Thursday, September 17, 2009

What is it About Faculty Meetings?

There is something extremely annoying about faculty meetings, and I have never fully explored exactly what it is about them that I so dislike.

I do not loathe my colleagues (with very few exceptions). In fact, I like quite a lot of them, and I am quite fond of my department chair. It should not be an unpleasant experience to spend a few hours in a room with these people discussing topics of mutual concern, if not interest.

We have much to discuss that is of great importance to the department and its denizens. The chair has things of importance to tell us about the budget, new policies and procedures, issues he discussed with the Dean at their last meeting. Learning these things in a meeting is a good forum for asking questions and expressing concerns.

Nevertheless, I do loathe these meetings. Here are my top 5 reasons. I am sure that I could come up with 10 reasons, but I am typing this in an airport and the Transportation Security Administration has placed an arbitrary limit on the number of items that can be included in a blog list typed in an airport.

These are in no particular order.

1. Time. I don't have time for these meetings. No one has time for these meetings except the deadwood faculty. Of course we make time (if we are not traveling or otherwise involved in an activity scheduled for the same time as the meeting), but it is hard to lose time that could be spent on other essential activities.

2. Efficiency or lack thereof. Faculty meeting time is typically time that is not well spent. I know that meetings involving any collection of people with disparate views and personalities is unlikely to be efficient, but I wish there were a bloviating quota. Those exceeding this quota will be ejected, preferably forcibly, from the meeting.

3. The Men. Sitting around a conference table with my department colleagues is a vivid reminder of how few women faculty there are in my department. On rare occasions when issues involving underrepresented groups arise, some of the older faculty say that we have no problem with underrepresentation of women because so many of our students are female. Some of the younger faculty agree that we don't have a problem with underrepresentation of women because.. well, I don't know why. The definition of underrepresented is not so difficult to understand, and our department fits this definition. What this means is that they don't think underrepresentation is a problem that needs fixing.

4. The Sports Analogies. In most cases I can figure out from context what is meant, but it kind of annoys me that we are all expected to understand these expressions, which are used extraordinarily often.

5. The insanity factor. Some of my colleagues are really strange. I am really strange, too, so it is hypocritical to list this factor, but thus far my strangeness manifests itself rather quietly. For some of my colleagues, their insanity seems to require them to repeat themselves over and over at every faculty meeting for a decade or more. The effort required for me to keep from rolling my eyes at these repeat tirades is painful and may cause me permanent physical and emotional damage.

No, I don't think we should be more corporate and make faculty meetings efficient in that way. I am willing to put up with some amount of random behavior to preserve our ability to be free-spirited (tenured) professors. And I don't think we should abolish faculty meetings. We faculty would be outraged if the department chair started making decisions without consulting us, even if many of us have nothing useful to say.

Hence faculty meetings..

Because I am a look-for-the-silver-lining kind of person, especially when I am in an airport, I will force myself to list relevant items that make me feel better about having to attend regular faculty meetings:

- faculty retreats are far far more painful
- my spouse hates faculty meetings far far more than I do

It seems to be a short list.


Anonymous said...

FSP, you wrote:

I don't have time for these meetings. No one has time for these meetings except the deadwood faculty. Of course we make time (if we are not traveling or otherwise involved in an activity scheduled for the same time as the meeting), but it is hard to lose time that could be spent on other essential activities.

I might be picking on semantics, but taken at face value, how can this possibly be true? These meetings are apparently an annnoying but essential part of you job, therefore you must have time for them almost by definition, because you otherwise are not doing your job.

If essential work gets done at these meetings, then they are part of the "time overhead" required to properly participate in the life of the department.

Another piece of evidence that you actually do have time for them is that you turn up regularly.

John Vidale said...

Two independent points ameliorating the pain:

1. Wireless internet in the meeting rooms has made participating in irrelevant debates unnecessary. Maybe some others are irritated, but I'd rather read some online journals or catch up on email and research than discuss the details of summer field camp or how some microscope is recharged, for example.

2. Shared governance is overrated. Philosophical questions decided on a college or school level can be fun to debate, but one faculty member out of our ranks of 6000 has little impact - see possibility of being more productive in Point 1.

Minos said...

I hate them too. I find myself in wholehearted agreement with 1-3, disagreement on 4, and the same ambiguity on 5 that you seem to have.

As a guy with zero interest in sports, but who has gone through life with many family and friends who love them, I completely sympathize with the feeling of not being "part of the tribe" (I would even suggest that men who don't like sports suffer through even more such conversations, as they tend to hang out with more male friends, who tend to be more interested in sports). Of course, I feel the same about television shows and movies-and many other social phenomena from which I've opted out.

But the desire to analogize, to make use of cultural references, the ability to express oneself through metaphor, are enormously powerful. We certainly shouldn't dispense with them. The fact that you can figure these out from context means that you are learning common social capital, which is part of what holds us together as communities.

My colleagues must roll their eyeballs at my historical, Shakespearean, and nautical references. They probably feel a twinge of unpleasantness when I use terminology which has become important amongst those trying to understand Teh Internets. They probably even get torqued a little when they hear me say something, they meaning of which they don't understand for reasons of a generational gap.

Yet it is through these unpleasant exchanges that we are socialized into something like a community with enough overlap in our language that we can express ourselves more fully.

What's more, it's language in which we express ourselves more fully. One of the things I enjoy most about my department is the opportunity to understand the richness and complexity of my colleague's thinking, and, yes, the fact that something thinks of something as a "full court press" is a piece of their is the fact that I might say that we need to run before the gale. We both benefit from increasing our common stock of language.

So, yeah. You can imagine my tolerance for quirkiness in 5.

Anonymous said...

"No, I don't think we should be more corporate and make faculty meetings efficient in that way."

This sentence seems to presume that corporate meetings are efficient ...

Anonymous said...

At my previous institution, the monthly faculty meeting lasted 2 hours, regardless of the topics being covered. The length of discussion often seemed inversely proportional to the actual importance of the topic. Attendance was spotty, so topics often had to be discussed multiple months in a row. It typically took me another hour or two after a meeting to shake out of torpor and be ready to do something useful.

A couple of years ago I moved to a new place. Here, faculty meetings last 1 hour per month (even thought the department is twice as big), attendance is noted by teh chair, so attendance is high, and each meeting has a clear agenda.

Like FSP, I have often felt that faculty meetings are a huge drain (even though the actual time commitment is tiny over the long run). My basic observation in comparing two institutions is that a little bit of organization in running these meetings goes a long way.

New Asst. Prof. said...

#s 4 and 5 - spot on!

amy said...

Great post! I dislike faculty meetings for some related, and some different, reasons. 1) Men. There are only 2 women in my dept., and the other one rarely shows up to meetings because her husband's in the dept. and she counts on him to keep her informed and to represent her views (gag). When I was hired, there were no women, and I was told during my campus visit that "it would be good to have a woman in the department because meetings would be more civilized." (Double gag). 2. Blowhards. Some people like to talk just to hear themselves talk, and then they suddenly declare the issue "settled" when others haven't had a chance to say anything yet. When we were hiring a couple of years ago, one of the worst windbags in my dept. actually wanted us to make the decision after hearing from only him and one other person. 3. Powerlessness. My uni is on the "head" system rather than the "chair" system, so there are very few issues on which we actually get to vote. Our dept. head makes nearly all decisions. So meetings are basically just sessions where he informs us of what he has decided, or where he solicits opinions that he may or may not pay any attention to in his future decisions. The one advantage of this system is that there are only about 2 meetings per semester, they're fairly short, and nobody's showing off their knowledge of Robert's Rules of Order. Thankfully, I don't have any crazy colleagues, and I don't mind their endless discussions of soccer that much. One of them doesn't wear deodorant, but I sit on the other side of the room!

A Life Long Scholar said...

My solution for your concern #2 (which also helps for other chunks of time otherwise not well spent, such as standing in line or riding public transport) is to keep a hand-project with me at all times. Working on something with ones hands guarantees that something productive comes of the meeting. I tend to do sewing, embroidery, or nalbinding. However, one could work on any sort of easily repetitive task, such as wood-carving, making "chain mail", knitting...

Wanna Be Mother said...

Ha ha ha, love the TSA joke.

You should write a blog about that study on the effect of female profs on female students at the Air force academy. I want to know your impressions.

Space Prof said...

Two words that can make faculty meetings totally worthwhile:

Panera sandwiches.

Unknown said...

I'm about to be late for my own faculty meeting, but I must say you've summed up most of the problems I have with them...

The one thing that always gets me is the delegation - everyone has great ideas but very few actually volunteer to do anything. Which means we spend endless meetings discussing topics - but never doing anything, because that actually might require effort (like printing out emails or remembering their content in a week...)

Sigh. I'd rather be late, but I can't - I actually did something this time around, and I need to make sure it doesn't get tabled in discussion for yet another month.

Anonymous said...

I think you need to try out being the chair. Yup. And, maybe then we'll know if the problem is fixable, or if it's the old problem of herding cats: a deliberative body consisting of people who are "tenured" (i.e. don't *have* to listen to other people or care what they think) is bound to go nowwhere. Note that I'm not saying that they *won't* listen, only that they don't have to.

Steven said...

The sports references/analogies really surprises me. In my department only a handful of the professors (I am just a graduate student, so I have the good fortune of not having to attend faculty meetings) seem to know anything about sports. And being quite involved in the department have never heard sports analogies used at any of the department meetings I have attended.

Anonymous said...

Too funny.

Number 6 on my list is the non-anonymous anonymous vote. You know, where we all vote anonymously on something Very Important, and then go around the room and try to ferret out whoever cast an unpopular vote.

mixlamalice said...

Since I am not a faculty, I don't know about faculty meetings, but I experienced "group meetings" and a lot of kind of "meetings" for a while and in general I dislike (hate) them.

My main reason is that they happen far too frequently for them to be interesting every time. The other point is that they usually last forever, and that past the first hour, nothing productive ever occurs... And the more it lasts, the more improductive it gets (random discussions, meaningless thoughts, dumb questions, dumber answers).

A lot of people don't seem to notice it though. Or they are far better than I am at hiding their lack of interest and their anger.

Kevin said...

We had a faculty retreat yesterday---not just for our department but for the whole engineering school. About 10% of the faculty managed to schedule conferences or talks to avoid it (a trick I've used in the past), but the rest of us were stuck. There was a small amount of useful information (mainly from executive vice chancellor about how the campus was coping with budget cuts and what more was coming), but we wasted half a day trying to "envision what our school would be like in 10 years".
Still, it was a better retreat than under our last permanent dean, who wanted us to work on "mission statements" and "action items" that were promptly discarded and forgotten.

Cloud said...

I, obviously, have never had to suffer through a faculty meeting. I have suffered through plenty of corporate meetings with similar qualities, though.

Anyway- my best ever method for dealing with the sports analogies was to give them a taste of their own medicine- innocently, of course! My husband is an avid rugby fan (he's from a country where rugby borders on religion), and I have learned a lot about the sport. So I teamed up with someone from a country that plays rugby, and we made extensive use of rugby analogies for a couple of meetings. The (American) sports analogies didn't stop, but they became less frequent.

American in Oxbridge said...

As a younger (i.e. not full professor) member of my dept. I'm not allowed to be part of faculty meetings, as only the full professors get a say. I'd put up with all of this and more for the opportunity to participate in our departmental governance!

Anonymous said...

I am an assistant prof and therefore find myself wanting to slam my head into the wall repeatedly during faculty meetings.

However, they are an important essential part of the job. How else would things get done in the department?

EliRabett said...

The anon who said "My basic observation in comparing two institutions is that a little bit of organization in running these meetings goes a long way."

Has it right, the tighter the agenda the better the meeting. It is the job of the chair to cut off discussion and move on when necessary.

AcademicLurker said...

What I find most maddening about faculty meetings is that, in order for the meeting to clock in at 30 minutes instead of 2 hours, all it would take is for someone to occasionally say "OK, let's move on to the next item."

Our old chair would do that, the new chair will just wait until a topic is talked into the ground. Literally, there will have to be a full minute of awkward silence before we move on to the next topic.

Kevin said...

"t is the job of the chair to cut off discussion and move on when necessary."

But if the meetings are painful, it is most likely the chair who is blathering on forever. It is the responsibility of the tenured faculty to tell the chair when to shut up.

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

I've heard the suggestion to hold meetings standing up. That cuts *way* down on the wash-rinse-repeat cycle.

I get so irritated at my colleagues for not being prepared for the meetings, constantly answering their iPhones and having to leave early. Sigh.

Doctor Pion said...

Must be the season for bad meetings, since there have been several articles on the subject in other parts of the blogosphere that span everything from a SLAC (Chad Orzel) to the life of CC Dean (which links to Chad's article), to yours at an R1.

I can't really complain, because my Dean has always pretty much followed the recommendations you see in a Dec 2006 article from Dean Dad on running meetings. Our fall meetings were kept on point.

Two things I think are key are having a printed agenda (tops on Dean Dad's list) and something missing from his list: actually writing out a summary of the announcements and informational items that lead the agenda.

What should go without saying, but does need saying, is that there is no discussion of informational items. Any ideas that grow out of them can only be taken up at the end under Other Business.

The other key is Never ask “what do you think about...?” .

One former colleague had a great idea for dealing with the problem of the Perennial Objector that you mention. His suggestion was that when that person raises his hand, the chair should say "we will record in the minutes Annual Comment Number Eight about Declining Student Quality by Prof X" and then call on someone else.

Ms.PhD said...

1. re: not having time, even for the meetings I expect to enjoy, I always bring something else to do. Just in case. I'm really good at multi-tasking (kind of like your ADD friend you blogged about a while back). If a laptop is too obvious (or disallowed), I print out articles to read or manuscripts to edit. They usually blend in with the agenda for whatever the meeting is about, or the student files, etc. I don't think anybody cares because I keep one eye and ear free and continue to participate. I read when the crazy men go off on a long argument about a sports analogy that is irrelevant to me.

2. re: efficiency or lack thereof, this is almost entirely the fault of your chair. A good meeting is one that moves at a reasonable pace, but everyone gets a chance to say their piece. No more time than absolutely necessary. Crazy people get cut off, politely but firmly, rather than being allowed to ramble on and on repetitively. If you've ever been on a committee with a really good chair, you know what I mean. I was on one with this male professor, he was amazing.

3-5. re: the men, the sports, the insanity.

yes, yes, and yes. although, I think in some cases insanity = dementia, because the men are so old they can't remember what they said already, and everyone just ignores them anyway.

anyway I enjoy these posts. it makes me feel better to know that someone notices that no, having women students is NOT THE SAME AS DIVERSITY.

p.s. I think maybe you should take up knitting, so then you can knit during faculty meetings. It will make the men suspicious, plus you'll have an excuse to carry weapons at all times.

Anonymous said...

Somewhere I read a list of ways to make sure meetings are kept to the essentials. The best tip seemed to be: Everyone stands.

Along the same line, certainly avoiding any type of refreshments, including coffee, would seem to be a good idea.

EliRabett said...

A commenter at Rabett Run notes that she who dies having convened the most meetings wins.

Anonymous said...

This blog on faculty meetings touches my raw nerves. I hate them with passion. You see, I teach in a small "village" university (I'm still surprised that I haven't left even though I planned to stay for only one year and leave... and I have a Harvard degree) and we have the meeting virtually every week. I guess that the Chair is sometimes bored and needs the meeting to find company. Equally, about 80% of my colleagues (and that includes me) appear insane and these constant meetings worsen things. The most productive scholar in the department had only 3 publications last year. Why not, when we start every week with a completely useless meeting. I'll be job-hunting soon. If you're a graduate student and you're reading this, I'll advise you never to apply to a small-town university.