Wednesday, February 09, 2011

On dialogue in the Department

I promised a whole host of posts a few days ago, and I promise, some of them are coming, but I write today with a concern that is both pressing and philosophical: How does dialogue occur within an academic department. Ours is one that, while not undergoing any kind of full-scale transformation, is going through some changes that need to be hashed out, question involving teaching load, course caps, tenure requirements, and faculty hiring directions.

We're a comparatively large (about 40 TT faculty) department that is remarkably collegial, though this seems facilitated largely by neglect rather than loads of outright sociable warmth. What this tends to mean is that we are free of factions, generally, but when contentious issues do come up, we are out of practice in actually hammering them out, and so those issues either get decided for us, or we decide them somewhat blindly.

Certainly email listservs might be a component of good communication, but ours is largely unused for discussion (I think people are too afraid of flame wars). And our monthly faculty meetings are usually a hurried ninety minutes, in which everybody says their piece, nobody listens, and after we get a little itchy about sitting in that room. we all go back to our offices and vote however we were going to in the first place.

In my ideal world, we'd be better at discussing our own best interests, and actually deliberating over issues. The upshot of dialogue should be that nothing gets railroaded through, but neither does warring factionalism keep us at a stalemate, or worse.

I know that such utopian departments aren't possible, for as much as we like to think of ourselves as enlightened socratic bodies in a protype democracy, truth is, we're as petty and venal and contentious as any group of self-interested humans.

But still: dialogue as a goal. How do departments facilitate it well? how do individuals within departments (say, newly tenured faculty who have little to no administrative responsibility) facilitate it? Please: what works best in your department? what is a disaster?


Anonymous said...

What I discovered upon earning tenure is that there was a whole secret world of conversations happening both within my department and around my university, that what I had previously perceived as a lack of dialogue was actually just not having been invited into the settings where the dialogue was happening. So I suppose what I'd say is before you start trying to facilitate, it might be better to observe a bit and to see whether your earning tenure makes a change in the conversations you're having outside of meetings. It may be that there is a backspace in which people really are debating the issues.

Earnest English said...

While I have no real expertise here, I can only second Dr. Crazy's advice above. When I first started going to department meetings, I was pulled aside and told that everything I saw was actually very carefully choreographed, with objections anticipated and with another person waiting in the wings to answer them, if necessary. Now it could've been just that one conversation, but I tend to think that most real dialogue and coalition-building occurs outside of the meetings -- in those impromptu meetings that occur in people's offices. (This was a large department like yours.)

Tom said...

What scares me about the stories told by both previous commentators is the degree to which departmental governance seems, in them, to be not open and public, but potentially a matter of closed-door wheeling and dealing, with a public fiction of open debate.

This would appear to be why all faculty need to be committed to shared governance, at all levels.

Horace said...

EE and C: On the one hand, if those conversations are happening in my department, the number of people included in them is very small. And even so--doesn't that strike you as a problem? That faculty dialogue only happens behind closed doors with a limited number of people invited in? Forgive my idealism, but that strikes me as running against the idea of the university.

Or at least my idea of the university.