Keeping Problems in Perspective

I’m realizing that, as is likely true of most managerial jobs, I am in the Chair’s office to hear about problems. I am there to put out fires and quell disasters I am there to assuage egos and soothe bruised emotions. Mostly, I’m discovering I get to see the dysfunctional and horrible aspects of my community up close in ways I have never before encountered. And they’re pretty distressing and demoralizing. and yet – my department is great! I’m pretty new to this job and I know, intellectually, that 99% of my colleagues are doing lovely and inspiring work in their classes, are earnestly pushing back frontiers of knowledge in their research and behaving courteously and professionally with one another. I know that 99% of the students are terrific. But how to retain that knowledge when sorting through the problems for most of every day.—Professor (Not)Pollyana

Dear Professor (Not)Pollyana:

There are many things about being chair that are wonderful: you get to make a real difference in people’s lives, meet folks from around your institution whom you would never otherwise have encountered, and the results of your work are often visible and measurable (quite different from our experiences with teaching and scholarship). The downside is that you see people at their worst, when they’re angry, peevish, petty, territorial, etc etc etc. You have to clean up other people’s messes and wade through the crap generated by other people’s incompetence. You thought you knew how screwed up things were, but now you realize you had no idea. How naive you were!

Take a deep breath. It gets better.

I’m assuming that your department and the larger institution are basically functional, since you don’t mention any specific problems. That’s a good start. In my experience, the best way to get acclimated to being chair is by hanging out with chairs of other departments who’ve been in the job longer than you. You’ll see how they handle all the stuff that’s getting you down. Choose these relationships wisely, though. Make sure that the folks you reach out to share your basic positive attitude towards the job and your institution, and that they’re not going to make you feel worse by being jaded, paranoid, or apathetic.

I wonder, too, if part of the problem isn’t how you’re defining it. You describe your job in fairly negative terms, as though it were all disasters, fires, egos, and emotions. It might help to rethink what a chair does. Simply put, your job is to solve problems. Sometimes that means putting out fires and quelling fights. Other times it’s tedious bureaucracy. But it also means having a vision for the department, leaving it better than you found it. You get to oversee bringing new faculty into the department, mentoring newer colleagues, gaining institutional knowledge. You have the power to foster a collaborative environment in your department, to champion your colleagues for tenure and promotion, to build relationships with other departments, to rethink your curriculum. Since you’re new to the job, you probably haven’t had the opportunity to do many of those things yet, and the negative stuff is the majority of what you’re facing right now. That balance of rewarding to disheartening will change, and if you’re lucky the fires will feel smaller and less demoralizing.

The Chair

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