Monday, August 11, 2008

Department Chair Stuff

A few years ago I was the Chair of Wheaton's Educational Policy Committee (Ed Pol). I had been on Ed Pol for three years, including the years in which we did our massive curriculum overhaul, and I'd been recording secretary (so I can say, honestly, that I wrote the new curriculum -- It would be more accurate to say that I typed the new curriculum, but let's not split hairs). But because I had been on Ed Pol in a challenging environment, I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to be Chair.

Ed Pol is probably the most influential committee at Wheaton, where just about everything is run by the faculty committees (Ed Pol has the President and Provost on it, which helps a lot), so I had real hope that I could accomplish a few things. First, my particular hobby horse, I wanted to create tighter links between the sciences and the humanities. Second, I wanted to make some tweaks on our "Connections" curriculum. Third, I wanted to work with the President and Provost to clarify the relationships between Wheaton's various "centers" (Filene Center for Work and Learning, Global Center, Multicultural Center, etc.) and the curriculum (ok, I'll be honest: I wanted to lay down some markers that said "Only the faculty control the curriculum. Period." But I was happy to do this under a rubric of cooperation).

Instead, I found my time and my energy highjacked by one administrator who, I have to say, was a whiny pain in the ass. We spent hours and meeting after meeting on a stupid, useless proposal. I kept finding ways to reject it, and it kept coming back and wasting more of my time.

Of my many character flaws, one of the worst is my love of saying "I told you so." As a mentor pointed out, saying "I told you so" means that you didn't do a good enough job in arguing for a position and that failure of politics or rhetoric has had negative results. But I have not learned to overcome this flaw, and so I say now "I told you so." The useless program that this administrator wasted so much of my time on has not had one single student sign up for it. So much for the lie that "students are demanding this." It was, as I noted then, a complete waste of time, predicated entirely on ego and bureaucratic empire-building. But it did managed to prevent me from accomplishing the things I wanted to accomplish as Chair of Ed Pol. Yes, I got the trains to run on time, and that's a good feeling, but the larger-scale things I thought we needed to address did not get addressed. I have a feeling I will be saying "I told you so" again not that long from now.

Last year, my first as as department Chair, similar things happened. I had a lot of plans for what I wanted to accomplish, but mostly found myself scrambling from one new crisis to another. Partly this occurred because my Chair responsibilities were dumped on me two weeks early with no transition at all. You'd think two weeks over the course of a year wouldn't matter, but it did. A lot. I am only now catching up on all the various stacked deadlines. But more than the dumping of responsibilities, the chaos of the departmental files, and a set of crises that started in June and continued pretty much uninterrupted through the year was my not knowing how to handle being department Chair. But over the year I think I learned some things, and so I pass on to you a few lessons that may be useful when you become Chair.

Not everything is crucial. This summer I decided that by June 20th, I had done enough department Chairing for that particular month. So for ten days I didn't answer emails, didn't go to meetings, etc. You know what? Nothing bad happened. When I picked up on stuff starting on July 1, everything was fine. Remarkable. This rule only applies to things without external deadlines. You may not as Chair or regular faculty member, make the staff's jobs more difficult by being late with things. That is totally unacceptable. But for reports that no one will read, make-work, and meetings that are about (*shudder*) feelings, things will wait.

It's your agenda. Within reason, of course, but if someone wants their proposal on the agenda, let them do all the other crappy department Chair work and set the agenda. I bent over backwards for people about stuff, and still they whined. Clearly, they're going to whine no matter what. So ignore the whining and set up the agenda that you think is important. (Note: anything that is below item 6 on the agenda is very unlikely to get done at that meeting. Don't put your stuff below item 6).

You don't need to take crap from people. Academics tend to be exceedingly obnoxious in their emails. I was joking about the "Friday afternoon nasty-grams" to a friend of mine who was temporarily doing administration, and he knew immediately what I was talking about. I kept track, and I got a Friday afternoon nasty-gram for seven consecutive Fridays at one point. From six different people. My solution: if any email is even the slightest bit obnoxious, it doesn't get answered, and I don't mention that I received it. Let the obnoxious person come up to you and ask "Did you get my obnoxious email?" (this has never happened).

Maintain boundaries. You were elected department Chair, not "Slave of the English Department." Don't answer email after certain hours (unless that helps you be more efficient), don't read or answer email on weekends. Protect your research time. Last year there were weeks when put in >20 hours on department Chair stuff while still maintaining my teaching and raising two young children. This was not wise. When I was Chair of Ed Pol I used to joke that we needed "Meeting Dosimeters" similar to those used for people who work with radioactive materials. When your dosimeter has gone above the safety level, you simply can't do any more work with radioactivity that month. It should be the same thing with meetings and other Chair stuff: decide how much you are going to do per week, and stick to that. To quote my friend Bryon Grigsby, who is now a Provost: "Nobody is going to die based on what happens in the English department."

I'm in an unusual situation this year with Department Chair: On midnight of July 1, 2009, I will be going on a one-year research leave. Then I will come back and be Chair for one more year. That means I'm not a lame duck this year, but there is also light at the end of the tunnel (even though The Cake is a Lie). I'm hoping that this dynamic makes for a productive and successful year. Maybe I'll even be able to follow my own rules.


Michelle said...

Thanks for these thoughts. I think they apply in many more arenas than just being Department Chair! Best wishes in sticking to your plans and in getting stuff accomplished despite meetings and committees.

jeniffercox said...

I only hope that looking back Wheaton as a whole, and the English Department, President, and Provost, in particular, recognize how lucky they are to have you. You are an inspiration. Thank you for the words of wisdom. I wish you the best heading into the next school year.