In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.
A new correspondent writes:
I was just appointed the Department Chair position for my medium sized department starting this summer. Would you recommend any good books on being a chair? I see several specific to the Department Chair role -- is there a specific one you would recommend to start with? I should note I am at a large community college (about an hour and a half away from yours) and am a long time professor moving up.
First, congratulations! Chairs have the chance to make the kinds of differences that add up over time. They’re often unappreciated, but they matter.
The role of the chair varies dramatically by context. In many settings, chairs evaluate full-time faculty; in some, they even allocate merit raises. Where those responsibilities come with the job, you need to be well-versed in your college’s rules around promotion and tenure. By that, I don’t just mean the “what every faculty member knows” version. I mean the HR version. They’re often different.
In my own setting, though, chairs don’t evaluate full-time faculty. That function sits with deans. Chairs are much more active in working with adjunct faculty. Depending on context, your mileage may vary.
My first recommendation -- and this holds for anyone moving into an academic administrative role for the first time -- is C.K. Gunsalus’ The College Administrator’s Survival Guide. It’s a great combination of structural analysis, handy helpful tips, and social psychology. I found it most helpful for its treatment of “victim bullies,” her term for people who parlay elaborate claims of victimhood into weapons to beat into submission anyone they don’t like. For whatever reason, this personality type seems to thrive in academia. (I have my theories, but that’s another post.) As someone newly in a position of some authority, you should be prepared to be blindsided by people who claim that this decision or that one is REALLY just the latest variation on a longstanding campaign, and they’re onto you. It can be disorienting, since it implies a reality other than the one with which most of us are familiar. They rely on that sense of disorientation to exhaust your patience, and thereby to outlast you. Better to be prepared. And learning that no, it’s not just you, can help, too.
(I just finished Positive Academic Leadership, by Jeffrey Buller. I’m still chewing on it, though.)
If your tastes run more to fiction, you can’t go wrong with Straight Man, by Richard Russo. It’s funny and humane, and its portrayal of academic culture manages to be both affectionate and unsparing. (“I’ll kill a duck a day until I get my budget!”) It’s less about administration than about academic culture, but I find myself drawing on it from time to time.
There’s a newsletter from Jossey-Bass called “The Department Chair,” though it’s expensive enough that many community college people couldn’t if they wanted to.
On the blogosphere, I’m consistently amazed at the dearth of voices addressing issues that chairs and deans face. To the extent that they’re addressed at all, it’s usually from either a faculty perspective or from a perspective completely outside academia. Both have value, but neither really helps with the day to day reality of the job. I would have expected to have more counterparts by now.
In concrete terms, I’d strongly recommend keeping a box of tissues in the office at all times. And have a discussion or two with your dean about mutual expectations before things get rolling.
Good luck! I hope you’re able to be the kind of constructive leader that departments need.
Wise and worldly readers -- especially those who are, or have been, chairs or deans -- was there a particular resource that you found helpful?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
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