A Chair’s Life in 3 Stages

Cathy Marie Ouellette offers the insights she has gained as a new department chair during the pandemic.

October 27, 2020
 
 
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When I reluctantly became chair of the department of history in the summer of 2019, I immediately sought out opportunities for formal training and armed myself with knowledge about how to be a good history chair. That was long before the pandemic, when life was certainly more normal, if not easier. Since then, I’ve come to view my recent academic career in roughly three stages.

The Pre-Pandemic Chair

My first months on the job were a bit challenging. In the midst of teaching an overload and a new course, leading departmental curriculum revisions, chairing a search, and prepping my students to travel to Cuba with me over the winter break, my typical strength of maintaining perspective was at odds with my inability to maintain equilibrium. Insufficient preparation in my transition to this role resulted in an overwhelmed chair in despair. I perseverated about making small mistakes, and I mourned my former position.

I tried to recalibrate and concentrate on what I believed were the short- and long-term tasks of the department chair: faculty hiring and retention, professional development and mentorship, equity and inclusion, budget management, and tenure and promotion procedures. I optimistically incorporated small physical and attitudinal adjustments that might result in positive cultural shifts.

And we made some good progress. We established a social media presence, complete with a departmental mascot. A new world map displayed who we are and the parts of the world where we teach and research, and photos hung on the wall of our majors and minors proudly celebrated their achievements. We created a speaker series commemorating the centennial of the 19th Amendment. The History Club reclaimed space for weekly memes, important events and bimonthly meetings. We made a successful hire! Off to Cuba I went, armed with a real sense of accomplishment.

And then, the pandemic.

The Pandemic Chair

During the tussle of packing up my office on campus in March and heading home for the rest of the semester, I had little time to think about what chairing would look like from the confines of my kitchen, my new office. In the weeks, and now months, that have followed, this unprecedented pandemic rapidly evolved into an undefined mutation that has required long-term planning and broad perspectives.

In the face of practical and medical unknowns, I have found it useful, even comforting, to employ my instructor voice as a departmental guide through the pandemic’s unpredictable and dissonant patterns. Now, as a pandemic chair, I’m advising myself and other chairs, in conversations and this article, to:

Become more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. The work of the pandemic chair is to gather as much information as possible and disseminate it in a comprehensive form. Pandemic information, however, is disparate, incomplete, incomprehensive and sometimes contradictory. In communicating with department members, reassure them that you will continue to share the known and work to clarify the unknown. What percentage of staff, students and faculty will return to campus this coming spring? The truth is, I don’t know, and neither does the administration. Work together with your department members to locate their needs and fears, and act to support them in this prolonged crisis.

Become a better global citizen. I’ve discovered that one clear opportunity to learn from the pandemic is to reflect on how global systems of power impact perceptions of place and self. Remind department members, fellow chairs and administrators of the importance of being informed inhabitants whose actions increasingly affect and are affected by the lives of other people around the world. Reach beyond the domestic crisis and critically evaluate the ways in which states and regions have responded to the monumental issues at hand. Support faculty members who emphasize these lessons in their courses, and encourage students to engage with global learning.

Keep race and racism at the forefront. Unsurprisingly, the COVID crisis has further exposed a caste system that is deeply rooted in systemic racism and violence against Black Americans. The pandemic demands a revisionist approach to history that begins in the academy.

Chairs can and should commit to connecting theory and practice through conversations and planning with department members and peers. What long-term plans can we enact, and how can we more effectively teach the history of race and racism? What can we do more immediately in our syllabi and assignments to revise false narratives about race and racism?

Chairs must think critically about the ways in which academe has perpetuated inequalities across all departments. We must create new ideals of equity and inclusion, vocalize them publicly, and disseminate them using various modes of reproduction and representation.

Embrace multiple forms of knowing. We must acknowledge that multiple perspectives inform us when moving through the uncertainty of the pandemic. Intentionally incorporating intersectionality is significant in several ways: it broadens the scope of theoretical approaches to ideology, it challenges the conventional characterizations of the past and present as only scripted by the “winners,” it encourages a re-examination of our own historical understandings of lived experiences, and it underscores the diversity of social consciousness and the identities of populations historically excluded from traditional canons.

Encourage faculty members to actively contest conventional educational practices and increasingly rely upon multiple forms of knowing to educate the whole person. It is now, more than ever, a necessary path to accurately representing voices and lived experiences in this country and around the world.

Become more adept at problem solving. In contrast to leading a department under nonemergency circumstances, this crisis phase places urgency and immediacy on working creatively to solve issues as they arise. Department members are resourceful and creative; incorporate as many voices as possible to craft potential solutions for fellow colleagues and the institution. Reach out to everyone and encourage them to participate. Construct inclusive statements that produce dialogue around difficult conversations and assist the institution in dismantling obstacles. Now is the time for chairs to take on more public roles in grappling with larger social issues.

The Post-Pandemic Chair

Although expectations for department chairs can vary widely by institution, we as chairs are ultimately responsible for shaping and articulating department ideologies to broad communities. As we confront multiple crises with unknown impediments in our futures, leadership is pivotal.

Chairs can steer their departments and institutions through uncertainty by bringing people together to solve problems, relying upon multiple ways of knowing to create solutions, remaining abreast of global issues and consistently supporting revisionist teaching and scholarship. Ultimately, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that we must acknowledge that ambiguity is a central component of this progression in order to construct the footpath to the other side of the pandemic -- whenever that will be.

Bio

Cathy Marie Ouellette is associate professor and chair of the history department and director of Latin American and Caribbean studies at Muhlenberg College.

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