Chris Uggen's Blog: a piece of furniture consisting of a seat, legs, back, and often arms, designed to accommodate one person

Friday, September 09, 2005

a piece of furniture consisting of a seat, legs, back, and often arms, designed to accommodate one person

My proseminar on sociology as a profession is supposed to sensitize first-year graduate students to career issues such as collaboration, publication, the job market, and department and university administration. Enjoying our first class together yesterday, I realized my impending administrative responsibilities will color the tone and content of anything I say in public, including op-eds and blog entries. I explain this to first-years and advisees using the (trite and true) "hat" metaphor. Faculty wear several different hats -- as "citizens" with moral and political thoughts and beliefs, as "experts" in our area of research and teaching, and as representatives or spokespersons for our departments or universities. We try to keep track of which hat(s) we're wearing, but the lines sometimes blur. Even when I'm writing as an "expert" I get nervous appending "University of Minnesota Department of Sociology" to, say, an opinion piece or essay on felon disenfranchisement.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported this summer on three cases in which speech that would likely be "bad but permissible" for regular faculty seemed especially ugly and really problematic coming from a department head. According to Scott Jaschik's article, "chairs are more vulnerable to having their statements scrutinized and their rights to speak out on certain issues curtailed by virtue of their positions. They have academic freedom, but they are demoted over controversial statements -- even though those statements wouldn't cost them their tenure." The best chairs act as honest delegates and effective representatives for their departments. I'm not worried about being "demoted" but wouldn't want anything I say to reflect poorly on my department or colleagues. I'm not planning to write anything hateful (as appears to be the case in a couple "demotions"), but I can't be sure that I won't right something dumb. See what I mean? Mistyping "write" as "right" makes me look sloppy and reflects poorly on the department. Fortunately, I've got until June to sort these issues out (and, who knows, I may be blogged out by then), but I can think of a few "don'ts" or "scrupulously avoids" already:

  1. scrupulously avoid airing departmental dirty laundry
  2. scrupulously avoid anything hateful (or anything likely to be interpreted as same)
  3. scrupulously avoid speaking as a department representative (unless authorized and encouraged to do so)
  4. scrupulously avoid sitting around blogging all day while one is supposed to be out hustling for one's colleagues
  5. scrupulously avoid b.u.i. and b.w.i. (blogging while intoxicated)

On the other hand, I could see how blogging (professors who also happen to be) chairs could be an asset to their departments. They might attract some positive attention to the department, perhaps by reflecting some of the intellectual or creative energy in the air. And, while there are things that chairs can never discuss or only discuss with other chairs, the position might offer a cool viewpoint on big-picture issues such as interdisciplinarity, funding grad students, and other weighty matters. Done properly, it could also provide a decent example of free and creative expression and the good-humored exchange of ideas. Still, depending on the audience, I worry about the "goofball" problem -- would you be more or less likely to attend grad school in a department in which a goofy chair pitches movies, discusses hookah pipes or repeats bad drummer jokes? OK, but what about taking a professorship in such a place? Awarding a multi-million dollar center or large grant? What kinds of posts would be really problematic to such audiences?

17 Comments:

At 11:45 PM, Blogger michelle inderbitzin said...

Hey Chris. Sounds like the mantle of chair is already starting to weigh on you. Not to worry, I'm sure you'll find the balance and be a model administrator, scholar, teacher, and colleague.

More specifically, here's what I think: first, you're a politically savvy kind of guy and I suspect that you rarely, if ever, misspeak, and would never publish ill-considered or mean-spirited comments in your blog (or anyplace else, for that matter).

Second, if the "goofball problem" selects out humorless potential grad students or colleagues from your applicant pool, all the better. Who wants to work with people you have to censor your thoughts, creativity, and humor with? That would just add stress to a job that already comes with plenty.

Finally, on those days when you really need to vent, that's the time to call a discreet friend who has no issues with your department and who you can trust to listen, offer advice, a laugh, or just a supportive ear, and then never speak of it again...

 
At 4:43 AM, Anonymous valerio said...

chris, i have to say that, as far as i see it, your blog is a significant positive contribution to your department (especially students) and people who are potential members of the department (new undergrads, grad students and professors). take me for example. there are four blogs that i read every day (your blog, j. freese, pub sociology, and my friend's non-sociology blog). i mainly comment at your blog because i feel it is the most interesting one (at least to me) as it gives a fine mix of sociological and non-sociological topics all written in a mellow "uggenish" tone.

also, it portrays a good picture about the sociology department at the UM. having a
person like you on the faculty gives an impression of a pleasant atmosphere, and
positive energy (as far as i can remember, your posts were never malevolent or cynical). it will only attract people to the department, both students and professors. and it is a good way to promote the department internationally. i mean, now you have one croatian guy acquainted with UM, and its academic life. :-)

 
At 7:16 AM, Anonymous sarah said...

Ditto.

 
At 8:05 AM, Anonymous chris said...

thanks, doc! i'm truly excited about becoming chair, just starting to think about how i'll manage the job's role expectations. you give me too much credit for savviness -- i've stubbed my toe a few times already. i agree about the attractions of an effective if occasionally goofy chair, as well as the wonderful support of close and trusted friends.

valerio (and sarah), you've mentioned the two blogs that got me writing in the first place, so i'm really pleased you'd put me in such company. i've learned so much from public sociology -- it often turns me on to ideas or papers i wouldn't otherwise have seen (crooked timber too). consistently smart and professional in tone, but also fun and intellectually provocative. jeremy's blog gives a more personal glimpse into a supercreative mind -- a rare combination of raw intellectual horsepower and refined sensitivity. i've always thought a sociologist needed a dose of both qualities to do great work. so, unless some big problem comes up, i'll keep writing until i run out of stuff to write or time to write it -- as a wise former colleague used to say, "its not a problem unless its a problem." and, if i bomb out here, i'm glad i'll have a friend who might hook me up with a part-time teaching gig in croatia :)

 
At 10:13 AM, Anonymous valerio said...

you sure do, chris. it will be a more of a laid back teaching gig because croatia is famous for being "a small country for a great vacation". there are something like 1000 islands, so you can just pick one and take it easy. i'm not sure about the internet connection there, though...

 
At 12:29 PM, Anonymous sarah said...

The phrase I've come up with for your blog philosophy is "discreet transparency" which I find, as a student at the U, albeit a different department, to be refreshing, inspiring, and, well, downright fun. My sense from having popped in to the Soc Dept that day this summer is that you guys really do have all the fun...

 
At 7:26 PM, Anonymous chris said...

hey sarah, we try to keep it fun, but you probably hit us on an exceptionally vibeworthy day.

valerio -- we've got thousands of lakes but we're pretty short on islands. they'd probably freeze over anyway...

 
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Does anyone know what the NHS and Bupa do with all their old hospital furniture? They must auction it off somewhere.
I work for a theatre and we need for some new props for a hospital based play by the way.

 
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