Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Upon returning from my Winter Vacation, I waded through the usual stack of holiday newsletters, in which I read with great fascination the names of my nephews' elementary school teachers and the names of distant long-dead relatives unearthed by my geneology-obsessed relative (living relatives were dispensed with much more efficiently), and gazed at collages comprised of hundreds of tiny photos that might contain images of people (or their pets?).

In December 2006 in this blog, I wrote an attempt-at-humor parody of such newsletters and said that that would likely be my first and last newsletter. I am going to stick by my campaign promise, although the statement was slightly inaccurate in that both last year and this year I am in charge of my department's annual newsletter.

Putting together the department newsletter used to be the job of a staff member who only managed to come up with a boring and ugly newsletter-like thing every few years. Last year, the new department chair decided that someone else should be in charge of the newsletter and appointed a faculty member who is not very active in research. This faculty member was offended to be asked to do a task formerly done by a staff person, and did not work on the newsletter.

Question 1: Who should put together the department newsletter?

I don't know, but I volunteered to do the newsletter because I think it is important that the department have a newsletter and I like to write and maybe I have a masochistic tendency to take on ever yet more service activities. Whatever the reason, I don't really know who should be responsible for producing the department newsletter. Some departments hire a technical writer with experience producing media-savvy brochures, some departments have a staff member who puts together a newsletter, and some departments have a faculty member assemble it. I suspect the latter option might be rare at a research university, but I don't really know.

Last year, creating the newsletter was a huge task because (1) I had never done it before, and (2) It had been so long since the previous newsletter that there were many things to write about and there was a huge pile of unsorted data to sift through and organize (alumni/ae news, donations, scholarships/awards etc.). I had a lot of help writing the newsletter (various faculty, students, and staff wrote parts of the newsletter), but it was still a lot of work.

I have agreed to be the Newsletter Editor again this year, but only for this year. I think that this job should rotate around the department every year or two so that different people are involved in it.

Last week, the department chair asked to speak with me. Here is a transcript of our conversation:

Department Chair (DCh): Now, I know that you think that someone else should take over the newsletter next year, but to be honest, when I consider all the faculty in the department, the number who have the appropriate skill set to produce a great newsletter is very small.

FSP: That's OK if the number is small, as long as the number isn't one.

DCh: The number might actually be one, and that one is you.

FSP: As I recall, last year you initially assigned this job to Another Professor. You must have done that because you thought that Another Professor was capable of this task. [<-- I thought this was a fairly clever response, as it left the chair the choice of admitting that there are non-me options or admitting he had been wrong in his initial choice of newsletter editor, and I was betting he'd do the former. Alas, I was wrong.]

DCh: I was wrong.

FSP: No you weren't. I think Another Professor would do a great job with the newsletter. Creating a good newsletter is not a 'skill set' that I alone possess.

DCh: Let's talk about this more next week.

(FSP thinks: We can talk, but .. no means no)

Question 2: How many professional service activities can one person do and remain sane?
(or is even too late to be asking that question?)


Anonymous said...

The answer to question 2 is "a lot fewer than you take on." And I say this as someone who reads your blog regularly, so, you should take my advise as the absolute last word on the question, and not listen to anyone else.

Folks are always saying not to take on too much service, and I think that once you've met your obligation, the next stuff is to think hard about which service you want to spend time on, which adds joy to your life. And, then, say no to the rest, even if it means that no one does the newsletter.

Jessica Ball said...

I suspect if you've hit the point where you're asking that, it's already too late. :)

In my (probably smaller) undergrad geo department, the administrative assistant was in charge of the newsletter, since she kept track of all the alumni addresses and updates. Each professor contributed a section on their latest research and some photos, and alumni were asked to do the same (with varying levels of participation).

So, essentially, it worked much the same way as you're describing; the assistant was in charge of organizing all the input and writing small portions, but everyone else was responsible for content. I was the office assistant and ended up helping her with the editing and the mailing process, but it was definitely a long and complicated project.

Bringing new people into our process did, however, result in a very spiffy magazine-style newsletter (much improved from the stapled white-paper-printout version of years past). I think you should definitely rotate through teams of people.

Kim said...

I'm somewhat in charge of our department newsletter, but only because I teach our department's writing course. I assign the newsletter as a group project to the students. I copy-edit the newsletter after it's gone through a couple rounds of editing by the students, and occasionally I ask them to delete something inappropriate. And I tell them that, if the newsletter isn't perfect, it won't be sent out, and the alums will be disappointed.

This is probably my only success in delegating anything. But, because our curriculum is set up in this way, it works. (And when the students complain about writing in a group, I tell them that they'll be dealing with committees for the rest of their lives, and yes, they're frustrating, and to get used to it.)

Kate said...

Could it be your feminine secretarial skills? Or are those just my gender lenses acting up again? Geez, I just go seeing gender everywhere...

Jennifer said...

Interesting. In grad school, another student and I were the newsletter editors. They paid us (something meaningful to us, but small--a few $100?), we used the department's equipment, it was sent to a printer. We didn't do much writing, but hounded professors to write things and listed students' accomplishments. So, I say get grad students to do it for cheap!

Due almost exclusively to this experience, I was recruited to be the newsletter editor for a section in my professional association, which is a mixed bag but comes with a tiny bit of prestige.

EcoGeoFemme said...

I wrote the department's newsletter my senior year of undergrad. I had a writing minor in the English department. Writing the science department's newsletter counted as an independent study for my English minor. It worked out great, although the quality was probably lower than if it had been written by a professor.

This seems like something an eager student could do with your supervision. Does your university have a journalism or other written communication program?

Change said...

Kate, that was my first thought too.

Anonymous said...

I have never heard of a faculty being asked to do something like this, actually. And if the first person asked to do that (i.e., the "faculty member not active in research") simply refused to do it and got away with it, I think it is quite all right if you take the same approach :-)

Not Important said...

Could you set up a department blog instead of a newsletter?