By Forrest C. Helvie, Ph.D.
While I understand that many of us in the IRW Network are primarily focused on the best practices of our reading and writing classes, I wanted to share some thoughts learned over the course of this pandemic as someone who has been both a program coordinator and department chair, which I think may prove helpful in terms of helping create a greater sense of belonging and community that’s been sorely missing. As someone who was – up until recently – the coordinator of developmental English and the chair of our Academic Enrichment and First-Year Experience department, I had the responsibility of leading a group of full-time and part-time faculty and staff who all held varying levels of comfort with educational technology and navigating the online environment. I hope that what follows will help you in your own programs – whether as a formal academic leader helping to steer the ship or as someone “leading up” to help hold things together.
We live on an island … for now. First and foremost, I found it important to always recognize the context in which we were and still are working. Working and living remotely can feel a lot like living on an island and pretending that isn’t the case can only exacerbate those feelings of isolation. Before kicking off meetings, I would frequently allocate the first five to ten minutes for a quick check-in. This could be something as simple as offering a word cloud poll to see what stood out to asking department members to offer one “rose” and one “thorn” for the week. Doing this won’t change the entire direction of their day let alone their week, but it’s an opportunity to be seen and heard for a moment. And the “rose and thorn” approach does challenge colleagues to try and find something good to focus on as well.
Consistent communication. There are times when groups only need to meet once or twice when they’re charged with a single task. During the pandemic, however, I pivoted away from the 90-minute monthly meetings and shifted towards meeting weekly for about 15-20 minutes. The result was that my colleagues ended up having to meet for less time by the end of the month but also had the opportunity to 1. Hear information far more quickly as issues arose, and 2. Share questions and concerns far more often compared to waiting for the monthly meetings when those kinds of issues would be raised (e.g., discussions around committee work, policy changes at the college, etc.).
In the effort to respect colleagues’ time, I always made sure to notice the identified end time and invite folks to feel free to leave if they needed to be somewhere else; however, I also offered folks time to stay after to further brainstorm together when there were challenges someone needed feedback. This encouraged teamwork and shared innovation to solve student, staff, and faculty needs.
How can I support you? As the coordinator and department chair, I also used these opportunities to see how I could support my team. The result was that every member of my team had someone asking how they were doing, what help they needed to do their work, and if they needed any other kind of support. Once again, this helped not only acknowledge that we were all on our own virtual islands, but it helped to create virtual bridges between our spaces, which helped them to keep their heads up and trucking forward.
1:1 Options. For some programs, I had staff and faculty who wanted to meet on a weekly basis one-on-one in order to address specific concerns and challenges they faced. Some managed sizable programs with many moving parts while in other cases I had to mentor part-time faculty, and discussions like this might have otherwise monopolized full department meetings. Moving these kinds of discussions into a routine 1:1 session provided me with the opportunity to address the real needs of my faculty and staff while simultaneously respecting the time of everyone for whom those discussions might not have been as relevant.
Move it online. While we all moved online, there was certain information that could move from the in-person meetings to other formats. For example, we would frequently provide program and committee updates about what was going on in that area. In order to reframe our virtual meetings and keep them focused on addressing specific needs in a timely fashion, however, routine updates that didn’t require in-depth discussion were moved to a “consent agenda” which went out in advance of the meeting. This way, the department could keep abreast of what was going on in the programs and campus committees outside of the 15-20 minutes we met, and if there was a need to discuss one such item, then we could do that without needing to unpack everything else. The result? More expedient meetings while ensuring the same amount of information was shared out.
Got a record? Shared documents are a great way to keep track of what was covered. This could be as simple as listing action items that were either completed or identified for completion or more extensive coverage of the meeting discussions. Keeping a running document like this can often be useful, however, as a means of ensuring all department colleagues are current with what’s going on especially when someone is unable to attend a meeting.