Next Tuesday I'll become chair of my department. While some of my colleagues on campus have been saying things like "do you want congratulations or condolences?," I know that even underneath the joking tone is a sense of "you go!" and that's nice to see. (I've been surprised, frankly, to see how many people from other departments noticed that my department was getting a new chair, although the fact that my current department chair has been much feted as he approached retirement probably drew some notice to the change.) As I've mentioned the change to neighbors and friends around town, or told people I met while travelling what kind of job I had, almost universally they perk up. "Congratulations!" they say, or "Wow! That's great."
It's a funny thing, since for the past 8 years I've had a job that has generated a fair number of rude comments: Director of First-Year Writing.
Now, it's not that I've gotten tons of, or only, rude comments about this, but my job-for-three-more-days has led to more than one conversation like
Colleauge from Other Department, meeting me for first time, "So, what do you do?"
Me: "I"m Director of Writing, in the English Dept."
Colleague: "Gosh, I'm glad I don't have to do that job!"
Me: never sure what to say, but thinking things like "well, since it's not your field..." or "as you certainly know little about how to address an audience, that's probably a good thing."
So it's a funny thing to be moving to a position that people seem to respect on the face of it. I guess it's moving up in the world, in a way, but I'm so used to being the underdog that I wonder what it's really going to be like, being chair. I've had administrative appointments for almost my whole academic career, so I don't think that the administrative tasks will, in some ways, be a shock, although I know there will be surprises. It will be different, I know, to be responsible to everyone in the department, to need to advocate for everyone in the department, instead of just having my own field to focus on. It will be a challenge to my thinking, and I'm looking forward to seeing what the field of English looks like when I start thinking more broadly about my own areas of responsibility.
I went off to a conference earlier this summer to learn a bit about how to be a department chair. While it was nice to be among people who were chairs, or were just about to become chairs, there was a "can you top this one?" element to the meeting, where those of us in the new chairs workshop seemed to get into a cycle of telling about the biggest problems we knew we were having (or feared we might have). So tales of The Dishonest Colleague, the Eavesdropping Neighbor, the Lying Senior Professor, the Insane Administrator, the Hostile Neighbor Department, the Sagging Budget, the Sick Building, seemed to take up a lot of time. I came away thinking that my own department is really just fine. (I knew that already, of course--I mean, we have our problems, like anyplace does, but on the whole, it's a fine place to be. Lots of possibilities and opportunities, and no one creating foolish obstacles to our success.)
But I didn't get what I wanted from the meeting. I had hoped to develop a positive approach to being chair, to hear some affirmative rationales for why be a chair, or some affirmative rationales for the power of a chair. Instead, lots of talk about how to respond to problems (department unfocused? make a strategic plan!) without much discussion of what actually goes into a strategic plan or how to get unfocused colleagues to focus on a plan. There was no talk of leadership, and no mention of vision. But that seems so important in a department, since chairs, for the most part, have the responsibility of supervision without much day-to-day power. Yes, chairs play a role in hiring, firing, tenuring, promoting. Chairs write yearly review of their faculty colleagues. But day-to-day, all they--all we, starting 1 August--can do is persuade people to join in the common work of a department. I'm familiar with this dynamic from my position as writing director, where a similar dynamic plays out. And I've learned a lot about the power to persuade. But I was disappointed to discover that this meeting for department chairs didn't do more with what strikes me as the most powerful tool a chair has to deploy: rhetoric.