27 July 2006

A Job People Seem to Respect

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.

9 comments:

Scrivener said...

What an interesting post! You've got a bunch of threads here that I'm interested to see play out over the coming months and years.

Your commentary on the chairs conference reminds me of our childbirthing classes--the nurse who was running it said on day one that she would not tolerate any negative childbirth stories in the classes, she kept saying "For whatever reason, people always tell the horror stories and it just makes everything harder." When Ella was born we had such a wonderful experience, and our childbirth instructor encouraged us to tell the story to others, to sort of counteract all the negative stuff out there.

So maybe what you need to do is work to spread the word about the positive sides of being a chair. If that group that talked about leadership and vision and strategic planning wasn't out there, then you'll have to create it yourself.

My current chair is fantastic. IMO, he seems to balance the competing responsibilities (to the U, to us writing instructors, to the TT people, etc) just beautifully, and he very clearly has a strong strategic vision for where the department is headed and where the university is headed. Working with him has made me realize how powerful that kind of strategic thinking can be, and sadly how lacking it was in some of the chiars I've worked under in the past.

Billie said...

Congrats on the new position. I'm sure you'll do a great job . . . just as you did as WPA. :-)

comebacknikki said...

Congrats on the position - so wonderful! :)

Phantom Scribbler said...

Mazel tov on the impending chair-dom!

Rev Dr Mom said...

Congratulations on becoming chair!

And btw, I think it's pretty awesome to be director of first year writing; what a way to have an impact on kids' college careers! If they can master or improve their writing first year, it makes everything so much easier for everyone for the next three years.

liz said...

What rev dr mom said.

You ROCK!

Arwen said...

That is so awesome, Crunchy. I'm glad to hear it. I also think it's pretty awesome to come into anything infused with a positive outlook...

JM said...

hooray!

heidi said...

I'll look forward to reading your reflections on chairdom; you may not know the ways in which you've been a 'mentor from afar' for people like me. All the best on all fronts for this coming year...