Chairs keep busy. Endless meetings, stacks of paperwork, constant interruptions, and fragmented encounters on a multitude of topics set the pace of a sprinter running long distances. But what is missing from the joy they once had as full‐time faculty members? Many would say scholarship, as they struggle to retain their scholarship and academic identities while serving as chair.
How can chairs protect their identity and their scholarship? Not surprisingly, chairs enjoy and feel most comfortable in their roles as scholars and express frustration at their inability to spend much time pursuing their academic interests. In fact, 88 percent of chairs reported that since becoming chair, they spent less time on their research, writing, and keeping current in their disciplines, causing great dissatisfaction and stress. Ultimately, only four in ten chairs reported having any degree of success in maintaining their scholarship. To compound the paradox, 66 percent of chairs reported excessive stress from trying to balance administrative and scholarly demands, followed by maintaining scholarly productivity (64 percent in 2016 compared to 40 percent in 1991). The web they weave is getting tighter.
The Leader- Scholar Paradox
Chairs often feel trapped between their administrative roles and their former roles as scholars. Trying to look in two directions, they mediate the administrative concerns while trying to champion their scholarly pursuits. They find themselves swiveling between their scholarship interests and their administrative responsibilities. In essence, they are caught in the role of Janus, a Roman god whose two faces look in different directions at the same time. Although chairs need not worry about being deified, they do find themselves in a paradoxical position. Like no other managers, they must attend to their fiduciary responsibilities while also working to protect their personal scholarly interests.
Part of this paradoxical problem of performing scholarly activities while attending to managerial tasks lies in the nature of managerial work: an unrelenting pace characterized by brevity, variety, and fragmentation. Chairs log dozens of written and verbal contacts daily that are peppered with drop‐in visitors, text messages, and self‐interruptions. They average only nine minutes of uninterrupted desk time before they move on to their next task. No wonder scholarship never emerges during the workday—nine minutes is hardly enough time to germinate an idea, let alone conceptualize a scholarly thought. Thus, the brief encounter with each activity, the variety of activities, and the lack of any activity pattern (with the exception of teaching and meetings, meetings, meetings) require chairs to shift gears quickly and frequently. In effect, they rush from one task to another, day by day and week by week, and rarely receive satisfaction from completing a rewarding scholarly task.
Time to Audit
If scholarship is an important part of your identity, especially as most chairs return to faculty status after serving their terms, how can you change your work habits? The first step is to conduct a scholarship time audit:
1. I find time for scholarship when…
2. I use my scholarly time well when I…
3. I lose time for scholarship when…
4. My scholarship hideout is…
From your audit should emerge some themes, strategies for, and realizations of what you have to do to find quality time for scholarship. To change some bad habits and to develop an integrated attack toward building time for scholarship, you must strictly manage the people on your chair molecule, from all sides (Gmelch 2019). You need to manage your boss, work with your staff, communicate with your faculty, and build external scholarly networks. Ultimately, you will need to be disciplined and manage yourself—the core of your molecule.
Manage Your Time Management Molecule
The following strategies are culled from best practices that have worked for me and other academic leaders. The first four suggest how you might manage the relationships on your molecule to set up time for scholarship. The final eight are your personal must‐do strategies to increase scholarly productivity.
Negotiate with your dean. Work with your dean to realign the expectations of the position to those befitting a half‐time assignment. Also, if the dean hopes you will keep up with your discipline and scholarship, negotiate proper support to help you maintain some scholarship while serving as chair. Because more than 70 percent of chairs will return to faculty status, they do not wish to have just one new line added to their CVs: department chair. At the very least, on accepting the chair position, you should negotiate a sabbatical at the end of your term to regain currency in your discipline.
Consult with your faculty. You are still part of the faculty, and they, too, want you to continue to engage in scholarship while serving as chair. Discuss with them how you can block some time (at least a half day a week) to protect for scholarship and to be unavailable or away from your administrative office.
Rely on your staff. A comparative study of department chairs in the United States as well as heads of departments in Australia found that Australians were twice as productive in their scholarship output while serving in their roles. Why? The answer is twofold. First, they relied on their staff to handle the administrivia; second, they brought their scholarship into their administrative offices. Your professional staff can not only handle many of the department's administrative tasks but also be part of your “team of two” to protect your time for scholarship and to filter out needless interruptions.
Nurture your scholarly network. Establish a research or writing team of faculty members and/or graduate students. In this age of virtual meetings, you can expand your writing or research team to even those academic colleagues off campus.
Now that you have your molecule in order by managing your dean, clarifying your intentions with your faculty, collaborating with your staff, and securing the network of your research collaborators, you have the nucleus of the molecule left to manage—you. Reflect: Is time the problem, or is it me?
Enter with a research agenda. The first step is to develop your research agenda. Start by keeping a journal to log your ideas. It's no easy task, but as the Cheshire cat told Alice, if you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there. This might be a time to craft a collaborative research agenda with new and untenured faculty who may need a boost as well on the road to tenure.
Purge unnecessary administrivia. Reduce the amount of endless paperwork, reports that are never read, and emails that never should be received or sent. Instead of dealing with administrivia, concentrate on your department's high‐pay or make‐or‐break functions, such as personnel, resource acquisition and distribution, and vision. These tend to be the important but not so urgent functions that can be planned ahead of time. Each request should be measured against its contribution to the department's mission and goals.
Find a scholarship hideout. Few chairs have had success engaging in scholarship within the denizens of their administrative offices. Try maintaining a separate office on campus or at home to ensure that you protect an equivalent of a half to a full day every week that is devoted to your academic endeavors.
Block your time. To counter the brevity, variety, and fragmentation, chairs must block time to prepare for classes, keep up with their disciplines, and have quality time for scholarly writing. Quality scholarship can't be achieved when it's squeezed between appointments in fragmented segments. When is your most productive time of the day? Are you a morning person? Or do you find energy once the sun sets in the evening? Everyone has different rhythms or times when they feel most productive. Consider even going on a writing retreat.
Schedule sessions of timeless time. Plan some setup time to put things in order and to get your head in the right frame of mind (Berg and Seeber 2016).
Push the pause button. Many academics get a rush from being busy. Don't thrive on busy. You don't want an adrenaline buzz but time to set the stage for serious scholarship. You need to decompress, unwind the clock, and start writing.
Get offline. Reduce your habit‐forming internet interruptions and constant checking in. Consider that it takes fifteen minutes to return to serious mental tasks after being interrupted.
Find flow time. You can lose as much as two hours a day from distractions. Whether they come from emails, texts, or chats, in order to concentrate on scholarship, you need flow time (Csikszentmihalyi 1990), which is achieved when you have a clear set of goals, control over your time, few distractions, and energy from channeling your skills and generating fresh and creative ideas.
Always look for new techniques and strategies to hone your scholarship and to improve your self‐management skills. Take some time to review these valuable resources: Jeff Buller's Managing Time and Stress (2018) and Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber's The Slow Professor (2016). Remember, you are also a role model for new faculty who will look to you for sage advice on advancing their careers and scholarship. Pay it forward.
About the Author
Walter H. Gmelch is professor of leadership studies and dean emeritus at the University of San Francisco. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org