Personnel Leadership – It is a thing!

As we wrap up another semester, I am, as is usual for this time of year, thinking about what went wrong and what went right this past semester. I will say that a lot of things have gone very well this semester. My students have exceeded my expectations which is a great feeling. I have even checked with colleagues to see that my expectations have not been slowly changing to “easier” over time. Now, if I could just figure out what we did right so we could replicate it…

One thing that continues to be at the forefront of teaching in a class of 6 sections, 3 instructors, 16 graduate-student TAs, 2 undergraduate graders, 1 undergraduate Supplemental Instruction leader, and 2 undergraduate ExSEL program tutors is keeping everyone on the same page and focused on the same goal – all while not micromanaging.

Some things we did right this semester in terms of keeping everyone focused included a dedicated Moodle page and (real) weekly meetings. Moodle is our learning management system (LMS) system here at UMass. This semester, there was a page just for the instructional team. From here, I was able to upload material from previous semesters and even this semesters exams in such a way that they were only visible to the other instructors and graduate TAs. While I am not sure how many of the team looked at all of the lecture notes from previous semesters, I can say that it was easier to organize for me and did reduce the number of requests from the TAs.

Weekly meetings were also helpful (duh!). We have tried to have them in the past, but lack of leadership meant they always fell apart. This semester, I had the mental space to actually run the meetings and, even if all we did were the labs and logistical work, they were still I think useful to those TAs who committed to the meeting.

Which brings up what the biggest issue for future work: motivation. Like many programs, some fraction of our TAs are less engaged with their duties than I would like. What system of carrots (and sticks?) can we use to help? Ideally, I would like to increase internal motivation. I hope that the new graduate TA-training seminar will help with this going forward, but results are unclear at the moment and I am unsure about its efficacy at this point.

The other issue to be worked on is management technique:

  • Encouraging open dialogue with the rest of the team
  • Facilitating the tracking of tasks in a manner in which all team-members buy-in
  • Catching issues early in a data-based way
  • Making sure that everyone feels like a needed contributor to the success of the effort

I have had bad managers. I know that the mark of a good leader is to provide the environment in which others can use their talents, take ownership, and contribute. The question is how to actually DO that?

I feel that this is a problem faced by many physicists (and probably scientists in general). So many of us, both in industry and the academy and especially those with advanced degrees, are expected to have some sort of leadership role. However, these skills are not really taught to physicists.

Something to think about incorporating into any courses I teach; particularly in smaller courses where I suspect I could do more.