How to pull a department out of functional complacency

My question is perhaps less dramatic than some that have been submitted to this column, but it’s no less real. I’m the chair of an English department that, while generally happy and operating well, has become somewhat stagnant. That is, we’re meeting our general university obligations—teaching first-year writing, being engaged with our majors and M.A. students—but I don’t know that we have any specific direction for growth or (dare I say it?) strategic planning. Like many departments, we’ve seen a drop in majors and a shift in student interests, and while we’ve been able to manage those on a semester-by-semester basis, there’s a general sense that we could and should be doing something more, and ideally something more thoughtful and long-term. The problem is that none of us—myself included—are precisely sure where to start, and I worry that we’ll just engage in a lot of internal conversation without actually getting anywhere. How can we effectively start this process and make sure we get somewhere while doing it?—Stuck in the Middle

Dear Prof. Stuck,

Your problems might not be dramatic, but that doesn’t mean they’re not real. Stagnation, especially in a time when departments are bringing fewer and fewer faculty in as new hires and enrollments are shrinking, might not be surprising, but it’s bad for morale and interferes with the kind of introspection and change you’re describing that your department wants.  Too often we’re caught up in the day-to-day of teaching, serving on committees, running departments and the other elements of academic life that it’s hard to find the time or opportunity to stop and take stock in a more comprehensive way. Being stuck is one of the hardest states to shake off, especially if things are going ok — even if ok doesn’t feel like good enough.

What I’d recommend is to get an outside perspective on your department to help you work out a way forward. Lucky for you, the ADE has just the thing — the ADE-MLA Consultancy Service.  The Consultancy is designed to help departments grapple with specific issues and come up with solutions. Unlike a program review, Consultant visits have no extrinsic strings attached: they’re solely for the department’s benefit. The results certainly can be shared with deans or other administrators, especially if it helps make a case for something you’d like to advance. But doing so is up to you and your department—that’s whom the consultants serve.

While I’ve never served as a Consultant, I know some folks who have, and the departments they’ve worked with have benefited immensely from the experience. Even having to formulate what you see as the problem in order to communicate it to the Consultant is a benefit: it forces departments to look within to find the real source of whatever’s going on. The Consultant’s impartiality can cut through historic divisions in a department, help multiple voices get heard (not just the loudest), provide a clear-eyed view of what is working and what isn’t, and offer a number of different solutions.

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.

—The Chair

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