The Department Chair

One of the things that fascinated me about the Netflix show starring Sandra Oh was its portrayal of the job of the department chair. It made the job look far more exciting than I imagine it is in reality. Academia is a weird workplace. Until the last few decades, it was normal for a college or university to be run by administrators drawn largely from the ranks of the faculty. In this sense, it was not run by professionals but rather, by faculty who were willing to take some time away from their work to attend to helping to run their institution. These days, especially universities are generally run by people who are professional administrators. These days, even Presidents and Provosts are not necessarily people who started out their career as professors. It is nearly a given that a President or Provost will come from one of the professional schools and will have been out of the classroom for a substantial amount of time before attaining the big job.

Deans continue to be drawn from the professorial ranks but, depending on their trajectory, might well have been out of the classroom for many years — at a time when the student body of many institutions, especially large publics, have rapidly evolved. In my two decades at UT, one president (Bill Powers) made a point of teaching at least once a year. Our current provost was the Dean of Engineering for several years before ascending to the job of provost. My former dean did not teach during his decade as dean, at a time when the College was undergoing substantial changes in who are students are, what their backgrounds are, etc. My current dean, who was hired from UC Davis, has not yet taught at UT.

Let me be clear: I don’t expect any of these senior administrators to teach. Their jobs have become increasingly complicated and demanding; and increasingly removed from the day to day work that professors are trained to do. Chairs in my college are expected to teach a 1–0 load. This means that, if someone is chair for an extended period of time and opting to teach primarily upper division ugrads and grads, it is quite easy for them to lose touch with the character of the student body.

I expect that it is only a matter of time before even department chairs will be higher education professionals rather than senior departmental faculty. It is increasingly important for department chairs to be knowledgeable about things like trends in higher education and HR procedures in addition to wrangling a group of not always very cooperative faculty. I can imagine a system in which the “chair” is someone who advises a professionally trained manager rather than a faculty member who is elevated to the role of chair for a period of time, before returning to their role as a professor.

It has become increasingly clear to me, in my own department, that the duties of the chair require a team effort: we have an outstanding Executive Assistant/Master of All Things; an undergraduate advisor; a graduate coordinator/course coordinator; and a very skilled front office employee. Procedures have become so complicated, and rules change so frequently that we all rely on these staff to do everything from processing reimbursements to helping undergraduates navigate the degree programs to figuring out the teaching schedules/course assignments for the department. When I first came to UT, much of what we now ask different staff members to do was done by individual faculty or the Department Chair. Things were far less complicated and there were far fewer things to do (both for Chairs and for faculty).

In recent days, I was looking at a section of my current chair’s deposition for my ongoing lawsuit. Something caught my eye and gave me pause: as part of a broader set of questions and answers about online courses, my current chair declared that she did not think that online courses were appropriate at a “residential college” like UT; and that they did not support learning in the same way that in person classes do. She also noted that, as Chair, it was her right to decide the role of online courses for the department as a whole. And then reiterated her general opposition to having online courses on offer. In addition, she noted that, in her opinion, teaching two online classes plus to in person classes per year (my institution has a 2–2 teaching load) was substanial enough of a teaching load. The declaration rested on the assumption that online classes are much easier to teach than an in person class. Interestingly, the deposition took place in November 2020, as instructors around the US were confronting the challenges of teaching online.

First, I am quite sure that nobody who has actually taught an online class — even a Zoom class — would declare that it was much easier than an in person class. Experienced online teachers will note that it is significantly MORE work to teach online, especially as you are developing and revising a course. The advantage that online offers is flexibility; or, in a pandemic, safety from a lethal virus. Online teaching is also very difficult to do well. It requires specific training in online pedagogy and an ability to adapt in person activities to the tools available on an online platform. That said, there is nothing inherently worse about online vs in person. In person is what most of us are used to doing, it’s how we all learned, and it’s how most of us have taught for most of our career. But this does not preclude the possibility of high quality online courses taught by highly skilled instructors — I know some of these people and their classes. The modality does not determine the quality of a class. The skills of the instructor do. We all know of bad in person classes; and, I hope, we can all imagine that there are many excellent online classes being taught around the US.

I was quite taken aback by the declaration that a department chair had the right and/or responsibility to decide, on behalf of the department, something so complicated yet important as the role of online courses in the department’s curriculum. At the very least, it seems like this should be a decision made by the full department, given the many ramifications. It is also a decision that cannot be made based on an instinctive personal view that in person is just better. It requires the Chair to become educated in all of the data and research around issues like enrollment trends and student demand; learning outcomes in online vs in person; student desire for flexibility, especially in courses that meet graduation requirements.

There is a lot at stake in declaring that you do not approve of online courses. And, indeed, my own department has been forced to offer our Latin sequence as online or hybrid; and both Intro to Rome and Intro to Classical Myth online. The online sections continue to draw strong enrollments while the in person sections, as a whole, do not. We do not have an online version of our Intro to Ancient Greece course. Unsurprisingly, in recent years, the enrollment in those sections has dropped (and will continue to drop, I suspect). Certainly, there are students who prefer in person to online but they are no longer the majority.

My department has done the bare minimum in terms of providing online options to larger enrollment courses. In the aftermath of Covid, with the addition of Zoom and more faculty who are comfortable and reasonably skilled at using the Zoom platform for teaching, I imagine that other departments will increase their online offerings. Classics has long benefitted from the fact that our online courses also carry several “flags” that meet graduation requirements. I suspect that we will be facing much more competition for students in the coming years. Indeed, the quality of the online course and instruction will matter more and more.

I was also puzzled by the claim that UT Austin is a residential university. This is and is not true. In reality, we are many things these days: we continue to teach “traditional” undergraduates who live in Austin, take full course loads, and do not have to worry about money. But, over the last decade, our student body has become much more diverse. We have many non-traditional students, adults with families who are returning to school to finally get that necessary college degree. We have war veterans who also trend older and married with kids. Many undergraduate students have to work 30–40 hours/week. They cannot take a full load of courses each semester and value flexibility above all else.

While SLACs and elite private universities tend to serve a student body that is largely traditional, public universities serve a much broader range of students. As well, many students prefer to take classes for their major in person while taking required courses online (and, usually, asynchrously). UT Austin may have been a typical residential university at one time but it no longer is. This evolving student body has different needs and demands than the 18–21 year old, unmarried and childless students. One way to reinforce the elitism of Classics is to make it wholly inaccessible to anyone who is not a traditional student.

As well, to demand that all classes are preferably taught in person ignores students with disabilities — which, it turns out, is a lot of students. To give a recent example of this: I had a student in my freshman seminar this past fall semester. S/he was a very bright student whose presence added substantially to the seminar. S/he also had a very lengthy list of ADA accommodations. I do not know what their specific diagnoses are, only that they experienced periods when the disease(s) flared and other periods when it was in a remission of sorts. During these flares, this student became very unwell. If my class had been in person, this student would have been forced to miss those class sessions. Because we were online, s/he was able to attend with her camera turned off and my permission not to participate if s/he did not feel up to it. As a result, s/he attended all classes and I never had to do any extra work to help them catch up on a missed discussion.

Indeed, throughout the fall semester, when students in my classes were sick, I offered them the opportunity to attend class but with the camera off and the promise that I would not call on them. They did this, with the result that they were able to keep up despite health issues. Had my class been in person, I would have had to spend substantial extra time reviewing the things they missed — and hoping that I did not forget anything important.

During the pandemic, it has become clear that online classes and events greatly increase accessibility for those with medical disabilities in particular. Indeed, the pandemic essentially rendered all of us disabled before vaccines arrived. None of us had immunity to the coronavirus and required special accommodations in the form of moving our classes online. Yet, apparently, such an accommodation is unthinkable if it is just one person who needs it because they are at high risk of severe illness from simple germs (e.g. someone recovering from chemotherapy; someone on high doses of steroids for a medical condition). It is my fervant hope that, rather than returning to March 2020, we recognize lessons learned during the pandemic and make an effort to improve accessibility and equity for students as well as instructors. High quality online courses, taught by trained instructors, have an important role to play in that effort.

It is also important to distinguish between offering some classes online vs offering all classes online. To nobody’s surprise, students at all levels did not like having their entire lives moved online. They did not like taking college courses from their childhood bedroom. But none of this means that there is not a role for online courses in every department’s curriculum. Data shows us that, since about 2013, the demand for online courses at public universities has skyrocketed year after year.

Certainly, my online Intro to Rome never struggled to enroll students even as the in person versions saw declining enrollments. It is tempting to attribute the decling enrollments of in person classes to individual instructors (e.g. if only Dr. X were still teaching Y). The truth is, even if Dr. X were still teaching, Dr X. would see enrollment declines. No amount of personal charisma can overcome the desire or need for flexibility, especially among engineering and other STEM majors with lab-heavy schedules.

In reading about my own chair’s strong dislike of online classes, I wondered why she signed off on me building an online class for two years. I was not aware of the depths of her dislike of all things online at the time that I was devoting 60 hours/week to creating something that would help the department maintain enrollments at a time when student preferences were shifting. At the time, I had thought that she would see the Online Rome class as an important contribution to the department’s efforts to maintain enrollments. I had devoted valuable research time to building something for the benefit of my department. Little did I know that my chair would hugely devalue the contribution (including the time I spent training a former grad student who went on to build the online Latin classes and the online myth class); and see it as an albatross rather than an asset. In retrospect, I realize that she signed off and faked her support of the project because she received $$ for my time; and, with me absent, she could pretend that all of the harassment and attacks on me never happened. She was glad to have me away from the department as she established herself as Chair. I now understand why, when the time came to hand the course over to the department to run, she treated it as a burden and refused to staff it in accordance with the plans that I wrote up. These days, she has no choice but to run online sections but continues to downplay the value of the online courses to department enrollments.

While my chair may have been ignorant of all things online and largely permitted to maintain that position, UT knew that our students were taking online classes at other institutions and then transferring the credit. They got into the business of building and offering in house online courses in an effort to recapture those lost tuition dollars. Given the number of online courses and even degree programs that were offered before the pandemic; and the continued investment in building more online courses, especially for large enrollment courses (something that the Provost’s office offered funding for this past summer), it is clear that — regardless of what Classics is doing — the university is shifting to more varied modes of instruction. The cannot afford not to do this. As my current chair finishes her second term and a new chair is appointed, I hope that this new chair takes the time to grasp the importance of offering our courses in a range of modalities.

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