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Which role has priority: Department Chair or Tutorial Advisor [1]?

I wasn’t planning to write a second musing tonight. But then the email arrived and I lost my temper …

As you might expect, at a small College like Grinnell, faculty serve in many different roles. We are department chairs. We advise students as part of the individual advised curriculum [2]. And, of course, we teach, do research, and serve the institution and our broader intellectual communities.

At times, these roles come into conflict with each other. In such times, it is important to consider the situation and determine which role has priority within that situation.

We currently have such a situation. The Dean’s office decided to schedule training for department chairs on the day before classes start. That’s also the day in which first-year students learn about the courses they got through our interesting registration system and, at times, find that they have to change their schedules. At 3 p.m., they come to Harris to talk to their advisors about options, to get signatures from the advisors and the faculty teaching classes, and so on and so forth.

So, which is more important? Supporting first-year students at an incredibly stressful time, which is a hallmark of the individually advised curriculum, or learning some detail of being chair when the same information should be available online? It should be a no brainer. Advising wins. Hands down [3]. Students who don’t get a full schedule or don’t end up with what is a reasonable schedule need to be able to discuss options with their advisors. As importantly, they need someone who they can trust when they are told things like It’s okay; even if you don’t get the course that you really wanted this semester, it will be fine if you take it in the spring [4].

But what did the administration decide? Let’s see what the letter from the Registrar’s office says.

Wednesday, August 23 from 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM we will hold a registration forum at Harris Center Concert Hall as we have in past years. This is for 1st year students that wish to change their schedule from what we registered them for on the Tuesday night prior and for returning students that want to make changes to their schedule.

I understand that your department chair retreat will be held at the same time so you will be required to designate someone from your department to attend in your place.

Tutorial advisers are also required to attend. Those of you that are both tutorial adviser and department chair must let your advisees know that you will be unable to attend Harris Center and either designate someone to sign in your place or let them know that you will sign add forms in your first tutorial meeting on Thursday, August 24. Departmental representatives will be signing add forms for each course in your department. Please check with all instructors in the department to see if there are any special considerations when signing students into courses. You will be provided rosters for all courses offered in your department.

[Email from Registrar’s office to department chairs entitled Harris Center registration forum and dated August 14, 2017 at 3:51:20 PM CDT]

I don’t know what makes me sadder [5]: that the Dean’s office would insist on prioritizing the chair’s retreat or that they think all that happens with advisors at the registration forum is signing forms. I worry that this is yet another sign that the administration really has no clue about what we do.

Were I still chair [6] and also teaching Tutorial [7,9], I know what my comment would be.

I have a responsibility to my tutees. I will therefore leave the Chairs’ Retreat in time to talk to them before and at the Registration Forum. If my inability to attend that session of the Chairs’ Retreat makes me ineligible to serve as chair, I am happy to step down from the position. Let me know whether or not that’s the case [11].

Of course, that’s me. I would not require that my colleagues say the same. However, my experience suggests that many feel that way, even if they would not say it in quite the same way [12,14].

I’ve been wrong about a lot of things lately. I look forward to hearing from my readers why the Chairs Retreat is more important than our responsibility to our Tutorial students. More generally, I look forward to hearing what issues I missed in this musing.


I was angry about this issue the first time I heard about it in the middle of the summer. But folks talked me down, saying something like Let’s assume that no one has raised why this is problematic with the Dean. That’s a reasonable comment; folks don’t always think about the implications of their decisions. But faculty did raise the issue and this idiotic decision was still made [15].


I’ve been told that there were good reasons to schedule it that day. I accept that; organizing faculty is like herding cats, very vocal cats. I’m told that the Dean’s office is trying to accommodate folks who have both obligations. That’s great to hear. But when you send out a semi-public message that implies that advising is just signing paperwork, you are still undermining what we do.

[1] The Grinnell style guide says that we should use adviser rather than advisor. Nonetheless, many official College documents use advisor. Hence, I use the form I prefer rather than the form I am told to use.

[2] Also individually mentored curriculum, open curriculum, inverse requirements curriculum, and no-requirements curriculum. Choose your title.

[3] I realize that I am not only mixing metaphors, but also using too many. I don’t care.

[4] I know that there are times in which one or two tutorial advisors can’t make it to the Wednesday Harris Registration Forum. But those times are the exception.

[5] or angrier.

[6] I am glad that I am not currently chair.

[7] In violation of many conventions, I capitalize Tutorial because it refers to a particular kind of tutorial [8] and not just the broader notion of activity in which students receive assistance.

[8] A seminar-style course required of all first-year Grinnell students that has three core foci: learning about a topic or topics, developing skills for success in school, and building an advising relationship.

[9] I am sad that I’m not currently teaching tutorial. I miss teaching Tutorial [10].

[10] Although, given my schedule for the fall, it’s probably for the best that I’m not teaching Tutorial.

[11] Here’s what I first wrote. I’ve updated it slightly.

I have a responsibility to my tutees. Would you prefer that I miss the Chairs Retreat or that I resign as Department Chair?

[12] I expect some will just skip the Chairs Retreat, rather than be confrontational. That is likely a more sane approach.

[14] Some of the comments I’ve received: I don’t care what they’ve told me. I’m leaving the retreat. When I got the message, I was tempted to throw my computer out the Window. I hope that at 2:45 p.m., all of the Chairs stand up an leave the retreat. It’s clear to me that the faculty are all on the same page.

[15] I intentionally used the passive voice in this sentence. I do not know who is responsible.

Version 1.0 posted on 2017-08-14.

Version 1.2.1 of 2017-08-15.