I kissed my kids this morning as I left for another full day at the office. I love my job. In fact, I can’t tell you how long it has been since I have loved a job more than I love this one. It is a job that occupies my mind almost every minute of the business day, and sometimes beyond. But I love it. It is remarkable.
“Are you going to be at work all day and night today?” My six-year-old asks.
“No, I’ll be home for dinner. But I have a lot of meetings today, so I need to get going.” I said.
“Why do you have so many meetings?” He asked.
“That’s the life of a Department Chair.” I said.
“You’re a Department Chair? How can a person be a chair?” My three-year-old, and very observant, daughter asked.
What a great question. How does one become a chair?
I know what she was asking, but the question posed in the voice of my three-year-old made me think, “How did I ever end up here?”
From Reluctance to Opporutity
I began my career as a college professor nearly 8 years ago. I was hired as an Assistant Professor of English at Elizabethtown College and six years later I was promoted to Associate Professor and awarded tenure. Seems straightforward enough. I had set out to become a college professor after a brief four-year stint as a middle school English teacher, followed by a 2-year residency Ph.D. program at the Kansas State University College of Education.
In my pursuit to be a college professor I had but a few goals:
- develop great classes for students,
- write things people actually want to read, and
- contribute to my college community in a meaningful way
You will note that I never set out to be a department chair, hold leadership positions, or seek fame. I didn’t have time for these things I thought, so they weren’t even on my radar.
But shortly after I was awarded tenure and promoted to Associate Professor at Elizabethtown College the topic of when, not if, I were to serve as department chair became a conversation of some concern among me and my colleagues. There was a moment where I felt completely reluctant to even consider the idea. However, I quickly came around to realize this was a remarkable opportunity that I could not pass up.
There is No Training Like On-The-Job Training.
Larger colleges and universities probably send new department chair recruits to conferences and workshops on how to lead an academic department. Moderately-sized colleges might even host a series of meetings on campus to train new department leaders, but that is not part of my experience. And I believe this is the most important aspect of daughter’s question above. How did I become a chair, I just did–without much training or mentorship I assumed the role on July 1, 2016.
I did a fair amount of reading before taking over the department. I read over the most recent external review conducted right before I was hired in 2009. The extensive report written by outside reviewers provided important context. I saw the perceived areas of growth and read the criticisms as potential areas of developement.
I also found Jeff McClurken’s “Open Letter to 2010-2011’s New Department Chairs.” I think what I appreciate the most about Jeff’s letter is that he gives the new department chair a moment to reconnect with her/his/their humanity. At the end of the day, every department chair is only human, and humans make mistakes. Almost nothing that I set out to do will be perfect, though I have committed to do my work in this capacity with pride and keen sense of quality. There is, after all, nothing easy about this job. They take away nearly half of what you love–teaching, and they give you double of what you loathe–meetings. But I have found that I love this work. It is challenging, it is engaging, and it is important.
As the journey continues throughout the year I may look back on this post and think, “Look at that starry-eyed idiot waxing on and on about how his work is engaging and important…” But until I reach that point I’ll simply say this: I have found one becomes a chair when he or she finds (or develops) a passion (or love) for his or her discipline, his or her colleagues, all students involved and the collective work of the entire unit. This has become the fuel that burns every day that I wake up to do my job, and it is the guiding principle behind every decision I make–even the difficult decisions that often keep me up late at night.
Paulo Freire once examined education as “an act of love.” I believe this is something I need to examine in a future post about becoming a department chair.