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Mastering Grinnell

The other day, I was talking with my Dean about a variety of things and I mentioned that the Instructional Support Committee (ISC) should probably be consulted on some decisions relating to the bookstore. My Dean said something like Huh. I hadn’t realized that the bookstore was under the purview of ISC. You know what? I’d forgotten that, too. Fortunately, I have a colleague who had recently reminded me that The ISC was created by merging the bookstore and library committee and the academic computing committee. I should have remembered that; it may be the last time we eliminated a committee at Grinnell, and that was about fifteen years ago.

Anyway, my Dean’s comment got me thinking about just how many moving parts we have at Grinnell. I think we once calculated that we have nearly as many committees as we have faculty, although that’s probably an exaggeration. But we do have a lot of regular committees. And then we have all the temporary ad-hoc groups that come up: search committees, task forces, and the like.

Then there are the policies and procedures (policies and procedures often created by these many committees). We have lots and lots and lots. I expect that every institution has almost as many: Rules about how we conduct business, rules about what students can do and how they petition for exceptions to those rules, rules for scheduling classes, and so on and so forth.

Then there are the departments. Each department has a different personality and a different approach to each thing, from teaching to deciding how to divide work, to things beyond the curriculum. For example, some departments have weekly seminar series; some do not. Some departments have a budget for major speakers, some do not. Some departments have weekly lunch tables, some do not. And that’s just a few of the things that departments think about.

Each year brings new changes and new challenges: New faculty, new administrators, new staff, new policies, new procedures, new donations (and expectations associated with those donations), new initiatives, new major task forces (I think our President has committed to creating one or two major task forces each year), and more.

How does one master all these moving parts? That is, how does one keep track of all the important issues faculty have to think about at Grinnell? Usually, you build the knowledge through time and experience. You extend the knowledge by creating relationships, so that when you don’t know something, you have someone else close by who knows. And you keep track of the important documents, particularly the faculty handbook and the assorted policy documents. Once you develop knowledge and resources, you can incorporate the new changes each year.

For most of my time at Grinnell, our Dean has come from the faculty. And so it’s been comparatively easy for the Dean to keep track of all the complexities that are Grinnell. But our latest Dean came from outside Grinnell. That means that he has a lot to learn. Even after two years at Grinnell (at least I think it’s two years), there’s still an enormous amount he doesn’t know. That’s certainly understandable, but it certainly means that we sometimes miss context. For example, when making changes on faculty compensation for the Mentored Advanced Project program, we did not explore corresponding changes to the Mentored Introductory Project program [1].

Does that mean that I wish we had an internal Dean? No. I love many of the new things our new Dean has brought to Grinnell, not just new practices (like monthly meetings of all the department chairs) and new initiatives (such as the research for all initiative), but also new perspectives to help us think differently about what we do. And I appreciate his willingness to talk, to reflect, and to learn.

So, while I sometimes feel frustrated that our Dean has not yet mastered Grinnell, I need to remember that it takes time to master Grinnell. More importantly, I should look for ways to help him master more of Grinnell.

Yeah, I’m not sure why I wrote this essay. But I came away from my meeting with the Dean thinking about how hard it must be for him to keep track of all of Grinnell’s moving parts and feeling like I needed to reflect more on the issue. What did I take from writing the essay? I’ve become much more sympathetic toward his work; I don’t know how he manages all of these moving parts. I figured out that I know a comparatively large amount about policies and other issues. I realized that I get frustrated when people know less than I do, but that it’s not reasonable to expect everyone to keep track of all that I try to keep track of [2].

[1] In part, that’s because not many people use the Mentored Introductory Project program. I even know that the associate dean in charge of MIPs hadn’t realized that there were people who took full summer MIPs.

[2] I have a few colleagues who know even more than I do, and I appreciate being able to check in with them.

Version 1.0 released 2016-10-19.

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-11-02.