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Leadership during Crisis

Advice for the Department Chair

Kathy Callahan | Mar 25, 2020

As institutions transition to online instruction in the face of COVID-19, historians are struggling with what it means to teach history online. The AHA had planned to announce guidelines in June 2020 for online teaching in history, and we will continue to work to do so. In the meantime, we are publishing a series of short pieces in Perspectives Daily to help the many historians now working to navigate this emergency. 

We offer these pieces with a few caveats. Much of what can be done quickly is not properly online instruction (courses envisioned for online or hybrid execution). Rather, for many, this is a rapid transition to remote instruction. Similarly, much of the advice depends on your own institutional circumstances; with regard to policy, particularly ADA policy, always defer to the rules of your home institution. Still, we hope these posts will help support student learning during these turbulent times, and we invite discussion of them and an exchange of ideas—both broadly conceived and narrowly practical—on the AHA Members’ Forum.


Once it became obvious that our institutions planned to move to online formats in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19, my two personas—faculty member and department chair—reacted in different ways. 

A phone, iPad, and laptop.

Lean Forward/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Fortunately, I have experience teaching online, and I’m teaching both an online class and a hybrid class this semester. So I did not experience the panic at the prospect of moving to online teaching—at least as a faculty member. But as department chair, my anxiety levels rose knowing that some of our faculty members have never taught online. Some consider online instruction to be an anathema. A couple of them refuse even to have internet at home. 

Department chairs have a leadership role to play during this transition. We must recognize that we cannot control everything; in fact, we control very little. We also have to be realistic in our expectations. No one expected this, and we all will do the best we can. 

As chair, we will be the conduits of information for our faculty, deans, and the department’s students. Information needs to continue to flow in all directions. We need to communicate clear and reasonable expectations for our faculty. 

Some ideas for helping to keep communication channels open and expectations clear: 

  • Chairs should schedule office hours regularly and stick to them. Make it clear to your faculty and deans how you will be holding these hours (whether by phone, a video conferencing platform like Zoom, or a combination).
  • Faculty members should schedule office hours according to university policy; these also become important if you need to reach someone. 
  • Communicate your university’s position on using campus offices. If offices are closed, but faculty are allowed to go retrieve things, encourage them to unplug appliances, to take valuables home (including their research materials), and to update their voicemail greeting with the best way to contact them.
  • Let faculty know when you will be on campus to handle business. My university is closed to the public, and I imagine I will visit to use the photocopier or scanner. If your faculty members know your plans, they can leave things for you or have a better idea about how things are moving through the system. There is great peace in regularity. 
  • Check in regularly with the faculty. They want and need updates and encouragement. This situation is hard; acknowledge that. 
  • If you recognize that someone is struggling, do what you can to help by contacting the appropriate university offices. Know who you will contact when you yourself are struggling—whether another chair in your college, the dean, or someone else who can offer support.
  • Ask directly what changes faculty have made to their classes. You’ll learn how they plan to implement those changes, and if they can’t explain it to you, they won’t be able to explain it to their students. 
  • Remind faculty that they can stick to the basics. Learning new technologies can be overwhelming during this very stressful period. Traditional methods like posting PowerPoint slides, having students submit written work, and discussions are still effective.
  • Encourage faculty to be reasonable in their expectations of themselves. We do not have the luxury of the considerable planning time typically needed when launching an online class. Generally, our colleagues seek to do their best and often make great sacrifices to do so. Remind them that being realistic is important. 
  • Encourage faculty to be realistic and flexible with their students, too. They should be clear about student expectations in their new learning environment. This is not the semester for draconian requirements. They will likely have to allow students to miss deadlines, as they may miss their own deadlines for posting or grading. Many of our students had to relocate in the middle of the semester; most faculty did not. Many of us have access to our offices, while students are not allowed on campuses. And honestly, some students hate using these technologies for class as much as some faculty do. Patience and understanding are essential.
  • Faculty should have a plan for students who do not have access to the internet or computers, something I’ve encountered several times over the past week. It is incumbent upon us to make material available to all students. The answer might be the old-fashioned correspondence course—as long as the US mail continues to move. 
  • Encourage faculty to examine what resources are available for free that may help in their new online classroom. 
  • Encourage faculty to inform you if they or their loved ones become sick, so a decision can be made with your dean about how their classes should move forward. 
  • If you become sick or must care for someone who is, let your dean know as soon as you can. Have someone in mind to act in your stead should you be unable to work for an extended period. 
  • Keep your dean updated on how faculty are handling the changes.
  • Distribute information you receive from the dean in a timely manner. 
  • Think about ways to keep faculty and students connected as a department. I worked with our IT office to create a Canvas “class” for the department’s faculty and students. As the administrator, I can add and remove people from the class. It will be our official communication network for the department, and we plan to send out information regarding important events such as fall advising via this Canvas site. 
  • Contact your majors, minors, and graduate students. Give them your contact information and encourage them to be in regular contact with their professors and advisors. 

There is no universal job description for department chairs. We have different administrative responsibilities and different teaching responsibilities. But, now more than ever, we all have the capability to be kind and compassionate.


Kathy Callahan is department chair and professor of history at Murray State University. She tweets @kjc2714.


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