It's a Juggling Act

It's a Juggling Act

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1891-4.ch002
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I’ve yet to be on a campus where most women weren’t worrying about some aspect of combining marriage, children, and a career. I’ve yet to find one where many men were worrying about the same thing. -Gloria Steinem

Wenger (1998) states, “Whether these communities arise spontaneously or come together through seeding and nurturing, their development ultimately depends on internal leadership” (p. 7). This quote is particularly germane to our conversations regarding department chairs since in many cases they are elected by faculty and approved by the Dean or other administrator. When our Teacher Education Unit attempted to bust through the departmental silos and create a more horizontal leadership structure across programs, we engaged in shared readings which examine concepts of shared governance, community, and leadership. One particular reading which undergirds our work is Senge’s, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (1993). He maintains learning communities (we perceive our department to be a learning community) require community developers, in this case department chairs, to thoroughly understand the human interactions and relationships among leadership, shared community vision, the building of community, and cooperative and collaborative learning systems.

Creating a learning community within the Teacher Education Unit is a strong motivator in our work as chairs. Leiberman (1996) identified eight reasons to develop learning communities: provide trusting and supportive environment; access “just-in-time” learning; examine problems; connect individuals with common interests; offer developmental approach to learning; remove organizational boundaries; empower members; and share leadership.

The complex issues or challenges of chairs are examined in some of seven years worth of research conducted by Cipriano and Riccardi (2014). They found 74.5% of department chairs identified as faculty and 22.5% considered themselves administration; 95.9% had not taken any coursework related to assuming the role of a department chair; and 83.2% had no management training prior to becoming a chair (p. 11). When we accepted the position of Department Chair we truly had no idea we would learn so much about juggling. Like those in Cipriano and Riccardi’s research, we identify as members of the faculty and we did not have any formal coursework or professional development to prepare us for our transition into our leadership.

The department chair is much like a middle manager of the corporate sector, with one large exception: Department Chair has typically not had formal training to take on the new roles and responsibilities. Gmelch and Parkay (1999) describe the challenges of a department chair as a swivel chair. This metaphor in our mind clearly depicts the inherent stressors of the position, always looking back and forth in order to manage the often conflicting needs, expectations of all constituents, administration, faculty, students, institution, department, etc. These stressors are compounded by the fact that most department chairs are not professionally prepared to take on the vast and disparate responsibilities.

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Shift Happens

Becoming a Department Chair requires many shifts. As a faculty member, we focused on our personal research, disciplines, classes, students, and advisees. As department chair, the number of responsibilities grows exponentially. In addition to our faculty roles, we were responsible and accountable to advocate, advise, and serve upper administration, our Academic Dean, the faculty in the department, and the students in the program.

We have tried to provide a visual denoting the top-down nature of leadership in higher education, until the Department Chair position. Below (Figure 1) is a very rudimentary organizational structure of how higher education is often structured.

Figure 1.

Typical higher education structure

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