Good Leaders and Followers


This is a follow-up to my last post about the Future of Folkloristics conference. The conference participants talked about the skills of leadership and “followership.” Many people don’t think that they are, or can become leaders. They feel more comfortable as a follower.

I don’t have a problem with that, except the rules for good leaders and followers are exactly the same.

What do I mean?

Think about what makes a good leader. Here are a few traits:

  • Empathy: Creating a legitimate rapport with co-workers makes it less likely that personal issues and resentment can creep in and derail the workplace. When your colleagues know that you are empathetic to their concerns, they will be more likely to work with you and share in your vision, rather than foster negative feelings.
  • Consistency/Dependability: Being a consistent colleague is essential to building respect and credibility. Your colleagues need to know they can depend on you, and consistency is the primary way to do that.
  • Honesty: Another characteristic of a good colleague that builds credibility and trust. People who are honest, especially about concerns, make it far more likely that obstacles will be addressed rather than avoided.
  • Communication: Effective communication helps keep colleagues informed and allows everyone to feel like they are part of the larger mission of the organization.
  • Flexibility: Not every problem demands the same solution. Being flexible to new ideas and open-minded enough to consider them increases the likelihood that you will find the best possible answer.

Think about that list. Which of these traits are less important for any member of a working group? I want everyone who works in my department to have those qualities, regardless if they are the head of a program or a brand new teacher.

Another thing to consider: with each of these characteristics, we often assume that people have these qualities, or they do not. Not so. It’s true, every person has their own set of strengths, but it’s equally true that these qualities can be learned.

There is one characteristic that all leaders have to have: vision. A vision the ability to break out of the here and now and aim for great things, and have the wherewithal to set the steps necessary to get there. By seeing what can be and setting the goals on how to get there, a competent leader can effect significant change.


The Declining English Degree

I was interviewed for an article for Inside Higher Ed a week ago. It appeared today in Slate:

Major Exodus

By Colleen Flaherty

Humanities advocates sometimes dispute data about declining numbers of majors in their disciplines: They don’t always reflect double majors, or overall enrollment in courses, or the diversity of majors now available to students (compared with the past). But data on the number of English majors at the University of Maryland–College Park—down some 40 percent in a little more than three years—are pretty hard to dispute. What happened?

Part Everyman tale, as far as English departments go, and part lesson in unintended consequences, Maryland English’s story looks something like this. Between 1996 and 2011, the number of majors actually grew, from 641 to 850 students. Then the university rolled out a new, faculty-backed general education program. Unlike the old general education program, which centered on the liberal arts and required a literature course, the new one offers students much more flexibility in how to fulfill their various requirements. So students who aren’t interested in the liberal arts can much more easily avoid them. Part of the idea was to take some of the burden off departments, such as English, that fulfilled requirements for many students under the old system. Faculty members generally supported the idea.

But then the numbers got funny. In the spring of 2012, the English department lost 88 majors. The following year it lost 79—then 128 more majors 12 months later. Between spring and fall 2014, 66 more majors fell from the rolls. Overall the department lost 363 majors—about 40 percent—and the numbers continue to fall.

Faculty members say the general education program, coupled with anxieties about studying the humanities in a still uncertain job market, have hurt liberal arts major numbers across the board. With less mandated exposure to humanities departments under the new system, fewer students are taking that initial course in which they catch the philosophy or history or English “bug,” faculty members say, and English appears to be one of the hardest-hit disciplines.

“If our spring 2015 numbers follow the pattern of our recent death spiral, we will have lost in four years twice as many majors as we gained in 15,” Kent Cartwright, professor and former English department chairman at Maryland, said earlier this month during a panel at the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia. “I describe this situation in order to emphasize our surprising vulnerability, especially that of the literature [concentration].”

Cartwright said in a more recent interview that he thinks what’s happening at Maryland is emblematic of what’s happening in English departments across the country. Curriculum changes have just hastened Maryland’s troubles, he said.

“I don’t want to make it seem like the major is collapsing in some extraordinary fashion, because what’s happening here is fairly typical and has been happening at other universities,” Cartwright said. “But the speed is a little unusual. Local conditions exacerbated the problems.”

William Cohen, professor and current department chairman, said it’s “difficult to know precisely which factors contribute to these declines.” But, he said via email, part of it is “cultural, as reflected in declines among humanities majors nationally. There seems to be a perception (however unfounded) among some students and their families that the employment prospects for humanities majors are not as great as in some other fields.”

Bonnie Thornton Dill, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, said that in the current economic climate, “people are looking at higher education more as a personal good than a social good and therefore don’t fully understand the economic value of the arts and humanities. As a result, people are moving in a careerist direction at the undergraduate level.” Additionally, she said, Maryland is not competitive among peer institutions in its “ability to provide financial aid which would make study in these areas financially feasible for more families.”

Maryland’s data roughly mirror national data for English degrees conferred, minus the precipitous drop-off in the past two years. According to data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System compiled by the Modern Language Association, the total number of English undergraduate degrees awarded annually grew from 48,689 in 1996 to 55,518 in 2009. Then numbers began to drop off—albeit not as dramatically as at Maryland—to about 52,800 in 2011 and 52,489 in 2013, the most recent year for which national data are available.

The English major at George Mason University might be more typical. Some 20 years ago, there were about 800 English majors. That number soon dropped to about 600 when the state of Virginia eliminated the English major as a requirement for teaching secondary English. Majors have continued to drop, to 422 this fall. Faculty members there attribute the downward trend to the usual suspects: the fact that double English majors aren’t always counted, cultural doubts about the value of the humanities, a glut of new programs of study, and—primarily—concerns about job prospects upon graduation.

Read the rest of this article here.

Student Tuition now supports Higher Education more than State Governments

From the Washington Post:

It used to be that attending a public university all but guaranteed graduating with little to no debt. State governments funneled enough money into higher education that families could send their kids to a local school without worrying about taking out a second mortgage or private loans to pay their way.

Not so anymore. These days students pay more of the cost of attending public universities than state governments, a shift that is making college less affordable, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.

Researchers found that the money public colleges collect in tuition surpassed the money they receive from state funding in 2012. Tuition accounted for 25 percent of school revenue, up from 17 percent in 2003. State funding, meanwhile, plummeted from 32 percent to 23 percent during the same period. That’s a far cry from the 1970s, when state governments supplied public colleges with nearly 75 percent of their funding, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

Read the rest of this article here. 

About the Field School: How Folklife Archives Work

Where the processing begins

The Folklore Studies Program at George Mason University is one of the few programs in the U.S. the offers comprehensive instruction in ethnographic methods and data collection.  Thirty-seven years ago, my colleague, Professor Emerita Margaret Yocom founded the Northern Virginia Folklife Archive. Students have been submitting original work to the archive since.

In 2011, working with colleagues at the Library of Congress, I began the Field School for Cultural Documentation at GMU.  The field school has been in existence for nearly 20 years; I’m pleased that GMU has the opportunity to host the field school and offer students professional training in research methods and project planning.  Field School graduates acquire real-life work skills in ethnographic data collection, in-depth interviewing, and project management.  Many go on to take positions as professional ethnographers for government agencies and private industry.

As part of the field school, students are told that their collections will become part of the Northern Virginia Folklife Archive.  It’s an important aspect of the project–students need to understand that the field school is not simply a class project. They’re doing real and significant research that will be available to other scholars, researchers and community members who will want to know more about the places and people the field school documents.

This year we’re transferring all of the hard-copy files and objects in the physical archive (located at George Mason University) to a fully digital archive as part of the National Folklife Archives Initiative.  Most of the work we’ve collected since 2011 is now available through the archives.

Why archive the materials?  So much of the work that graduate and advanced undergraduates do is read by one person-the instructor.  This is unfortunate.  Students are capable of  producing fantastic collections that might be useful for future research and understanding.  Too many important collections get tossed out.

Sometimes students become territorial with their collections and are reluctant to share it with the archive.  For classes other than the field school, M.A. and Ph.D. theses,  students have the option of donating their materials to the archive.  If a student has pending publications on work, I ask them to consider donating to the archives after their work is completed or published.  That way they are the first to write about their collections, and future researchers can still benefit from their work.

Waiting for my Rooster to Crow

Rooster App

I read about the new Rooster App on the Washington Post, and it sounds perfect for me and my newly busy life. I grieve the fact that I don’t have blocks of time to read fiction, but this seems like the perfect solution:

You don’t need to wait at the docks for the latest installment of Charles Dickens’s “Old Curiosity Shop.” But what if your iPhone could recreate the excitement — and convenience — of reading a novel in serial form?

Check out a new app called Rooster, which has the backing of some of the biggest names in the tech industry. It launches Tuesday in the Apple app store, and was created specifically for the iPhone. Every month, Rooster will send two novels to your phone: a classic tale and a contemporary story, paired to provoke interesting reflection.

But these books aren’t just dumped on you in one I’ll-never-get-to-it download. Instead, the novels arrive in your cellphone in manageable installments, according to a schedule you set yourself. “War & Peace” looks so much less daunting as a serial tale consumed every day at lunchtime like “The Days of Our Lives.” The service costs $4.99 a month.

I was excited to get started, but as soon as I downloaded the app, I got a message “please request an invitation.” So I did.  A few seconds later I got a message that basically said I’m on a waitlist and will receive an invitation when one is available.

What’s that about?

I’m happy and willing to pay the $4.99 a month to give Rooster a try.  I’m not sure what the developers are thinking–perhaps there are free memberships to get people hooked, thus the wait?  It’s completely unclear.

I am extremely disappointed. I really wanted to give this one a try.

For now I’m contenting myself by reading Gay Degani’s serialized novel, What Came Before.  It is wonderful and highly recommended.  But I’m still annoyed about Rooster.

Why I am working so much?

“Respect the sanctity of the snow day,” said one of my wise colleagues earlier this year.  As a department chair, I make every effort to remember her advice, but usually not for myself.

Today our university is closed in response to the Titan winter storm, but I’m still working, grading papers, reviewing dissertation drafts, and the trying to get ahead of the loads of administrative work the is required for my job.

I was contemplating all of this when I came upon this article, published today in InsideHigherEd, which does a great job explaining why I’m working instead of enjoying that novel I’ve been dying to read all semester.

In Search of Lost Time
March 3, 2014
As I am writing this article, I should be writing something else: an email to an editor, an email to an author, a letter of recommendation, notes for tomorrow’s classes, comments on students’ papers, comments on manuscripts, an abstract for an upcoming conference, notes for one of the books I’m working on. I cannot remember the last time I ended a day having crossed everything off my to-do list.
Why do academics work so much?

1) Part of it is habit. When we’re just starting out, we learn to say “yes” to everything. Join this panel? Yes. Send article in to special issue? Yes. Write a book review? Yes. Join committee in professional organization? Yes. Indeed, we learn to look for things to say yes to. This is how you build your C.V. Go to conferences, publish, get involved. If you don’t do it, you won’t get that elusive tenure-track job. Then, should you become one of the few who get the job, you’ll need to maintain a level of production in order to get tenure. Should you get tenure, you’ll want one day to get promoted. If that happens, and you reach full professor, well, best to keep publishing … just in case. What if your university falls on hard times? Or you need to move? Tenure is good, but portable tenure is better. So you just get on that treadmill and never get off.

2) Part of it is economics. At my university we have no “cost of living” raises. We have merit raises, but only when the state budget allows. So you always want to be in the top tier — the “Highest Merit” group — just in case there’s money for a raise. And I’m speaking here as one of the lucky, tenured few. For adjuncts, the situation is more dire. Everywhere, they teach more classes and for less money just to make ends meet, and may not even manage to do that. Employed at the whim of the academic labor market, adjuncts are increasingly joining the ranks of the working poor.

3) Busy-ness is also built into the structure of academic work. The more you do and the longer you’re in the profession, the more opportunities and obligations accrue. Writing letters for colleagues and students, getting onto committees, contributing to a book edited by a contributor to the book you edited, giving invited talks, writing grant proposals, and so on.  Some of this work is interesting (I enjoy traveling and giving talks, for example), but it’s still work.

Read more:
Inside Higher Ed