From Department Head to Chicken Farmer

Brian Taylor

November 22, 2010

I spent the past two years as chair of our nursing department before returning this fall to my full-time faculty position. About the same time that I stepped down as chair, I acquired four Rhode Island Red laying hens. Those two events might seem entirely unrelated but, for reasons beyond rational explanation, they provided me with an opportunity to reflect on myself and on academic life.

Let me start with the chickens. Some weeks ago, I sat on a bench in the shade of a tree in my yard, watching the chickens as they happily roamed and explored. For those of you unfamiliar with chickens, Rhode Island Reds are characterized as cautious, yet friendly birds. These four—Chicken, Nugget, Tater, and Tot—fit that characterization quite nicely. They are also happy, curious creatures who make gentle, pleasant sounds as they peck and scratch the ground, looking for tasty treats.

I observed the chickens closely on this particular afternoon, as I have many times since. I noticed the subtle differences in the color and design of their beautiful feathers. I picked one up and felt her red comb, petted her soft feathers, touched her beak, and noticed the earlobe that reveals the color of the eggs (for this breed, brown). I looked at her feet and felt the heat emanate from the bottom of them. I looked into her eyes and knew that I will care for this chicken and the others that I brought to my home until they meet the natural end of their lives. While chicken soup might soothe the body and soul, these "girls" will never end up in the soup pot.

Every morning, I go out to the henhouse just as day breaks and greet them. They respond with gentle clucks and with some anticipation that I will let them out to run free in the yard. Even if I don't have time to let them out, each and every morning I give them water, feed, treats, and gentle words—and in return, they give me the gift of fresh eggs, each and every day.

When I can let them run free, their excitement is apparent. Running, waddling, tails up in the air, clucking noisily, they race to the nearest place that offers them greens, insects, or worms to eat. There is one hen that tends to go farther afield than the rest and gentle prodding is needed to return her to the yard.

Letting them out is one thing. Getting them back in their pen is quite another. A broom is a handy tool to herd an errant chicken back to the fold and a special treat of "scratch" (cracked corn and grain) doesn't hurt either.

One day, when the hens were roaming, I noticed that one was lying under a shrub, apparently trying to lay an egg. She was there for about an hour, and finally I took her to the nesting boxes in the henhouse. Throughout the day, I observed that she appeared uncomfortable, and I knew something was wrong. Sure enough, after consulting one of my reference books on chickens, I learned about a condition called "egg binding" that can occur when the chicken is having difficulty laying an egg. Following the instructions for how to help the hen, I was both astonished and pleased that I was able to discern a problem and determine a course of action that actually solved it.

So what does all of this observation and contemplation of hens have to do with chairing an academic department within a complex university?

When I was chair, I often joked with friends and colleagues that I had become a human-resource manager, but I knew that the work was so much more than that. I would try to describe the job and, despite the fact that I felt as though I was working 24/7, I had trouble delineating exactly what I did each day.

I can't help but draw parallels between the nature of my hens and the general nature of human beings; specifically, in this case, faculty members. Curiosity, inquisitiveness, and exploring new ground are common traits. Faculty members are always searching for new information and innovative teaching and research approaches. While they form a community in the department, they maintain their uniqueness through their scholarly specialties, research methods, communication styles, dress and appearance, approaches to solving problems, or simply their individual personalities. Each has something to offer in his or her own way of being in the world.

Every day in the life of a chair is one of multiple challenges. Faculty members request workload adjustments, course-schedule changes, professional-development money, and letters of recommendation. They need advice related to student problems or help resolving a conflict with a colleague. They need guidance to prepare documents for reappointment, promotion, and tenure. They have needs, and the chair's role is to respond to those needs by gathering information, examining options, distributing resources, and making decisions based on fair and equitable principles.

The serious shortage of qualified faculty members in nursing makes the work of a department chair in our field tremendously challenging. Part-time faculty members must be identified, contacted, cajoled, nurtured, and convinced that working for us promises a rewarding opportunity. That has to be done every semester, while making sure that you offer ample support for the full-time faculty members. Faculty retention and recruitment are a major part of the chair's work.

I did my best to operate with an open-door policy, gathering relevant information, responding in a timely manner, using humor (when appropriate), and offering lots of chocolate.

Some faculty members are social beings, and others tend to go their own way. It's the chair's role to bring the strays back to the fold when the work of the department requires their participation. How difficult that is depends on the situation. If it involves a colleague's personal tragedy or loss, it is easy to pull the group together. If it's something like revised course objectives, that might not be too difficult if there's been some preliminary agreement. But if we're talking about approval of a new workload formula or revision of our mission, that can be an entirely different story.

When you are chair, new problems arise daily and vary in complexity. They can be as simple as how to obtain a visitor-parking permit for a guest lecturer or as complex as how to handle a student accusation of unprofessional behavior by a faculty member. Observing, gathering data, getting the facts straight, knowing the rules, and consulting with people you can trust are critical in making decisions, large and small.

Why did I decide that I no longer wanted to lead the department? I told my colleagues and dean this: Professionally, I knew that I could do the job but personally, I knew I didn't want to continue doing it. The tough responsibilities and workload created a lifestyle that, while challenging in many positive ways, was no longer satisfying. New priorities had moved to the forefront: aging parents, a close friend with cancer, a colleague with cancer, and my own advancing age. It became much more important to me to have the time to devote to personal relationships and my own health than to the day-to-day routine of holding the department together. I also came to realize that I don't have to be the chair to care about the department and its faculty members.

The hens are helping me in my transition too. Just stop by my henhouse someday, and I'll share with you how the sweetness of a few clucking hens in the yard can help put life in perspective.

Jeanine M. Carr is an associate professor of nursing at the University of Vermont.