Department Chairs and Leadership During the Global Pandemic

The global pandemic has been difficult for many in higher education.  

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the key assumptions and beliefs that serve as the foundation of higher education” (Brazeau, 2020, p.688).

Recognizing that the pandemic has impacted people very differently, Dr. Klodiana Kolomitro and I highlighted a few of the challenges the pandemic has created at a session earlier this year with the educational development community in Canada (Kolomitro and Kenny, 2021). We summarized that the pandemic has:

1) increased workload for students, administrators, educators and teaching and learning centres;

2) disproportionately impacted equity-deserving groups including Indigenous and racialized peoples, women, persons with disabilities and 2SLGBTQI+ communities;

3) increased feelings of uncertainty and emotional exhaustion;

4) caused physical, social and self-isolation and loneliness; and,

5) resulted in overall poorer mental health, wellbeing and quality of life (Aristonvnik et al., 2020; Brazeau et al., 2020; Naffi et al., 2020; Xiong et al., 2020).

Although hopeful for healing as we approach the 2021/22 academic year, the uncertainty of the fall semester continues to exacerbate many of these same issues.

The Department Chair and the Pandemic

In a recent article published in Innovative Higher Education, Gigliotti (2021) explored the impact of the pandemic on department chairs. This article highlights the critical role that department chairs hold at institutions, described as, “…agents of influence in leading the reinvention of policies, practices and patterns of behavior at the departmental level and throughout their academic discipline” (p. 430). Christensen-Hughes and Mighty (2010) further emphasized the role that these local leaders can play in either helping or hindering the decisions, cultures, behaviors, norms and practices we most aspire to see.

It won’t come as any surprise that Gigliotti (2021) found that the COVID19 global pandemic intensified leadership challenges, added complexity, and contributed to continuous emerging issues for department chairs. 

“The findings of this study underscore the important work of academic leadership, particularly the role of department chairs, in triaging immediate concerns, advocating on behalf of one’s colleagues and students, providing frequent and timely updates to facilitate an institution’s crisis response, ensuring the safety and well-being of others, and helping to restore hope when others experience a breakdown in collective sensemaking” (p.442).

Throughout this study, chairs acknowledged challenges related to pivoting to remote teaching, navigating remote meetings, and exploring methods to ensure some degree of research continuity throughout their department. They struggled with maintaining consistent and clear communication channels with senior administration, maintaining meaningful relationships and connections with colleagues, acknowledging and coping with emerging mental health issues experienced by themselves and departmental colleagues, balancing personal and professional commitments, ensuring the health and safety of students and staff, planning under constant uncertainty, ongoing budget constraints, and concerns related to ongoing pressures for renewal and reinvention.

The authors highlight the crucial role of relationships, connection and communication as departments negotiated and responded to the COVID19 pandemic:

“What we learn from the insights of the responding department chairs is a desire to connect with others— connections that are made more challenging in light of the global pandemic—and to care for others in navigating the uncertainty of the current moment. By shaping and interpreting how others react and respond to a crisis of widespread magnitude, leadership is made possible; and by recognizing both the personal and professional worries, fears, and goals of one’s faculty, staff, and student colleagues, department chairs can provide bridges of trust and goodwill.” (p. 442)

Leadership Approaches for Healing and Rebuilding Teaching and Learning

In their article, Gigliotti (2021) called explicitly for more opportunities to support departmental chairs, including providing additional support for their development as academic leaders. As we embark on healing and rebuilding our teaching and learning practices into the future, the following leadership approaches adapted from Gibbs and Knapper (2008) may provide a helpful guide and starting point for reflection for academic chairs:

  1. Establish credibility and trust: foster open communication; listen carefully and solicit ideas actively from the departmental community, especially from individuals and groups that have historically been marginalized; identify, seek and advocate for additional institutional support and resources for change; establish a network of mentors and colleagues to support on-going reflection, growth and development.
  2. Identify and address departmental strengths and challenges: actively identify departmental strengths and challenges; represent the department honestly; leverage strengths; lean into and address challenges; speak up to actions and behaviours that are harmful; focus on building and moving forward through incremental change.
  3. Articulate a clear vision and rationale for change: learn about what others internal and external to the institution are doing; seek guidance from evidence-based and culturally relevant practices; collaboratively identify and articulate a clear narrative for the future; gather evidence and feedback on change initiatives; admit mistakes, apologize and change direction as necessary.
  4. Distribute leadership: build and support a collaborative team of departmental leaders; create leadership pathways for those in formal and informal roles; surround yourself by a team that helps you address your leadership blind spots and areas for growth; ask for help; thank and give credit to others for their influence and impact.
  5. Build communities of dialogue and practice: foster debate, discussion and reflection around issues that matter; use multiple forms of engagement to involve the entire departmental community; actively create opportunities to make teaching and learning practices public.
  6. Visibly reward and recognize teaching and learning: provide leadership pathways for strong and committed educators; evaluate contributions to teaching and learning using multiple methods, lenses, and perspectives; actively identify and support individuals to be recognized for their contributions to teaching beyond the department.
  7. Involve students as partners in change: actively seek student input; involve students meaningfully in initiatives, innovations, and decision-making processes; intentionally provide space for and amplify student voices; create leadership pathways for students.

There are likely other leadership approaches you would recommend for departmental chairs as we embark on an ever-evolving and somewhat uncertain pathway for teaching and learning in higher education.

What do you think are key considerations, challenges, and recommended leadership approaches for department chairs as we begin to approach teaching and learning during the 2021/22 academic year?

References:

Aristovnik, A., Keržič, D., Ravšelj, D., Tomaževič, N., & Umek, L. (2020). Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on life of higher education students: A global perspective. Sustainability12(20), 8438.

Brazeau, G. A., Frenzel, J. E., & Prescott, W. A. (2020). Facilitating wellbeing in a turbulent time. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education84(6).

Christensen Hughes, J., & Mighty, J. (2010). A call to action: Barriers to pedagogical innovation and how to overcome them. In J. Christensen Hughes & J. Mighty (Eds).Taking stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (pp. 261-277). Queens School of Policy Studies.

Gibbs, G., Knapper, C., & Piccinin, S. (2008). Disciplinary and contextually appropriate approaches to leadership of teaching in research‐intensive academic departments in higher education. Higher Education Quarterly, 62(4), 416-436.

Gigliotti, R. A. (2021). The impact of COVID-19 on academic department chairs: Heightened complexity, accentuated liminality, and competing perceptions of reinvention. Innovative Higher Education, 1-16.

Kolomitro, K. and Kenny, N. (2021). Caring for our community: when will well-being be a priority.  Keynote Presentation.  Educational Developers Caucus of Canada Online Conference. https://edc.stlhe.ca/conference-2021/keynote/

Naffi et al. (2020) Disruption in and by Centres for Teaching and Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Leading the Future of Higher Ed. White Paper ISBN: 978-2-9818996-5-1

Xiong, J., Lipsitz, O., Nasri, F., Lui, L. M., Gill, H., Phan, L., … & McIntyre, R. S. (2020). Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on mental health in the general population: A systematic review. Journal of affective disorders.

A framework for influencing change in teaching and learning cultures, communities, and practices.

As a leader of a teaching and learning institute at a large-research intensive institution, I reflect a lot on how change and learning happens in organizations.  

How do teaching and learning centres work to influence teaching and learning cultures, communities and practices?

A couple of years ago, I presented at the Educational Developers of Caucus of Canada Conference, and tried, in one slide to communicate all that I have learned about the complex work of teaching and learning centres.  Below is a version of that slide.  

This framework builds upon the work of others (see for example: Brew & Ginns, 2008; Finkelstein, et al., 2016; Fields et al., 2019; Hannah & Lester, 2009; Jarvis, 2010; Mårtensson & Roxå, 2016; Roxå & Mårtensson, 2009;  Simmons, 2016; Trigwell, 2013; Webster-Wright, 2009; Wright et al., 2018).  I also highlight it in a forthcoming paper with Dr. Sarah Eaton (Kenny & Eaton, in press). 

Most people would point to teaching and learning centres for the workshops and courses they offer individual educators.  These formal, planned events are a visible part of the work of educational developers.  But, as one of my favorite colleagues, mentors and leaders Dr. Leslie Reid shares,

“Change happens one conversation at a time.”  

The seminal work of Roxå & Mårtensson (2009) and Roxå et al. (2011) suggests that teaching and learning cultures, communities and practices are strongly influenced by the small, but significant conversations we have and networks we create with colleagues we trust.  A recognition that teaching and learning in higher education is influenced by FORMAL processes (i.e., policies, programs, structures, resources and committees) and INFORMAL activities (i.e., significant networks, relationships, conversations, and communities) is fundamental to the work of teaching and learning centres, and this framework.

Take a moment to reflect on where and how these formal processes and informal activities occur across your institution. How and where is your teaching and learning centre influencing these formal processes and informal networks, conversations and communities?

The centre of the framework highlights four key components to influencing teaching and learning cultures: 1) High-impact professional learning for individuals and groups, 2) Local-level leadership and microcultures, 3) Scholarship, research and inquiry, 4) Learning spaces, pedagogies and technologies.

High-impact professional learning activities can be informal or formal, but are intentionally designed to be contextual, embedded in practice, and to facilitate on-going reflection and action (Webster-Wright, 2009).

How is your centre providing initiatives to support meaningful and sustained professional learning and growth for educators across higher education?

The influence of local-leadership and microcultures are often overlooked in higher education (Mårtensson & Roxå, 2016; Kenny et al., 2016). Formal leaders (who hold roles such as Dean, Department Head/Chair, Associate Dean) and informal leaders (who may not hold a formal title) are catalysts for action and change.  They have an incredible influence on the development of microcultures (behaviours, norms, values, actions) that either support or hinder the development of the teaching and learning cultures, communities and practices we most aspire to see (Christensen Hughes & Mighty, 2010).  We need only to look at the complexities, sheer exhaustion and pressures that Department Heads/Chairs faced related to teaching and learning during the global pandemic – Gigliotti (2021) calls for more training, support and development for those who hold these roles.

What does your teaching and learning centre do to support informal and formal teaching and learning leaders?

Scholarship, research and inquiry provide a means for investigating, sharing and disseminating knowledge about teaching and learning in postsecondary education.  This work includes inquiry in individual classrooms, as well as how teaching and learning are more broadly supported across multiple organizational levels within higher education. Knowledge sharing and dissemination about teaching and learning are important, and we are also coming to understand that the very process of intentionally engaging in scholarship and inquiry related to teaching and learning, helps us become better educators, as we focus on the student learning experience and develop stronger abilities as critically reflective practitioners (Brew and Ginns, 2009; Trigwell, 2013).

How does your teaching and learning centre encourage and support engagement in scholarship, research and inquiry in teaching and learning?  

I have also been thinking a lot lately about how these supports are (or aren’t) inclusive of multiple ways of knowing, being and understanding?

Learning spaces, pedagogies and technologies have an incredible impact on teaching and learning communities, cultures and practices in higher education.  Learning spaces can be designed intentionally to foster engagement, collaboration and to create a shared learning community between students and instructors (Finkelstein and Winer, 2020).  Never has the power of learning technologies become more prevalent as during the COVID19 pandemic when millions of learners across the globe accessed their higher education from remote locations. When thoughtfully integrated, learning technologies can strengthen connection, collaboration, flexibility and innovation. Pedagogical approaches that are intentionally structured, promote active engagement, encourage meta-cognition and self-regulation, foster deep learning, and establish relevance improve student learning outcomes (Freeman et al., 2014, Deslauriers et al., 2011; Kember, Ho & Hong, 2008; Pintrich, 2002).

How does your teaching and learning centre support learning spaces, pedagogies and technologies that improve student success and promote deep learning?

How are we ensuring our learning spaces, pedagogies and technologies support our commitments to equity, diversity and inclusion, and Indigenous Ways of Knowing?

The framework is grounded by the recognition that these four core elements (i.e., high impact professional learning, local-level leadership and microcultures, scholarship, research and inquiry, and learning spaces, pedagogies and technologies) are influenced across multiple organizational levels (Hannah & Lester, 2009; Kenny et al., 2016; Simmons, 2016; Roxå & Mårtensson, 2009).  At the institutional (macro-level) senior leaders, policies, and committees can establish a clear vision, resources, governance processes and structures for teaching and learning.  At the faculty and departmental level (meso-level) integrated networks of knowledge sharing can be established, and local leaders can be provided with appropriate support to help influence change and decision-making related to teaching and learning.  And finally, at the individual level (micro-level) individuals must be supported, recognized and rewarded for their work to advance teaching and learning.

How is your teaching and learning centre influencing change in teaching and learning cultures, communities and practices across the micro, meso and macro levels?

As always, I’d love to hear how this framework resonates for you.  It’s difficult to articulate what I have come to understand about the work of educational development and teaching and learning centres in one slide, and I am certain my thoughts will continue to evolve over time!


References

Brew, A., & Ginns, P. (2008). The relationship between engagement in the scholarship of teaching and learning and students’ course experiences. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education33(5), 535-545.

Christensen Hughes, J., & Mighty, J. (2010). A call to action: Barriers to pedagogical innovation and how to overcome them. In J. Christensen Hughes & J. Mighty (Eds).Taking stock: Research on teaching and learning in higher education (pp. 261-277). Queens School of Policy Studies.

Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., & Wieman, C. (2011). Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science, 332(6031), 862-864.

Finkelstein, A., & Winer, L. (2020). Active learning anywhere: A principled-based approach to designing learning spaces. In S. Hoidn & M. Klemenčič (Eds.), The Routledge International Handbook of Student-Centered Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (pp. 327–344). 

Fields, J., Kenny, N. A., & Mueller, R. A. (2019). Conceptualizing educational leadership in an academic development program. International Journal for Academic Development24(3), 218-231.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415.

Gigliotti, R. A. (2021). The impact of COVID-19 on academic department chairs: Heightened complexity, accentuated liminality, and competing perceptions of reinvention. Innovative Higher Education, 1-16.

Hannah, S. T., & Lester, P. B. (2009). A multilevel approach to building and leading learning organizations. The Leadership Quarterly20(1), 34-48.

Jarvis, Peter. (2010). Adult Education and Lifelong Learning. Fourth Edition. Routledge, NY. pp.338.

Kember, D., Ho, A., & Hong, C. (2008). The importance of establishing relevance in motivating student learning. Active learning in higher education, 9(3), 249-263.

Kenny, N., Watson, G. P. L., & Desmarais, S. (2016). Building sustained action: Supporting an institutional practice of SoTL at the University of Guelph. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2016(146), 87-94. doi:10.1002/tl.20191

Kenny, N., & Eaton, S. E. (2021, in press) Academic integrity through a SoTL lens and 4M framework: An institutional self-study. In S. E. Eaton & J. Christensen Hughes (Eds.), Academic integrity in Canada: An enduring and essential challenge: Springer.

Mårtensson, K., & Roxå, T. (2016). Leadership at a local level–Enhancing educational development. Educational Management Administration & Leadership44(2), 247-262.

Pintrich, P. R. (2002). The role of metacognitive knowledge in learning, teaching, and assessing. Theory into practice41(4), 219-225.

Roxå, T., & Mårtensson, K. (2009). Significant conversations and significant networks–exploring the backstage of the teaching arena. Studies in Higher Education34(5), 547-559.

Roxå, T., Mårtensson, K., & Alveteg, M. (2011). Understanding and influencing teaching and learning cultures at university: A network approach. Higher Education, 62(1), 99-111. DOI 10.1007/s10734-010-9368-9

Simmons, N. (2016). Synthesizing SoTL institutional initiatives toward national impact. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2016(146), 95-102. https://doi.org/10.1002/tl.20192

Trigwell, K. (2013). Evidence of the impact of scholarship of teaching and learning purposes. Teaching and Learning Inquiry1(1), 95-105.

Webster-Wright, A. (2009). Reframing professional development through understanding authentic professional learning. Review of educational research79(2), 702-739.

Wright, M., Horii, C. V., Felten, P., Sorcinelli, M. D., & Kaplan, M. (2018). Faculty development improves teaching and learning. POD Speaks2, 1-5.

Fostering Meaningful Postdoctoral Scholar Professional Learning and Development Opportunities in Higher Ed

Postdoctoral Professional Learning and Development Framework (Source: Nowell et al. 2021)

With leadership from University of Calgary’s Dr. Lorelli Nowell (https://twitter.com/lorelli_nowell), I recently collaborated with a fabulous group of scholars to publish a framework for postdoctoral scholar professional learning and development. The framework presents a holistic view of how we can better support postdoctoral scholars as they move forward in their academic and professional careers – recognizing that the vast majority of postdoctoral scholars do not enter permanent academic positions. With ever changing job markets and demands, higher education must better prepare postdocs for a range of careers, whether that be in higher ed, government, not-for-profit or private sectors (see Ålund et al., 2020).

Moving beyond academe’s traditional focus on research skill development, the Professional Learning and Development (PLD) framework consists of four major domains:

  1. Professional Socialization (mentorship, community engagement, inclusivity & diversity, networking)
  2. Professional Skills (leadership skills, interpersonal skills, communication skills, careering planning)
  3. Academic Development (academic writing, academic service, critical thinking, teaching & learning)
  4. Personal Effectiveness (time management, work-life balance, health & wellness, project management)

The framework builds upon results from our previous research, which included literature reviews, document analysis, surveys, interviews, and consultations with key stakeholders (see Nowell et al., 2018, 2019; 2020). Through this research, postdoctoral scholars consistently communicated the need for professional learning and development that extended beyond research skill development. For example, areas of particular interest included teaching and learning, mentorship, academic service and well-being. I will note that COVID-19 has escalated the stress-related challenges that postdocs face, including burnout, work-life conflict, and social isolation.

Our research certainly has practical implications, including serving as a framework for institutions as they create, design and implement robust supports and a learning culture for postdoctoral scholars. We imagine postdoctoral supervisors and postdocs using the framework as a guide for mentorship conversations, developing learning plans, and fostering critical reflection and career growth. Teaching and learning centres, academic units, and postdoc offices could use it as a reference to develop robust professional learning programs. More broadly regional, national and international postdoc organizations can use this framework to amplify discussions to strengthen how we conceptualize and design meaningful postdoctoral scholar communities, cultures and practices in higher ed.

We’d love to hear how you imagine using this framework in your particular context, and successful examples of initiatives to meaningfully integrate postdoctoral scholars in the academic community, and to strengthen professional learning and development for postdocs across a variety of career contexts!

References:

Ålund, M., Emery, N., Jarrett, B.J.M. et al. Academic ecosystems must evolve to support a sustainable postdoc workforce. Nat Ecol Evol 4, 777–781 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-1178-6

Nowell, L., Ovie, G., Berenson, C., Kenny, N. and Hayden, K.A. (2018), “Professional learning and development of postdoctoral scholars: a systematic review of the literature”, Education Research International, Vol. 2018, p. 5950739.

Nowell, L., Ovie, G., Kenny, N., Hayden, K.A. and Jacobsen, M. (2019), “Professional learning and development initiatives for postdoctoral scholars”, Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education, Vol. 11 No. 1, pp. 35-55.

Nowell, L., Ovie, G., Kenny, N. and Jacobsen, M. (2020), “Postdoctoral scholar’s perspectives about professional learning and development: a concurrent mixed-methods study”, Palgrave Communications, Vol. 6 No. 1.

Nowell, L., Dhingra, S., Kenny, N., Jacobsen, M. and Pexman, P. (2021), “Professional learning and development framework for postdoctoral scholars”, Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education, ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/SGPE-10-2020-0067

Collaboration in Higher Education

Although there are many benefits to enabling a community of collaboration, most universities struggle to implement collaborative initiatives due to inherent barriers in organizational structure, and long-held values in the prestige of rewarding and promoting faculty autonomy. Faculty are hired and rewarded for their ability to develop and lead independent research programs. Their teaching practice is inherently dependent on their individual abilities to disseminate and transfer their disciplinary knowledge and expertise. So how can institutions move “from a culture that supports individual work to the ones that facilitate collaborative work” (Kezar, 2005, p. 833)? How do we promote a community of academic excellence where faculty are encouraged to collaborate and to capitalize on their collective intellectual capacities in their role as researchers, teachers and contributors to their institutional, local and global communities?

Kezar (2005) suggests 8 principles for enabling collaboration in academic environments: a strong mission; integrated structures; institutional networks; appropriate recognition and rewards; clear priority from senior administrators; external pressure; values and learning. These principles are implemented through 3 key stages: Building an Institutional Commitment to Collaboration; Establishing a Clear Commitment to Collaboration; and Sustaining Collaboration.It is time for faculty and administrators to advocate for and establish a positive culture of collaboration within our academic communities. We need to focus on hiring a new generation of academics who recognize and actively translate the benefits of collaboration, and who fundamentally challenge and change the existing culture of elitism within our institutional contexts and structures. We need to provide funding and administrative support to interdisciplinary projects which emphasize the benefits of our collective intellectual potential and capacity to inspire positive change. We need to establish a tenure and promotion system that rewards, rather than questions the value of collaborative academic initiatives. We need to set clear institutional missions and to sustain a positive community dialogue which advocates for and communicates the benefits of collaboration. Not only do we need to focus our own efforts on collaboration, but we need to motivate others around us – staff, faculty, and students – to engage in collaborative work.

I hold strongly to a fundamental philosophy that the best leaders possess exceptional collaboration skills. They strive to bring out the best in themselves and others, by sharing knowledge and resources, thus building a reciprocal network of support and mentorship. The best academic leaders acknowledge and accept the limits of their individual potential, and demonstrate an ability to enable, empower, and learn from others. Together, we have the collective capacity and interdisciplinary potential to address society’s most complex challenges, and perhaps most importantly, to inspire positive change in the world around us.

Reference:

Kezar, A. 2005. Redesigning for collaboration within higher education institutions: an exploration into the developmental process. Research in Higher Education 46(7): 831-860.