Ask the Chair

Departments of language and literature are full of fascinating people and exciting opportunities. But they can also contain difficult people and trying circumstances. Fortunately, Ask the Chair is here to help you with your stickiest quandaries, from perennial problems to unique dilemmas. The ADE and ADFL Executive Committees invite questions, discussion, and requests for advice about department life at ade@mla.org or adfl@mla.org. Published letters will be anonymous; feel free to come up with a pseudonym.

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?

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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?

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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!

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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?

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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?

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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The Spirit of Compromise

Compromise is working when no one gets exactly what they want, no one feels screwed over, and everyone respects the process. I’d be clear to the faculty that everyone has to take one for the team every now and then, to make class scheduling equitable for everyone.

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What Is Reasonable Accommodation?

I’m running into a problem with our disabilities services office, which on our campus reviews and manages student requests for accommodations such as extra time, alternative exam formats, and the like. In the opinion of some of our faculty, this office regularly moves from its management role to a more charged advocacy role that at times has become almost adversarial, especially in terms of pushing what might the boundaries of a “reasonable accommodation.” As chair I’m caught in the middle of this. I occasionally get informed by the office that some faculty are not being especially helpful, with the implication that I should intervene or pressure them. Similarly, faculty seek my support for the limits they believe they need to put on the office’s requests, which can include telling the office to respect the faculty member’s decisions. I’m sympathetic with both parties–how do I manage these sort of situations effectively?

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Party Poopers and Piscos

At present I find myself sufficiently consumed by the demands of chairing that I don’t necessarily have the energy or desire to plan social 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?

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A Departmental Culture of Responsibility

While I appreciate the need for separation, research time, and even just rest, the business of the department and university doesn’t stop between June and August. I get a one-month summer bump, but that doesn’t cover the whole summer, and I’m still working. Why can’t my faculty?

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