A Year in Crisis: Lessons in Communication Learned as a Department Chair

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Brian A. Shook, DMA
Chair of the Mary Morgan Moore Department of Music, Lamar University




We have just passed the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this experience may have provided opportunities for us to learn and grow, it has also taught us there are critical elements of our life and work where no substitute is sufficient. One of these elements is communication. The extreme safety measures of social distancing, lockdowns, quarantines, remote teaching, and working from home have made communicating with one another increasingly difficult and acutely essential.

Let’s not forget, though, there has always been a need for academic leaders to improve communication—many of us have even read books and attended workshops dedicated to this topic. However, the current pandemic has magnified potential weak spots in our communication, providing the opportunity to develop new habits that will benefit those we lead.

Allow me to share with you some lessons I have learned recently—some more painful than others—and how they can be applied right now, as well as in a post-pandemic world.


Knowing Your Responsibilities Makes You a Better Communicator

Being a department chair is the toughest job on campus, and the job does not get any easier during a pandemic. Students, faculty, and staff look to us for magical answers to urgent questions, and there is often a burning desire to provide immediate answers. However, it is crucially important for us to stay focused on our specific set of responsibilities instead of getting sidetracked by problems beyond our scope of influence. As mid-level managers, chairs are typically only responsible for the people and processes contained within their department. Knowing the full extent of these responsibilities and the intricacies involved in each of them allows us to be more confident in what (and how) we communicate. Occasions do arise, however, where lines of responsibility are blurred, so if you are unsure of where the lines are drawn, always ask your dean for further clarification. Focusing on the areas within your direct influence will help alleviate additional stress and pressure from others.

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