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July/August 2021 (Volume 30, Number 7)
By Leah Poffenberger
The Physics Department Chairs Conference, organized by APS and the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), brings chairs together from departments across the country. Connecting chairs from a variety of types of institutions provides an important opportunity for both new and existing chairs to discuss challenges, share solutions, and build a network of resources.
On June 3 and 4, around 150 chairs participated in the two-day event, which drew on feedback from the first virtual conference in 2020 to create a vibrant online experience. The 2021 Conference explored topics from improving departmental culture through diversity, equity, and inclusion to managing departmental threats in order to build a thriving department. Each session was highly interactive, generating lively discussion from attendees.
“Much of the feedback from last year’s virtual event was around the need for networking and informal ‘hallway’ conversations,” said Farah Dawood, a member of the conference organizing committee at APS. “This year we did not have any sessions that were fully presentation-style—every session had a short intro, and then we had participants go into breakouts to have small-group discussions.”
Another change from last year was the return of Congressional Visit Day (CVD), which traditionally takes chairs to Capitol Hill for meetings with their congressional representatives This time chairs had the opportunity to meet with representatives or staffers online to discuss issues facing the physics community.
“As far as [CVD] being online, you don’t have that experience of walking around in Washington and being in the room where it happens,” said Monika Kress, a member of the steering committee and professor and chair at San Jose State University. “It was still a great experience to do it online… I felt like we made good impressions and got as much accomplished over zoom. Ultimately it is time with your elected representative or close staffers, which is really unique.”
The main portion of the conference kicked off the morning of June 3 with a New Chairs Workshop, designed for newly appointed chairs interested in learning how to effectively lead a department. Attendees were able to learn about best practices gathered from previous Chairs Conferences.
Following the New Chairs Workshop, the theme of the first day of the conference was on thinking about equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) as a department chair. The opening plenary session on “How to be Intentional About Equity, Diversity and Inclusion as a Department Chair” was led by Martha-Elizabeth “Marty” Baylor, Carleton College; Taviare Hawkins, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse; and Jonathan Pelz, Ohio State University. They shared their personal experiences of promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion in their respective departments before asking attendees to break into groups and reflect on three different scenarios through an EDI lens.
Continuing the first day’s theme, the final plenary featured a talk on creating inclusive departmental culture by Nadya Mason, the Rosalyn Sussman Yalow Professor in Physics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Mason spoke from the perspective of a faculty member, sharing both positive and negative experiences with departmental culture as a Black woman in physics.
The second day of the conference focused on how to support the people in a physics department, including students, junior faculty, tenured faculty, and staff members. Plenaries focusing on supporting physics majors through key transitions and developing personnel which broke into small groups for discussion allowed attendees to reflect on the needs of each of these groups.
The emphasis on discussion rather than long presentations was a highlight of the 2021 meeting, helping limit “zoom fatigue” and increase connection between attending chairs.
“The best part of the conference is getting to interact with chairs from all over the country—it really is a unique experience to talk with chairs from so many different types of institutions, to see what we have in common both in terms of challenges and aspirations, and seeing how we’re really different,” said Kress.
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Alaina G. Levine