VIEW FROM ACADIA
The Dean of Science came to my office last spring with a proposition. Would I agree to act as chair of the Department of Chemistry as well as Geology for the next year? I was somewhat taken aback by the suggestion, but Chemistry was in a difficult position. After several years in which professors retired at a high rate (a result of a hiring boom in the 1970's), and during which new faculty have been difficult to retain, the make-up of the teaching staff is very skewed to young professors. The department has eight faculty members - one position is currently vacant, five professors have less than 5 years experience in the university (four of these in their first or second year of teaching), and two senior professors were on sabbatical leave this year and were replaced by interim teachers. The result was that there was no-one to steer the ship for this year, hence the Dean's proposition.
After an appropriate amount of convincing by the Dean, and discussion with the Geology Department professors, I agreed. I would receive a further teaching reduction in order to chair two departments, I would be able to hire part-time staff to fill in for Geology, and I would have two offices, one in each department.
I was most impressed first by the willingness of the members of the Geology Department to allow me to do this double task. It means that I generally spend mornings in Geology, and move to Chemistry for the afternoons. My availability for students is considerably reduced (although many geology students have found their way to Elliott Hall!), and my opportunities to interact with the Geology faculty are likewise diminished. Others have had to pick up the casual advising in the classrooms and corridors, and our secretary and technician have to know that they must catch me when they see me! Secondly, I have been very thankful for the willingness of the professors, support staff and students in Chemistry to accept into their midst someone who likes his ΔG equations to have a PΔV (pressure-related) term, and prefers chemicals without double bonds. However, we do share a lot in common with our lab-oriented courses, although the details make for interesting differences!
When I took on the job, one of the reasons I decided to do it was to find out how another department functions. At Acadia (as at many universities, I am sure), each department enjoys considerable autonomy and decides how it will run its own affairs. While we may proclaim to ourselves that we do it better than anyone else, in our private moments we may wonder if that is really true. Maybe there is a better way to manage the budget, or hold the meeting, or get students involved and excited about their subjects, for example. There was probably a bit of self-gratification there too - as a small department on campus, Geology often feels left out of the "big club" and here was our chance to discover (or prove?) that big departments are not really any greater after all!
Whatever the lofty notions were that led me to accept the task, they were soon put to flight in the mundane day-to-day running of the department. I took over in the midst of hiring three temporary faculty members and was immediately immersed into the details of getting them here, into offices, and on-line. Mid-summer means on-line registration and the task of convincing reluctant students that, yes, they must do that course and it will only work in that timeslot, or no, you can't do that - you really need that prerequisite to take this course. Then, a week before classes started the departmental still died - and a Chemistry department without distilled water is not a Chemistry department. The technical staff was terrific in quickly apprising me of how to deal with the situation, what is needed, and who to do it, and we soon had our own fresh flowing distilled water better than ever before with new equipment and process.
People often now ask me how the departments differ in their approach and outlook. Geology is a smaller department on campus; Chemistry, with twice as many majors and 50% more faculty is definitely one of the "heavyweights". Geology has consistently strived to maintain its facilities over the past two decades of funding cutbacks - it has always been at the forefront in using new technologies. It was among the first to use a word processor on campus (long ago in 1982!), a colour printer, and a poster plotter, and it has consistently pushed for graphics capabilities for map work, etc. Some of these technologies seem surprisingly mundane now, but at the time when they were adopted they were significant developments on campus. Chemistry uses bigger pieces of equipment - nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, gas chromatography mass spectrometers, fluorimeters - and as such has been forced to settle in the past (or at least in the past two decades of limited finances) for donations of equipment being shed by industry, with all the ensuing headaches of keeping it running. Hopefully this approach is being overcome with the construction of a new equipment lab and significant new funding for the materials in it, but the attitude toward embracing the new has been somewhat more tentative.
I also notice a very different student environment. I first met the "summer people" - students working on research topics and theses in Chemistry - and was impressed by their nine-to-five dedication, working away in the lab measuring out aliquots of this or titrating that. So different from the Geology summer students who you can never pin down from one day to the next, dashing off to the field area, or down to the rock room to slab some samples. I find the general mood in Geology to be more embracive - perhaps this is natural in a smaller department, particularly where many students mix classes with other years, trying to maximize their opportunities after switching programs in their first or second year at Acadia. Perhaps being in a larger department, students in Chemistry tend to focus more on their own subgroup of colleagues rather than see themselves as a single group. In part this perception also comes from the different goals of Chemistry majors - some are headed for careers as chemists in research labs or industry, but others are on the pre-medical, pre-dentistry, pre-pharmacy or pre-veterinary tracks, in which the first degree subject is of subsidiary importance to the need to get marks as high as possible to make the cut-off.
Probably the biggest difference, however, is in the after-hours activity. As always, the Geology Department is a "happening place" from early in the morning until late at night. Students in Geology make the department their second home, with labs to study in, thin sections to examine, fossils to sketch, and enough Internet hook-ups to keep even the most wired student happy. In Chemistry, when the doors are locked at 5 p.m., the building shuts down. This, of course, must not be construed as a criticism of the Chemistry Department - with labs holding 30,000 different chemicals, it is a fact of safety that when the class is over, the door is locked. However, the result is that with the exception of a small seminar room with a sink, fridge and microwave oven, there is not a lot of space for things to happen after hours. This year it has been interesting to see how the Chemistry majors have been active in the Chemistry Club and a bit of a rivalry has erupted between the Chemistry Club and the Fletcher Geology Club.
I hope that as I move into the winter term, I will be able to continue to build enthusiasm in both departments for their respective subjects. The doubling of departmental meetings is more than made up for by the doubling of honours student presentations, banquets and celebratory events that I get to enjoy. It has been an interesting experience - even fun - and everyone should get a chance to experience another department. But only for one year!