Remote Departmental Culture

Like most universities, we’ve been working virtually for the past two months, which has meant not only teaching but also holding our monthly faculty meetings and doing other department-level committee work online. That has generally worked fine, largely because much of the work in these bodies was finishing off tasks that we’d been working on together all year. I’m worried, however, about continuing to work this way in the fall. Part of my worry stems from the fact that we will need to tackle some new (and potentially larger) projects, including bylaws changes and getting ready for an upcoming external program review. Another part of my worry is simply practical. In the past there have been several faculty members who have only sporadically attended faculty meetings or sought to call-in. Sometimes this has been because of travel or care schedules, which is understandable, but in many cases it’s also been because someone simply doesn’t want to come to campus if they’re not scheduled to teach. Inevitably it seems that when people do call in, they’re less engaged and discussion is a bit harder to manage. I’m also concerned about unit cohesion and departmental culture—sharing a conversation in the same space seems somehow crucial to maintaining “faculty governance,” and outside of faculty and committee meetings there aren’t many occasions for us to meet. 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?  —Professor Anxious Zoomer

Dear Prof. Zoomer,

We’ve all noticed that working and teaching remotely has taken its toll on spontaneity, involvement, and fellow-feeling. Many faculty members have commented to me that their remote classes take more effort, especially in terms of class discussion. So it’s not surprising that this is a factor in meetings as well.

It’s not clear what “hybrid” might mean in terms of meetings, let alone classes. Certainly, you’ll have faculty who are especially vulnerable to coronavirus infection due to age, immune status, or other conditions, who will not want to come into campus, even if your institution “opens up” to some extent. So at least some of your colleagues will be calling in. There’s not much you can do about this — even if these faculty are not directly covered by the ADA, it would, to my mind, be unethical to force someone to participate in-person if there’s a meaningful risk for them (and since being over 70 qualifies as a meaningful risk, you’re probably talking about a significant chunk of your faculty).

In terms of your external review, it’s hard to know what will happen, and whether reviewers will be willing to travel to where you are. So I’m going to put that on the back burner — it’s entirely possible that the review will be postponed. But you will have to have important conversations about bylaws in either a wholly or partially online context. So the question is, how to get your colleagues engaged and talking.

One possible solution is something we resort to in our classes when we’re concerned about student involvement and investment in discussion: smaller groups. If you’re using a common virtual online application (Zoom, Blackboard Collaborate, etc) you should be able to divide participants into breakout rooms. If you’re a mix of in-person and virtual participants, divide folks up into groups both in the room and online and give them some focused questions about a section of the bylaws to think about reworking (you might even pre-divide them before the meeting and give them their sections and questions in advance so they’re ready to work when they arrive). You should also ask them to articulate their reasoning behind this revision and how the changes they suggest connect to the larger mission of the department. Give them 10 to 15 minutes and then bring them back to see what they’ve come up with. This habituates people to really discussing in the virtual context, rather than just lurking with their cameras off.

In the meantime, organize a virtual happy hour for your colleagues with a set of fun activities. Have a couple of volunteers mix their cocktails (alcoholic or non) online. Have everyone in advance come up with their list of 4 favorite B-list movie stars (for example) and discuss their merits and faults. Or have people show their most embarrassing WFH outfit or item of clothing.  Basically, anything that eases the process of interacting online. That might help for when you have to buckle down to real work.

Good luck!

—The Chair