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Questions Every New Department Head Should Ask, Part I: Building on Faculty Strengths

Leadership and Management

Questions Every New Department Head Should Ask, Part I: Building on Faculty Strengths

In this series, I share some of the most useful questions I asked—or wish I had asked—when I became department head. If the things I describe seem obvious, here’s the reason to read on. You want to shift your attitude and actions to be mindful and develop potential. Attitude and actions go hand in hand and must be with you daily. You can think of this as a “1 percent better” approach. The questions here may not radically change your outcomes, but they will help you make incremental changes that add up over time. Let’s start by focusing on faculty.

The faculty in your department are among your most important resources in carrying out the mission of the department. They provide the brain power and commitment (hard work) that determine the quality of the student learning experience your department offers. Here are three questions you should ask.

What are the individual and collective strengths of the faculty members in your department?

Take the time to learn about their strengths so that you can make the best use of these. While this might seem like a too-utilitarian approach, people can feel most fulfilled when others acknowledge and appreciate their strengths. Each faculty member may have both existing strengths and strengths they want to develop. Start by having individual conversations that help you learn more. In addition, observe your faculty as they note the strengths of their colleagues. Ask yourself the following:

How does an understanding of strengths facilitate daily operations? For the tasks you need to accomplish, determine whose abilities will move the group forward. Know that not everyone will have the same strengths. In our department, for example, one faculty member was a particularly skillful wordsmith. They provided leadership when we needed to formulate policy statements, a process that can otherwise be quite arduous. Another had an excellent eye for detail. They happily gave a final proofread to curricular proposals and reports. Yet another faculty member innovated in the design of curricular and career maps. We shared their designs in the department so other programs could emulate them.

How does understanding strengths contribute to teaching and research? Observe your faculty in the classroom. Take time to read their syllabi. Look at the student evaluations of their teaching. Do you see particular strengths that contribute to the learning outcomes your department has identified? Compliment the faculty member who exhibits them. Ask whether they might like to share those at a future professional development event. Look to see whether there are faculty who are especially productive in research. Would they be willing to mentor a new faculty member? Are there two or three faculty who have innovated in some way and have the potential to coauthor a conference presentation or article? With your knowledge of everyone’s strengths, you may have a unique perspective on their possible use and can help plant ideas.

What are faculty doing to stay current with the standards of the field?

In asking this question, I assume that you and your faculty are committed to staying current with the standards of your field. Start by examining your own and the department’s position on the matter. Does your professional organization publish standards, white papers, or manuals that indicate best practices? Are there tools and practices? Are your faculty—all of them—aware of these? Is everyone on board with employing them? Set aside time for these essential conversations, such as a departmental retreat or a workshop.

Assuming you have had these conversations and your faculty are on board, who among them demonstrates methods and outcomes that are particularly outstanding? Find ways to help share these among your faculty. Additionally, what common characteristics of content delivery and learning outcomes can your faculty demonstrate? If you haven’t reviewed these recently, such commonalities could be a good subject for an upcoming retreat. Among the things at stake here: student retention from one course to the next and the caliber of your graduates.

What are the expectations for faculty participation in professional development?

Let’s begin with a definition. By “professional development,” I mean regular time investment accompanied by genuine commitment to updating content knowledge and pedagogical approaches. Professional development can also include learning in areas that help assure teaching is appealing to and effective for this generation of students. Topics may include, for example, diversity, equity, and inclusion; technology as a learning tool; and applied uses of content in the discipline for career purposes.

Why is professional development important? We live in a climate in which students and their parents are carefully weighing the value of higher education, in which smaller credentials from nonaccredited institutions are developing appeal, and in which the overall population of college-bound students is set to decline. One response is to ensure that your department offers the best teaching and learning it possibly can.

Determine whether professional development is already part of your institutional culture. Is it required, supported, and rewarded? How does this show up in tenure documents and annual evaluation processes? Who is already engaging, and what is the return on investment? Is there evidence—through the normal range of evidence of quality instruction—that professional development is needed? If so, is there timely messaging to the faculty member? Is there a need for particular types of professional development across the entire department? What funding is available for you to bring in a consultant to meet your needs?

Despite the recent upheavals in academia, teaching and learning remain at the core of what we do. The questions in this article should help you optimize the everyday work of faculty in the department, as well as instruction and learning outcomes. In Part II, we will continue to focus on academics by examining key questions to ask about the curriculum. Part III will round out the question guide by identifying a range of other vital areas for inquiry.

Laura G. McGee, PhD, served most recently as head of the Department of Modern Languages at Western Kentucky University. Under her leadership, the department nearly doubled the number of its languages, programs, and majors. She now conducts program reviews and consults for LifeStories Matter LLC Intercultural Training and Coaching.


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