on "The Chair"

I'm annoyed with, frustrated by, and tired of the ridiculously unrealistic "critical" takes on The Chair. Below are some more positive and nuanced responses:

But as it unfolds, The Chair offers far deeper insight into the interpersonal and intergenerational dynamics of campus culture than any novel I’ve read. The show’s dramatic energies are focused on issues of free speech, the changing paradigms of scholarship and teaching, and the prejudice that women faculty and faculty of color face. Yet the subject that gets the most screen time is none of these, nor is it chairing. It’s parenting—although as the series rolls on, we slowly realize that, just possibly, chairing is parenting by other means.

Kevin Dettmar, What The Chair Gets Unexpectedly Right About the Ivory Tower

If we're watching The Chair as Ji-Yoon's story, the portrayal of activist students would exist to shed light on the pressure and complexity of the situation Ji-Yoon is facing as a woman of color in a position of authority, not, as some have interpreted it, as a commentary on activist students in general. That is, Ji-Yoon experiences student activism as high-stakes and unwieldy precisely because she respects their principled stances -- to the point that they intensify her suspicion that, despite her best efforts and intentions, she is not transforming the master's house from the inside (shout out to Audre Lorde).

To operate as if the portrayal of student protesters matters more than how the portrayal illuminates something about Ji-Yoon is to give these characters the primacy

Koritha Mitchell, Stop asking if The Chair is realistic

The show, co-created by Amanda Peet and Harvard Ph.D. Annie Wyman, feels like a real attempt to grapple with the problems of contemporary academia, and the humanities in particular, by someone who has felt invested in them.

Lidija Haas, The Chair Is an Elegy for the Life of the Mind

I don’t know anyone who has gone through the trouble of becoming a professor with the express goal of ending up as a department chair. The role draws on organizational skills that many academics have made a career out of avoiding; it also leeches away time that could be spent researching or teaching...The Chair thrives in scenes where manners and decorum get stripped away and Kim recognizes the futility of her situation. Her strange profession begins to seem relatable. Her face, usually so attentive and patient, evinces rage and disappointment. One complication of institutional diversity is that diverse faces can now lead institutions that are in free fall. 

Hua Hsu, Sandra Oh's Masterly Performance of Empathy in The Chair 

But as much as the characters are—wonderfully—never cynical about the study of literature, they are also exhausted by the situations they find themselves in, both personally and professionally, and especially where those two spheres collide. The current pandemic permanently damaged the academic careers of parents (mostly women) who had to abandon their (our) research to take care of their (our) children, and forced faculty to teach in windowless classrooms to hundreds of students without mask or vaccine requirements. None of that is in this show, yet even so, it depicts the study of literature as unsustainable. I wish it were clearer to the viewer that it’s unsustainable because it’s not supported. 

Johannah Winant, Moby-Done 

hate to say i told you so

For the time being, this will be a space for checking myself against reality. I want to make sure I have the story straight, that I’m not finally losing my mind eighteen months into the pandemic. 

So, yesterday, my new department chair emailed all faculty members about the agenda for an upcoming meeting. The message ended with the following question: “Can your discipline realistically complete its deliberations about a program revision in time to meet the October 29 deadline?” 

I anticipated this prompt in comments I made during an English department meeting in late April as well as emails I sent in early May. My anticipation arrived in the form of concern over colleagues’ capacity to do the work of curricular development amid whatever new efforts arose as a result of the College’s reorganization.

At present, there is a call for volunteers to serve on four different ad hoc committees at the department level. Faculty are also managing another semester of uncomfortable teaching, whether they returned to in-person instruction or not. And program revision is no small task, particularly when accounting for three different specializations among more than a dozen faculty members. 

This is why I pushed for proceeding with program work in May. At that time, I was engaged, invested, and ready to get shit done. I took the liberty of completing both official and unofficial documents on the department’s behalf. I suggested that we have an initial proposal and market analysis information ready for review by June 30th. Assuming a positive outcome in our final action as the English department, we could then signal our new program to the College and request that the appropriate associate provost begin work on the market analysis. Through July and August, we could work on the program proposal proper with the intent to provide our new department with that document as well as the market analysis in early September. We’d therefore be well in advance of the October deadline and likely prepared to announce a new or revised major in Winter 2022 and months before the sunsetting of our current programs. 

But none of that happened.

At this point, I’m no longer interested in program revision. Beyond my summer bitterness, here’s why: I have six students in my business communications class that expressed a love for reading and writing but all of them are majoring in finance or management. I also have a dozen students in my first year writing class that are “English intolerant,” as one put it. There are, of course, a number of factors at play here, but the elements are so interrelated as to comprise an intractable issue. I think now that declining enrollments in English constitute a sociocultural problem that cannot be adequately addressed by a handful of faculty at a regional campus of one of the top universities in the country. No matter the amount of effort we commit, the problem persists because a career-oriented narrative remains dominant. And students are either too stubborn or too scared to be persuaded otherwise.

I can’t and won’t blame the younger generations, though. There will always be students who buck the trend, but I doubt their numbers have ever been sufficient to maintain a program anywhere but the most prestigious institutions. Given the discipline’s origins as well as its resistance to change, perhaps English was always destined to be a program for the elites. 

But maybe the week I spend on how the descriptions of whaling in Moby Dick contribute to the overall story will stay with my technical writing students. Maybe the selections from Frankenstein I assign to engineering and entrepreneurship majors will keep their future hubris in check. Maybe that will be enough for them, and for me. 

ten years ago: Dr. James Schirmer interview on twitter and sports

Description: University of Michigan-Flint assistant professor of English Dr. James Schirmer talks about using twitter in a college classroom and how twitter impacts the way we watch sports.

Transcript: Initially, it's a four-week assignment where students, I ask them to engage with each other and to communicate with each other and see if we can actually get any kind of worthwhile conversation happening in that tiny constrained space. Because we only have 140 characters to work with, so, it's always interesting to me to see what kinds of conversations students can get into, what kinds of conversations that I can have with them in this very kind of tiny space... I think a lot of them do get a good amount of, I think there are a variety of benefits that come with it. One thing I've noticed, just because I teach a lot of writing courses, is that they do, students tend to become more concise in their writing. They're a little bit clearer, they have a better awareness of who they're talking to, why they're talking to them, what they're trying to talk to them about. And, just on a day-to-day level, if students have any questions, I'm, there's a greater accessibility with them and with me, that they, they feel comfortable talking with me, they feel comfortable talking with each other. So, there's an element of transferability there, that they have this, some degree of comfort communicating with each other in this very specific way, specific medium, but that tends to translate to the class... just a little slice of information, and I think that part of it deals with, too, is that the creators designed it so that it would work better with cellphones and with texting, because that's one of, I think, one of the primary odes of communication, just these very short little bits of information, but then things can kind of explode out of that. And how I use it in an academic context is that I've had quite a few opportunities, publishing opportunities, come up that way, just because of starting conversations and finding out, okay, we both follow this person, so maybe I should pay attention to what they're doing. And this is actually something I advocate for our, some of our graduate students in the MA program, is that if they're interested in things like digital rhetoric, social media, video game studies, that where a lot of the interesting conversations are happening, they are on blogs, but the more day to day, just distribution systems, news items, that where it's happening, it's happening on Twitter... There's always that potential for engagement, like if you're on there, there's always that chance that someone's going to respond to you and, depending upon what you, how you decide to use it, whether you're more social and, you know, say what'd you have for breakfast every morning as, which is is one of the criticisms of it, it's been going, how you use it, you will, you will get followers based on how you use it. A community will develop, based on how you use it, whether you're, you know, a fan of the Detroit Tigers, you'll get maybe, you'll get ten to fifteen people to follow you, just based on that, because, you know, you, you made a couple offhand comments about, you know, a play last night or you engage somebody in a more academic context and talking about video game studies so you will either get attention or, you know, get follows, based on that... You know not everybody is using Twitter, or any other kind of social media for that matter, for, you know, honest and true purposes, that there are some nefarious endeavors trying to break through that, even through Twitter... I'm a big fan of the Detroit Tigers and so I follow Dan Dickerson, Mario Impemba, Rod Allen. I even follow some of the players: Will Rhymes, Casper Wells is on there, Robbie Weinhardt is pitching for Toledo now, he's on there. But, yeah, usually one of the windows that I will have open any time a Tigers game is on is I'll have the Tigers hashtag in a search bar and just see what, what other people are saying about the game, and sometimes I'll say stuff, but sometimes it's usually, it's almost like a secondary spectator sport, just to see what everybody else is saying about it... It's kind of similar to, um, I think it's kind of similar actually to sitting in a bar, you know? And, just, everybody isn't using, is in this one place for this particular purpose and so they're a bit so that you'll hear bits of different conversations going on, but they're all be about the same thing.

books recently read - jul/aug 2021

Leaving Academia by Christopher L. Caterine

The Silence by Don DeLillo

Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn

How We Live Now by Bill Hayes

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley 

Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey

Sympathy by Olivia Sudjic

Erosion by Terry Tempest Williams

no gods no majors

The Summer 2021 MLA Newsletter opens with the following question: “Where Have All the Majors Gone?” A subsequent article provides plenty of data and demographics related to the question but not much of an actual answer. A three-decades long decline in awarded English degrees is indeed “particularly troubling,” but what departments might do to reverse this trend remains “unclear.”

Maybe there is nothing to be done. When I served as chair of the English department, we had four solid years of enrollment management. Robust returns enabled us to respect and retain the same corps of longtime lecturers while also offering necessary coursework for degree completion. Lecturers and tenure track faculty diversified teaching appointments through first year seminar and honors courses; others developed and directed unique in-demand courses and programs. We employed pretty much every suggestion to reverse our declining enrollments. We participated in welcome events, engagement fairs, mid- and end-of-semester celebrations, and campus-community get-togethers. And we took every opportunity to correct and enlighten provosts, deans, associate deans, parents, and students about the utility and worth of the English major. 

Year after year, we committed ourselves to a collective engagement, but what happened after all that work? Our dean dissolved the department as part of a broader reorganization of the entire college. Enrollment declines continue, causing our lecturer corps to crumble. Faculty in linguistics and literature are set to teach first year composition and business communication alongside colleagues who have PhDs in the field and decades more experience. And my own early summer efforts to propose a new integrated major were met with insufficient support, somehow even causing a colleague I once respected to call me a sellout (to whom or what I don’t know). 

I wish there was something to be learned from these persistent declines as well as the failures to turn them around. But perhaps there’s nothing to be learned. Perhaps there’s nothing to be done. Perhaps it’s time to let it all end. 

the most we can do

The most we can do is to write -- intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively -- about what it is like living in the world at this time.

-  Oliver Sacks in How We Live Now by Bill Hayes

books recently read - may/jun 2021

Mauve Desert by Nicole Brossard

Working Backwards by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr 

The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir

Demolition Means Progress by Andrew Highsmith

Desert Cabal by Amy Irvine 

The Anthropology of Turquoise by Ellen Meloy

Why I Don't Write by Susan Minot

The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts

books recently read - mar/apr 2021

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang

Rust Belt Femme by Raechel Anne Jolie

The Home Place by J. Drew Lanham

The Two Cultures of English by Jason Maxwell

Looking for Hickories by Tom Springer 

The Star in the Sycamore by Tom Springer

Department Chair Nominee Questionnaire - Schirmer

Thank you for your interest in serving as a department chair in the new departments in the College of Arts and Sciences. Please complete the following questionnaire, limiting your responses to each question below to 1-2 paragraphs.

1) Why do you want to serve as a department chair?

I want to continue and extend the interdisciplinary work I performed over four years as chair of the English department. This work included developing a course schedule that held a fill rate at or near 80% every year while balancing faculty interests and student needs. Integral to this success was my ongoing collaboration with department liaisons in linguistics, literature, writing, and English education. I am eager to engage my Department of Language and Communication (DLC) colleagues in this approach. While chair, I also led the English department through three successful tenure and promotion cases, not only ensuring that we retain productive and diverse faculty but also showing that it is possible for different disciplines to understand and value each other’s work at a deep level. And, within the last two years, I chaired Faculty Council, participated in Game Design / Development and Teagle Grant discussions, and served on the CAS Reorganization Task Force and the Recruitment, Retention, and Graduation Task Force. These experiences broadened my campus view and allowed me to develop stronger relationships across academic and administrative units. I intend to draw on those relationships to the betterment of DLC and CAS. 

In a broader sense, though, I am interested in shepherding faculty and staff into new ways of working and functioning as a department. I have a complementary interest in shaping the work of the College overall, and I am excited about how new and existing alignments may come to serve the broader interests of DLC faculty and students as well as enable both groups to bring forward beneficial changes on behalf of the College. Given COM’s origins within the English department and ENG/LIN faculty interest in Flint’s Spanish-speaking population, opportunities for collaboration are before us and I relish the opportunity to aid their cultivation. Having ushered the English department toward the possibility of a single integrative English major, I’m particularly interested in building “futureproof” multidisciplinary programs. There is also a job-crafting element to this new position that intrigues me. To be simultaneously building and acting in the position of department chair is a challenge I want to pursue. And, as the wellbeing of CAS faculty, staff, and students depends on how we weather current crises while growing into the new structure of the College, I see an opportunity to bring the care, protection, and support I hope I’m known for to a wider range of disciplines and people.

2) What does "inclusive excellence" mean to you and how do you intend to pursue it if selected as chair?

With fewer voices representing the masses in our new structure, it is all the more important to lead by listening and to afford multiple opportunities for faculty, staff, and students to talk about how to support others in reaching their best. I therefore understand inclusive excellence as a multi-pronged approach that focuses on the intellectual and social development of all people interacting with the department through meaningful attention to cultural differences and the purposeful use of appropriate resources. The very idea of inclusive excellence invites a series of questions:

  • What are the numbers of historically underrepresented students, faculty, and staff in our department? What are their success levels?

  • How diverse is the content in the courses, programs, and experiences within our department?

  • How can we develop a climate supportive of all faculty, staff, and students?

  • How do we facilitate and assess the acquisition of content knowledge about diverse cultures and the development of cognitive complexity?

I intend to pursue inclusive excellence by first engaging DLC faculty, staff, and students in these questions and then by inviting them to not only seek appropriate answers but also to show evidence of and act on those answers. Of course, to simply say “we do this already” is not an appropriate answer. Such an answer does a disservice to our students and our community. Instead, we need to look beyond token inclusion. My years working with Flint Writers, Inc., to put on the Flint Festival of Writers have continually shown me the importance of attending to cultural differences and the diversity of our experiences. As department chair, I will seek curricular, extracurricular, and administrative changes in accordance with an understanding of inclusive excellence at the center of what we do in the Department of Language and Communication. 


3) What ideas or suggestions do you have to increase enrollments in your new department?

DLC needs to embrace and build on its service role. ENG, FRN, and SPN 111 and 112 as well as COM 210, ENG/COM 338, and ENG 345 serve disciplines, programs, and purposes across the entire university. Green chemists, evolutionary psychologists, math teachers, philosophers, and urban planners all need to write and speak well enough to be understood by an audience; DLC offers courses that are uniquely foundational to the development of these skills. While among the department’s most robust in terms of enrollment, these courses also afford the opportunity to welcome and orient students to the UM-Flint experience. Service courses are not barriers but open doorways that empower and enable students to step through and into their desired futures. We should therefore work with complementary disciplines and other academic units to develop certificates in Professional Communication (COM 210, COM 281, COM/ENG 338, ENG 354, PSY 377) and Persuasion & Negotiation (COM 200, COM 363, ENG 336, LIN 341, MGT 443) as well as credentials like Business Chinese and Spanish for Healthcare Professionals. Service courses can thus be doorways not just to career placement but to advancement. 

DLC should also maintain clear pathways to degree/certificate completion. Prerequisites should be understood and examined as valuable tools for putting students in the right sequence. Courses should be scheduled so students can earn certificates in a single year and credentials in a single semester. These aspects should be explicitly marketed to transfer students. Through the DLC website, we must communicate how, where, and why certain courses count toward degrees, certificates, and credentials. Having attended many admissions events as chair, I know the importance of assuring department presence and making clear contact with even students who “hate writing.” But I also hope that by embracing and building on its service role, DLC will have space to pursue initiatives toward new enrollments, similar to how I supported ENG/LIN faculty in both the Teagle Grant discussion and the Mellon Borders & Crossings grant.  

4) What innovations do you think CAS should consider in the first year of our new structure?

Morale. We need to address faculty and staff morale in direct, substantial ways. The unrelenting pace of change amid a pandemic continues to unmoor and upend us. I am aware of at least five faculty members’ intentions to leave the university this year. The lack of real stability or support for faculty and staff labor means many are not mitigating their circumstances but suffering. We need to acknowledge this beyond “thanks for your work” or a ‘wellness’ day. 

File management. If policy-planning and implementation is of major focus in our first year, then we need a logical, standard filing system in Google Drive for the entire College. No department or program is unique enough to require its own filing system. All chairs and admins should be able to go into any department’s drive (with permission, of course) and find what they need with 2-3 clicks. 

Structural clarity. We need to set standard expectations for all departments and be clear about when and where there is room for individuality. Students deserve to know where to go when they have problems or questions. Appointment lines should rest inside of programs or departments, not both. College and department bylaws should intersect in meaningful ways, and so should Council of Chairs and the Executive Committee. We all need to understand how and why our new structure gets work done. 

Classroom observations. In the absence of policy/protocol, classroom observations of/by tenure track faculty tend to happen only in advance of a tenure/promotion case. Establishing a clear CAS-wide procedure for observations of all faculty every year would eliminate a mad departmental scramble and afford more opportunities for faculty to discuss teaching. 

Internal/external marketing. Each new department needs and deserves to have cohesive, comprehensive narratives for current/prospective students, admissions officers, university administrators, and faculty on the possibilities and purposes of the programs within that department. Having clear statements on departments’ websites about possibility and purpose should give solid ground to faculty and students uncertain about where the reorganization has put them. We also need to bring back life into department websites. If we want to recruit faculty, staff, and students, we need to show them what our work looks like. People rely on being able to learn things about departments and programs and offices from our websites, particularly right now. We can’t be flattening everything into “faculty profiles” or otherwise kicking important information to the course catalog. 

Thank you for your responses.  The Dean’s office will be in contact with you soon.

-- -- -- -- 

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I didn't get the job.

"We knew. We knew and did nothing."

In my youth, we talked about the earth heating. The UN addressed the rise in temperature in 1988, creating the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

We changed nothing, instead increasing the use of fossil fuels, adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. We lived our lives recklessly and with abandon, and we will see only the beginning of what we have done and what will happen. The rest we've left to our children, their inheritance this uncharted world.

-- Nancy Wayson Dinan