Being a Chair: Some Tips for Protecting Time

Being a Chair: Some Tips for Protecting Time

I’m about to hand over after being chair of a department for over four years. Being a chair is a bit like death and taxes.  If you are lucky enough  to  be  employed on a long term contract in an academic institution you will probably end up formally managing your department. More realistically, given the ways that we as academics seek to  manage ourselves and strive to defy what universities define as  `leadership’, you will end up trying to manage  the  mutually reinforcing expectations gap between your colleagues and your university.  This role is time consuming and frustrating.  Reacting to an endless conveyor belt of  directives  and initiatives  from on high feels like being buried under volcanic eruptions of  target focused,  metric obsessed audit sludge.

Meetings, committees, documents and  communications  take up huge reserves of time and energy.  It’s hard to sustain the  kind of focus  necessary for research and academic writing. I certainly haven’t been able to generate new scholarship  in the way I would have liked to during my time as chair.  I haven’t read as many books or done as much writing  as I would have probably done otherwise.  It’s taken me far longer to finish things. But I have managed to keep things ticking over and I did get much  better at  dealing with the  admin  onslaught year on year.  Here are some survival tips for those  of you about to take on  what university management likes to call a `leadership role’,  or  what academics tend to describe as a huge admin burden.

Timing is everything.  There’s never perfect time to do these roles,  personally or career wise, but some times are better than others.  I’ve been chair while my son is finishing high school.  I couldn’t have escaped far or for long  during this period.  For the same reason,  it made  sense to defer my sabbatical until I can really use it.  For me that’s fieldwork in Tanzania.

Huge admin roles don’t work well if you are struggling with a new project, but  they can be a good  opportunity  to finish something up. I used some of the time while I was chair to complete a manuscript and to write up some fieldwork.  Although it was disappointing not to achieve anything really new  during this period, I’m consciously limiting future commitments in order to clear creative space  when my term ends.

Think medium and longer term.  An advantage of doing something now is that you don’t have it hanging over you. You know when you won’t be doing it because you will have  done it.  You can make other plans. You can also help others plan  by organizing workloads as far ahead as possible.  There will always be changes but if you have the core framework in place people know what they are doing and can get on with their lives. You also reduce the transaction costs of endless last-minute negotiations.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.  Productivity blogposts endlessly go on about how hugely successful tech capitalists  like  Steve Jobs and  Mark Zuckerberg  reduce the number of micro decisions they have to take by always choosing the same outfit.  I’m not suggesting  opting for `dad’  jeans or hoodies as an efficiency hack. But you can reduce the number of small decisions that have to be made by having clear principles to  guide the choices you make.  How to spend money is a good example. If you know at the start of the year where the money is going  you don’t have need more meetings to discuss what to do with it.  Meet with the core team periodically to determine whether  everything is on track.  Use staff meetings to talk about what people really care about,  not where to  buy the food for the student party.

Finally,  this excellent post by Tim Hartford shows how to make email work for you as archive, calendar and to- do list, with minimal organizational effort.   There’s much to be gained from using his system whatever else you have to do.