I’m a chair in a mid-size university in a similarly mid-sized town. Recently one of my faculty members said to me that it would be great if we had more social events together as a faculty, since by comparison to a previous university (where that individual had been some time and had raised a family) and at least one department on campus (which does socialize more frequently) we don’t do much of this sort of thing. That’s probably true, but I find myself unsure of what to do about this, or if it’s even necessarily my responsibility. At present I find myself sufficiently consumed by the demands of the job that I don’t necessarily have the energy or desire to plan such events. That’s especially the case when I add in my own family care responsibilities, community activities, and primary friendships with others that aren’t in my department. To what extent is this sort of thing also my responsibility, on top of everything else?—Professor Party Pooper
Dear Professor Pooper,
Given how much emotional energy faculty members invest in our work, it’s not surprising that we’d also like some emotional rewards, often in the form of social events. As you point out, though, these events take time and effort to organize, which then feels like more work for the chair rather than a fun activity. Some chairs (and I’ll include myself among them) love organizing parties, happy hours, book launches, and the like, and rather than feeling like yet another obligation, putting together social events is rewarding for its own sake. Others, like you, don’t feel that way. Plus, while faculty members often say they want more socializing among colleagues, they don’t necessarily show up when get-togethers actually happen.
There are a couple of solutions to these connected problems. First, delegate! In many departments, organizing social events is the responsibility of another officer: the deputy chair, if there is one, or the chair of your policy committee. Alternatively, this could be a role that faculty members volunteer for, ideally for a term of two or three years (as a title, I suggest Cruise Director), so you as chair don’t have to spend time searching for a replacement as the new semester begins. That person could then survey faculty on the kinds of events they’d like to see: monthly wine and cheese in a department space? Happy hours at a local bar? A cocktail party hosted by faculty members with offices next to each other? Annual holiday/end-of-year parties? Once you have a sense of what your colleagues are interested in participating in, sit down with your Cruise Director and go over budget to see how what people want matches what you can afford.
Then start small. If your department is not one that’s used to socializing, you’ll need to ease them into it. If you have regular department meetings, you could have tea and cookies afterwards where folks can schmooze. Some departments combine this with an occasional presentation by faculty on their research or pedagogy, which is a nice way to share work with colleagues. If you don’t meet regularly (and you should be doing so, if you’ve been reading this column!) find an event that you know many faculty will be attending and then have a department social afterwards. Once faculty are accustomed to hanging out after meetings, schedule a larger event—a holiday party after your December meeting, or a year-end party after your last meeting in the Spring—with food and drink. It’s important not to stack up a lot of activities at the beginning, since your Cruise Director will get worn out, and you won’t get critical mass of faculty at any one event. Eventually your department will have a roster of regular social events that faculty will come to expect and attend.
A couple of final notes. First, think about whether and how you’ll include alcohol in your events. Your campus may already have rules about this, although if you’re using department space you might have more latitude. There are other issues involved as well. Of course, any event with undergraduates has to be alcohol-free. You could have faculty who are in recovery or who you know have a problem with alcohol (a topic for another column, perhaps?). Free-flowing booze is often a factor in harassment, sexual or otherwise, an especially serious issue in departments with graduate students. Having alcohol at a department event might be more trouble than it’s worth. At the very least, you need to be clear about whether alcohol will be served and to take the needs of your faculty into account.
Finally, do not, I repeat, do not delegate this work to your department administrator. While it’s fine to ask office staff to do the logistical work of reserving space at a restaurant or bar for a happy hour, or order food and drinks, or set up tea and cookies, it’s the responsibility of the faculty to schedule and plan their shared social events. Plus, if these activities are generated and advertised by faculty members, other colleagues will feel more inclined to attend. And if it goes well, I’ll even share my secret Pisco sour recipe, a great hit at our faculty cocktail hours!