• Still from theatre production SERSE
  • Art Galleries
  • TV set
  • Performance Ensemble
  • guests and interviewer on Journalism set
  • violin section of orchestra

Taking the Lead in Transitional Times

January 24, 2022

By Teresa K. Morrison

In the Fall 2021 semester, two departments in the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communication welcomed new chairs. Professor of painting Samantha Fields took the helm in the Department of Art, while screenwriting professor Jared Rappaport assumed leadership in the Department of Cinema and Television Arts. Fields and Rappaport each head their respective sections and have held many committee leadership posts over their tenure at CSUN. Still, department chairs trade responsibilities largely centered on teaching for responsibilities on a macro level—building semester course schedules with hundreds of class sections, ensuring that times are workable for faculty and students; making tweaks to accommodate waxing and waning enrollments; ensuring that seniors have the courses needed to graduate on time; cultivating essential part-time faculty; and making it all work on a tight department budget.

Department of Cinema and Television Arts chair Jared Rappaport. Image courtesy of Jared Rappaport.

While Rappaport understands the complexities of managing so many moving parts, he prefers not to think of his job as just making the trains run on time. “The aspects of the job I like best are the conferring with students and faculty and being able to make decisions that can affect both these groups in a positive way,” he says. “I feel a keen responsibility to address the needs of our students, support our faculty and staff, and serve the mission of the college and university. There are times these don’t always seem in sync.  I think a good chair has to find the balance.”  

A self-described puzzle enthusiast, Samantha Fields also enjoys the problem-solving aspects of the position, trying to anticipate potential snags while keeping known issues from snowballing. As liaisons between constituencies, chairs ensure that departmental concerns are well represented in university decisions and collect information relevant to their faculty, staff, and students. Clear communication is especially critical in these times of shifting protocols to address a pandemic with surging variants and dangerous degrees of communicability. Yet a wealth of information is only as useful as one’s ability to sort it. Fields has started a weekly department newsletter, a teaching practice she adopted early in the pandemic to help students remain connected when estrangement was all too easy. In adapting her newsletter practice to faculty communications, she concentrates on refining and disseminating the information most critical to her colleagues so they can spend less time parsing procedures and more time prepping courses.

Department of Art chair Samantha Fields paints in her home studio. Image courtesy of Samantha Fields.

Since spring 2020 campus leaders have grappled with each new semester under shifting circumstances, always trying to balance pandemic safety with drives to preserve and improve academic experience. When Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF) became available chairs were under pressure to quickly define departmental needs amid pandemic flux. Fields looked at little fixes that could make a big difference. Anticipating that some faculty returning to campus might have trouble being heard through facemasks, Fields requested extra headsets with voice amplifiers via HEERF funds, a minor technology fix that significantly improved teaching effectiveness for many. Flexibility has been key in the face of unpredictable conditions. With the Omicron surge stretching office staffing thin, Fields and associate chair Lesley Krane have found themselves pitching in doing “all the jobs.” Fields jokes that you never know who’s going to pick up the phone when you call the Art Department, but notes that filling in wherever staff is short helps her understand the workings of the department inside and out—and affirms how amazing the support staff really is.

Administrators at all levels are tasked with making policies amid changing variables, working overtime to balance pandemic safety with needs to resume in-person instruction. Both Art and CTVA have many lab and studio courses where students access specialized campus equipment and essential hands-on instruction. In Fall 2021, CSUN began phasing back in-person instruction with caution, consulting with department chairs to determine courses in most urgent need of hands-on campus experience—Zoom-resistant disciplines such as ceramics, sculpture, darkroom photography, film and television production, theatre performance, music, and more. Rappaport captures the joy many in the campus community have felt in watching this gradual return of energy to campus. “I personally am thrilled to be back on campus,” Rappaport says, “hearing the strains of opera or drumming, or chamber music that regale me on the way to my office from music students meeting outside.” The outdoor rehearsals are, of course, concessions to safety, but folks on south campus can be excused for enjoying these ambient sounds of pandemic-era university life. Fields is just as delighted to be back on north campus, where the Art and Design Center is situated. “I get to see art with my eyeballs!” she enthuses. Zoom screens are deceptive, masking scale and texture. The pandemic has proven that online viewing rooms are a poor substitute for real-time visits to galleries and studios. 

Both Fields and Rappaport have found fellow chairs—both in the Mike Curb College and across campus—enormously generous in helping them acclimate to the job, yet they believe that it ultimately falls to each new chair to assess the department they’ve been charged to lead, imagine how it can best serve students and faculty, and leave the institution a bit better for their tenure. They value and honor the “soft power” aspects of their position, where decisions great and small can improve work-life quality for many. “Continuing to provide an environment by which talent can thrive is paramount,” Rappaport says, emphasizing that faculty and students are the real champions here, making it all work despite so many challenges and changes. “I feel inspired by what I have seen faculty, staff, and students achieve in spite of the adversity,” Rappaport says. “How they’ve surmounted enormous obstacles in the pursuit of education. I feel very hopeful that we will see our way through this, survive, and thrive. That our best days are in front of us.”

We enter the spring semester with hopes for a greater return to campus, with 80% of class sections scheduled to host in-person instruction following three weeks of largely virtual meetings. While we can’t predict the behavior of viral variants, we have learned a thing or two about preparing for the unexpected—perhaps the most valuable training a chair could ask for.