Reflections on Chairing a Philosophy Department at Mid-Career (Part 2)

by Ronald Robles Sundstrom

This is the second of a two-post series on this subject by Ronald Robles Sundstrom. See here for last week’s post.

3) Managing part-time faculty

Another feature of chairing a department that is increasingly gaining attention is the administration of part-time or adjunct faculty members. The part-time faculty teach around 20 of the 30 (roughly 67%) core courses we offer each semester; the other 5 are upper-division courses for the major and minor that are reserved for full-time faculty. This national academic trend, the growing imbalance between the number of part-time to full-time instructors in the classroom, is a major feature of my department’s experience. This trend is driven by increases in overall enrollment, and the lack of a parallel increase of full-time lines, but also by the difficult truth that some faculty have been able to reduce the number of core classes with high enrollment caps they teach (at USF the typical core class is capped at 40 students); this is due to course releases for research and significant service commitments, interdisciplinary appointments, and teaching other types of courses, such as upper-division or service learning courses. For every full-time faculty member not teaching a core class, an adjunct must be hired to fill the gap. The effect of this on the workload of the chair is significant. It was the most challenging feature of my term as department chair. Several years ago, long prior to my becoming chair, my department responded to this situation by having a position for a part-time faculty coordinator created; it comes with one of those pesky course releases that cancels out 1 course every third semester. The part-time faculty coordinator helps the chair to interview new part-time faculty and their teaching, with mentoring and periodic evaluations of all part-time faculty, addressing their concerns and answering their questions, and programing all faculty events on pedagogical affairs. Thankfully, USF’s relationship with its part-time faculty is not as exploitative as it is at other colleges and universities. Adjunct professors get paid a decent rate for each credit hour they teach, are unionized (so are the full-time faculty), and have achieved a respectable slate of benefits. This doesn’t mean that aren’t problems or areas that can be improved about their workplace conditions.

From my perspective, a better long-term answer to the off-kilter ratio between part-time and full-time faculty, when tenure-track ones can’t be justified, is to increase the number of full-time term lines that are not themselves exploitative. My department has repeatedly asked the university to give it more full-time, tenure track lines, but in part due to our low number of majors, all we’ve been able to do is maintain our current number of full-time faculty. The university recently approved the creation of new line of full-time term positions with a teaching load of 4 courses per semester; it was previously 3 courses per semester for full-time terms. Full-time, tenure-track faculty have a 2–2–2­–3 load, or 36 units over two years. Some in my department are dismayed by the high teaching load for new full-time terms so don’t support their addition, because they violate the terms of our full-time contract and the high teaching load will stymie professional development by radically restricting time available for research.

4) Hiring full-time faculty while maintaining and increasing diversity

As I mentioned, we were able to replace faculty who retired or left for other university appointments. Despite our relatively low number of majors, but in large part because of our share of the core curriculum, we were provided with lines to replace the full-timers we lost. In hiring new faculty, we worked to maintain and expand the diversity of our department. The discipline of philosophy and philosophy departments are notoriously lacking in diversity. It is safe to say, given this sad context, that USF has one of the most ethnically and racially diverse philosophy departments in the United States, and our diversity extends beyond such demographic factors to the pluralism of our approaches to the discipline. In regards to gender, unfortunately, we do not stand out among other philosophy departments. We were, during my time as chair, able to improve the ratio of women to men in our faculty by 1 (3 women to 8 men), but we have a way to go before achieving a balance that reflects the student population at USF—females made up 61.7% of first-year students in 2016. A lesson, from my department’s experience, concerning the continuing race and gender integration of philosophy departments is that it requires intentional efforts of faculty in those departments to address this issue. Long-term planning, departmental discussion, and mentorship of new faculty are central aspects of these efforts. If departments hold out against these shifts, other potential solutions through pressure from students, faculty from other departments, and administration should be pressed against intransigent philosophy departments.

5) Mentoring new and junior faculty

Once new faculty are brought in, their flourishing depends on their receiving good mentoring. This is typically done by assigning the role of mentor to a senior and willing member of the department, but the official mentor is not the only figure to participate in mentorship. Faculty typically have their duties spread (depending on the institution) somewhat evenly between teaching, research, and service. The assigned mentor can give advice about all three areas, but this is better accomplished by encouraging the new faculty member to talk to multiple people inside and outside the department. As the chair of my department, and having experience on the tenure promotion committees at both the college and university level, I was able to give straight-forward advice on the minimal requirements to achieve adequate and exceptional scores for each portion of their academic duties. This sort of advice is best delivered from faculty with such tenure and promotion service experience, and not from members of the department with some ideological, academic, or scholarly axe to grind—restricting new faculty to that sort of ideological in-house mentoring is one of the ways departments have resisted change. As for teaching and pedagogical strategies, likewise the mentor should urge new faculty to speak to a wide array of colleagues, and to reach out of the department to participate in college or university pedagogical conversations and training. The same applies to research obligations and publications targets. Advice should come from faculty with a solid record of publication and participation and even leadership in their respective research areas, but again, the mentor should advise their mentees to escape their “filter bubbles” and talk to faculty who have found different ways to balance their research goals with other academic and life goals.

And then there is important advice to be given to the new faculty about service to the department, college, and university—something the faculty generally seek to minimize in their careers for the sake of their research agendas. There is wisdom in protecting untenured faculty to avoid over-burdening themselves with service. Then again, such service, especially outside the department, can be a lifeline for faculty who have interests, needs, or who find vital sources of community and support outside their departments. The latter can apply to anyone, but frequently we see it with those who have extensive interdisciplinary interests or are under-represented in philosophy departments. This service is an important source of support,  . Plus, discouraging or minimizing service can come back to haunt the department—who will, when we need it, attend or lead the department’s student recruitment, retention, or advising events (or for that matter, serve as chair) once we broadcast that such involvement is toxic to a career? The message that service, or, for that matter, teaching, is a career killer propagates feelings and experiences of alienation or under-appreciation for those full-time faculty who do (thankfully) devote themselves to students and service. Indeed, such messages, that anything other than research is career-killing, can be, if you will, “life-killing.”

The benefit of mentorship also extends to a department’s part-time faculty, not only in receiving it, but also in giving it. Many of our adjuncts are accomplished researchers and successful public intellectuals. Their experience is the basis of valuable advice for any faculty member, whether part- or full-time. Plus, it is among the adjunct faculty where we find an enormous storage of valuable teaching pedagogical and knowledge. I have repeatedly suggested to new or junior faculty to sit in on a class of one of our established part-time faculty members to learn about how to improve lecture styles, group exercises, pedagogical structures and strategies (such as the use of rubrics), and creative assignments. It is arrogant, and an iteration of both class and professional prejudice that leads full-time faculty to fail to refuse to acknowledge the wealth of experience and pedagogical expertise of our part-time faculty.

I got deeply involved with all these 5 aspects of department life in large part, because I had to, but also, especially with assessment and mentoring, because I felt called to and found the work personally and professionally enriching. This helps to explain my answer to the final question below.

So, why accept the role of chair? My department needed a senior colleague to take on this obligation, and I don’t instinctively refuse administrative duties. But I also did it for personal reasons. After experiencing and recovering from a significant, but thankfully temporary, health crisis about seven years ago, I needed the time to think about my writing and research, which audiences I wanted to address, and which direction I wanted my career to go in. As a mid-career, full-professor, I found writing about the same topic that I had been writing about (accounts of mixed race identity and interracial intimacies in social ontology, political philosophy, and ethics) less appealing. Not that I thought that topic unimportant, but I grew tired of putting off other interests in social and political philosophy, philosophy of race, and public policy that I had been itching to research and write about, and participate in fora devoted to those issues. The topic that I am now working on can be summarized as the political theory and ethics of racial integration and equality, particularly regarding housing, communities, and cities generally. It isn’t that my new focus is completely disconnected from my past work, but I needed a pause to give me the time to read, think, and develop the motivation and focus to go in a new direction. My time as chair gave me that space, and it afforded me the means to serve my colleagues, the department, the students, the college of arts and sciences, and USF. Plus, I received great mentoring about how to be a good chair and how it could contribute to and enrich my experiences as a professor. Now I am eager and desirous to learn, write, share, and speak about the areas of philosophy and public policy that I’ve devoted myself to, and its direct relationship with the community in which I live. At the end of this summer, I’ll be officially done with being chair and I look forward to the rest of my career. To employ the language of the Jesuits, it was a part of my continuing vocational discernment and personal formation as I contemplated the shape of my academic life at mid-career. It was time well spent.

Ronald Robles Sundstrom is a Professor of Philosophy, former Chair of the Philosophy Department, and member of the African American Studies and Critical Diversity Studies programs at the University of San Francisco. Has served USF in several capacities, including as the Faculty Director of the Core Curriculum at USF from 2014-2017, and received several awards recognizing his service, as well as his teaching: In spring 2017 he received the College of Arts and Science’s Faculty Service Award, in 2009 he was given the Ignatian Service Award for his service to the university, and 2010 he was the co-Winner of the USF Distinguished Teaching Award. His areas of research and teaching include race theory, political and social theory, and African American philosophy, with a particular focus on Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the topic of mixed-race. He published several essays and a book in these areas, including The Browning of America and The Evasion of Social Justice (SUNY, 2008). His current book project, Integration, Gentrification, and Equality, is on the ethics and politics of integration and gentrification, with a particular focus on residential integration and housing inequality.

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