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No One Should Go Unaccompanied: Interview with English Department Chair, Dr. Andy Slade

By Ryan Allen & Dr. Andy Slade

Over the summer months, as many faculty dug deep and began their work to prepare for the semester, I was keenly aware of how daunting and monumental the task felt. There was an enormous amount of information being shared across campus (much of it from eLearning) that it became hard to find a central touchpoint and path forward. On top of that, the isolation that many faculty members were experiencing made the task that much more difficult. I heard and saw different tactics being used to combat these issues but Andy Slade, Chair of the English Department, had an idea of his own that a faculty member in his department shared with me recently. Dr. Slade leads one of the largest departments on campus with 46 teaching faculty and he knew how important it would be to continue the collaboration and camaraderie that faculty had grown accustomed to over the years throughout the pandemic. So he, along with members of his Executive Committee, decided to divide everyone up and create E-Learning Development Groups in the department. Through my interview with Dr. Slade, I learned a lot about the initial idea, how they were formed, and what the response has been from faculty members in English.

The following is a summary of my conversation with Dr. Slade. If you’d like to see the full interview in its original form you can view it here.



Can you describe the challenges the English department faced going into the Fall 2020 semester and what your goals were to help support faculty in your department during the fall term?

Dr. Slade

We knew, like every department, we had a difficult semester to prepare for and the question really was, “what is going to be the best way to support faculty as we come into August and the fall semester?”

In the English department, we have a long history of setting aside time for talking about teaching, talking about research, and talking about a whole variety of professional issues. Those conversations happen in department meetings but they also happen at the photocopier. They happen when we're getting coffee. They happen in the hall. So, while we knew that bumping into each other in the hall might not be possible right now, we had to create a place for those conversations, the ad hoc conversations, the informal impromptu conversations, that are really very important. At the same time, we didn't want to create a lot more work when faculty are already struggling with a large workload.

So, I think one of the express goals was to make sure that we did not lose conversations with our colleagues about teaching. There are all kinds of really good things that happen when we get faculty together to talk about their work.



That makes sense and I have heard the same concerns from others on campus. What approach did you take to ensure that environment and those interactions weren’t lost in the English Department?

Dr. Slade

One of the things that came to mind in talking with people in the department was to break the department into small groups. So, we divided the entire teaching staff into groups of 5 or 6, which created 8 groups. We called them E-Learning Development Groups.

The idea of the small groups was to create a place where conversations could continue while also giving a lot of autonomy about how that might work. Some groups could have group chats whereas some could have a regular meeting scheduled. How they conduct the work is up to them. It was most important that they had a spot to touch base and stay in dialogue with each other.

My job was really to lay it out and then get out of the way. Faculty are here because they have expertise in teaching and learning so my job is to support that. They certainly don't need me in their day to day business, though.

We knew that we could not just add this project to the other work that we do in the department. To create the space for this, I asked our standing committee chairs to set aside work that had been planned for the year--except work that really needs to be done. I also asked all members of the department to treat the group the same way we would treat a significant committee, to put it on our CVs and put it in digital measures. It is important to me and to the department that we create space for the work and recognize it in our standard ways of recognizing and documenting our work.



Did you provide the groups with a charge or set of tasks to complete?

Dr. Slade

There wasn't a specific charge or deliverable that each group needed to create. The goal was simply to give every faculty member a place where they could meet with other faculty in the English department on a regular basis to discuss and plan for teaching in the fall semester.

One group did ask, “what kind of report should we make?” My unequivocal answer was, "you should not do any kind of report whatsoever." Now, I appreciated that group asking the question because it showed they were really taking seriously the notion of the work. So often if you're in a group, you're supposed to produce a report . This was just not one of those kinds of groups.

We created the groups in July, and by the first of August they were up and going. At that point the groups’ focus was on planning for the fall semester. Once the semester launched, the idea was that each person would have a regular place to take their struggles, their successes, and their questions for how they might approach a specific teaching situation. And I mean, really that was it. The groups quickly came together in different ways and they continue to meet to this day.



Why the need for small groups instead of using full department meetings to accomplish the same goal?

Dr. Slade

Larger department meetings on Zoom can produce silence at times. Whereas in a normal meeting someplace around campus, around the table, we would weigh in. In Zoom, we often don't say something, where we might have something to say.

The smaller group makes it easier to weigh in - whether that be raising a question or responding to a peer. We wanted to drop the barrier both for people to be teachers of their colleagues, but also the barrier to being a learner. Coming into August many faculty had quite a lot to learn, but they also had quite a lot to teach. With that in mind, we wanted to create spaces for every faculty member in the English department to be supported in their work.

 

As adults, we're not always overly excited to work in small groups. Did you have any reservations about faculty in the English Department having those feelings and resisting the idea upfront?

Dr. Slade

Yes. I can tell you that I was a little nervous when I initially sent an email to the English faculty proposing this idea. I consulted with members of our Executive Committee upfront to get their input and help flesh out the idea, but I wasn't sure how it was going to be received. I can also tell you that creating the groups was enormously difficult because there are a whole wide variety of things that need to be taken into account. We wanted to divide the departmental expertise up so that each group had someone with deep experience in online learning and someone with deep experience with diversity, equity, and inclusion. We also wanted to make sure that each group had members with different amounts of time at the university and a mix of different positions - lecturers, tenure track, etc. We had just a lot to take into account. It was not easy.


Did you ever check in on the groups to see how they were working and what topics they were discussing?

Dr. Slade

We actually checked in a couple of times to see how it was going. We had one check-in about a third of the way through the semester and then we had a full department meeting last week (late November) where we addressed the groups. I would say on the whole, the groups are functioning the way we hoped. That is, many faculty feel like the group keeps them connected to their colleagues. It keeps them in dialogue about teaching and learning and about how to teach in the context of a pandemic.

The groups were really important for giving people a stable and safe place to process how the semester was going as well as a place to learn some techniques and try things out. For example, some groups had their first ever experience with Breakout Rooms in Zoom. That was a really good place to experiment with breakout rooms and some of the features of zoom that you might not want to do in front of a group of students.



Did you get the sense that the groups were well received?

Dr. Slade

Some faculty said they really appreciated the time to gather with their colleagues in a way that they couldn't otherwise. I know one faculty member noted how important it was that there was just so much laughter in their group meetings. That is a really important thing for me because the work of teaching is not just functionary. It's deeply human. Right now, we are losing so many of the connections that we rely on to create an academic community at UD. The idea is we rely on being together and it's important that we're together. So, when we can't be together the question becomes, “how can we be apart and together?” The groups can go a long way to doing that.

They even named their groups things like ‘The Five’ , The Fabulous Five, the High-fives. It was a bunch of things like that, which is awesome because it creates a sense of cohesion and a group identity. It's also fun.



Where do you see these groups going in the future? Will they stay together going into the spring term (and beyond)?

Dr. Slade

One of the things that came out of our department meeting, among other things about the groups, is the need for some new direction as we transition from this semester to the next. Right now, I don't know what that should be because I think for each group it's going to be something different. That's okay, too. Each group will have a different character or want different levels of direction. That's going to be something we're going to work through.



As you think about this experience and other faculty and departments do you have any final thoughts that you might share with them?

Dr. Slade

There are two things.

First, I like to do things that are fun and often it's more fun to do things together. So, I think that the groups, while our work is serious, there's a kind of playfulness to it. I don't think most people join the faculty role because they experienced it as drudgery. It was a kind of play and excitement. As one of my colleagues said, the laughter was so important to them. I think for me that's an important thing and that we need to continue to look for places to cultivate it.

Second, the barrier for me to create these groups initially was that I was afraid of what my colleagues we're going to think about me for this idea. And if I hadn't had a very good group in my Executive Committee around me, I wouldn't have done it. So even though someone has an idea, it often won't materialize without other people. And I think that's one thing that's good about the university.

Everyone at UD is going to make it through this academic year. We just are. The question I continue to ask is, how can we accompany each other as we do it? I see it as my charge as the chair. No one should go unaccompanied.