FOOTNOTES NOVEMBER 1999
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The Executive Officer's Column
 
Building Strong Departments: ASA and the DRG
 
Every year in early Fall, the number of phone calls and e-mails from department chairs increases. A department review is scheduled for later in the year; the faculty seeks to revise the curriculum; there is new opportunity for an MA- or PhD-level Program; class enrollments are very high, but majors declare very late; or the faculty are at odds about the department's strengths and what should be emphasized as core specialties. Chairs realize that these are pivotal points where departments can be advanced or where, conversely, "agony might be snatched from the jaws of victory."

Over the decades, ASA has pursued small projects and major initiatives directed to serving departments and enhancing their roles both in the development of the discipline and in making for vital institutions of higher education. The ASA takes on substantial collaborations like the MOST Program (Minority Opportunities through School Transformation) where we are working with 18 departments on how best to achieve excellence and inclusiveness in sociological education. We also have key ongoing activities like Department Affiliates, Chairlink, Chair Conferences, Research Briefs, and other special communications to help departments with planning and with their day-to-day work.

But when the phone rings or the e-mail "beeps" relating to an opportunity or challenge within a specific department, what else beyond information, insight, or an occasional site visit can the ASA usefully do? Washington is known for its use of acronyms. In this case, our answer is: Turn to the DRG!

The DRG-Department Resources Group-is one of ASA's most effective strategies for helping departments and department chairs create strong, vital programs. Led by ASA's Academic and Professional Affairs Program (APAP), the DRG is a cadre of over 80 sociologists from universities, colleges, and community colleges who are experienced and trained in consulting with sociology departments and assisting in departmental reviews or evaluations. DRG consultants can facilitate workshops for faculty and/or students on curriculum, teaching, and faculty development issues.

The DRG consultants reflect a wide range of institutional affiliations and substantive interests, but all share a common concern for the enhancement of departmental programs and curriculum. DRG consultants work with both undergraduate and graduate programs, sociology or joint programs, and newly-developing and changing departments.

Most DRG consultants have completed ASA's specialized training for conducting departmental visits; others have developed expertise through conducting visits over the years. Part of the commitment of a DRG consultant includes continuing education. Several training sessions are part of each ASA Annual Meeting in order to keep consultants current on literature on teaching sociology and issues in higher education. Sociologists themselves, DRGers realize that they need substantive training and expertise if they are to be of value in their work.

Like many learned societies, ASA does not accredit programs. The DRG is an ASA service to departments. The consultants' views and assistance reflect their own professional judgments and do not bear the imprimatur of the Association. Our role is to ensure a well-trained and diverse group of consultants, to nurture newcomers to this role, and to make an effective match for a department.

Types of Departmental Visits

Departmental consultations may take a variety of formats, and each one can be tailor-made to the specific needs of the host department. Many departments request help in conducting periodic self-studies required by their institution. Others take advantage of a DRG visit to adapt to financial constraints or new procedures and standards adopted by higher education administrations or legislatures. Still others use DRG consultants as experienced professionals who can bring the latest teaching strategies, information, and resources to their department. Sociology departments are often asked to take the lead on multicultural curricula, assessment of student learning, peer review of teaching, or teaching controversial subjects. DRG consultants can lead workshops or consult more informally about how sociology can be a department leader on campus.

Departmental visits are usually arranged through the department chair or an appropriately designated faculty member. Deans may also sponsor such visits, although this is less common. In either case, the goal remains departmental improvement. DRG consultants do not visit a department with the mission of discrediting the program or its faculty members. Conversely, they will not automatically serve as blind advocates for the departments. Rather, the consultants are trained to serve as catalysts and facilitators for honest, meaningful, and creative reflection and revitalization. DRG consultants do not evaluate individuals for promotion, tenure, or personnel decisions of any kind.

Spreading the Word

Beyond the substance of DRG, the process is a simple one. ASA charges no fee for the matching service and maintaining a cadre of trained sociologists. While departments are expected to cover the DRG consultants' expenses and provide a reasonable honorarium (including for writing time, if a detailed report is expected), the DRG is fundamentally a resource being provided by the community for the community.

The feedback over the years has been quite positive; the DRG is a well-used and well-proven product. Yet, as I talk with chairs and faculty members about department issues, I find that it is less than well known. It would be wise to make use of this asset. Therefore, as you engage in planning as faculty members or chairs, consider the value of such external assistance. The DRG is there, and ready and willing to help! - Felice J. Levine q

Note. For further information about arranging a DRG visit, please contact: Carla B. Howery, Director, Academic & Professional Affairs Program (202) 383-9005 x323; e-mail howery@asanet.org.