Chris Uggen's Blog: mala verba: putatively innocuous phrases your chair doesn't want to hear

Monday, July 16, 2007

mala verba: putatively innocuous phrases your chair doesn't want to hear

i experienced all manner of fascinating incidents and interactions during my first year as department chair. though the really interesting experiences are completely unfreakingbloggable, i can offer a few general reflections that might help you smoove interactions with your own department chair.

most days, i love serving as chair and truly feel honored that my colleagues trust me to do the job. nevertheless, here are three putatively innocuous expressions that seem to get closed-door conversations off on the wrong foot, along with some suggested alternatives.

1. concerns. my least favorite word these days is the c-word: concerns. concerns are often valid and important, but unlike, say, problems or ideas, there's no directive for action when people express their concerns. and, when chairs simply lend an ear but do not take action, people will feel that their concerns have been ignored. ultimately, a chair is seeking solutions, so a clear statement of the problem is welcome. a direct expression ("i've got a real problem with 8 am classes, chris!") is often more efficient when one feels aggrieved. for less focused concerns, an open-ended query ("can we talk about this policy? here's what i was thinking...") often gets the conversation rolling in a useful direction.

2. demonstrating leadership. i like the term "leadership," but get nervous whenever asked to demonstrate this quality with respect to another colleague or student. demonstrating leadership by making tough choices -- and taking the hit when things go badly -- is all part of the job. unfortunately, some will equate "demonstrating leadership" with bringing your hammer down to smite their enemies. in my experience, true zero-sum scenarios that necessitate hammers are more the exception than the rule in higher education. plus, most chairs only have rubber hammers in their toolbox. they will be much more eager to help you when they can find a solution that does no harm to your colleagues.

3. on your toes. responsible department administration requires a system of checks and balances to keep chairs in line. deans, executive committees, individual faculty members, staff, and students all provide formal and informal oversight to ensure that chairs act in accord with the department's best long-term interests.* chair's sometimes chafe at these restrictions, but they really chafe when informed (however good-naturedly) that some action was taken to "keep them on their toes." staying on one's toes is easy in the short-term, but this position gets really stressful when held day and night for months on end. good chairs are already on their toes ... and those toes are tired. so, rather than asking to review a report to keep your chair on her toes, you might ask whether she'd like help drafting the section about which you are concerned. it isn't exactly a foot massage, but her toes will welcome any relief you can provide.

* the "best long-term interests of the department" or BLTIotD is my day-to-day decision rule. once convinced that a line of action is in the BLTIotD, i'll generally pursue it wholeheartedly.

[the graphic above is taken from verbotomy.]


At 8:42 AM, Blogger Jay Livingston said...

Very good on "concerns." But you make reference to a "toolbox" containing a rubber hammer. I must have been out of the room when they distributed these. The cliche metaphor I usually use is that I have no sticks and very few carrots. With a rubber hammer at least, if you tap in just the right spot, you get a reflex reaction.

At 11:33 AM, Blogger christopher uggen said...

right, jay. great point about getting a reflex reaction. just below the knee, right? the cartoon bubble in my head showed my li'l hammer bouncing off the intended target to strike me on the head.

At 7:39 AM, Blogger Dean Dad said...

Nicely done. The 'concerns' thing is one of those 'will you please dirty your hands so I don't have to' moves that makes administration such fun.

I'd add that 'concerns' are often expressed in code, for the sake of subsequent deniability. Of course, it's assumed that you see through the code, so you can be blamed for not following through on the request that was not made.

At 12:14 AM, Blogger christopher uggen said...

dang, dean dad, you really nailed this one. :)


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