Sometimes the relationship between chair and faculty goes smoothly. Great. All happy families are alike.
But sometimes the relationship doesn't. And while all unhappy families are different*, there are enough commonalities amongst the causes of unhappiness to make it worthwhile to think about what those causes are. This is the second post following up this one about difficult faculty and chairs. I just got an email from the woman mentioned in the previous post. She's not in my department, and I'm not on her mentoring or tenure committee. Her email was long and it was bitter and it made me sad. I wrote a response, trying to help, parts of which I include here. She started with the idea that she has "been given special rules that apply only to her". My first response to that was:
How do you know they are rules only for you? Have you discussed this with everyone else? But, indeed, part of what a chair does is try to develop a pathway for each faculty to achieve tenure. I just want to encourage you not to have a chip on your shoulder, to subtract the personal & emotional out of your interactions with your chair. Really & truly chairs want faculty to succeed.
I know this is not always true. I know that there are toxic chairs, and vindictive chairs, and just plain problematic and insecure chairs. I do not have statistics to comment on frequency. But I know this chair, and he's not toxic or vindictive, just of strong mind in a department whose historic issues predate this woman's problems by years. And despite my current struggles with my chair, I do believe that my chair is on the balance a good chair, who really has the backs of the junior faculty in this department. That he and I disagree about how to support said faculty, has come to be par for the course, for me. But it really is in the self-interest of a chair or head to see jr faculty succeed. The ability to see someone as being both good and bad is a hard won skill for me.
But in my response, I went on to ask the question: do you want this job? For lots of readers here, the answer is "of course". But this is an older woman, who has done a lot, including lots of government and NGO work setting up programs for underprivileged and undersupplied, etc etc. She could do that stuff. She's had a successful career that led her back to academics.
Again, the decision to stay, the decision to work towards tenure, is yours. But if you do, you need to ask, both yourself and your chair: What do I need to do to get tenure? It’s sometimes easier when one is 25 or 30 and an asst prof, because one tends to be in a often much more in a “teach me mode”, then when one has lived a lot of life, done a lot of things, and seen even more. But, there is a lot about academics that you, Molly, don’t know, you can’t know, because you were busy doing all those other things for years.
When you get to be 50 or 60, sometimes it's easy to know what you don't know. Maybe easier than when you are young. But sometimes, when you get lumped with the 20 and 30 year olds, it's not. I've had trainees of different ages and background who really think they know better. I've had friends with trainees who struggle with the ones who know everything. Yup, I know there is a lot that *I* don't know. And if you asked Molly, the young faculty, she'd say "of course, there's lots I don't know, but ..." and in that but lies here problems.
You need to ask yourself: what am I doing right and what could I do better? Not just about the interactions, but about the stuff you are doing professionally, towards the development of your dossier. Part of your relationship with your chair, part of making him your ally, is to have his answers to that question. It’s hard to hear the “what could be better” part, but if you don’t, and if you can’t hear it to move forward, you won’t get tenure.
You also need to try and see this more from the chair and department and school perspective. Not *this* chair in particular, but what *a* chair in general would be saying.
In general, for any problematic relationship, understanding the other person is helpful. Not saying I'm good at it, or I always succeed. But the insights can make a difference in solving the problem.
And keep your perspective on just what the heck is going on:
One doesn’t get hired because of some altruistic need on the part of the university to improve you, and help you, although that often comes along for the ride. One is hired because there are jobs that need to be done, jobs within the department and within the school. Your job may not (although, again it can) be about what you want to do, it is about what the department needs done, and sees as its mission. If your goals and department goals align, then it works well. But if you have goals that are not part of the department’s mission, you will end up being very frustrated, and have a less than optimal relationship with the chair, who is setting the agenda of meeting the department goals (which in turn is usually in answer to what those in leadership have decided).
There are plenty of snowflakes who know better. And you know what? When they move on to something else, both they and the chair, and probably the department, are all happier. Again, ask yourself: do I want this job? And the corollary is: am I willing to do what it takes to get it and keep it? That's the meta question here.
*Did you know that there is an Anna Karenina principle in statistics? I was looking up the quote and found this:
In statistics, the term Anna Karenina principle is used to describe significance tests: there are any number of ways in which a dataset may violate the null hypothesis and only one in which all the assumptions are satisfied.
And yes, there are some department chairs that will never be satisfied.