Challenges of Chairing Philosophy Departments

Challenges of Chairing Philosophy Departments


One thing that a Philosophy Head or Chair has to bear in mind continuously is “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.” I’ve always made it a point to tell higher administrators about the many accomplishments of Philosophy faculty—probably to the point of annoying them somewhat. But there’s simply no substitute for self-promotion with administrators who often don’t think of the Philosophy department right off the bat.

Also, heads and chairs have to learn where the available money is on campus. Is it in a center or institute? Is it from Distance Learning? It doesn’t take a lot of money to run a Philosophy Department, but a visiting speaker series is a must, and so is more travel money than what’s in your department travel budget line from the College or university. And every place I’ve been, I’ve found such money available for the getting, somewhere. You’ve got to seek it out, and where it is can differ from university to university. That alone will provide a real boost to faculty morale.

John Bickle, Professor of Philosophy and Head of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Mississippi State University, is the current interviewee at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? The interview, conducted by Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina), is interesting for a few reasons (Carnap was robbed! he tells us), but one bit I thought worth pulling out for discussion are his remarks about being chair of the department.

Being chair is a demanding task in any department, with a lot of time consuming work that is invisible to students and colleagues. Yet one might wonder if different disciplines present distinct problems for chairs, and if so, what particular kinds of problems tend to present themselves to chairs of philosophy departments, either in regards to managing faculty, dealing with students, answering to administrators, and so on. So, let’s not table this discussion: chairs, you have the floor.

(image: Spike Chair by Alexander Lervik)

Spike Chair Alexander Lervik

 

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Joe
Joe
5 years ago

I guess they are all too busy.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
5 years ago

“It doesn’t take a lot of money to run a Philosophy Department…”

This is not what I hear whenever some challenge departments that rely on large numbers of part-time adjuncts to cover their normal course load. I notice that Prof Bickle doesn’t include stable, non-exploitative salaries on his list of things a department might need more money for. Perhaps this isn’t a problem on his campus, in which case I’d love to hear how other departments can learn from his department’s success in this regard.Report

Corey
Corey
5 years ago

My professors were, from my perspective, great at dealing with having such a small department and restricted resources. On several occasions, we had Skype sessions with Philosophers from as far away as Czechoslovakia rather than paying for their travel (national or international). My professors were also quiet good at motivating students to create and present at student-run seminars and local conferences as a way to “make up” for our lack of funding. I mention this because it still strikes me now, as it did then, how creative one has to be when running a small, often overlooked department.Report

Alan White
Alan White
5 years ago

I have been chair of my department (in a statewide 13 campus system then about 20+ faculty and about a dozen tenured/TT) but many years ago–and I’d not want to be a chair now in this nationwide atmosphere of outright attack on public higher ed with particular irrational focus on downsizing humanities as somehow employment-irrelevant. The Sisyphian task of maintaining something like sustainable morale in younger faculty who have reached tenure with (perhaps) only one biennial raise while having their take-home pay substantially cut to partially leverage pensions (that were already fully funded!!) is one I would not wish to take on today, but I suspect is not just a wayward experience here in Cheesehead land. But one main role of the chair is to promote faculty morale, not just by recognizing successes, but providing resources to faculty and lecturers who need them in order to grow in their careers. Chairs need to promote faculty (literally and figuratively), but they need real resources to do that, and they are increasingly in short supply, especially in public higher ed. There is no doubt that some current anti-educational political movements have practical consequences that make being a chair a much harder task than it used to be.Report

Mitchell Aboulafia
5 years ago

This is one of those I-could-write-a-book comments. I’ve been a chair/head/director for about twenty years at a range of institutions. This hasn’t been out of a love for the bureaucratic demands of administration. (I have resisted becoming a dean.) My work as chair has always been driven by a desire to build and support philosophy departments as thriving communities. But this can be a daunting task. Philosophy is not only often invisible to administrators, it is also invisible to first and second year students. Very few students enroll in college expecting to become a philosophy major or to take philosophy courses. In order to create the kind of community that will enhance visibility, it’s crucial to hire highly qualified people, who also share the mission of the department and will work well with their colleagues. (This often requires avoiding the temptation of hiring exclusively from “prestige” schools. Doing so might enhance your external rep in certain quarters, but not necessarily your colleagues and students’ daily quality of life. There is no correlation between the prestige of one’s degree and the quality of a candidate’s teaching, social skills, and infectious love for philosophy.) To increase faculty enthusiasm and commitment, a chair should try to give the faculty, including part-time staff, teaching schedules that best suit their personal lives and academic interests. The extra time that a chair puts into making sure that the schedule is the best one possible for everyone will be generously rewarded by the faculty’s increased commitment to participating in the life of the department. Departments should keep committee work to a minimum, support travel as fairly as possible, and have faculty engaged in inviting guests to the department. Work-in-progress sessions are also a good idea. (It’s important to include non-tenure stream faculty in department activities as much as possible. They are colleagues and they are teaching prospective majors and minors, just like full-time tenured faculty.) Once the faculty is on board, and assuming that the department has very good teachers, word will spread among students. They learn pretty quickly about which departments have excellent teachers and mentors. Part of the trick here is getting first-rate teachers into lower level courses, when students still have enough time to select philosophy as a major. Departments should also engage in all of the traditional ways of stimulating business: a philosophy club, open houses for advising (especially before registration), speakers of interest to the university community and not only philosophers, making students feel genuinely welcome during office hours, etc. All of the above should increase the number of majors and minors, especially if you have a diverse faculty, e.g., if you hire more women, you will get more women majoring in philosophy. (So, diversity is not only the right thing to support, it’s in a department’s self-interest.) Once majors and minors start to increase, then the chair’s job is to press the administration for more resources. One tool: show how well the philosophy department is doing relative to other departments. (In one place I served as chair our enrollments increased to the point at which we had more students taking our courses than virtually every humanities and social science discipline, which got the administration’s attention.) A lot depends on enrollments and the number of majors—the availability of upper level electives in faculty specializations, broader graduate program placement, the sense of the importance of the department to the mission of the institution. (But it isn’t all just numbers and the advantages they bring, it is, as I’ve said, the community of faculty and students that makes for a vibrant and exciting intellectual life.) More to be said, but this is getting too long for a comment.Report