Learning a new institution: Three insights from being a department head

Scrabble tiles that spell out "I am still learning"

In my first two months in a new job, I am feeling all sorts of things. After 16 months of working remotely from my one-bedroom apartment, I’m now back in the office five days a week. I’m commuting and packing my own lunch and wearing a mask and teaching in person. I feel I’m in a constant state of learning and listening. I’m adjusting to leading a department and figuring out what parts of my past coordination role will serve me well and where I need to grow. I’m working to understand the culture of the library and the institution. I’m building relationships with my new colleagues and trying to share how my past experiences make me a good colleague and one they can trust. I’m learning who our students are and how we work with them. 

Needless to say, it’s a lot, and in the backdrop of the continuing pandemic. Some days I feel like I’ve been here for a while and other days I feel like only started a few days ago. I thought for this blog post, I could share three things I’ve learned so far.  

Your day-to-day changes

When I thought about becoming a department head, I knew part of the deal was giving up some of that day-to-day, nitty-gritty, individual project work in order to support and advocate for the folks on our team. I still feel the pull to take on projects, to raise my hand to volunteer for anything that sounds remotely interesting and related to teaching and learning. I’m doing my best to slow down, to wait, and to think more about who is best suited and has the capacity to take on that work. Part of it is knowing I’ve got this great and collaborative team of colleagues, colleagues who are student-centered and willing to do the work. We get to do this together and it has been great to have the team to lean on. In some ways, I appreciate the ways my day-to-day has changed; I get to think big picture and strategize. I get to meet with members of the team and imagine what the next chapter of our department will be. I also get to go out and meet folks around campus and promote the great work the team is doing. 

Ask all the questions

I’m constantly reminded there is so much to learn when you start at a new institution. Instead of trying to figure stuff out on my own, I’ve been asking a lot of questions. Small questions, big questions, and any question in between. Anytime where I don’t confidently know the answer, I reach out and inquire. I’m slowly learning all the ways my colleagues have been involved with this work in the past and I try to get multiple perspectives into the question before making a move. I don’t have it all figured out sixty days into the job and I appreciate having people I can ask these questions to.  

Celebrate the work

It can be tough to be a middle manager. You’re right in the middle of it all — trying to do right by the people who report to you and also working with the people you report to. But despite the challenges, one of the things I’ve learned and enjoyed the most is celebrating the work. I’ll use any and all chances to shout out the team I get to work with. I love getting to know the strengths of each individual, the projects they care about the most, and what they want to do in the future. I’ll deal with the politics because I want to see the team succeed and I want them to have what they need to do the best work. 

All in all, I’ve learned a lot so far, and know I have so much more to learn. I feel lucky to work on a collaborative team, have colleagues I admire, and feel supported through the network I’ve built over the years. I’ve found myself gravitating towards advice for managers (see a recent tweet from the CALM Conference) and doing a lot of personal reflection. I am looking forward to revisiting this post in a few months and seeing what other lessons I can add to this list.


Featured image by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

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