TITLE: Admin Pushing Teaching to the Side AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: January 08, 2008 5:05 PM DESC: ----- BODY: I have always liked the week before classes start for a new semester. There is a freshness to a new classroom of students, a new group of minds, a new set of lectures and assignments. Of course, most of these aren't really new. Many of my students this semester will have had me for class before, and most semesters I teach a course I've taught before, reusing at least some of the materials and ideas from previous offerings. Yet the combination is fresh, and there is a sense of possibility. I liked this feeling as a student, and I like it as a prof. It is one of the main reasons that I have always preferred a quarter system to a semester system: more new beginnings. Since becoming department head, the joy is muted somewhat. For one thing, I teach one course instead of three, and instead of taking five. Another is that this first week is full of administrivia. There are graduate assistantship assignments to prepare, lab schedules to produce, last-chance registration sessions to run. Paperwork to be completed. These aren't the sort of tasks that can be easily automated or delegated or shoved aside. So they capture mindshare -- and time. This week I have had two other admin-related items on my to-do list. First is an all-day faculty retreat my department is having later this week. The faculty actually chose to get together for what is in effect an extended meeting, to discuss the sort of issues that can't be discussed very easily during periodic meetings during the semester, which are both too short for deep discussion and too much dominated by short-term demands and deadlines. As strange as it sounds, I am looking forward to the opportunity to talk with my colleagues about the future of our department and about some concrete next actions we can take to move in the desired direction. There is always a chance that retreats like this can fall flat, and I bear some responsibility in trying to avoid that outcome, but as a group I think we can chart a strong course. One good side effect is that we will go off campus for a day and get away from the same old buildings and rooms that will fill our senses for much of the next sixteen weeks. Second is the dean's announcement of my third-year review. Department heads here are reviewed periodically, typically every five years. I came into this position after a couple of less-than-ideal experiences for most of the faculty, so I am on a 3-year term. This will be similar to the traditional end-of-the-term student evaluations, only done by faculty of an administrator. In some ways, faculty can be much sharper critics than students. They have a lot of experience and a lot of expectations about how a department should be run. They are less likely to "be polite" out of habits learned as a child. I've been a faculty member and do recall how picky I was at times. And this evaluation will drag out for longer than a few minutes at the end of one class period, so I have many opportunities to take a big risk inadvertently. I'm not likely to pander, though; that's not my style. I'm not all that worried. The summative part of the evaluation -- the part that judges how well I have done the job I'm assigned to do -- is an essential part of the dean determining whether he would like for me to continue. While it's rarely fun to receive criticism, it's part of life. I care what the faculty think about my performance so far, flawed as we all know it's been. Their feedback will play a large role in my determining whether I would like for me to continue in this capacity. The formative part of the evaluation -- the part that gives me feedback on how I can do my job better -- is actually something I look forward to. Participating in writers' workshops at PLoP long ago helped me to appreciate the value of suggestions for improvement. Sometimes they merely confirm what we already suspect, and that is valuable. Other times they communicate a possible incremental improvement, and that is valuable. At other times still they open doors that we did not even know were available, and that is really valuable. I just hope that this isn't the sort of finding that comes out of the evaluation. Though I suppose that that would be valuable in its own way! -----