Meet Vice Dean Susan Williams

On Nov. 1, 2014, SUSAN WILLIAMS began her full-time appointment as vice dean, College of Arts and Sciences — continuing a more than 23-year career at the university.

In this new role, Williams is responsible for coordinating faculty affairs across the college, serving as deputy to the executive dean in supporting college-wide initiatives and supporting cross-college collaboration.

Williams came to Ohio State as an assistant professor in the Department of English in 1991; she taught American literature and served as graduate director. In 2005, Williams received the Ohio State Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching, and she was promoted to professor in 2006. Williams is the author of Confounding Images: Photography and Portraiture in Antebellum American Fiction and Reclaiming Authorship: Literary Women in America, 1850-1900.

Most recently, Williams served as vice provost in the university’s Office of Academic Affairs (OAA) for five and a half years.

We sat down with Vice Dean Williams to get to know her a bit better.

Q. What excited you most about coming to the College of Arts and Sciences?

When I was in OAA, I had the opportunity to watch the evolution of five colleges into the College of Arts and Sciences. I was and am very excited about what we can accomplish as one college. I want to be an advocate for the arts and sciences, which is my intellectual home.

I jumped at the opportunity to support Executive Dean Manderscheid and the rest of the leadership team as it moves through the next phase of its evolution as a unified college—what we are calling “Arts and Sciences 2.0.”

In the 1990s I served on a committee tasked with examining the future of the College of Humanities and first got a sense of the importance of cross-departmental communication. I was very interested in the different disciplinary perspectives voiced by the various members of the committee and how to think about respecting those differences while also finding consensus.

My role in OAA was to serve the entire faculty by focusing on faculty rules, policies and professional development, with particular emphasis on issues surrounding appointments and promotion and tenure evaluations. In doing so, I had the opportunity to understand in some detail the practices in each of the college’s 38 departments and schools, and to work closely with many of our chairs, center directors and faculty.

This experience made me eager to move into a role in which I could advocate for the arts and sciences by focusing on faculty development within the college while also fostering cross-college communication and understanding.

Q. Dean Manderscheid has said that his goal is for the college to be the best arts and sciences college in the country. What does that goal mean to you?

I think that being the best College of Arts and Sciences means that we will be seen as a leader in fostering research, scholarship and teaching in the basic disciplines and interdisciplinary programs in the arts and sciences, not only for the university but for the nation.

In this environment, our students can put together a program of study that is at once astoundingly broad and richly deep, one that encompasses excellence in core disciplines and general and graduate education, while also allowing for individualized research opportunities as well as a wide array of service learning, study abroad and interdisciplinary courses.

At the same time, our faculty can thrive in an intellectual community that inspires us to be the best scholars and teachers we can be. All arts and sciences colleges, whether freestanding or part of a larger research university, aspire to provide sustained engagement with ever more nuanced concepts in mathematical and scientific reasoning as well as with the historical and current expressions of human experience and creativity.

I am continually struck by the fact that Ohio State is unusual in housing its arts and sciences departments in a major urban center that is on the same campus as a major medical center with seven health sciences colleges and seven professional colleges. It has been my observation that our faculty are constantly being asked to think about their studies and research in relation to other faculty and students who are actively working to translate and apply that work to a number of other sites and practice areas. This opens up a uniquely complex and dynamic academic environment that enables us to be a leading thought partner in all of the major topics facing higher education today.

Q. Part of your job is to foster collaboration across the college. How do you define collaboration?

I define collaboration as individual faculty members being able to find the expertise that enables them to do their best work. At its heart, all scholarship is collaborative. Collaboration at the college level is about allowing faculty, who really want to work together to solve problems that are bigger than any one faculty member can work on, to thrive by helping them connect, talk and work with others.

I am aware that faculty in the college bring multiple perspectives to the notion of collaboration, with some being suspicious of it and some wishing that it were more explicitly valued. In some of our disciplines, such as literary studies, faculty has endorsed the importance of individual deep thought and reflection. In others, such as astronomy, the scope of the research problems leads faculty to endorse multi-authored publications and collective research sites that engage multiple universities.

Whatever area of the college they are from, however, I am also aware that most faculty describe a “good day” as a day in which they have had the opportunity to talk about their research or teaching with one or more other faculty members who have the experience and knowledge to push their ideas and have a new insight.

On the most basic level, the college seeks to take advantage of its size and location to ensure that it fosters the creation of the informal and formal networks that promote such intellectual community and new contributions to ongoing scholarly conversations. We’re incubating ideas all of the time.

What that means in concrete terms can vary from faculty member to faculty member. But it includes structural supports such as team teaching, lecture series and faculty seminars co-hosted by multiple centers and departments, faculty appointments in multiple departments or centers, and guidance on evaluating multi-authored publications and grants in the faculty evaluation process. It also includes more informal guidance for faculty members looking to navigate the college and university as they look to share and gain particular expertise.

Q. Is your own scholarship collaborative?

In terms of my own writing and publication, the answer is yes and no: I have published two single-authored books, one that looks at the history of portraiture and photography in mid-nineteenth-century American literature and another that looks at the way American women writers in the later nineteenth century worked to professionalize themselves as authors. I have also published articles about various 19th Century writers and publishers and have edited a textbook edition of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. At the same time, I have co-edited a volume of essays and also worked for several years co-editing a scholarly journal with two of my colleagues, Steve Fink and Jared Gardner—work that I found pivotal to my own evolution as a scholar and also as an administrator.

In my time at Ohio State, I have benefitted from talking to many scholars outside of my immediate area of expertise. I have team taught with Barbara Groseclose, an art historian, and also devised course assignments in tandem with several of our faculty who are special collection curators in the university libraries. Last summer I gave a paper at a Hawthorne conference on current uses of the term “scarlet letter law” that benefitted from expertise shared with me by Douglas Berman, a faculty member in our Moritz College of Law.

One of the reasons that I came to Ohio State as a faculty member is that I thought I could never outgrow it. That has certainly been the case, and I continually learn from listening to other faculty colleagues.

Q. Do you miss teaching?

I see my role to some extent as still teaching ….helping to get ideas on the table; conducting workshops; helping people understand policies and what is behind them and helping identify structure and supports to ensure that faculty have the opportunity to become the best teachers, scholars and researchers.

Q. Would you share some of your ideas about areas / initiatives around faculty development?

One area I have an interest in is taking the faculty members in arts and sciences who are on sabbatical but who are still here in Columbus and asking them to get together once a month to talk about what they are doing. I believe it would be helpful to talk about what they are working on and why it’s important as faculty members in the arts and sciences to have this time to focus on research and scholarly work. 

Another idea I have builds on something that is already happening in the arts and humanities – a mentoring program for associate professors. To give some structural support for associate professors who are trying to figure out the next five to 10 years of their professional life.

I am beginning to create a series of workshops for department chairs – we have this fabulous group of chairs in the arts and sciences – that is a beautiful moment for collaboration, in and of itself.

Q. What might people be surprised to learn about you?

Many people are surprised to learn that I was born and lived in Atlanta until I was 18, and my extended family is all still in the southeast.

Q. What are the last 3 books that you read?

Selected Tales, Essays, and Poems of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, and Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory.

Q. Where would we be likely to find you when you’re not at work?

At a Buckeye game with my 14-year-old son, singing with the Bexley Choral Society or in a neighborhood restaurant.