Department chairs

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A new department chair discusses the banality of beards and academe (essay)

I don’t know if it’s a coincidence that not long after I became chair of my department, I grew a beard for the first time in my life. Those two moments should have had nothing to do with one another: facial hair and academic leadership do not have any intrinsic bond. Neither Animal House’s Professor Dave Jennings nor The Paper Chase’s Charles Kingsfield Jr., for example, had beards. Most faculty members I know do not have beards. Hipsters have beards. Deadheads have beards. Out of all the chairs I worked for at four different universities, none had a beard.

For the last 14 years, I shaved every day for work. Last December, I stopped. It was winter break, and I hate shaving. For some reason, when spring semester began, I kept the beard.

Beards have been described as breeding grounds for bacteria, fecal matter and even brewer’s yeast. Chairs, on the other hand, are assigned to four-year terms and usually get a nice office. While dissimilar, these two life instances intersect for me as some sort of important gesture.

Beards are symbolic of many cultural traditions, such as those associated with religion (Hasidim, Sufis, Sikhs), craft beer (brewers) or Southern rock (Gregg Allman’s tight, short beard vs. Hank Williams Jr.’s respectable beard). There are famous beards such as those grown by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons or the Lubavitcher rebbe. As with religion or popular culture, academic beards are hardly novel. There is a Facebook page devoted to the subject, a no longer active blog that featured academic beard profiles and a research project at the University of Exeter that studies the history of beards.

Beards are not new to academe, but a beard is new to me. My only other experience with a beard was when I was in the army and stationed in a remote outpost with one other soldier. The commander for our brigade arrived one day in a surprise inspection and quickly spotted my appearance. I hadn’t shaved for several days. He berated me for the stubble all over my face. “But the conditions,” I complained, indicating the lack of running water or porcelain basin among our poorly constructed tent. “Conditions!” he screamed and threw a water jug at my head.

Not many of the other chairs in our college have beards. No one else in our department has a beard. The dean has a mustache, but no beard. The university president is clean shaven. I could think of my beard as a privileged moment, where I, and other mid-40s men like myself who cannot grow hair on a small patch on the back of our heads can grow a lot of hair all over our faces and chin. My beard might be mistaken as a statement about authority, except chairs have little power other than what is imagined by the faculty members who are not chairs.

Until I became chair I assumed, as others do as well, that the chair is a formidable being with grand oversight and reach. Chairs are supposed to have “vision,” construct “four-year plans” or be able to follow a “strategic plan.” Don Wu’s The Department Chair Primer: What Chairs Need to Know and Do to Make a Difference outlines several criteria chairs should consider as worthy of emulation when imaging their ideal departments: governance, faculty compensation, faculty mix, workload and budget. He does not mention beards. So far, in my capacity as chair, I have nominated colleagues for election to the Faculty Senate without telling them I did so and authorized the purchase of a water cooler to be placed in our hallway.

Instead of projecting authority, my beard minimizes my ethos as representative of university power. For instance, I was invited to a recent meeting with the university audit team overseeing efficiency across the colleges. When I entered the room, the audit team took one look at my scraggly beard and large arm tattoo of a lion and rose and probably thought I was a biker in the wrong place or a hobo looking for a train. “Are you still growing that thing?” a colleague asked me the other day as I left the men’s room. Early in the semester, the director of a humanities program in our college confused me for someone else in the hallway. I have been mocked by junior faculty at departmental meetings for growing a beard.

My beard, in particular, has a large gray patch right in the middle of my chin. Does this gray mark me as distinguished? Does it classify me as scholarly the way the stereotypes of corduroy jacket patches or pipes once did for the cliché image of well-versed academic men?

The beard is mostly a banal feature of the face. Hair grows. You remove it, but it grows again. As department chair, my days involve a great deal of banality: writing letters of support, leading meetings, attending meetings, writing more letters of support, figuring out who dumped coffee in the men’s urinal, approving pizza orders for student club meetings.

Roland Barthes writes a great deal about banality, but at no point can I find him discussing growing a beard. In his pseudo-autobiography Roland Barthes, Barthes classifies the self through an alphabetical organizational scheme. At one point, Barthes discusses classification of the self by a beard-related passage: “Like Harpo Marx losing his artificial beard in the glass of water he is drinking out of, you are no longer classifiable, not out of an excess of personality, but on the contrary because you pass through all the fringes of the phantom.” Barthes’s point is not just that the self is divided, but that it loses itself -- it loses its sense of classification and categorization -- often via contradictions, often via a lack of place in the world. Chairs, despite our imagined power, might relate to that feeling of lack or contradiction of categorical place.

A chair is someone who might find him or herself without a place in the world, even if firmly established within an academic hierarchy of responsibility and rank. Who are we among a set of organizational binaries that frame academe? Colleague/not colleague, manger/faculty member, friend/boss, teacher/administrator? In our college, the Faculty Senate debates whether or not chairs are faculty. Chairs oversee budgets, hiring, petty differences, relationships with other departments, initiatives, recruitment of students. We do this work knowing that one day we will leave the large office we occupy and return to a small concrete-block office hidden away down the hallway, possibly across from the men’s bathroom. What I am today, I will no longer be tomorrow. Beard or no beard, the chair does pass through the fringes of the phantom at some point. All of this so-called authority, we should tell ourselves often, will, at some point, end; it will vanish like a phantom image.

An academic beard evokes the cliché such as the distinguished professor or the hipster graduate student. Even with a beard, I am too short to be mistaken for a hipster, too poorly dressed to be thought of as distinguished. With a beard, I think of the pompous and drunk professor Michael Caine plays in Educating Rita or the Charleston Southern University professor Paul Roof, who lost his job after an image of his wild beard appeared on a Holy City Brewing beer label. I wonder if I am beginning to resemble my mentor and dissertation director, whose large white beard serves as an emblem of his academic presence in rhetorical and digital studies.

“The discourse that comes to him,” Barthes declares, “is banal, and it is only by struggling against that original banality that, gradually, he writes.” I am the opposite. The discourse that comes to me, I might counter, is banal, and in that banality, when discussing beards or being chair, I write. Within academe, we concern ourselves too often with issues of power and struggle -- representational power of the text or political power of daily life; those who yield power or those who do not have power -- but seldom with the banal.

With this fairly new administrative role, I want to leave aside grand issues, such as power, in favor of banal issues such as beards. Such banal moments allow me, for a moment, a banality I can appreciate -- unlike constantly writing letters of support or planning meeting agendas -- a banality that slows down my passing through the fringes of the phantom by giving me a moment of classification. I have a beard. I am department chair. As I soon conclude the first year of a four-year term, my other written moment of banality might be the knowledge of the fragility of perceived power in general: at some point, I tell myself, beard and chair position, too, will end.

Jeff Rice is Martha B. Reynolds Professor in Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky.

Image Caption: 
The author and his beard.

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