Yesterday I met with the new chair of my department to tie up loose ends, hand over some paperwork, and give him whatever advice I could. I felt a bit like I do when I leave town and my husband takes care of our daughter: part of me hopes it goes well, but a selfish part of me hopes something goes wrong so he will see how hard it is. Like parenting, it is hard to really prepare someone for what’s involved in chairing a department. Neither endeavor looks that taxing on paper. Like many thankless jobs, the burdens are comprised of a thousand mundane tasks, multiple interruptions, and unexpected emergencies.
Right now my department is wonderfully collegial. We support and complement each other and we have worked hard these last few years to bring about some productive changes to our program. Nevertheless, over the last 14 years (at two institutions), chairing has taught me the following lessons:
1. Competence is its own punishment. If you’re organized, hard-working, and dependable, you will be asked to do a lot. Conversely, incompetent, disorganized, or seemingly insane faculty members are rarely asked to do extra work. Sometimes I ask myself if a particularly eccentric faculty member is really crazy, or crazy like a fox? I find myself calling on folks who are already over-taxed rather than risk a job not getting done or a class taught poorly. Yes, it’s unfair.
2. Many academics are guilty of the same behaviors they bemoan in students. Our students might be shocked if they knew faculty members sometimes arrive late, leave early, haven’t read the ‘required’ reading, and even answer cell phones during meetings. Oh, and they routinely hand articles in late! Of course, these are only a minority of faculty members, which brings me to my next point:
3. Ninety-eight percent of your time is spent dealing with the problems created by two percent. It’s easy to lose sight of how well most of us function when you’re beleaguered by the crises caused by just a few.
4. There are two types of people: those who get things done and those who complain about what’s been done. Perhaps this happens more in the humanities, where we can talk endlessly about the theoretical implications of a simple comma change in our catalogue. A good chair balances letting everyone have her say with moving things along.
5. Most people think they’re working harder than others. Working together in a department, like parenting, depends on each person doing more than their share. It’s easy to look across campus and decide that another department has unfair perks, or grudgingly wonder why a fellow faculty member doesn’t teach larger classes. However, I’ve found that when examined closer, almost everyone faces her own challenges. As with parenting, it’s crazy-making to try to measure exactly your share of the labor.
6. It’s not about you. In an academic culture which promotes individual achievement, chairing is a rare opportunity to expand your scope, nurture other faculty members, and experience pride in the great work of your colleagues.
The first time I left my (then two-year old) daughter for a week, I returned home to the unsettling experience of being corrected by my husband for a variety of small tasks. “She likes her sandwich cut diagonally,” he (smugly, I thought) told me. I’m sure it will be odd when I return from my sabbatical next year to see the new chair handling my former duties. However, after a stunned moment of mild outrage, I think I will just sit back and enjoy someone else’s competence.
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