Monday, October 10, 2016

When Departments Falter

When you go from graduate school to working at a community college -- or from one college to another -- you’ll quickly notice that departments are configured differently from place to place.  But almost every college thinks its own idiosyncratic arrangement is right, if not holy.

One college will merge history and poli sci.  Another will merge sociology and anthropology.  Sometimes ESL will be in English; sometimes in Languages; sometimes alone.  Some break out Reading from English.  I’ve seen geography as its own department, as a subset of sociology, and as a discipline that doesn’t even get its own designation.  

Coming out of grad school, the sudden reconfiguration of departments can be disorienting.  Graduate programs are resolutely discipline-focused, and departments tend to follow.  But at teaching-focused institutions, especially smaller ones, sometimes there isn’t critical mass in a given discipline to make a freestanding department practical.  Over time, disciplines get mashed together out of a mix of scholarly propinquity -- you’re more likely to see poli sci with history than with automotive tech -- and local personalities.  

Discipline-based departments offer clear advantages.  They’re consistent with industry-wide practice, so people tend to find them intuitive.  They consist of a group of people engaged in a relatively common project.  They make it easy to know who to put where.  They concentrate content knowledge in one place, so we can have confidence that new hires will know their stuff.  By the time faculty job candidates get to me, I can assume they’ve been vetted by the department for content expertise.  For fields in which I don’t, that’s no small thing.

But they fall prey to a predictable set of dangers, too.  Robert Weisbuch’s piece in IHE offers a few, though he doesn’t really get to causes.  I’ll take a shot.

At a really basic level, smaller departments are subject to the issues that plague any small group with minimal change over time.  A single toxic personality can dominate the climate.  Interpersonal feuds based on who-knows-what can last for years, often growing tendrils that envelop other issues.  Groupthink can trump critical thought, allowing dogma to go unchallenged for decades.  

Size can help, which is why departments of two people are suboptimal.  Take chairing.  Chairing a department requires a different skill set -- and a different tolerance for bureaucracy -- than teaching.  Some people have both sets of skills, and that’s great, but many don’t.  I’ve seen some excellent teachers really crash and burn in administrative roles, and I’ve seen some merely competent teachers do quite well in them.  In a large department, there may be several people who are good at both, so it’s possible to have a good chair most of the time.  In a really small department, though, someone who really shouldn’t chair may be pressed into service by default.  That leads to poor performance, frustration, and rippling consequences.  

Even with greater size, though, there’s a danger of siloing.  Academics seem especially prone to that.  If the members of a single department talk mostly to each other, they can easily misread the larger institutional picture.  It’s accidental, rather than malicious, but in some ways that makes it harder to stop.  From the outside, the distinction between “this is right for the students” and “this is what I personally prefer” may be obvious, but from within the silo, it may be hard to see.  A small group of smart people telling each other how persecuted they are for years on end can construct a pretty tight box for itself.

When I went from Rutgers to DeVry, I went from a poli sci department with several large factions (IR, Comparative, Theory, and Theory had its own subdivisions…) to a single “general education” department that encompassed everything in the humanities, social sciences, math, and science.  Department meetings included the resident physicist, the English folk, the math people, the historian, and the various social scientists.  It was a different world.  While I sometimes missed having others around who knew what I was talking about, it was an amazing opportunity to get outside of my own training.  It proved to be effective, if accidental, training for administration.

Since then, I’ve been a bit agnostic on the configurations of departments and divisions.  They weren’t handed down from the mountain.  They’re administrative contrivances to get certain kinds of work done.  To the extent they help with that, and don’t cause too many side effects, call any given arrangement good.  To the extent the silos have hardened, some occasional silo-busting is probably to the good.  A new set of colleagues can be like bringing a new lamp into an old room; suddenly you notice dust that you never noticed before.  It’s good for you.

I reject the idea that a dysfunctional department is the inevitable and unchangeable cost of doing business.  It can be changed.  Just going from college to college is enough to prove that.