Office for Faculty Development

Academic Leader of the Department

Department Curriculum and Research Culture

Chairs play a key role in the department curriculum and research culture. Central to the identity of a department is its curriculum: the courses that are offered, at both graduate and undergraduate levels, for both non-majors and majors, and the structure of the requirements for the graduate program(s), major(s) and minor(s) in the department. Curriculum is an area where the big picture is very important and, also, where the big picture is easily lost. Some things to consider:

  • What are the goals of the department's curriculum—for graduate students, majors, minors, non-majors?
  • Are these goals well-supported through the current offerings of the department?
  • Is the major serving well those students who will not be going to graduate school in your discipline, as well as those who are?
  • How up-to-date is your collective knowledge about what is currently considered by graduate schools to be the most important preparation for graduate training?
  • How up-to-date is your collective knowledge about the preparation students need for other pathways?
  • To what extent do your courses contain practicums, hands on research and/or service-learning? 
  • In the case of graduate programs, how up-to-date is your collective knowledge about employment opportunities in your field and the preparation students need to maximize their chances of attaining a suitable position?
  • Does your curriculum engage other departments in interdepartmental collaboration?
  • In what ways can you facilitate research collaborations of your faculty members with those in other departments?

The more the department is in the habit of thinking about these issues, the stronger will be the sense of department identity. Talking about the curriculum can help build collegiality, can help newer members of the department feel invested in the mission of the department, and can help you articulate departmental goals and achievements, both internally and externally. Consider including students in some of these discussions; knowing their perspectives can inform consideration of central curricular issues, and students will certainly appreciate being included.
If you haven't routinely been discussing the large curricular issues, here are some occasions that can serve as a stimulus to such discussion:

  • your departmental AQUAD (Academic Quality Assessment and Development) review is imminent
  • one or more colleague will be retiring soon
  • one or more new colleague has recently been hired
  • there have been significant new developments in your field, which raise both curricular and staffing issues
  • the department is experiencing a significant change in enrollments or in number of majors (either declining or expanding)
  • students are expressing considerable interest in areas not currently covered by the department
  • strong majors have not been getting into graduate school
  • the department hasn't considered the curriculum as a whole for ten years or more

Consider talking about the curriculum in the context of a departmental AQUAD. (See above for more on departmental reviews and self-studies.) Whether or not you do a review, the occasional half-day or day-long departmental retreat off-campus can be useful as dedicated time for the department to talk together. In such settings, with fewer distractions or interruptions, you are likely to accomplish as much in a one-day meeting as you have all year in sporadic, short, department meetings. A retreat can be especially useful to jump-start a large-scale discussion or to wrap one up.
It is important for chairs of graduate departments to work collaboratively with GPDs and to construct regular opportunities for them to discuss the role of their programs within the overall departmental framework. 

Departmental Retreat

Before scheduling a department retreat, make sure that there is a reason for doing so. Department retreats are essential at points of major transition or if your faculty have not had an opportunity to discuss significant curricular and other academic issues. A retreat can be especially useful to discuss: 

  1. changes to academic programs,
  2. assessment of learning outcomes at every stage of the curriculum,
  3. new courses needed or courses that should be redesigned to meet present department goals/objectives,
  4. gaps in the curriculum that might necessitate new hires,
  5. strategic planning. If there are troubling divisions and tensions within the department or some other type of crisis, it may be a good idea to engage in some community building, through the use of an external mediator.  A retreat can then take place after such a mediated discussion.    

Let your faculty members know that you are planning a retreat, and tell them your reason for doing so. Solicit their input via email, and make sure that you respond to each person who writes to let her/him know if and how you will be incorporating their suggestion into the agenda for the retreat.
If your department’s budget allows, hold the retreat off-campus or at some location that creates the sense of a special place for a special task. While holding a retreat on campus may be convenient, you run the risk of faculty members seeing the retreat as simply an extended department meeting and not as a conversation requiring visionary thinking and deep reflection. A retreat can be one full day or two half days. Longer retreats can result in diminished returns.

Articulate clearly your goals for the retreat. During the retreat, assign one or two faculty members to be note takers. Identify these people before the retreat, so that you are not asking for volunteers at the retreat. Good note takers are those who understand the department’s structure, have some familiarity with the department’s history, and who are not themselves invested in particularly contentious issues. Make sure that at the end of the retreat you recapitulate what you have accomplished and the next steps you will take as a department. Send out a report of the retreat as promptly as possible with a timeline for implementation of next steps.

Consider bringing in an external facilitator (who could be a faculty member from elsewhere within the university) to mediate discussion if the department is particularly divided. A good facilitator will enable all members of your faculty to be heard and will not permit a few individuals to dominate the conversation.

If you are planning a department retreat, please inform the Office for Faculty Development. We may have suggestions of people you should contact to learn from their recent experience, and we would like you to share with us the success or challenges you encountered at your retreat so we can serve as a resource to other departments considering a retreat.