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 or Published letters will be anonymous; feel free to come up with a pseudonym.

Hiring Particularities

Our department is gearing up for its first search in years, and my first search as chair. Given how long we’ve waited, and how tenuous our college’s budget still is, there’s a lot of both excitement and anxiety about making this search work.

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.

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?

A Punitive Attendance Policy

As the semester ends, I’m bracing for another round of complaints about the attendance policy of one of our tenured faculty members. The policy is, especially from the perspective of…

A Non-Tenure-Track Bird in the Hand

One of my graduate student advisees has interviews lined up at the MLA convention, for tenure-track and non-tenure-track positions. She also just learned that she has been offered a position—non-tenure-track…

Wearing Two Hats

To what extent is my role to be the manager of the decision-making process, and to what extent am I allowed to have an individual opinion on any given issue as a faculty member in the department? How do I balance the two (or more) roles I have?

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?

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?

NTT Salary Compression

I’m regularly faced with a dilemma—recognizing that like most places we pay our instructors too little, I could raise the initial salary for new hires, but that would leave them making close to what our long-term instructors make. There will be—rightfully—resentment there, but I’m also uncomfortable continuing in perpetuity a bad compensation model. What to do?

Defining Academic Freedom

How can I help faculty understand that academic freedom has a specific meaning and limits without looking like the uncaring oppressor?

Preparing a Successor

I’m nearing the end of my chair term—one more year to go, though on some days I fantasize about just dropping it all right then and there. In general though,…

Is anger the answer?

I have always counted my even temper as a strength, especially in my role as chair.  Am I failing to be an effective advocate for resources for my department if I always respond moderately? Are there times when anger would be the better response?

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Faculty members in my department traditionally have had the opportunity to teach one graduate seminar each year as part of their 2/2 teaching load. However, a consistent decline in the numbers of students admitted…

Orienting and Retaining New Faculty Members

I’m at a small, teaching-oriented campus where we’ve been able to hire some impressive junior faculty over the past couple of years. In past years, our junior ranks have been…

What Makes a Good Dissertation Adviser

Recommendation letter season is upon us, and I’ve been asked to write for a graduate student whom I’ve occasionally worked with but do not supervise. In getting an update on…

Who’s the Boss?

You’ve answered several questions about faculty, but what about working with staff? In my case, I have a departmental secretary/program administrator who has been with us for over a decade….

Bearing Bad News

I’m writing with an issue that wouldn’t garner me sympathy from many of my faculty but nonetheless is a dilemma for me and, I suspect, many chairs. Like most universities,…

Puzzling over External Evaluations

I have a question about who should be asked to write external evaluations when an untenured assistant professor is coming up for tenure and promotion. We have a system–which I…

Defending the Humanities

More and more seems to be expected of university faculty in all areas of our academic lives—research, teaching, and service. This is nowhere more true than in a humanities department,…

Nickeled and Dimed

I need advice about a particularly “asky” colleague. From funding field trips and end-of-semester receptions for students, to course scheduling, to early (or extra) course releases, she’s quick to email…