative work, but I do think there is a lesson here for those among us who take a turn as chair, perhaps out of a sense of duty or obligation, and not as a vocation.  Deciding to lead, and not simply manage, is just one way (I welcome your comments on other possibilities) to elevate the role of chair and make it something that can be enjoyable.