Fostering department culture

One of the top things on my mind since taking over as department chair is culture: specifically, department culture. As chair, I set the tone for the department in various ways. I set the tone when I set the agenda for a department meeting or retreat: the topics I select, and the time I choose to devote to each, signals how much of a priority I think they are to the department. I set the tone when I interact with faculty and students, both new and returning. I set the tone when I represent the department at meetings and such, and when I advocate for the department to administrators and other campus offices and constituencies.

I’ve been thinking about this so much lately because the dynamics of our department are changing rapidly. We have a record number of majors (91 juniors and seniors at an institution of 2000 students) and a large number of non-majors who take or want to take our courses. We have two new full-time visiting faculty members and two part-time visiting faculty members to help us meet our course demand, which means we have almost equal numbers of visiting faculty (4) and tenure-track faculty (5). We’re conducting a tenure-track search this year to grow our department. We’re a little more balanced than we have been in terms of rank, with 2 full, 2 associate, and one tenure-track assistant prof, but the visitors definitely skew us younger. And perhaps the most challenging: we’re spread across 3 buildings, one of which is a 7-8 minute walk from the others.*

So what do I see as the main challenges to setting the tone of the department internally?

  • Keeping everyone in the loop. Up until now, we’ve very much had a “hallway conversation” approach to decision-making. That is, a nontrivial number of department decisions, discussions, etc. happened as a result of spontaneous hallway conversations. This model can work okay when everyone’s physically on the same floor in the same building, but assumes that all stakeholders are present. Even last year when most of us were on the same floor, this model didn’t work well because inadvertently someone (usually staff) was left out and wondering what happened. With faculty physically in different places, this model ceases to work at all. I suspect changing this aspect of culture will be one of the most challenging, just because we’ve operated under it for so long that it’s second nature. But as someone traditionally on the outside of the field, I recognize the harm and bad feelings that result from being left out of important conversations, so I’ll be looking at creative ways to make sure everyone stays informed and involved, no matter where their offices are or what their rank is.
  • Mentoring. We have so many young, early career faculty in the department! Most of our visitors likely have a tenure-track position at a similar institution as their long-term goal. Our tenure-track prof will be going up for tenure in a few years. I want to see all of them succeed. I want to make sure all of them have the tools to succeed. I want to make sure our tenure-track prof is doing all the right things to put her in a good position to earn tenure here, and I want to make sure as a department we’re giving her strong, consistent messages and useful, constructive feedback. I want the visitors to make the most of their time here, to learn as much as they can about teaching at an undergraduate institution, and to grow as teachers and scholars so that they put themselves in a great position to get hired on the tenure-track, here or elsewhere.
  • The student experience. It’s unclear exactly why we have such a large uptick in majors and in enrollments generally. I tend to chalk it up to the fact that we, individually and as a department, are just awesome. Seriously, though, I think we as a department offer students interesting, challenging classroom and research experiences; we do a good job of making our courses relevant to students; we are also approachable and fun and genuinely interested in our students. We don’t provide high barriers to entry, and I think that’s key as well, maybe even more important than the rest: we teach the intro students where they are. Can we continue to do this with such high student-to-prof ratios? Will we see a drop in non-major enrollments given that none of us are advising non-majors anymore, since our major advising loads put us at the advising limit? How can we continue to connect with our students as individuals given our high class enrollments? Finally, how can we make sure we have adequate physical spaces, for classes and collaborations and just general hanging-out, to support the large numbers of students, particularly in a building not designed for such numbers?
  • Balancing the proactive with the reactive. When a department grows and changes as rapidly as ours did, it’s easy to fall into “fire-fighting” mode, running from one crisis to the next. It’s really important to take and make time to step back and consider the larger picture, for the long-term health of the department and the major, but so hard to do when so many little things vie for your attention. But it’s also important to recognize the patterns in the little things that point out larger trends and lead to the larger discussions.

I don’t claim to know all the answers here, and most likely I’ll stumble and fumble as I try to make sense of the challenges, but I do look forward to the challenges and the opportunities as chair to address these. Hopefully I’ll get a handle on this sometime in the next 3 years, before my term is up!

* Those of you on large campuses are no doubt chuckling at this, but our campus is very compact, so a 7-8 minute walk is significant.

Random thoughts for a Friday afternoon

  • Our summer high school program ended today in a whirlwind. Poster session + meeting parents + lunch + filling out evaluations on my 11 students + 3 weeks of intense work = exhaustion. But happy exhaustion. 
  • Would I do this again? Absolutely. I have a longer post on this, but it will have to wait until my brain functioning returns. 
  • My experience with this program will definitely help me structure my first-year seminar (on the same topic) better. And help me understand the abilities, maturity level, attention span, etc of my class. So participating in this program was a win on many levels.
  • I am going to miss my students. Some more than others, obviously. I sincerely hope I see some of them at Carleton in a year or two. 
  • I am taking a much-needed break next week. Let’s see if I can go an entire week without checking my email. This is essential, I feel, for me retaining any sense of my sanity. And also essential because the craziness will start up again a week from Monday—just looking at my calendar for the end of August gives me hives.
  • My research students’ last day is also today. They completely surpassed my goals for the summer. We have more preliminary data for the grant application I plan to resubmit. (Also, because they completely surpassed the goals, I will have to completely redo the timeline. Trust me, this is a good problem to have.)
  • Juggling my research mentoring obligations with the summer program was very challenging. Would I do it again? I’m not sure. On the one hand, by the time the summer program started the research students were very much working independently. On the other hand, not having me around to answer questions and bounce ideas off of was a detriment to the project. I’ll need to give this some more thought.
  • And on that note, there is a pint of cider at a local pub that is calling my name. Happy Friday everyone!