Advice For Dept. Chairs: “Beware of the Curse Of Small Things”

PlainspokenNote: the following blog post was originally posted on our Inside Higher Ed column. Professor Plainspoken (a pseudonym) has been a faculty member for more than 20 years. She is committed to helping young professors succeed in academe. Plainspoken belongs to House Tyrell and is looking forward to the defeat of Queen Cersei, the Evil One.

Beware of the Curse Of Small Things

In a previous article, I wrote about the challenges and rewards of chairing an academic department and offered my post-chair analysis of my performance. In this essay, I talk about the skill set needed for drama-free delivery of your curriculum and reasonably happy colleagues.

We all know the saying “the devil is in the details.” It means that sometimes the success or failure of projects, careers, parties or performances hinges on some detail that was either poorly planned or neglected. Once I took an exam to be hired by a large corporation that used bubble sheets. I brought with me, as instructed, two pencils for the task. I carefully selected them, and they were freshly sharpened and gleaming. If only I had thought to check whether they were No. 2 pencils. The proctors for the exam, who were also human resources executives, gave me that tsk-tsk look as they handed me the stubby in-house pencils. Ultimately, the wrong leads dashed my dreams of carrying a platinum card by American Express and cruising in a European luxury automobile.

What a blessing. Instead, I found my way to the professoriate, where I could abandon concerns about the little things. I think, and write, about big things. Little things be damned. I love being a professor. I can read as many books as I can fit into the day. Tender humans come into my life every year, and over the next four years, I watch them try on their adult selves. Then I get to celebrate the unveiling of the first model of the grown-up they will become. As I greet the parents and tell them what I know about their offspring, I am grateful for my small role in the production of said young adult. Grand stuff.

What I do not have to do as a regular faculty member is order office equipment, review budgets, schedule courses, sign student forms or shoulder any of the other duties that make academic life work. The chair and departmental administrators take care of all of that for me. Yay!

But when you become department chair, you have to shoulder those kinds of duties and more. You have to sign numerous documents — graduation audits, major declaration forms, purchase invoices. Working out class schedules is not difficult, but it is tedious. Minutes, hours and days go by as you run as fast as you can on the paperwork treadmill. Make no mistake — taking care of those duties matters.

Here is the fundamental challenge for a department chair: you cannot trust any process to go smoothly for you. Yes, you sent in the course schedule with all of the preferred times for your faculty members. It comes back to you with many errors. You return a corrected schedule, and when it comes back again, you don’t check it because you are confident that everything is golden. After all, you cannot insult the scheduling czar by sending back the same corrections as before.

But as registration begins, your faculty members soon learn that their course schedules are not as ordered. Yikes! Caterwauling ensues. You wonder whether irate colleagues are going to jump you in the parking lot. You stammer through excuses and keep saying, “I’ll fix it,” as your colleagues complain, “Why is scheduling so hard for you?” and “I told you about my weekly Pilates class weeks ago.” Ouch! I suggest that you examine iterations of the teaching schedule carefully. And ask a colleague and the administrative staff to proofread for you. Share the blame!

And now we come to Professor Plainspoken’s second maxim for chairing an academic department: teaching schedules you must handle with extreme care. Check, double-check and triple-check. And always beware. Mistakes in scheduling are Satan’s tools — for ensuring that you always look like a fool.

Also, when managing teaching schedules and room assignments, never trust that a single communiqué will do. Communicate with the registrar’s office verbally after you send each draft of the course plan. Using two forms of communication should help to guarantee that the correct information is received and understood. The curse of small things is that tiny things, when they go wrong, are one big thing. Unfortunately, the big thing then becomes a key indicator of your competence to your department colleagues. It is understandable, since it is usually the small things that make a difference in the way you spend your days. One or two small stumbles are forgotten — more than a few, especially when you are a nontraditional chair (e.g., a woman of color), seems especially egregious. In time, the curse of small things lifts as you determine the most efficient and foolproof way of getting things done.

We may blame the curse for most of our stresses. Someone once said, “The best way to reduce stress is to stop screwing up.” I think I repeated that one to myself every day. Screw-ups are inevitable. The key is finding ways to avoid beating yourself up about them.

Would-be department chairs need what I often lacked in my position as chair: perspective. Did anyone ever end up teaching a horrible schedule because of a mistake I made? No. But they almost endured an awful schedule. The almost was enough for me to keep a running tally on my bureaucratic near misses. I was treating myself like an air-traffic controller. A near miss was cause for concern about my fitness for the job. I wanted to execute every duty with precision and perfection. Ha! My dentist, who would spend hours reshaping a tooth after a filling, told me a patient said to him after being in his chair for hours, “Perfectionism is the enemy of good enough” (his modification of the saying “The perfect is the enemy of the good”).

Perfectionism. It’s the hobgoblin of marginalized people. It is also the result of parents, who — in their effort to inspire you to do your best — dwelled on your mistakes far more than your successes. I am impatient with myself when learning anything new. I want to get it right right now!

When you add to the mix of perfectionism and impatience the competitiveness of academe, it is a nasty brew. Somewhere along the way, I got the idea that being kind and patient with myself was self-indulgent. I am unlearning this now. Should you become chair, you cannot afford not to be kind and patient with yourself.

And now, the last of the maxims for today from Professor Plainspoken: to yourself you must be kind and nurture a healthy state of mind. The curse of small things you can prevent, and your days as chair you will never lament.

Should You Become Chair(?)

spotlightNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Professor Plainspoken is the pen name of the writer, who has been a faculty member for more than 20 years. She has published and held leadership positions here and there. Ever loyal to her institution and colleagues, she is unwilling to provide more information on her background and work. However, she is perpetually dieting and is a fan of comedian Paul Mooney.


Once I was a faculty member who nurtured warm and fuzzy feelings for my colleagues. I spoke with them daily about things professional and personal. I knew their partners and children and socialized with them outside of faculty events. So, when asked to serve as chair of my department, I said, “Yes! Of course, I will be chair!”

Thus began my descent into the ninth circle of hell. My trust and relationships with my colleagues and my health headed for ruin, despite my pure intentions. I tragically underestimated the effect of my race, gender and age on my ability to facilitate faculty governance. Writing this bit of advice to other academics is one of the ways I found to reconcile my heart and mind with my experiences.

How did a well-seasoned, bald and jolly fat black woman academic ever happily take on the task of heading a department? I accepted the position out of a sense of duty and the prime directive to demonstrate my race’s competency and willingness to work hard. But alas, the intersectional space I occupy would make chairing a department harder than I imagined.

I had ideas to improve the departmental climate and to shepherd the junior faculty through the tenure process. More than a few made that journey during my first several years as department chair. I believed that the tenure process did not have to be a hazing ritual. If we supported candidates emotionally and professionally, it would make their lives easier. Ultimately, we all might have a healthier work environment because newly tenured faculty members could avoid that awkward period right after receiving tenure — that period, you know, when you sort of hate everybody, but you don’t know why. Everyone who came up for tenure received it, and I felt good about it.

As it turned out, warming the tenure pool up enough to stop freezing the candidates was not difficult, but other tasks proved to be my undoing. During the first year that I was chair, new orders came from on high regarding merit reviews, which prompted revisions to the tenure process. I was responsible for bringing the updates to faculty regarding the proposed changes. They were angered and upset by those changes, and they transferred that exasperation to me — plus a little extra!

In addition, I undertook a tiny revision in our curriculum, one that my colleagues said that they wanted. I reasoned that if I were to facilitate this change, they would be pleased. It was a terrible idea. Each meeting designed to work out the changes ended in raised voices and comments aimed straight at my self-esteem. There were too many changes going on at too many levels. I thought I was helping make the department better. I was too deep into the process before I realized that they did not need or want my help. Oops.

What went wrong here? Some parts of managing an academic department are like managing any workplace group, and other parts are distinct to academe. Some of my colleagues outranked me, which is awkward. Unlike corporate managers, who never have to manage the CEO, you have to figure out how to lead, or cooperate with, people who do not have to do anything you suggest. In fact, only junior colleagues are so compelled — even your equals have no incentive to cooperate. You cannot sack, suspend, sanction or slap anyone. You need their good will, respect and loyalty if you can get it. Subconsciously, it may be hard for your white faculty members to respect you or be loyal to you. They may believe that they have good will toward you, but they are probably delusional.

One way to handle a position without power is to use your analytical tools to figure out which faculty member is the most influential. You can solicit help for your tasks and projects from this faculty member, who in turn helps to sell it to colleagues.

While developing a relationship with the faction leaders in your department, stay authentic. Don’t pretend to be fond of them if you are not. You can take them to lunch or dinner as you build what is a necessary professional relationship for the good of your department, and ultimately for the good of students. As chair, I did not create any of the proposed changes on my own. They became mine when I introduced them without privately soliciting support. And so we come to the lesson for today:

Understand the nature of your position. Be careful about implementing changes of any kind during your first year. If you do, do your homework and be a smart and politically savvy chair by courting the power brokers in your department.

Every black woman occupies the intersectional space of race and gender. Think of that as the base model. For me, include the following characteristics: a strong black identity, a forthright style of communicating, extra weight, very short hair and grandmother eligibility. I could not be more of an affront to the standard for academic leadership and womankind. In all fairness, I was aware of this going in, but I believed that my colleagues respected me, were fond of me and had faith that I would do right by them. They probably felt that way before I became chair. Taking on the position meant restructuring, redirecting and reassuring colleagues that I would not become giddy with power.

There ends a key lesson in chairing from Professor Plainspoken: proficiency in politics encourages peace and prosperity for you and your colleagues.