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On being department chair

Posted by Melissa on June 12, 2014

[Full disclosure: In the past year, I’ve started at least four or five different posts about various chair experiences and then abandoned them because they seemed too whiny or too close to events going on in the department or they didn’t convey my thoughts clearly. This post emerged from looking back on all those half-written posts.]

What is it that makes being department chair such a character building exercise? Maybe it’s the amount of paperwork that needs my attention or the number of meetings I find on my calendar? Maybe it’s the sometimes difficult personalities of students or colleagues? Maybe it’s the unexpected fires that flame at the most inopportune times which I have to help extinguish? I’m in my second year as chair, and it never ceases to amaze me the amount of energy this position zaps. The idea of working to maintain and improve the quality of the department community for students, faculty, and staff seems appealing, but the reality of being chair is something different.

Ultimately, one of the chair’s jobs is to look out for the health of the department, both short-term and long-term. That doesn’t sound too terrible, and under the right circumstances, it could be appealing! But there are times when the decision that is in the interest of the long-term health of the department may be a decision that I personally don’t like. It’s a strange position because as a member of the department I have a vested interest in the decisions that are being made, but the best decisions from the department chair perspective may not be the best decisions from my personal professional perspective. In many administrative positions, one does not have to live the direct consequences of one’s own decisions, but that’s not the case as department chair. For example, when I put together the course schedule, it’s not just the courses of my colleagues that are on the board, it’s also my own courses. As chair, I feel compelled to put department interests above personal professional interests. Thankfully, often department interests and personal professional interests align, but when they don’t, the role can be uncomfortable.

Since becoming chair, I can’t tell you how often colleagues at other institutions tell me about disastrous department chairs they have had. As I reflect on these stories, it seems that the tension between personal professional interests and department interests is the source of much chairing drama. Sometimes the stories are about chairs who always make departmental decisions that support their personal professional interests. Other times, the stories are about chairs who won’t make any decisions, and in some cases, this reluctance seems to come from a desire to not have to make the difficult decisions that may not align with the chair’s personal professional interests.

For current or former chairs out there, what did you find most challenging about the position and how did you cope?

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One Response to “On being department chair”

  1. acdalal said

    This is such a great post! For me, just coming out of my 1st year as chair, one of the hardest things (other than adjusting to the workload!) has been dealing with the unpredictability of the behavior of others, particularly when the behavior is “bad” or potentially damaging to the department. People don’t always think through the consequences of their actions. Ideally you get a chance to talk them out of whatever they were planning on doing, but most times you’re left to clean up and smooth over the damage. And sometimes you have to have hard conversations with colleagues who are way senior to you (and who still have some power over you, i.e. will vote for your promotion to full at some point), which is a whole other level of difficult.

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