Schell, Eileen E. “Is It Worth It to ‘Lean In’ and Lead? On Being a Woman Department Chair in Rhetoric and Writing Studies.” Peitho Journal 21.2 (2019): 308-33. Web. 4 Apr. 2019.
In her contribution to the Special Cluster on Gendered Service in Rhetoric and Writing Studies in the Peitho Journal, Eileen E. Schell draws on the feminist scholarship of gender and academic labor as well as her own experiences to address the challenges of serving as chair of a large writing program (309).
Schell contends that scholarship on academic leadership does not adequately take into account the different positions of the many laborers, particularly women, who are involved in supporting an academic unit (311). Any leadership role, she argues, depends on many actors and stakeholders whose contributions and influences may not be uncovered when the focus is purely on the “relative privilege” that is afforded leadership positions within “institutional hierarchies” (311).
Schell advocates “intersectionality” as a more productive lens (310). For example, she cites the work of Mel Michelle Lewis and Shannon J. Miller, who examine how their “intersections as Black queer women” (qtd. in Schell 310) inform their leadership roles. She presents her “embodied” position as an “able-bodied, cis-gender, white academic woman on the tenure track” as one window on the effects of taking on the role of department chair (311).
Schell provides a list of important questions, including “what is gained or lost” in accepting the many challenges of a chair’s role (309). She frames her own discussion “around timing, dual academic career couple issues, and family formation issues” (311).
The discussion of timing recounts how Schell was asked to take on the chair role far ahead of the schedule she had negotiated on being hired but was able to defer the appointment until a more logical point in her career (314). Issues included the importance of a developing research agenda and the need for tenure before taking on such extensive administrative duties.
Schell reports that saying no to service appointments can be an effective strategy, but it carries a burden in that many female academics see “service work as vital to the functioning of academic units and the institutional mission of colleges and universities” and feel a sense of obligation to their colleagues (314). Accepting other administrative and service duties while deferring the chair’s role allowed Schell to serve her institution and program as well as develop her scholarship toward tenure and promotion while resisting an early commitment to the chair’s role (314).
One aspect many women face in relation to the timing of demanding administrative appointments is family formation. Schell recounts the challenges of caring adequately for her young daughter, for example, the need to bring her to work (316). She cites scholarship showing that, for many women, working toward tenure and being asked to take on more institutional responsibilities tend to coincide with the years they want to begin a family; some research suggests that the struggle for tenure actually affects women’s ability to start families (315).
A third timing issue for Schell was coordination with her partner’s career. Originally forced to commune long distances, by the time Schell accepted the chair appointment, he had earned tenure in an institution that was much closer, easing this burden (314).
Schell draws on work by Lisa Wolf-Wendel and Kelly Ward to argue that institutions should not force faculty to negotiate each situation individually but rather should recognize that, for women especially, barriers to effective participation in leadership as well as teaching and scholarship should be systematically addressed by the institution. Policies should serve all “pre-tenure professors (both male and female) with family demands” by meeting needs such as those for “tenure stop clock policies, lactation support, access to affordable day care, family leave” (315). Schell notes how work by her fellow faculty to install a family leave policy helped her in the early months of her child’s life (315). Similarly, her institution passed a “tenure clock flexibility proposal” that, among other provisions, addressed the effects on the tenure path of extensive service (316).
During her appointment, Schell noted the number of women chairs increasing despite ongoing dominance by older white men (317). Though she could draw on her experience working with female leaders in the writing program, Schell contends that the chair’s role encompassed a much larger set of exigencies. “Guidebooks” on the chair position she consulted featured “a masculinist dominance-based model” that did not deal with the issues that she specifically faced as a female chair (318-19); her discovery of “interdisciplinary scholarship on intersectionality and department leadership” finally gave her needed direction (319).
Crediting her leadership experience “both inside and outside the department and in the community” (319), Schell lists some of the initiatives she was able to implement, while also acknowledging failures (320). The ongoing task of “Mentorship and Advocacy” involved such efforts as “negotiating for the resources” faculty members needed to do their work and scholarship and clearing the “backlog” of women who had not been promoted to full professorship (321). “Assigning Service” included determining how to allocate committee work effectively while keeping in mind equity in workloads and compensation (321). Schell recounts extensive interpersonal engagement as one of her “most favorite and challenging duties”: acknowledging colleagues’ accomplishments and empathizing with as well as helping to address their daily and professional struggles (322).
Schell notes that the “scope and scale” of the chair’s duties exceeded those of other academic positions: “the work touched on all areas of the department and the lives of every single faculty member” (322; emphasis original). She explores issues such as the need to prioritize interactions and the exigencies of the “second and third shift[s],” such as dealing with her family’s needs and then returning to administrative duties late at night in a “job [that] never turned off” (322-23). Effects on her health led her to address the difference between “work-life balance” and a “sustainable schedule and life” (323-24; emphasis original). Keeping up with scholarship (324) and insisting on “self-care” such as scheduled work-outs were among Schell’s strategies (329).
She offers “general advice and lessons of survivance” she gathered during her tenure as chair (326). Citing research showing that few chair receive adequate professional development for their roles, she urges networking and workshops (326). Further, she reminds potential chairs to be sure to arrange adequate compensation and manageable teaching loads (327). Under “Developing a Sustainable Work Plan,” she discusses establishing a well-functioning program infrastructure to accomplish departmental goals (327-28).
Schell reports being “surprised” to find herself advocating strongly that women take on leadership appointments such as chair (325). In her view, such roles allow women to pursue a “progressive feminist agenda” that can improve the lives and work of all faculty, promote diversity, and strengthen curricula (327). Ultimately, she writes, she hopes that
more feminists in rhetoric and writing studies will lead our academic departments . . . and that when we attend chairs’ meetings at our colleges and universities, we will look around the table and see a more diverse and inclusive cast of institutional leaders who also said yes. (329).