The rising tide of faculty responsibilities

Vol. 10 No. 5
April 2008

Return to Contents

Getting Real
The academic commitment to service learning at Emory

Further Reading

“I would love to see a day when students, staff, and faculty choose Emory because they want to pursue the finest liberal education in order to civically make a difference.”

“The setting for testing our theories of neighborhood transformation and social change is outside the classroom and in the community.”

New Covenants in Special Collections

In the Dangerous Hands of Undergraduates
The teaching mission of Emory’s Manuscripts and Rare Books Library

The Keeping of Records
Alice Walker’s archive as an act of self-authentication

The rising tide of faculty responsibilities

Letter to the Editor


Have you ever felt overwhelmed at work? Faculty respond to this question with alternating laughter and anxiety. No one wants to be seen as a complainer, and yet as the question hangs in the air, the tension rises. As Emory experiences new growth and transition, faculty often find themselves caught between the excitement of change and the conflict associated with competing new priorities and responsibilities. They often cite this ambiguity as a factor in increasing stress levels.

It’s unclear how much of this stress is attributable to work and how much to living in a culture of multitasking and overscheduled lives beyond the university. “If you have more going on at work, and then your kids have more responsibilities, you’re feeling it in a lot of places,” says Nadine Kaslow, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, chief psychologist at Grady Hospital, president of the University Senate, and chair of the Faculty Council.

Age and gender are also contributing factors. “Different people are at different stages in their life. For me, if I have to leave a half an hour later or I have to come in on a Sunday afternoon that’s not a big deal, but for younger faculty that may be a big deal,” says Ron Calabrese, professor of biology. “I imagine if I were younger and my kids needed more of my attention, I would be really stressed out. I would be running around like a chicken with its head cut off!” He sobers, adding, “If you’re a woman on the faculty, you get it all the time. The women faculty in my department are rare, and they get asked to do every committee known to man.”

Some suggest that Emory’s transitions and growth around the strategic plan complicate the situation. “As Emory becomes more alive as an institution, and more energetic and more intellectually stimulating,” says Kaslow, “then there’s more to do, and you want to be part of making this process happen. In order to get some of the positive transformation—if I can use that word—that we want, it takes work, and it takes effort, and [there are] more activities to engage in, more talks to go to, more meetings to attend.”

Lynne Huffer, professor and chair of the Department of Women’s Studies, thinks the challenge might be more fundamental. “In most cases, there’s a real tension between the life of somebody who’s building an institution, whether it’s programs or departments or institutes or centers, and the life of somebody who’s a scholar. I think it’s actually difficult to do both.”

This combination of enthusiasm and tension often leaves those most confident in their multi-tasking abilities finding themselves stretched thin. Dana White, professor in the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts, remembers, “When I first started teaching [more than forty years ago], I was on four or five different committees university-wide, and I began to realize that it’s all the same people. If there were eight people on the committee, I knew six of them from another committee.”

Huffer agrees: “You look at all the different projects that various people are taking on, and you often see multiple projects, and then you look at who’s involved in the projects and it’s the same people involved in multiple projects. You can only sustain that for so long before people start feeling depleted.”

“If we got more people engaged, then people who are feeling burned out might not be feeling quite so burned out,” Kaslow proposes. But how to do that?

Many express confidence in the administration’s investment in addressing these issues through infrastructural changes, but those changes may be harder to implement than it at first seems.
For example, though proposed technologies such as a centralized calendar system are often cited as a potential boon, just as often newly implemented technologies seem to be an added stressor. Such concerns suggest that a thoroughly tested, user-friendly calendar system will be a welcome helpmeet, while premature implementation of such a system, with all associated glitches, might kill faculty enthusiasm for the project before it ever got off the ground.

The calendar system, however, will do little to solve the central problem of overextended faculty. The most promising solution to that issue may be to eliminate some of the ambiguity surrounding faculty responsibilities. “I do feel that we really need to make things easier on the administrative level, so that we can see easily what our roles are in various forms of faculty governance and administration,” says Calabrese. The University Senate has already begun discussing these issues, on Kaslow’s initiative, and the immediate challenge there may be to ensure the effort is sustained after her tenure as president is over.

The college is also making strides in this area. “One of the things we’ve been working on at the last few chairs meetings within Emory College has been a faculty job description,” Huffer explains, “actually listing the different responsibilities that faculty members have and making those clear, so that there can be a more uniform understanding of what it is that’s expected of us, and hopefully a more equal distribution of tasks and responsibilities among the faculty within departments and across the college.”

Another proposal for easing the strain of overextension is aimed at off-campus faculty, who experience added logistical stresses. Kaslow notes, “As somebody at Grady, every time I have to go to a meeting, I have to drive over to Emory. It takes me a half-hour to get there and a half-hour to get back. If they would let me use technology to be present at that meeting—conference calls or video screens or whatever, and we had more of those available to us—that would make a huge difference. Certainly people at Oxford could benefit from being able to connect with people at Emory through various forms of media technology. Coming from Oxford to Emory for meetings requires a huge time commitment and a lot of driving.”

In the meantime, there’s always White’s more low-tech technique for managing commitments. “What I essentially do now is I might have my name on several other programs than my home department, but what I do is I concentrate on one at a time. So if I’m on the associated faculty of Department A, I will spend time with that for two or three years, but I will not give equal time to departments B or C because I just don’t have the time to do it. I try to keep commitments, not to a minimum, but concentrated.”—S.P.