Colleges and universities are built upon departments. But a department is more than just its faculty members and the catalog listing of course offerings. Rather, a department is, or endeavors to be, an intellectual and interpersonal experience that’s greater than the sum of its parts. And the well-being of a department depends on a thriving cohort of students to populate courses and support other events and initiatives.
Working to be inviting to students is one of the most important commitments a healthy and thriving department can make. Thus, if you are a chair of a department, part of your responsibility is to foster an esprit de corps among your students. It’s not enough to connect with each student in each seat in each of your department’s courses individually. Students want to feel that they’re part of something larger—that they’re majors or minors, for instance, in a department—and that (to steal the old American Express slogan), membership has its privileges.
The most formal and durable way you can accomplish that is through the department’s curriculum, including its requirements for the major. But you should also keep in mind that, as a metric of a department’s health or relevance, the number of majors can be misleading. Think back, for instance, to the huge bump in forensic science majors in the early 2000s in the wake of CBS’s CSI franchise. And majors aren’t the only students that most departments teach; some really essential departments teach more majors from other departments than their own students. Moreover, much of the best integrative work is, in fact, interpersonal work: extracurricular and co-curricular activities that create a sense of belonging and community among your students.
So, beyond the curriculum, I urge you to seek out other ways to invite students into your department. And in this essay, I’ll briefly share a few ideas.
When I came to my current institution as chair, we already had a practice of choosing two rising seniors in the major to serve as an informal sounding board for requests, suggestions, complaints and questions that bubble up from the students in the department. A few years ago, we increased that group to four, adding two rising juniors. Now each student liaison serves for two years, providing a bit more continuity in the role. In recent years, recognizing that faculty selection of the liaisons was liable to reproduce various kinds of bias, we have moved to an open call for applications and selection by faculty in consultation with current liaisons.
The chair meets with these liaisons regularly to get their feedback on how the department is doing. The chair can also run some departmental planning ideas past this focus group of students and get at least a preliminary sense of how various potential changes and faculty decisions might be received. When I was chair, the liaisons’ input often created extra work for me, but I was ultimately glad I sought it out. Taking it seriously made the department better.
Especially over the past few years, our liaisons have been important in helping the faculty recognize events on the national and international stage that profoundly affect the lives of students, and in helping us address them. Our student liaisons have spotlighted the outcome of state and national elections, the coordinated call to accountability of the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements, the shifting policies regarding undocumented immigrants and the trauma of studying as an undocumented student, and many other issues. We have then been able to partner with them to create programming and build policies that can help us alleviate harm.
Our student liaisons have also helped us with organizing and publicizing monthly late-afternoon events for our majors and other interested students. We schedule one gathering each semester in advance of the advising period, for instance, during which faculty members describe their next-term offerings for students and answer questions.
The Student Role in Faculty Searches
Student involvement in faculty searches can also be a powerful means of demonstrating to students the department’s strengths, commitments and vision for the future. It also ensures that the candidates you’re considering can connect with your students. If you’re in a position to bring a student onto the search committee, whether in a voting or nonvoting role, it’s worth all the complications it involves. I’ve found it especially valuable, when the circumstances make it possible, to appoint a student who has made clear their intention to pursue a scholarly career (or, in departments with graduate programs, an advanced Ph.D. student in the field that’s being searched). For better or worse, they’ll come to understand the intricacies of the search process quite intimately.
And whether or not students participate on the search committee itself, they should certainly be encouraged to help the department assess its candidates in public lectures, teaching demonstrations and other public forums during a campus interview. One thing they are certainly better able to gauge than faculty members is a candidate’s comfort in talking with students when there are no other faculty in the room. When candidates are not performing a teacherly role for the department faculty, are they able to connect in a comfortable way with students? Are they truly interested in students?
In my department, our on-campus interviews always include a late-morning teaching demonstration that’s followed by an informal lunch with interested students in the dining halls, hosted by a student member of the search committee. That student then meets with the department chair afterward to share impressions of the candidate, which are also solicited independently from other students via an anonymous online survey.
Student Participation in Department Life
When I was chair of our department, students would frequently approach me with their own ideas for events, sometimes through their liaisons and sometimes independently. To the extent possible, I felt it important to say yes to let the students know that they had agency in the department. We would provide modest funds, for instance, for refreshments at a reading group, and we might recruit a faculty speaker for a student gathering.
Also, if your building has the capacity, you can dedicate a room as a study space for students. My department is fortunate to be housed in a gracious old building with its own small library. Students love to congregate there, but traditionally it was only open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. At their suggestion, we were able to get facilities personnel to fit the door with a card reader that allows 24-7 access, and we spent some department funds on some soft furniture and a networked printer. The library has become a pretty lively gathering spot for students in and around our discipline.
It’s not without cost; there’s sometimes a bit of tidying up to do on a Monday morning, for instance. And one time we discovered that the centralized HVAC system was shutting down at night, so students were opening the windows—and as a result, squirrels were taking shelter among the furniture. But hosting this space encourages our students to think of the department as a home base, and that has an intangible value all its own.
We also enjoy good student attendance at poetry and fiction readings and scholarly talks hosted by the department. Typically, the faculty member presiding at the event will make sure that some of the questions and comments during Q&A come from students. Depending on the size of your institution, you may also find opportunities to celebrate your senior majors in conjunction with commencement exercises. At our college, the department hosts a reception the weekend of graduation for our graduates and their visiting family and friends.
In conclusion, it is a truth universally acknowledged: our students are the reason for our existence. As a chair, you hope to have an important role in advancing the careers of your faculty colleagues and in advocating for your department’s needs in administrative conversations. But a department isn’t just a collection of professors. Those professors are there to foster the learning of the real department: the students that enroll in its courses.