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Sunday, August 27, 2006
Disorganization Station
Last week I had a long meeting with Trudie, the only other female (and the only other non-tenured member) in my new department. I really enjoy her so far: we are the subfield faculty so we are interested in a lot of the same things academically, we're both married to professionals, and we both have preschool-aged boys (although she has two). Last Wednesday she invited me into her office and we had a meeting about the department.

"Look," she said, "this is a fantastic place to work. The environment is great, the students are great, and the city is a lot of fun. But this department is so disorganized it's not even funny." She then proceeded to tell me a lot about the department that I already knew, and a lot about how the department has been resistant to change. For example, there are courses on the books that are clearly in the wrong place (e.g., imagine a course called "The Works of Leo Tolstoy" that was listed in the "20th Century American Poetry" category) or clearly outdated (e.g., imagine a course entitled "The Soviet Union Today"). One of the courses I'm teaching is completely mis-categorized so that when students look at the course catalogue, they think my "Tolstoy" course counts for their major emphasis in "20th Century American Poetry." Additionally, there are courses that students are technically "required" to take that haven't been offered in years, and if they have been offered recently they were all taught so differently that there's no way the students all received the "required" information. Finally, although it is generally recognized that there are five big subfields in my discipline, the department here only requires that students take a course in one of them, Subfield A. This is inadequate: if students want a major in My Discipline, they need introductory courses to at least two additional subfields. Right now, it's like majoring in Biology and only being required to take courses on Fish.

Trudie has already completed her first year here, and she said pushing any change through the department was frustrating and led nowhere. She said that while some faculty gave lip-service to her recommended changes, when push came to shove no one took any action. In some ways, it seems like each professor in the department has their own little fiefdom, and they jealously guard "their" students and "their" courses and are resistant to reorganization of any kind.

It seems clear to me after speaking with Trudie and learning more about the department that some changes must happen in order for our major to attract students and in order for us to truly give them a major representative of the entire discipline. The subfields of my discipline are not at all equally represented in the department: well over 60% of the courses now fall into Subfield A, while Subfield B (mine) is small and Subfield C is nearly non-existent. Subfield D consists of one course, and Subfield E is completely unrepresented.

This is all due to the fact, I think that my department is one that is at the tail end of a major transition. Just a few years ago, the entire department consisted of old white men who'd been there at least 30 years. I know that this disorganization started then, as I've heard that the faculty until very recently were not on good terms with one another. But now, with a collegial faculty and one with most subfields represented, there's really no reason the department's courses should be so decentralized, and no reason why we can't have a little more standardization in terms of what is required and what is elective.

I have a feeling that these sorts of things are going to be the end of me. I am a person who craves change, and someone who (as you know already) strives for organization. I learned in my last "real job" in HR that I'm also a person who hates meetings and committees, and that I'd rather just get things done instead of talking about getting things done. I can be annoying when I have to be. The question is, as a new faculty member, what can and should I do? Obviously I'll side with Trudie on a lot (most) issues in departmental meetings, but I'm not sure how much good that will do, either, given that we're both untenured and new to the department. I just wish there was an uncomplicated solution to these organizational problems, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the solution is going to be almost as complicated as the problem, universities being as they are.
Posted with care by Prof. Me @ 8/27/2006 07:42:00 PM  
8 Words of Wisdom:
  • At 10:38 AM, Blogger Aliki2006 said…

    Yes, this can be an incredibly frustrating situation to be in--I feel your pain. During my interview for my job four years ago, there was lots of discussion about all the "new" and innovative changes I could help bring to the dusty 'ol courses around here, and lots of promise about curriculum changes, etc. But my department is also incredibly disorganized and its position is even threatened, as we only have about 8 majors (it's a small school!).

    I don't have much advice as far as what one can do to deal with that type of situation. Obviously it's tricky to a) not ruffle any feathers and b) also be a vehicle for change!

     
  • At 11:18 AM, Anonymous Sarah K. said…

    Yes, I agree with the above poster's comment that it's important not to ruffle any feathers, esp. during your first year (or, really, during all the years before you make tenure). All your points about changes needed seem valid, but right now it would seem your job is to 1) publish, publish, publish; and 2) get awesome teaching evaluations. Stay away from the rest, unless your input is expressly requested. Just IMO.

     
  • At 11:28 AM, Blogger ScienceWoman said…

    As Aliki and Sarah said, don't ruffle too many feathers. But also remember that you will have advisees (official or unofficial) that you can steer towards a more appropriate curriculum under the guise of preparing them for grad school or the work world or whatever. Maybe your other colleagues will notice how well your advisees are doing and change will come about. Just my 2 cents and I am not a prof.

     
  • At 6:58 PM, Anonymous Ivory said…

    First you need a clear and organized idea of what needs to change. I would then divide the things you list in to "achievable", "difficult" and "presently impossible but we'll see later". Organize those three lists further, prioritizing them from most important to change to least important to change. Then decide what you can change yourself and what you need help to change. For those things you need help (or consensus) to alter, I would find an "elder statesman type" and convince them that your ideas are right. Perhaps two or three elder statesmen. Then start a whispering campaign where you talk about how "so-and-so elder statesman" thinks this is a good idea to all the other people "lower" in the hierarchy. All this happens before you go to a faculty meeting and make any suggestions. Finally, when most people have heard about your idea and agree, have elder statesman suggest that certain changes be made. Keep track of this as you are probably the only one who will follow up and make sure things happen. Finally, relentlessly pursue your goals with the understanding that it might take years before you will see any change. Change can come but it is usually glacially slow and usually involves committees. Relax and hold on...you're in for a long ride.

     
  • At 9:57 PM, Blogger Peri said…

    I'm sympathetic. I'm all about change and action-- especially when I can see what needed to be done YESTERDAY! Be careful though, Ivory seems to have this one down pretty well. I'd play this one very close to the vest. It's going to be very tough if you are the only 2 women in the dept. and both of you are recent hires. I'll happily commiserate, though!

     
  • At 11:13 PM, Blogger ArticulateDad said…

    All I can say is good luck with it all, both fostering change, and accepting your own inability to do so at times. Let us know how things go. It will be a lesson for each of us.

     
  • At 12:04 PM, Blogger Inside the Philosophy Factory said…

    When I needed to make a change at my CC, I took the 'get one older and respected person on my side' technique, and it worked.

    The key is to pick one or two things you can change, yourself -- and that are also important to you. It may be a good idea to take in the landscape for a bit before you go into change mode, but don't wait too long or your newness will wear off -- and with it you ability to say 'opps, my bad, I'm new here' if you really step in some smelly stuff.

     
  • At 6:24 PM, Anonymous New Kid on the Hallway said…

    Heh. To quote Dean Dad, "Been there, done that, got the T-shirt."

    I ended up leaving that position, but FWIW, I didn't leave because of the stuff you describe above - I left for other reasons. It can actually be very exciting to be in your position, and while your department may be troublesome, other people on campus will doubtless welcome you with open arms. (Though this depends a little on how big your campus is, of course, and how much college-wide interaction you have.) It's kind of exciting to be the future of the department - because, however much some of your old guard will resist it, that's exactly what you are. And they will eventually go away.

    Anyway, the best of luck to you!

     
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