Chair thoughts

Has it really been that long? Of course it has….I’m referring to the months of silence here since my last post. I suppose this is what happens when you take on the role of (interim) Department Chair of a big, complex, messy English department. I suppose it’s fitting I start with some reference to being chair in light of the recently debuted Netflix series about, well, being chair of an English department.

Since I’ve not watched it (and am still debating on whether I will or not), I’m going to focus on a few highlights of of being chair a year into the job:

It’ cool thinking differently: As a faculty member, you get caught up in your courses and your research and your students, and often, committees ask you to think in narrow terms of your own area(s). Being chair asks you to think of the department more holistically. I can without doubt see that my own department, and likely others like it, are missing opportunities to do more curricular innovation across areas of English studies.

It’s cool getting to know the faculty: Too often, faculty are focused on the day-to-day of the jobs and they work that they forget they have diverse colleagues. That’s not a criticism, per se, because hell, there were a couple of folks I hadn’t even really met until I stepped into the role of interim chair. But, I have really enjoyed getting to know the faculty and their research and their passions for teaching and curriculum. It’s made me appreciate and (re) consider my own approaches to both research and teaching.

It’s cool gaining a deeper appreciation for structures: In techcomm, we’ve always appreciated the “contexts” of work, or in the hip word these days, the infrastructures of work. While, of course, I had a sense of how departments work and how departments interact with the larger institution, you don’t/can’t fully appreciate that until you take on admin, and even more so, until you sit in the chair’s chair. It’s been a fascinating show when I sit back more reflectively and consider the work–and the communication–that occurs within the organization and the structures of it. I have long said that higher ed is the most inefficient organization I have worked in, worked for. And at a year and a bit into my interim term, I stand by that statement even more. So much more. but even with frustrations, it has been just fascinating watching this case study unfold. (A book chapter I am presently finishing for a collection is gonna delve into this in some ways.)

It’s cool to see the interpretation of stakes: A key part of technical communication in the world is figuring out the audience. Audience analysis has been a fascinating thing to me since I became an academic (and haven’t ever really written about it directly.). When I’m teaching, I still use (with credit) Chuck Bazerman’s line that audience is a shadow-y concept that he wrote in introducing Ann Blakeslee’s study on audience. Cause audience is a bit shadow-y, hard to pin down. taking audience analysis in a different view is observing what faculty see as the stakes of different happenings in a department. I have been surprised, shocked, mortified, joyful, hopeful, and a host of other things as I have observed this phenomenon play out. Being chair has really given me a greater appreciation for the act and art and practice of audience analysis as it relates to the stakes of the idea being discussed or deliberated.

It’s cool to grow: While it may surprise some (and will not surprise others), I really am trainable and teachable. I change my mind a lot. I say I am wrong a lot. And I am quick to apologize and try to do better a lot. All of this is to say that I tried (and maybe learned to a degree) new ways of communicating as a chair. it’s always necessary to meet your audience and purpose where they are, but it has been (and still is many days) a challenge for me. There are lots of reasons for it (that I am always happy to admit to over a good meal or your favorite beverage), and I have to say that even on the hardest days, I feel I learned some things and have grown to be a more deliberate and thoughtful communicator. (and I acknowledge that there are likely faculty who will disagree.) But in a job where you mostly say no, where you have to figure out how to implement policies many don’t agree with, where you have to made decisions knowing people won’t like it, where you deal with all the complaints from faculty, students, and staff, I try to be as fair as you can in a system stacked to be the opposite, and I still try to change that system so it’s not like that. I still believe in the mission of higher ed. I still believe in the ideals of education. I still approach each day with my own form of humor and optimism.

Those are my chair-y thoughts at the moment.