What I've learned so far as Assistant Chair

What I've learned so far as Assistant Chair

This year, and for the next two years, I'm serving as Assistant Chair (AC) of my department. We are a large department with over 30 tenure-track faculty members and even more affiliate, visiting, and adjunct faculty, plus over 150 majors. We're so large that I am one of two Assistant Chairs, along with our department chair. My fellow AC and I are in charge of faculty searches (which we aren't doing this year), conducting elections for department chair (which we are doing this year), personnel actions for tenure and promotion and contract renewal, course scheduling, staffing courses, and smaller items like planning department social events and producing the biweekly newsletter.

It's almost like being an associate dean of a small college than being Assistant Chair of a large department. It's busy, and complicated at times, and the one thing I realized almost right away when I started this position in July was that I wasn't ready for most of it. This has given me an excellent opportunity to reflect on some parts of my career that needed airing out.

When you're a rank-and-file faculty member in a large department where there are a lot of moving parts to maintain, but there are also people in places besides yourself who do this maintenance, you tend not to pay full attention to how things are done. Take scheduling classrooms for instance. In seven years at GVSU, I probably did not spend more than 15 minutes thinking about the process of making sure classes were properly scheduled for rooms. Of course I knew that, somehow, this got done. But when it came time for me to be the one to do it, or at least half of it, my seven years of accumulated blissful ignorance hit me like a truck.

It's not enough just to have a room for every class. You have to make sure that

  • None of the classes conflict with each other (obviously)
  • None of the upper-division classes meet during the MW 1:00-1:50 time slots because that's when department meetings are held
  • The classes being offered are the ones we say we are going to offer according to our course offering plan, and at the right times (a certain number of afternoon sections, a certain number of evening sections, etc.)
  • The math education faculty are meeting their classes at times that make it easy for them to get out into the schools to do observations
  • The lower-division classes are offered at times such that adjuncts can stack them back-to-back so they don't have to commute in five days a week necessarily
  • The classes that are "service" courses are offered at times and in locations that work for our partner departments like engineering, computer science, etc. (Even if those desired times/locations can conflict with each other)
  • There are at least 48 hours of populated class times in each of the 10 classrooms that are "owned" by your department --- basically 8am-8pm Monday through Thursday with bits and pieces on Friday --- or else we may no longer be allowed to own those rooms
  • And more.

And, those constraints change as the process unfolds, and more are added and some are removed.

I thought I'd be fine with scheduling classes because I'm good at organization. But the sheer complexity of it, its nailing-jello-to-the-wall nature, and --- most importantly --- the fact that I lacked an intuitive sense of how my own department works, had me feeling like the dumbest person on earth; like I was letting my department chair and fellow AC down; like I was projecting incompetence like a halo. For someone used to feeling like he knows what he's doing and being on top of things, it was a bad place.

And this is just one responsibility among several to which I had paid little to no attention before. So if this sounds like the learning curve for being Assistant Chair has been close to vertical, you'd be right. It's been a learning experience and not a very comfortable one for me. I'm not used to being in a situation where I have to get something important done and I literally have no idea what I am doing. But that's been the case since I officially started my AC duties in July, and frankly I've been struggling to keep up.

But I maintain, just as I tell students, that struggle is the first sign that you're doing something important and doing it right, so I'm hopeful. And more importantly I am trying to learn things along the way. Here's what I've learned so far.

  1. Psychological safety is real. I have written about this idea before, and as I have stumbled through the learning process of being AC, I have had to expose my considerable ignorance many, many times and ask for help, and admit rookie mistakes that I should have avoided. This has been extremely uncomfortable at times. It would be impossible, were I an a culture that is consistently psychologically unsafe. You have to be in an environment where signaling your ignorance is accepted, in order to stop being ignorant.
  2. Encouragement is so, so powerful. I wrote this blog post on encouragement being the antidote to bad culture and that message has been prominent for me. When you get even the smallest encouragement from the people you work with, especially when you've struggled and made mistakes that create more work for them, it's incredibly restorative. I certainly don't need people telling me that I'm great all the time, in order to feel competent; but the simplest acknowledgement that something you did went right, is incredibly uplifting.
  3. The most powerful thing you can bring to any job is the ability to learn, and learn fast. I heard this a lot at Steelcase, where my manager in the Steelcase Education group once said: The only competitive advantage we have over the other companies is that we learn faster than they do. Those words burned into my brain when he said them, and it's true: The only thing I really bring to my role as Assistant Chair is the ability to work through my mistakes and misunderstandings and, even if at a glacial pace, gradually figure things out.
  4. Finally, I've learned that despite all this, being in a leadership role, even a sort of low-level functionary one like Assistant Chair, can put you in a position where you can do for your colleagues what we do for students: Create an environment where they are maximally likely to do their best work. And that is highly satisfying.

So I'll keep going, and if you'll excuse me I have some courses to staff.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

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