It's now been eight weeks since I was appointed interim chair of the Mathematics Department. I have to admit that this doesn't sound right. It feels like longer than this, because probably 3/4 of the work I do each day now is about department chairing. (Also because I have been at it longer than 8 weeks because I actually started back in May, thinking this was just a 2-month gig.) At the same time, it feels like I am still getting started, mostly because the amount to learn is just so great that despite immersing myself in the position, I'm still as much of a rank newbie as I was on day one.

When I was appointed chair by the Dean, I knew there was no escaping my inexperience. Despite having this reputation as a "thought leader" β€” which isn't very helpful for getting actual work done β€” my actual leadership experience was limited to some committees and less than one year of being Assistant Chair. Despite being a full Professor in the department, I learned quickly as Assistant Chair that I had huge gaps in my understanding about how core departmental processes actually work. So in our startup meeting, I gave a little speech to the faculty and told them, don't expect perfection or spit-and-polish from me as chair. Instead, I promised them three things they could always count on from me, with some helpful alliteration to remember them: Transparency, disciplined Time Management, and probably the most important of all – Teachability.

Being teachable means:

  • You understand that what you know is dwarfed by what you don't know, and that this will remain the case forever.
  • When you find a mistake you've made or a place where you lack knowledge, you instinctively and immediately put it on a list of things to learn.
  • You actively work on the "to learn" list items as part of your daily routine, asking questions to people who might know or help without any regard for the apparent stupidity of the questions or the exposure of your ignorance.
  • You understand that making mistakes or getting caught not knowing something is a matter of "when" not "if", and you don't take it personally.
  • Corollary: If a mistake or missing knowledge happens through some experience that's painful or embarrassing, you can separate the thing you need to learn from the pain/embarrassment of the situation. Even if it happens at the hands of a colleague who seems to go out of their way to make a point of how little you know.

In my very limited experience with this job, being teachable is the most important part of being department chair, for at least three reasons.

  1. While we often have this conception of department chairs and other administrative types as all-knowing (and it's definitely true that some people know a lot more than others), in fact none of us really knows everything because the systems that we set up in higher education are byzantine and constantly shifting. The higher ed landscape itself has shifted tectonically over the last ten years and will continue to do so at an accelerating pace. Doing this work requires constant learning --- often in the form of un-learning and re-learning. So it's not about how much you know but how fast you learn.
  2. On the flip side, inertia and the presumption of knowledge is deadly. What's infinitely worse than admitting you don't know something and then having to go off and learn it, is pretending you do know and then falling on your face. This is a lesson that all of us should have learned in graduate school, but somehow it gets forgotten post-Ph.D. We profs don't exactly have a great reputation for humble admission of ignorance or mistakes.
  3. Teachability is leadership. We want students to be teachable; where are their examples to model? We want faculty not to be arrogant hubris-addicted jerks but colleagues who embody the ideals of scholarship and teaching; where are their examples? Who is defining the culture of the department to be one where knowledge is to be pursued, not just possessed, and where people (faculty and students) feel safe to take risks and signal their need for help?

Teachability also requires a great deal of humility, which is intrinsically hard, and especially hard for academics for a number of reasons. It takes practice, and that practice is often painful. But it's necessary, because higher education is existentially threatened by its own arrogance, and as philosopher Michael Patrick Lynch put it:

Overcoming toxic arrogance is not easy, and our present political moment is not making it any easier. But if we want to live in a tolerant society where we are not only open-minded but willing to learn from others, we need to balance humility and conviction. We can start by looking past ourselves β€” and admitting that we don’t know it all.

I don't claim to have attained an enlightened state with teachability, but I'm trying to practice it in the following ways as chair:

  • Setting expectations up front. I mentioned that at our faculty startup meeting, I did not promise perfection. In fact I promised imperfection . But I also told faculty: I will do the best I can with the knowledge I have; if I don't know a particular procedure or policy or the precise answer to your question, I will do some research and get back to it promptly. For the most part I have stuck to that, and honestly I think faculty appreciate an honest "I don't know" plus a prompt followup, and don't really care so much whether I know everything right now.
  • Maintaining an actual list of things to learn and giving it time each week. The book The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins has been a huge help as I've stepped into this role. The main thesis of the book is that new leaders have 90 days to reach the "break-even point", where they are producing more value for their organization than they are consuming. If they don't make it, they tend to enter a downward spiral that ends in failure. And in order to make it, new leaders have to have a concrete plan for learning what they need to learn. I have a 90-day learning plan that I spend time with every week. Early in the semester I brainstormed a list of blind spots for myself, picked my top three areas to work on, and then brain-dumped every question I could think of related to those areas, no matter how much it exposed me. "Budget and Financials" is one of those areas and Where does our department money come from? is one of the questions, to give you a sense of how stupidly basic it is. I set aside 2-3 hours a week (like a class I'm taking) to get answers to all these questions. The goal is to answer them all by December 1. New items go into this list and into my main GTD actions lists every day.
  • Building relationships with people who do know things. When it comes time to learn something, it's usually best learned from a person and not a document. It's always worth the time to build your support network, to invest in human relationships with the people you find to be good sources of that learning.
  • Maintaining a problem-solving approach to everything, including my ignorance and mistakes. When I was in junior high band, our music folders had this quote written in huge font on the inside: Music is not for the chicken-hearted! Try to be right but don't be afraid to be wrong. This has been my life motto ever since. When I make a mistake, I will own it and then I will fix it. And I won't let the fear of mistakes or looking stupid prevent me from doing my job. When it comes to mistakes, I like the LATTE method that Starbucks uses when there's been a failure in customer service: Listen to the customer (= person whom the mistake affects), Acknowledge the problem, Take action and solve the problem, Thank the customer, and then Explain what you did. (And then add the source of the problem to the to-learn list and make sure it doesn't happen again.) I think this really helps to cure the paralysis that sometimes causes a person not to act at all because they're afraid of making mistakes or looking bad. It's way better than looking around for the right person to blame when mistakes happen.

One of the things I like the most about being a department chair is that it puts me in position to set up a working environment where the faculty and students in the department are free and empowered to do amazing work. After chasing the spotlight of edu-fame for the last several years, this is something I didn't realize that I needed. At the heart of doing this kind of work is cultivating an attitude of acceptance of who I am and what I know along with a growth mindset about my work. I am not perfect! But I'm learning a lot every day.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.