Reading the Remote Room in a Pandemic

People are still pretty freaked out about all kinds of things: the pandemic, the election, floods, fires, and I’m sure some of your colleagues are also having to supervise their children’s education. So their reticence to participate in meetings could have much less to do with you than their own feelings of unease. The more you can put people at ease and involve them in the meeting, even if not to participate substantively, the more relaxed everyone will be.

Crisis Management: Between the Faculty and Upper Administration

Like many (all?) chairs nationwide, I’ve been facing a host of pressures regarding COVID matters, ranging from institutional demands for hybrid and F2F teaching to faculty feeling pressures about their scholarship, service obligations, and work-life balance. All of these are magnifying a question I’ve long struggled with as chair—how do I faithfully discharge my obligations to both my college administration and my departmental faculty, and how do I balance what seem to be their increasingly competing interests (if not demands) and do so without losing my integrity? Our faculty and campus are certainly not as divided as some I’ve read about, but that’s in part because we generally trust each other’s basic decency and intentions. Like so many other things, that trust is starting to come under some strain, which only seems to intensify the importance of my managing the chair’s intermediary role. But how do I do that without being seen—by either side—as two-faced or insufficiently understanding and supportive?

An Email Pandemic

I can’t deal with all this email! It was bad enough when we were working on campus, but now we’re working remotely my email has increased exponentially. All the questions I would have answered when someone would have just stopped by my office, or made a quick phone call are now emails. I could spend the whole day on email alone! This is especially hard since I’m trying to finish a research project: difficult enough during any summer, but this one is making it all but impossible. Help!

Remote Departmental Culture

Our campus will likely be operational in the fall via some sort of hybrid model, and our lounge is large enough for a meeting with safe social distancing. So can I set limits on virtual participation, and if so, how do I justify it? And more generally, how can we maintain a departmental culture while operating away from each other even more than we already do?

Talking to Contingent Faculty in a Moment of Crisis

Be transparent with your contingent faculty about what you would like to be the case, what you’re concerned will happen, and how you think it will affect the department.  Try and gather as much information as you can from your dean or provost about the kinds of cuts that might be coming down the pike. Then meet with your NTT faculty to share what you know and listen to their concerns and fears. Be clear that these potential cuts are out of your hands but that you support your contingent colleagues and will advocate for them as much as you can. Ideally, you will have established clear channels of communication with your NTT faculty, and there’s a level of trust and confidence in your leadership. But even if that’s not the case, now is the time to make it clear both that you’re on their side and that you are subject to the financial needs of the institution.

Remote Learning

In the wake of the coronavirus, my faculty has been forced to shift to completely remote teaching for the remainder of the semester (and who knows how much longer). Few of them had been trained in this mode of instruction, and not all students are adequately outfitted at home with Internet-connected computers. Some students seem to be writing papers on cell phones now. Do we need to shift to a less rigorous expectation, even to mere morale-boosting?

Confronting Burnout

We’ve got several important institutional tasks and year-long projects we need to bring to conclusion, such as assessment reports and revision of our bylaws. I’m afraid either we’re going to do some of these just to get them done (and thus miss whatever actual benefit they could bring) or just let some of these projects—and the work we’ve put into them—just languish. How can I help us push through on these, especially if I’m already starting to feel burned out myself?

Livening Up the Awards Ceremony

In about a month we’ll be holding our department’s annual awards ceremony, where we recognize scholarship and writing contest winners, favorite faculty, and the like. It’s generally well-attended by students and faculty, but I’ll confess that after about a decade in the department I find it repetitive and boring (shhh, don’t tell anyone). I say some words of introduction, then we move to representatives from our awards and scholarship committee introducing a succession of award winners, bringing them forward for applause and a certificate, and then we break for cake or cookies. Any ideas on how to change things up?

Handling a Break-Up

I’m the chair of a small department, and have just been informed that two of my department members, who have been married to each other for the last 15 years (one was a spousal hire, in fact, at the time of recruitment), are separating. It appears this is an acrimonious split, and to make matters worse, they research and teach in related areas. The implications for the work and/or the climate of the department are significant. Can you offer advice about how I might handle this while still respecting their privacy?  Help!

Sink or Swim

I am a chair at an institution in distress; we are experiencing line terminations of junior faculty and other budgetary cuts. The line cuts have been particularly challenging for many reasons, not least the hope that was dangled in the announcement that the lines could be restored if other cuts seem sufficient, which has made it very hard to organize. The junior faculty, extremely creative, amazing teachers with excellent publication records, feel unsupported by senior faculty, even shunned to a certain degree, and also sometimes feel cut out of decisions. Senior faculty feel like they are uncertain what to do: they are unsure how to fight back, and are uncomfortable doing planning for next year that may likely involve planning to not have the junior faculty present. Some are themselves in fight/flight/freeze mode. The sense of “business as normal” can be excruciating when business is not, in fact, normal. How ought a chair best navigate these challenging waters?

Advising Students across Specializations

We are a department of World Languages with majors in 7 languages. As to be expected, students are not distributed evenly across the different majors, and student:faculty ratios vary greatly. Our majors used to be advised by a professional advisor with subject expertise, but advising of our campus is switching to a generalist model, which means that department faculty will need to pick up the advising related to the major. We will not receive any money to ease the transition, so cannot hire a dedicated person to advise, or offer part time faculty a stipend to help advise. If we assign students only to faculty in their language, it will create great workload inequity for the Spanish faculty, who will have as much as 10 times more advisees per faculty member than some in other languages. I could offer course release to Spanish faculty, but our full time Spanish faculty teach only upper division courses for our majors and MA students, and those classes are full. Students would then not be able to take the courses they need to graduate in timely fashion. I can assign faculty in lower enrolled languages to advise Spanish majors, but is it fair to Spanish majors that they have advisors from faculty in Chinese or Persian, while every other group of majors has an advisor in their area? I know that no good solution exists. I am just looking for something that causes the least harm to both students and faculty. Any suggestions?

A Second Term as Chair?

Ultimately, you have to want to serve another term, whatever the obstacles and disadvantages. Do you have a sinking feeling about the whole thing? Or are you more hopeful than apprehensive? Again, it’s not relevant whether you think there’s someone worthy of succeeding you — this is your decision about your life. Making something of a sacrifice to recommit might be part of the calculation, but it can’t be your primary motivation. 

How to pull a department out of functional complacency

The Consultancy process usually comprises an initial conversation between the chair and the Consultant, a short written report of the issue that the department wants the Consultant to address, a campus visit, and a follow-up report. I’d strongly recommend that after you get the report the department dedicate significant time to discussing its conclusions. The report might even serve as the grounding for a day-long retreat or at the very least one or two department meetings. That will give you all some time to self-assess and look forward in constructive ways, shaking the department out of the ennui in which it’s found itself.  And from there you’ll be able to come up with possible solutions to your problems that you wouldn’t have been able to generate without the input of an outside observer.

Disciplinary Deadlock

The disciplinary deadlock you describe makes any kind of meaningful debate within the department impossible, and you want these colleagues to help you break through it. In my experience, expecting people to rise to the occasion usually works, especially since you’ve hand-picked this group of people as less invested in these divides and focused more on problem-solving.