Monthly Archives: July 2014

Before It’s Too Late

Goodbye, July.  You were a terrific month.  I didn’t travel, but for me, that’s kind of a break.  The weather was spectacular: warm days and cool nights.  My garden flourished.  I took a few 3-day weekends and read books–some for work, others not.  I cleaned out my front closet.  I drank rosé.

But now your friend, August, lurks around the corner.  August means syllabi.  And returning faculty.  And retreats.  And panicked students.  I always think I’m ready for August and then suddenly it’s Labor Day weekend and I’m already behind.

But not this year!  This year I will not let August get the better of me.  If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I value planning and lists.  So before it’s August 23 and you’re wondering what happened to the first three weeks of the month, take stock and get ready for the semester/term/quarter and academic year that lies in front of you.  Divide and conquer: what will the teaching and service demands on your time be?  Is there anything you really want to accomplish in one of your courses this time?  What’s something tangible you can do to make your thankless work on that committee a bit (or maybe even a lot) more tolerable?  Go back to my post on balance and think about those anticipated and unexpected moments when you might be able to squeeze in some research time.  Prepare for those by making a list NOW of the smaller tasks that you could do when that hour becomes available.

In other words, get ready.  “But,” you say, “I’m organized.  I want summer to last a bit longer.  I don’t want to start making lists yet.”  I can almost guarantee, however, that time will accelerate.  That writing your syllabi will take longer than you thought it would.  That when you get home from that department retreat on August 14 the last thing you will want to do is think about the Committee of Thankless Work.  So do yourself a favor.  Make even just one list now.  Before your mind is racing.  Before your plate is full (or fuller than it already is).  August is a cruel month.  You think it should still be summer, but the pace will quicken and suddenly it will be the first day of classes.

So while your head is still clear look at the expanse of the upcoming term and year and set some goals–big or small.  If they’re big, break them into their smaller components.  And then arm yourself with a couple of lists, plans, strategies–however you want to organize and name them.  And then reward yourself by sitting outside with a cool drink and telling August that you’re ready.

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Role-Playing

No, I don’t mean Dungeons and Dragons.  And I also don’t mean some horrible team-building exercise where I play the role of the exasperated faculty member and you play the role of the department chair trying to help me.

What I do mean is a better-informed sense of what goes on in the daily work life of people on my campus and your campus.  What is it like to be the dean?  What is it like to be an adviser?  What is it like to work in student life?  What it is like to be a faculty member who teaches a large survey course?  What, dare I ask it, is it like to be a student at your institution?

In this age of demands for greater accountability and demonstrations of the value of a college education, we have all dug deep into our campus trenches, adopting a defensive posture.  Our constant refrain, regardless of which part of the university we speak from, is that “they” don’t understand.  Don’t understand what it’s like to teach large classes, balance the university budget, tutor poorly prepared students, etc, etc.  We would do well to remember that our enterprise is a common one: at the end of the day, when we are acting on our best intentions, we all want what is best for our students.

But universities are complex institutions.  As faculty our rhetoric rightly highlights the educational mission, and hence the centrality of our role in shaping curriculum and teaching classes.  We  are quick to rail against administrators who don’t get it, who don’t understand what happens in our classrooms, who are out of touch with our students.  Both our rhetoric and our railing may be appropriate, but at the same time, I wonder about two things.

First, to what extent is the educational mission of the university dependent upon those other pieces–and thus the work of non-faculty–falling into place?  About five years ago I had an administrative position that required me to implement a new general education curriculum.  This provided the opportunity to interact and work with a broad cross-section of the university.  I emerged from that experience with a much deeper appreciation of the work that advisers, admissions officers, student life leaders, and others do.  I realized the extent to which what happened in the classrooms of faculty who taught in the general education program was dependent upon the training and hard work of these individuals (It also gave me a ready supply of allies across the campus when I need questions answered and help with solving problems).  Prepared, enthusiastic, well-advised students, who get the occasional chance to blow off steam at events sponsored by student life are the students I want in my classroom.  That doesn’t happen without the dedication of the admissions officer, the adviser, and the student life specialist.

And as a corollary to this, what could we, as faculty, gain from role playing or putting ourselves in the shoes of our campus partners?  Could we better understand what it’s like to advise stressed students about their financial aid?  Or the difficulties of creating a vibrant campus life on a mostly commuter campus?  Or promoting good study habits amidst noisy dorm life?  You get the idea.

By the same token, what if we turned tables on this proposition and also encouraged our partners to sit in on a class or invited them to a department meeting where we discussed the common challenges of helping students with issues of time management?

I’m also going to propose that we move role playing up the food chain of the university.  When was the last time your dean or provost sat in on a class?  Or attended a student life event?  But by the same token, when was the last time that you looked at the university’s budget spreadsheet and sought to understand the how your state (if you’re at a public institution) subsidizes (or doesn’t subsidize) higher education and the pressures that creates?  Or appreciated the shifting demography of graduating high school seniors and the challenges that creates for admissions officers?

My point is simple: we’re in this together.  Rather than cry that no one understands the work we do, we should encourage others to see us in action and then return the favor for our campus partners.

 

The Myth of Balance

Balance.  Elusive and, frankly, mythical.  Consider the following from writer Elizabeth Gilbert, posting on her Facebook page, where she speaks out against what she calls the “subtle tyranny” of the concept of balance: “To say that someone has found the secret to a balanced life is to suggest that they have solved life, and that they now float through their days in a constant state of grace and ease, never suffering stress, ambivalence, confusion, exhaustion, anger, fear, or regret. Which is a wonderful description of nobody, ever.”

But if you’re like me, I suspect you continue to hunt for balance.  For those of us in academe, it’s that mythical balance among teaching, research, and service (never mind, trying to carve out some time for hobbies and exercise!).  Let me propose a different way of framing the problem: rather than searching for the elusive state of balance, instead be on the lookout for openings and opportunities.  One of the advantages of our profession is that it’s never the same day twice.  A meeting may get canceled, a student may miss an advising appointment, and suddenly an hour opens up.  And at least  a couple of times a year a new term/quarter/semester begins and we have the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start again.  All of this requires recognizing that there will rarely–if ever–be an uninterrupted block of several hours when you can Work on the Book or Plan the New Course or Finish the Curriculum Report.  You will need to capitalize on the unexpected hour or anticipate when there will be some brief grading lulls during the semester.

This is what I mean by anticipating or seizing openings and opportunities.  Rather than beat yourself up because you didn’t do something related to your research today, see if there’s an hour or two in the coming week when you could write 250 words or enter some material into your database.  Taking this approach will also necessitate breaking the work into smaller pieces.  You may know what the finished product should be (The Book, The Course, The Report), but work your way back from that endpoint and then break that big project into its constituent parts (I should add that I’ve found this to be a good strategy for battling procrastination, too.  Once a project seems more manageable, I’m more likely to work on it).  That way, when you find that spare hour you have a clear sense of the tasks at hand, and you’re ready to dig in and make some progress.

Balance in all its illusory forms–work-life (a false dichotomy anyway), teaching-research-service–should not be the goal.  Its holy grail-ness will just keep frustrating us and making us feel inadequate.  In the place of balance, we can put planning and preparedness that will allow us to see those pockets of time that lurk within our existing schedules or appear unexpectedly, and make the most of them.

The Fine Art of Delegating

Delegating.  Put it at the top of the list of things I do badly.  After five years of being chair I know this about myself and still haven’t figured out a way to do it better.  So in this period of slowed-down summer timetables, I offer the following reflections on why academic chairs need to delegate and some strategies for how to do it.

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The most obvious reason for delegating is to reduce or at least redistribute your workload.  Even though we all know that we can’t do it all, we consistently behave otherwise.  Call it micromanaging, call it control issues, but whatever you do, call an end to it.  I doubt any of us need more to do.

Another reason to delegate is that your colleagues need to be both cognizant of and invested in the work of the department.  If you do everything, magically and behind the scenes, you risk creating a faculty culture of disengagement where faculty don’t know, for example, the work that goes into identifying and recruiting students for the departmental honor society.  Or the logistics of organizing an event with a visiting speaker.  And what happens when you’re not chair anymore?  There will be a profound lack of institutional knowledge and memory that will make your successor’s job that much more difficult.  Further, as we know from our best classroom practices, the more students participate, the more they are invested in their education.  So, too, with faculty.  Delegating will help to create a participatory and engaged department culture.

Delegating also signals your confidence in your colleagues.  Managing everything yourself may make others think that you don’t trust them with certain responsibilities.  Even if that’s not the case, you don’t want to mistakenly foster that impression.

So, there are clearly benefits to delegating.  But doing it should be purposeful and directed.

To begin with, delegate strategically.  Simply going into a faculty meeting and asking for volunteers to work on various tasks or projects may not always be the best strategy.  You may not get the best people for the job.  Instead, try to match people well–play to the strengths and passions of your faculty.  It’s no good assigning someone with poor organizational skills to a project that will involve managing complicated spreadsheets.  Someone with a talent for chatting and conversation is the one you want to send to the open house for freshmen who are choosing a major.  Such maneuvering can even be a way to get otherwise reluctant faculty to take on projects.  If Dr. X has consistently expressed concerns about the declining number of majors then maybe Dr. X could work on designing an outreach program.

Next, build in some accountability.  Delegating makes me nervous because it means releasing control of a task or project.  I do much better when I release it with expectations like “Report back to me by such and a such a time,” or “Bring me a draft of the document in a week,” or “Please be prepared to make a report at the next faculty meeting.  You get the idea.

Finally, be prepared for delegating to fail sometimes.  Even the most strategic and deliberate delegation with clearly articulated expectations may flop if there is a failure of responsibility and follow through.  And the buck does stop with you, so you will need to pick up the pieces.  Try to figure out what didn’t work in that particular instance and apply it to future decisions.  In all, the benefits of letting go will outweigh those instances where it doesn’t work.

On the Brink of Two Sixes

So today marks the start of my sixth year as department chair (and the end of my fifth month blogging about being a chair).  In those five, relatively short years I’ve weathered an environmental disaster that forced the department to relocate for an entire academic year, one staff resignation, two faculty resignations, severe budget cuts that required finding a way to avoid having a staff member fired, and a massive, rushed curricular overhaul.  And of course I’ve seen the usual slew of grade disputes, student complaints, faculty meltdowns, and broken photocopiers.  Oh, and I got stuck on the elevator once.

And yet I still enjoy my job.  I love that everyday is different from the one before it.  I like that I’m still close enough to faculty, students, and the classroom to be closely connected to the mission of the university.  I also attribute my job satisfaction to several other factors–some the result of good fortune, others the result of deliberate strategies.

To begin with, I work with good people.  I inherited a strong, collegial department.  In the past five years, to name only a few accomplishments, my faculty have published books and articles, served constructively on college and university committees, and taught a writing intensive curriculum in survey courses that enroll as many as 75 students.  This past spring one received a Fulbright and two others were awarded a prestigious humanities grant.  It is my good fortune to lead such a talented group.

Okay, but before you decide I’ve become a complete Pollyanna, I can tell you that everything is not always rosy.  The same faculty that delight me can also sometimes stress me out.  And there is never enough money in my budget.  And sometimes they don’t come to fix the photocopier soon enough.  So I have strategies.  Here are a few of them.

1.  Restraint.  No email checking after 6pm.  No good can come of this.  I’m a department chair, not a brain surgeon.  There are rarely emergencies.  Anything that happens on my email after 6pm can wait until the next morning.

2.  Sweating.  I know that the best cure for the anxiety and stress that this job sometimes involves is to go for a long, sweaty run.  Nothing restores my mental health more quickly.

3.  Blogging.  When I started this blog a few months ago, I did so because I wanted to turn my work as an academic chair to a new constructive purpose.  Thinking and writing about my experiences has been a tool for professional development and expanded my professional networks.  I also hold the hope that it has been useful for others.

4.  Cake.  I’m not kidding.  As a friend’s tumblr account about academic kindnesses recently reminded me, cake makes everything better.  I often bring donuts to the office for no reason.

So as I enter my sixth year as chair and the blog enters its sixth month of existence I will continue to hope for a year that doesn’t include upheaval (knowing full well I won’t get it) and will continue my quest for strategies, perspectives, knowledge, and the occasional donut that will keep this job fresh.