The classical economists who originally brought us many of the ideas that have evolved into the subject known as “Economics” proposed that each country (or person in a country) should choose to work at those things that they are best at. They called this a idea “comparative advantage.” I found myself thinking of this recently as I began preparations for the start of a new semester.
Each new semester brings with it a collection of new responsibilities and new challenges. As I am (temporarily- see comment about “hot potato” below) chair of our department, this brings with it all the extra responsibilities that come with chairing an academic department. For example, chairs are responsible for many things, including writing reports, scheduling courses, hiring adjunct professors and communicating directly with the Admissions Department as we seek to increase the number of students in our major. Adding this work on top of a full schedule with advising makes the start of a new semester seem daunting. Luckily, I have a colleague in my department, so I am not doing all of this alone.
Indeed, I did all of this alone for one long year, when I was the only full time member of my department. While I struggled through the work of running a department alone, running around the city in doing administrative work attending many more meetings than I probably had to, I realized that I could not continue to do this indefinitely. And so I made it one of my primary jobs to work to find someone to serve as a fellow full time professor to share my duties. That was 2001, the year that the Twin Towers were attacked, and also a year in which I moved to my current house as well as the year in which plans were finalized for the adoption that led to our daughter joining our family. It is no wonder, then, that memories of that year are particularly jumbled and being to mind many moments of stress. I think of that year whenever I feel overwhelmed by the start of a new semester. No matter what lays ahead in the next few weeks, it has got to be easier than that very difficult year thirteen years ago.
That year, while difficult, was good in that it led to my colleague joining our department, a woman with years of teaching experience who was able to bring her wisdom to a department sorely in need of it. That was the first year the math department moved into the science building, and we soon felt at home there, having lunch conversations with the Biologists about evolution and Chemists about how they made use of Linear Algebra. It was only the damage from the tornado of 2013 that forced us to move to other offices on campus, although we still hope to rejoin our Science colleagues there, perhaps before the start of the next semester, in what we had begun to call the “Math and Science building."
Although the actual job of being chair of our department rotates between the two full time faculty members (in a manner that I sometimes describe as a game of “hot potato”), the duties of the position are equally divided between the two of us and generally don’t change with the transmission of the title. I am pretty good at writing, so when it comes to writing department reports and editing the catalogue, those jobs usually become my responsibility. However, my colleague very skilled at using technology, so planning course schedules and setting up web sites are her jobs. In the end, by splitting our duties according to our comparative advantages, we are able to do a much better job at running the department than either of us could possibly do alone.
I am startled at the reality when I remind myself that I did not always have my colleague to share the tasks of running our Math department. It seems as if she has been here all along, and I am thankful every day for the skills and wisdom she brings to our small department. And so, as the new semester starts, I want to ask my readers; are their people in your department that you cannot see yourself surviving without?
Wishing everyone a wonderful semester!
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