Image: Brian Taylor
The beginning of the academic year is such an optimistic time — new courses, new students, new challenges. I’m continually struck by the sense of renewal and opportunity that a new academic year brings.
And then I go to a committee meeting. By the end of it, those feelings of optimism and renewal are but a distant, bitter memory.
Lamentations about meetings are a constant presence in academic conversations. Who among us hasn’t wailed something along the lines of, "If I didn’t have all these damn meetings, I could actually get some research/writing/grading/anything done?" As one of my colleagues often laments, "They’re meeting us into submission."
Why are we so angsty about meetings? At first, the possible answers to that question are obvious:
- They’re a waste of time.
- Meeting-happy administrators schedule them to make it look as if they’re doing something — anything.
- We go round and round the same point for an hour and leave the meeting no better than we were at its beginning.
- That one dude bloviates for 30 minutes about some perceived grievance that predates the rest of us.
There’s a litany of reasons why meetings — in the eyes of most academics — suck. But if we were truly honest with ourselves, we’d realize that many, if not most, of our grievances are the products of our own choices, including the choice to not take action as well as the decisions we make about what, and how, we conduct the work of the institution.
About a decade ago, I chaired a standing faculty committee — the one that serves as a liaison between the faculty and the administration and is responsible for academic and personnel policy. In other words, it’s the committee that handles the most politically charged and controversial matters on a regular basis. My year as chair was a disaster.
We made no progress on the long-term goals that we’d laid out at the beginning of the year (ah, those heady, optimistic days — such innocent times). Our regular meetings were regularly hijacked by one vocal member with a list of grievances as long as my arm, honed to a razor’s edge in his decades at the university. My attempts to create meeting agendas became a joke. Unexpected issues arose and we had no plan for dealing with them. We thus spent the year chasing crises and putting out fires rather than actually advancing toward our goals.
I bore a fair amount of responsibility for that sad record. In my defense, though, I wasn’t tenured at that point, and I hadn’t sought the chairmanship. Without the security or clout that tenure brings, it was a mistake to try to lead a committee that handled such controversial issues. Lack of tenure handcuffed me especially when it came to dealing with senior colleagues who had their own agendas for the committee and sought to wrest control of its direction. And I didn’t have the institutional knowledge to resolve big-ticket items that came before the committee.
But — as is the case with pedagogy — sometimes failure is the best teacher. Out of that experience, as well as subsequent forays into committees, task forces, ad hoc working groups, and administrative roles, I’ve learned how to run an effective and efficient meeting. I’ve also learned about the factors that, all too often, prevent either from being the case.
The key lesson I’ve learned is that a good portion of what ails academic meetings stems from factors within our control. If we brought the same degree of mindfulness and care to planning meeting agendas as we do to, for example, formulating our course objectives or our research plans, we could pre-empt many of the common frustrations that bedevil our meetings. If we critically reflect upon the ways in which we think about meetings and their purpose — in the same way that we would critically reflect on a particular argument in a writing project — our workflow would improve dramatically.
There may not be a way to make academic meetings totally awesome all the time, for ever and ever. But there are certainly ways to make them less painful. And that is not an ignoble goal. Here are some strategies you can use to make your meetings suck as little as possible.
Thinking about calling a meeting? Consider the real reasons you’re doing so. Is there work that needs to be done collaboratively within a specific time frame? Is there important information that needs to be disseminated? Or is it just that this committee has always met every other Wednesday and, come hell or high water, will continue to do so?
Having meetings for the sake of having meetings is a waste of everyone’s time and will spark a wave of resentment even faster than not starting new coffee when you take the last cup in the faculty kitchen. Unless there is something that cannot be done without everyone being in a room together, reconsider your plans for a physical meeting. Information can be distributed in a variety of ways. I’ve sat through countless meetings that could (and should) have been emails, and wanted to light myself on fire in nearly every one of them. If what you need to do can be accomplished in an email, then don’t call a meeting. Send an email.
What’s your agenda? No meeting should be without an agenda (in the literal sense — the figurative, more sinister, sense is optional). The agenda is the road map for the time everyone is spending together, so it needs to be detailed and clear enough to make sure the group gets where it wants to go. An agenda that’s hurriedly written out five minutes before the meeting starts and contains only broad headings is a poor map, and participants will surely wander far afield as a result.
To keep a meeting on track — meaning, everyone clearly sees its purpose and course — a detailed agenda needs to be distributed well before the start. (Shoot for several days in advance.) Of course, unexpected matters arise, or a last-minute concern can alter the priorities; an advance agenda shouldn’t be inflexible. But having the meeting’s structure and priorities defined publicly beforehand gives participants a chance to do the necessary preparations.
If possible, include time increments for each element of your agenda (i.e., "Old Business: 15 minutes"). This is a particularly useful strategy if you have one item of business that you think will take longer than the rest and want to make sure adequate time is devoted to it.
ABP: Always Be Planning. One of the worst types of committee dysfunction is the group that meets regularly, but with no preparation or action in the intervals between. These committees fall into a deadening cycle of merely rediscovering fire every few weeks. There’s simply no traction. It’s hard to advance a project or a set of goals if there isn’t the expectation that work will be accomplished and benchmarks will be met from meeting to meeting.
A well-run meeting ends a with a specific plan: What are the concrete actions that will be taken before the next meeting, and who will be responsible for each one? Those actions can be a list of tasks divvied up among the members (one person compiles the evaluation data, another synthesizes the meeting notes into a list of tentative conclusions, a third invites the dean to the next meeting), or they can be common tasks necessary to conduct the group’s business (all members should read the salary report and gather feedback for the next meeting).
A reminder email will also go a long way toward ensuring that the necessary between-meeting work gets done. At the beginning of the next session, quickly review the action plan from last time and create a culture of accountability regarding these collective tasks. Without a clearly defined set of expectations, committees quickly drift into what sailors call the doldrums. That’s a bad place to be, and your crew may become mutinous.
Foster equity and inclusion. Whether it’s charting agenda items, assigning tasks as part of an action plan, soliciting assistance in running a meeting, or something else, make it your steadfast mission to not have your meetings become a site of inequality or microaggressions along the lines of race, gender, or other elements of identity.
For example, recent studies show that a disproportionate burden of service work in academe falls upon shoulders of female faculty members. Men need to be especially cognizant of the unwritten but widely enforced norms in our community and actively work to make service work equitable and just. In what percentage of your institution’s committees and working groups are women asked to be the secretary? During meetings, who gets to talk, and how often? A disturbing pattern we’ve all observed (and no doubt helped perpetuate) involves women waiting to be recognized before speaking while men jump right in, often interrupting someone else or abruptly shifting the conversation as if the previous person’s point had never been uttered. This casual, everyday sexism shouldn’t be a part of academic culture, yet it all too often is. Just as those of us who teach have the responsibility to maintain an environment of respect and collegiality in class discussions, those who lead meetings have the same obligation.
Finally, be aware of your members’ positions relative to institutional hierarchy, and fashion your expectations and assignments accordingly. An untenured member shouldn’t be asked to represent the committee to the rest of the faculty on a particularly contentious matter, for example. Nor should untenured or new faculty members be asked to shoulder the workload while senior professors treat their posting as something merely for show. Morale will most surely crumble in the face of such inequities, and with it any hope of effectively accomplishing your goals.
The most precious — and egregiously finite — commodity for an academic is time. We have so much to do and a seemingly ever-shrinking pool of time in which to do it. Yet meetings are usually accepted as simply a dreary fait accompli of academic life.
It doesn’t have to be that way, at least not to the degree to which we’ve resigned ourselves. Meetings may be necessary, but not necessarily awful. As the new academic year begins, let’s commit to a conscious and consistent effort to make our meetings — well, enjoyable would be over-reaching — but how about less dreadful?