New teachers often teach the way they were taught. Give or take a few workshops or online training courses about writing learning objectives or understanding the LMS, many of us have found our way by observing, trying, and tweaking the best of what we’ve seen in our own discipline.
As we rose through the ranks to department chair and maybe beyond, we thought we could learn how to lead the same way we learned to teach: by observation and trial and error. One of the key drawbacks of this common approach is it creates the impression that problems and solutions are discipline specific.
True, there are problems a chair must solve that are constrained by discipline. The suppliers for the art department studios are different than those used to stock the chemistry labs. The research grants for biology faculty are different than those for historians. Knowing the ins and outs of one’s own discipline helps a chair navigate the challenges of making a department run smoothly.
However, there are many things that one can learn by networking with leaders in other disciplines, something that gets increasingly difficult to do as one becomes immersed in one’s own teaching, research, writing, and departmental affairs. Want to know how to motivate adjuncts in the physics department? Ask why the adjuncts in experiential design are so enthusiastic. Having challenges recruiting a diverse population of English faculty members? Maybe ask the professionals in nursing how they are getting the job done.
My alma mater hosts a Graduate Research Forum every year for the graduate students in various disciplines to practice presenting their research in either presentation or poster format. The twist is that the judges assigned to each student have a graduate degree in a different discipline. Students are forced to explain their research to an intelligent audience outside their own field, and they receive feedback and ideas from specialties not their own. This cross-disciplinary exchange requires everyone in the conversation to think outside their own silos for solutions to problems.
We often ask our students to think outside the box or employ an interdisciplinary approach to their studies, but something happens to that approach on the way to the department chair’s job. It’s easy to fall back on ideas like, “the tenured chemistry faculty will never go for that,” or “the modern languages department has never done it that way.” But if insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results, some parts of the academy might well be out of their right minds.
If you face an intractable departmental problem, the solution may be found by looking at a similar department at another institution. But it is equally likely to be found by speaking to colleagues in different disciplines or different institutional types. The large research university department could find inspirations in the workings of a small college. A professional discipline may discover answers by speaking with colleagues in the humanities. I encourage you to seek out these opportunities to better your departments by looking outside your discipline silo. After all, silos are great for housing things you want to keep the same, but real innovation requires you to look outside that tall metal tube.
We’d like to hear from you. If you’ve reached out to colleagues in other departments or at other institutions, please share what you learned and what recommendations you might have for others.
Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti, MS, is the editor of Academic Leader and the chair of the Leadership in Higher Education Conference. She is the author of Lecture is Not Dead: Ten Tips for Delivering Dynamic Lectures in the College Classroom and The Care and Motivation of the Adjunct Professor.