On Monday, a friend from another department asked me to be a shoulder she could cry on about a distressing turn of events: For a variety of reasons (one legit; the other two phony reasons cooked up by her department chair, in my opinion), she's losing a class for next year, which will drop her to 80% time. A 20% drop in salary is not to be sneezed at, and she's upset both about the financial hit (especially because she's within a few years of retirement) and about "getting thrown under the bus" by her department chair and the head of school (her phrase, not mine, but I think it's accurate).
Naturally I was a sympathetic ear ... but then I went beyond sympathy by having a brilliant idea that could perhaps solve her problem as well as one we're having in the English department. We're understaffed much of the time in English and really need another full-time department member, but that's not in the budget, so for several years we've been making due by hiring part-time folks to teach individual classes; much of the time, these folks have other positions on campus, and we pull them in to teach one class for us on top of their other work. This is clearly not ideal -- it means that the teachers aren't around for their students at other times of the day, and it means that the non-teaching work of the department falls entirely on the few full-time members, plus it's hard to do long-term planning and professional development with folks who aren't really part of the department -- and the head of school has admitted to us that she recognizes that this is a problem but that it's simply one that we can't solve right now. Okay, fair enough -- I mean, budgets are budgets -- but frustrating in the meantime, especially since we're now going to be even further short-staffed next year because one woman who was hired two years ago to be a full-time English teacher was given an administrative position in her first year and taught one less course this year and next year will only be teaching two courses. And yet we're being given no extra budget to hire additional folks!
So you see where this is going, right? My friend is in a different department, but there is actually one English course that she could teach, and it happens to be a course that we don't have coverage for next year because our department chair teaches it but will be on sabbatical and no one else wants to teach it and did I mention we're understaffed? So, think I, what a brilliant solution! We give this course to my friend, thus solving our departmental problem and her under-employment problem in one fell swoop! Sure, it's a solution only for one year for her, but that's better than nothing. I told my friend that I would suggest it to my department chair, and that of course there are no guarantees at all.
I emailed my department chair about it that very night, and she agreed that it was a brilliant solution. Hurrah -- we're all on board! The next step, she thought, was to go to the academic dean about it, and would I mind doing that on Tuesday since she was going to be out sick the next day?
So the next morning I did just that. The Dean was startled at first that word had gotten out about my friend's loss of a class, but when I said that it wasn't lunchtable gossip or common knowledge or anything, but that my friend had told me about it, she relaxed and said that it sounded like a good solution and that she would go to the head of school with the idea. Hurrah!
I actually talked about this incident in therapy that evening as an example of how there might actually be good things about being a department chair. I mean, it's pretty clear that it's mostly going to be a pain in the ass and that I'm going to have extra work with no extra time or money, and there's a part of me that's been regretting saying I'll do it (although I remind myself that it's only for a year), but this incident was making me feel better about the whole thing, because clearly one of the things one gets to do as department chair is to solve problems, which is indeed rewarding.
Except that my friend got a very snippy email from the head of school yesterday to the effect that she understood that my friend was talking with other faculty about how to fill out her schedule for next year and that she needed to stop doing so immediately and leave all staffing decisions to her department chair, the academic dean, and to her, the head of school. It was not a nice note.
So the long and the short of it is that my friend turned to me for comfort, I went into my "fixer" mode and tried to make everything better, and instead I made everything worse. This really sucks. I don't think it's exactly my fault, because I think the head of school is being quite unreasonable and that this whole situation is really her fault, but I was the inadvertent catalyst, and I feel terrible.
I actually was so distressed about this yesterday that I cried over it, although being completely exhausted and having a terrible cold may have contributed to my emotion. But I did share the whole business with my department chair, who is now also distressed but who says that this sort of thing has happened to her more than once, that she thinks of an idea that seems to her a simple and elegant solution to a problem and is then squashed like a bug for what seems to her no good reason. There's a real mixed message at FGS: sometimes we're praised for showing initiative and coming to administrators with worked-out solutions that they can simply smile and agree to, and sometimes when we do that it's seen as overstepping and we get smacked down. And it's not clear, at least to my department chair, when we're supposed to show initiative and when we're not.
But in the meantime, I feel like I need to clarify with the head of school that this whole business came about became of me, not because of my friend. I mean, the whole idea of having her teach a course for the English department was my idea, and her full employment is in jeapardy, whereas mine is not. But I don't want to make the situation even worse than it is now. I asked my department chair what she thought I should do, and her idea is that one or both of us should say something to the academic dean. We were going to do so today, but we're having a snow day, so it will need to wait until Monday -- perhaps a good thing, since it's probably wise to let emotions cool all around, but again I feel real distress for my friend, who tends to be an anxious type anyway and who now has this pissy email from the head of school hanging over her.
I'd say "let this be a lesson to me," but I'm not actually sure what the lesson is. I've certainly run into problems in the past in not following proper chains of command, but I think I've learned that lesson now, and I think I was right to go first to my department chair; it probably would have been better to just wait until my chair was back in school and have her go talk to the academic dean, but I don't actually think it would have made a difference, and I was clear with the dean that I had been deputized to talk with her because my chair was out sick. D's suggestion is that we should have presented the whole thing to the dean and/or head of school as a problem needing solving ("gosh, what ever shall we do about that course next year?") and let them come up with the solution on their own, with subtle promptings from us ("gee, I wonder if there's anyone without a full teaching load next year who might be able to step in?"), which would solve the whole "don't get above your station" problem, if that is in fact the root of the problem. That might well have worked in this circumstance, although I'm probably too ingenuous to convincingly pull off such play-acting, and it seems silly to have to try to. My department chair's explanation for "what's the lesson in all of this?" is that the administrators are completely unpredictable people and there's no pleasing them, so it's not really worth trying, and you just have to be prepared for them to be unreasonably mad sometimes. But that doesn't give me a lot of confidence about next year. I think the corollary to this is that I need to recognize that, its rhetoric notwithstanding, FGS is a very hierarchical, top-down school and that I need to pay more attention to this fact and less attention to its counterfactual rhetoric. That's not an encouraging lesson, but it is at least one that I can do something with next year.
But now I'm back to thinking that being acting department chair next year is going to suck, and that what I had thought would be the one bright light is actually just expanded opportunity to make things worse.