Tag Archives: sanity

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.


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.

Time Well Spent?, Part I

A recent study of how professors spend their time, “The Long, Lonely Job of Homo academicus,” attracted significant attention.  Many of us were gratified, if not happy, to discover that our colleagues also spend an inordinate amount of time in meetings and squeeze their work in at all hours of the day and night, with no real divide between weekends and weekdays.  Despite research being the coin of the realm, it appears that we all struggle to make time for it, wedging it in around the legitimate, but time-consuming, demands of teaching and service.  The report probably contained very few revelations for members of the academy.  And overall, I suppose, we felt validated in our common misery.


Overlooked in all the reposting, tweeting, and commenting, however, were the serious questions at the heart of this study about productivity and accountability.  A sympathetic dean at Boise State had helped fund the project  as a result of an interest in understanding “how work habits played into variable outcomes across faculty and departments.”  As someone at a university where individual colleges just went through a tumultuous round of revising workload policies, I am interested, too.  Our work may be long and lonely (though I would challenge the use of the word “lonely”–and will in a future blog post), but what are the consequences of this?

One of the most striking findings of the study is that we spend a lot of time in meetings (ranging from student advising to committee work), approximately 17% of our workweek to be exact.  Much of this work is necessary and some of it, like student advising, is not really negotiable.  And in the short term, the committee/service burden of faculty is unlikely to change radically.  But I do think there are ways to make this work more manageable.

First, how might we be more strategic about the committee work we agree to?  Rather than making decisions based on when we receive the request (have we already agreed to too much?  are we in a bad mood?  do we like the person asking us to serve?), we could prioritize those eventual decisions, in advance, based on any number of factors.  I decided a few years ago, for example, that working on curricular issues was important to me.  So instead of agreeing to serve on committees devoted to budgetary issues, student life, etc., I respond to requests linked to curriculum.  It is also worth considering, before you say “yes,” whether or not this committee will provide the opportunity to change or improve something that you care about.  Holding true to my commitment to curriculum, I landed on a committee evaluating our GenEd program, only to discover that this committee (due to leadership and other issues) was not going to accomplish anything productive.  I have since resigned.

* Moving from individual decisions to broader concerns, how might we change the culture of meetings at our institution?  We all have, I suspect, a horrifying collection of anecdotes about the endless PowerPoint presentation, the meeting that isn’t really a meeting but is an occasion for people to talk at us, or the agenda-less conversation disguised as a meeting.  We can’t always control the format or structure of meetings, but when we can we should insist on a focused use of our limited time.  We need, for example, to start flipping meetings.  Need me to digest the information in the PowerPoint?  Send it to me ahead of time and then we can have a productive conversation about its contents during the scheduled meeting.  Walk into a meeting where an agenda has not been distributed or articulated?  Indicate that you want to this to be a good use of everyone’s time, and ask what the objectives are for your time together.  Insist, whenever possible, that meetings not last longer than 1.5-2 hours.  It is the very rare meeting that produces meaningful results after 2 hours.

Studies like the one cited here may point us in the direction of other ways that the culture of the academy needs to change to allow its members to do their best work and serve their students, research, and institutions well.  But in the short term, it would be time well spent to make strategic decisions about our committee work and to manage our meetings more productively.  I welcome your thoughts and comments on how to do both.

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.

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.

Who You Know

It’s 4:30 on a Friday afternoon and you have just finished a meeting with a very upset student.  At issue is a question about financial aid/transfer credits/ [insert your own student dilemma here].  It’s not a problem that you can solve directly and you need guidance.  And if you don’t get some answers it’s going to weigh on you all weekend.  But it’s 4:30 on a Friday afternoon.  How can you get this resolved?  This is a moment where you need networks and allies.  And not of the sort you might imagine.  The people most likely to help you out of these and similar jams are people like the assistant registrar, the financial aid specialist, the associate dean of student life, and [insert the appropriate title from your institution here].  Yes, it is undeniably good to have the ear of the dean or the provost, but these other less illustrious, but perhaps even more essential, people are the ones who can make a difference in a pinch.

For starters, these are people who are probably still in the office at 4:30 on a Friday.  They are also people in the business of providing answers and solving problems.  Not sure about that policy for transfer credits from out of state?  I bet the assistant registrar is.  Can’t remember what how many credit hours are covered by the tuition band?  I bet the financial aid specialist does.  Not sure who to refer a student to when the bad grades are a result of a bad roommate situation?  The associate dean of student life will know.

But it is not enough simply to have the campus extensions of these individuals on your speed dial.  It is also imperative to get to know these individuals and cultivate good working relationships with them.  Then you can be each other’s allies in helping students thrive and have a rich learning experience.

When I did research for my dissertation in overseas archives I quickly learned that while it was good to know the director of the archive or reading room, it was often even better to know the other members of the staff, the ones responsible for processing my many requests for documents and ferrying those items from the depths of the building to my desk in the reading room.  Having positive relationships with them made my daily life in the archives pleasant and productive.

And so, too, with universities.  As department chairs it is essential that we have connections to the corridors of power, but this is only part of the picture.  On a daily basis we will also benefit by knowing the folks who, like us, do most of their work in the trenches.

Keeping Calm

So it’s mid-semester here and I just made myself a cup of tea.  I’d rather do that than face the pile of grading, the nagging thoughts of all the emails I need to send, and the department agenda I need to prepare.  The mug that’s holding my work-avoidance tea (pictured here) was a door prize from the IDEA Center, a nonprofit that provides “assessment and feedback systems to improve learning in higher education.”  I attended one of their sessions at the Academic Chairpersons Conference this February.2014-03-17 12.50.05

The “Keep Calm” meme is everywhere these days, but in this context, it does raise an interesting question.  How do you keep calm as a chair?  Do you keep calm?  Recent research into our brains and happiness suggests that we will do better, more creative, and more productive work if we are already happy.  In other words, don’t wait for success at work in the hopes that it will make you happy; rather, start happy and the good work will follow.  Calm and happy are not necessarily the same things, but I think the benefits of a happy state of mind are probably not too far removed from the benefits of a calm state of mind.

With this in mind, today’s blog is of the very practical variety.  While musing about types of leadership and the future of higher ed, we all have to deal with our daily workload.  So let me propose two things I do to minimize disorder and keep calm.

1.  Before you leave your office at the end of the day, tidy it up.  I’m not suggesting you can get everything organized and properly filed–especially if it’s been a busy day involving lots of different tasks.  But even if it’s just arranging things in neater piles, when you walk in the next morning, you won’t be greeted by chaos, and you can start the day in a calmer state of mind.

2.  Before you leave your office at the end of the day, make a list of what you need to do tomorrow.  The simple act of writing those things down is a kind of tidying up, but it will also empty these things out of your brain so that you don’t worry about them overnight.  In other words, it will calm your mind.

What strategies do you have for keeping calm?