Recommendations for Academic Department Chairs

The content for this post is adapted from my dissertation on faculty free speech cases. All rights reserved. Please share only with attribution.

Consider the differences between individual personalities, individual behavior, and systemic and cultural expectations when it comes to workplace behaviors. If the differences are obvious to you, feel free to skip to the next paragraph. Individual personalities and systemic/cultural expectations can both shape individual behavior, but in the end, unless someone is coerced, behavior is enacted out of one’s personal autonomy. Personalities, while perhaps grating to some, are not cause for discipline—behaviors are. But systemic and cultural expectations are collectively held and socially constructed. This means the responsibility for constructing responsible and inclusive cultural expectations is held by all members of the collective, not just those who complain. When cultural expectations change, individual behaviors likely will as well.

Any job working with other human beings will mean having to work with someone disagreeable at one point or another. Nevertheless, some work environments tolerate and support toxic behavior more than others. In academia, a culture of passivity and conflict aversion has allowed abusive, exploitative, and discriminatory behavior to run rampant for centuries.[1] Academic systems and traditions, like tenure, enable and promote conflict aversion for some,[2] while instilling hypervigilance for others.

Risk and conflict aversion among academic supervisors often affirm the myth that tenured faculty cannot be disciplined.[3] Legal scholars have addressed the legal issues that can ensnare institutions trying to dismiss tenured faculty for cause.[4] Instead, the recommendations offered here are more prophylactic in nature.

The first step is adequate training of academic supervisors in their legal rights and responsibilities. Then department chairs and deans should be trained on how to manage professionals (allowing for autonomy, while promoting collaboration and cooperation). The next step is vital: to address disagreements before they have a chance to escalate into conflicts. Supervisors can leverage options like mediation, restorative justice programs, and other alternative dispute resolution mechanisms with faculty in disputes.

The earlier an issue is addressed, the more normal and necessary the procedures for conflict resolution will become in the faculty members’ minds. Supervisors must not allow bullying among faculty. If one person finds ways to make everyone uncomfortable or upset, it is absolutely imperative to address that behavior, even though it may mean having some difficult conversations. If the faculty member is permitting or encouraging students to enact abusive, bullying, or discriminatory behavior, those students and the faculty member should be put through the appropriate disciplinary processes immediately.

One conversation worth having within a department or unit is to discuss how each individual wants to deal with conflict and/or constructive feedback. Indeed, department chairs can and should have these conversations regularly with each faculty member in the department. Academics receive criticism and negative feedback constantly, but that does not mean they take it well, especially at first. In fact, most academics I’ve spoken with have found it necessary to create buffers around receiving what they perceive as negative feedback, because their first response is commonly defensive or just to feel hurt. Is this the case for you as well? Despite our socialization into peer review and critique, many academics still take criticisms personally, especially when they relate to individual behavior as opposed to writing or an area of scholarly expertise.

Practicing offering constructive feedback in the way each department member has requested will also help the group members to gain self-awareness about their preferences both giving and receiving feedback. Likely the most important thing one can do to dismantle a culture of conflict-aversion is to model for colleagues and students an openness towards soliciting and implementing constructive feedback and an authentic desire to adapt one’s behavior to improve the overall climate for historically marginalized members of our campus communities. If a dispute then spirals out of control, or escalates into grievances or lawsuits, at the very least the supervisor and departmental colleagues will know she had done everything she could to find a solution.

To summarize, institutions can better serve their educational mission by expecting from faculty the same willingness to implement constructive feedback when it comes to their interpersonal behaviors as in their scholarly work and that they expect from their students. Frequent check-ins, frank discussions, and/or progressive discipline should be implemented whenever faculty do not meet expectations for appropriate conduct.

Tell me, how do you process criticism or feedback? Does it differ whether it’s academic or personal? Do you read it through and immediately address it? Do you read it, leave it, and come back later with a fresh perspective? Do you wrestle with each comment in your head or do you try to understand the value of the overall points first? Do you talk it over with a trusted friend or colleague before responding or implementing?

How do you wish your supervisor gave you feedback?

[1] For a complete history of how American universities were built and maintained over the centuries through the continual systematic exploitation and abuse of enslaved Black people, see Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (Bloomsbury Publishing USA Sep. 2013).

[2]  Barbara A. Lee & Kathleen A. Rinehart, Dealing with Troublesome College Faculty and Staff: Legal and Policy Issues, 37 J.C. & U.L. 359, 390 (2010–2011).

[3] See, J. Royce Fichtner & Lou Ann Simpson, Trimming the Deadwood: Removing Tenured Faculty for Cause, 41 J.C. & U.L. 25, *25-26 (2015).

[4] See, Fichtner & Simpson; Lee & Rinehart; David M Rabban, The Regrettable Underenforcement of Incompetence as Cause To Dismiss Tenured Faculty, 91 Ind. L.J. 20 (2015); Timothy B. Lovain, Grounds for Dismissing Tenured Postsecondary Faculty for Cause, 10 J.C. & U.L. [i] (1983–1984).

Learning Online, Teaching Online

Perhaps few people know that I graduated from a fully online, cyber high school in 2007. I have taken online courses at the high school, college, and graduate levels. This year, 2020, is the first year I will be teaching fully online, and I am trying to bring my knowledge of the student experience to my teaching.

Here are five things I have been reflecting on as I TA this semester:

  1. I loved asynchronous classes, and hated synchronous classes. It took me many years to learn why, but a big part of preferring asynchronous classes for me has to do with differing abilities when it comes to visual and auditory processing, attention spans, and for lack of a better word, “zoom fatigue.” I knew in high school that more than 30 minutes in an online course that was mostly lecture or 1-2 students talking at a time was pure torture. It only took 1 course for me to figure that out and I never took another one again! This year I am trying my best to make sure that all the material that students need to know is available in print in addition to being discussed in synchronous sessions.
  2. As part of my enrollment in online high school I received every piece of equipment I needed, for free. I had a printer/scanner, a computer, monitor, keyboard, mouse, and headset. The school knew exactly the specs of the computer they sent me, so all of the software I had to use, and any webapps were tailored to work with the hardware I had. My printer was stocked with ink and paper, and I could write to my instructional supervisor to request any additional supplies as needed. None of my students received any of these provisions, so I have to assume they are operating from a 3-4 year old smart phone that can barely hold a charge for an hour of sustained use. I assume they have a shared computer, no access to a printer, headphones without a built in microphone that works (if that), etc. When I consider what kind of activities or assignments we can do in our synchronous sessions, I have to remind myself that the video or audio may cut out for students, that they may not be able to have more than one tab open at a time, or be able to run word and chrome at the same time. They may be using a phone and switching back and forth between apps. All that to say, finding ways to do asynchronous activities is all the more important, since synchronous activities just may not work how we plan.
  3. The best online course I took was the best because it required a lot of discussion board posts, and they actually dug into the core of the content of the course. The instructor was able to do this by having us all end our posts with questions. She would model what that looked like during the first week, by commenting on all of our posts and ending with questions. Then we were expected to write questions on 3-4 other people’s posts throughout the week. This was extraordinarily successful.
  4. The worst online course I took was the worst because the instructor was entirely checked out. She did not respond to emails for days at a time, and would not put up away messages when she would be unavailable (PLEASE use away messages if you’re not going to check your email for 24+ hours, it really does help students know what to expect!).*
  5. I made one friend in the equivalent of a zoom chat when I was in high school in the only synchronous class I took. Your students likely don’t know each other if you’re at a large university, so it’s worth giving students opportunities to connect with each other during synchronous class times. Breakout rooms are great, and not something we had when I was in high school, else I think I would have made a lot more friends! Encourage students to create discord servers or other group messaging threads to communicate about classwork, proofread each other’s papers, study together/tutor each other, etc. At the very least, you’ll know you did well if students end up with some sort of community at the end of the semester. We surely could all use a bit more community these days.

Thanks for reading!


*In fact, your students will greatly appreciate it if you have an away message up all semester that says something like “Due to the high volume of emails I receive for my courses in addition to my other duties, I will respond to student emails between the hours of X-Y on XYZ days. If you email me with an urgent matter on another day, please indicate the urgency by marking the message as “important.” I will do the best I can to respond in a timely manner, but please be patient during this very uncertain time. Thank you for understanding.”