Starting Over, Back to Basics

‘Tis the season–back to school!  Even through I worked through the summer, August is that time of year when I fall under the happy spell of the promise of a new year and a fresh start.  The classroom, the office, the lab all seem shinier in the fall than they do at the beginning of a spring term. I recently got a fresh start with something else.  After being sidelined by a stress fracture, I started running again this week.  It is a humbling, sometimes frustrating, experience to return to something I love without the stamina and (relative) speed that I had twelve weeks ago when I had to stop.  But, starting over has also given me the chance to think about and fine tune various parts of my running regimen: my form, speedwork, what kind of an event I want to train for (a half-marathon, perhaps?).  In other words, I’m trying to take advantage of being back at square one.  How might that lesson translate into beginning a new academic year?  What can you do differently or fine tune in this season of fresh starts?

1.  Mapping the campus.  If you’re a department chair or other middle management administrator, chances are you’ve been around the block a few times and you know the lay of the land.  Or do you?  I find that the org chart and personnel at my university are constantly changing.  Suddenly, the office of International Programs no longer reports to Admissions, but instead reports to the Provost; this will change how we handle study abroad.  There’s a new person in charge of graduation applications; this changes my contact for questions about graduation.  Not to mention offices that have moved.  I had no idea Counseling Services was in a different building; now I can refer students to the right location.  You get the idea.

2.  Mapping your day.  After five years of being in the office most days of the week for 6-8 hours each day I have discovered that my powers of concentration evaporate between 1 and 3pm.  So this is NOT a good time for me to do anything detail oriented or to read for class.  It is a good time to finish relatively mindless bits of paperwork, to sort through the ever-increasing number of piles on my desk, and to answer simple email inquiries.  This also means that the hours between 9 and 1 ARE good for reading and writing documents that require focus.  There are some things I can’t change about my workdays: my teaching schedule, regularly scheduled meetings, but I can take the times that are my own and use them as productively as possible.

3.  Breaking bad habits.  As a runner, I am really bad about stretching after a workout.  As a chair, I am really bad about organizing my electronic files.  I use Dropbox and tend to just “throw” files in there, willy-nilly, reasoning that I will go back later and sort them into folders, etc.  This strategy has not served me well.  Time to change it.  Also time to stretch after a run.

4.  Mixing it up.  Look around your workspace, wherever it is.  Could it be organized more effectively?  Would moving a chair or a bookshelf or hanging a bulletin board somewhere else contribute to better work flow?  Or what about changing things just for the sake of change, just to make it look different as a way of signifying a fresh start?  Hang that poster on a different wall, put down a throw rug, buy yourself a new coffee mug.  Do something with your workspace that says this is the beginning of a new academic year.

One Is the Loneliest Number

Earlier this year The Blue Review at Boise State University published a study about the work habits of what it playfully dubbed “Homo academicus.”  The published article that outlined the findings was called “The Long, Lonely Job of Homo academicus.”  “Long” referred to what all academics will recognize as the schedule that never ends–grading on the weekends, writing at night, etc.  The “lonely” attribution, however, was less obvious.

The study found that academics spent the majority of their time (57%) working alone.  Some of this is probably a function of when and where they do their work–in other words, it’s linked to the “long.”  Working nights and weekends means working outside the office, which is more likely to mean working alone.  Some of it, however, I would argue, is a choice.  But I’m not sure it’s always a good one.

Faculty are an unusually autonomous work force.  We talk about “my research,” “my students,” and “my classes.”  In many fields (like mine), single-authored work is the norm.  So I’m not sure “lonely” is the right word.  I think we choose and even treasure our isolation.

But at what cost?  I want to propose two alternatives to working alone.  The first is a modest proposal: what if we created opportunities to work in the same space on similar projects?  I’m thinking here of the model some universities have employed of Dissertation Boot Camps.  They create a structured schedule and space with minimal distractions.  Snacks and writing consultants are often offered as well.  But a key component is “peer motivation and support” (see this description of one offered at Stanford).  I know that many of us have employed writing groups in and since graduate school to move our projects along.  I’m wondering, however, is this model might be brought to bear on other facets of academic life.  What about a syllabus-writing boot camp?  Or grant proposal boot camp?  I think both would benefit from “peer motivation and support.”  But I also like to imagine the conversations that would take place.  Conversations about what types of assignments we use.  What our policy for late assignments is.  How we structure the pace of work during the semester.  How many books we assign and why.

My second proposal follows from the first, but is less modest, yet critical, I believe, to the future of higher education.  Two books I’ve read this summer, Jose Bowen’s Teaching Naked and Robert Zemsky’s Checklist for Change, both argue persuasively that the future of higher education is dependent upon thinking differently about the curriculum and teaching.  We need to break out of a “my classes” mindset and work across the university to design new curricular models and new approaches to pedagogy.  In different ways and to different ends, each contends that we–whether defined as individual faculty or departments–have become too isolated and defensive.  But the old models and structures for higher education need re-evaluation in light of current pressures about accountability and value.  Those conversations are doomed to fail, however, unless we agree to spend less time being “lonely” and more time being collaborative.

Don’t misunderstand.  There will always be a time and a place for the solitary work of the teacher and scholar.  I treasure those times and have often used them to productive ends.  But I also think I need to be more self-reflective about when that model is appropriate and when it isn’t.  Where are the places and moments when we would benefit from thinking less about “my” and more about “our” students, curriculum, and pedagogy?

 

Before It’s Too Late

Goodbye, July.  You were a terrific month.  I didn’t travel, but for me, that’s kind of a break.  The weather was spectacular: warm days and cool nights.  My garden flourished.  I took a few 3-day weekends and read books–some for work, others not.  I cleaned out my front closet.  I drank rosé.

But now your friend, August, lurks around the corner.  August means syllabi.  And returning faculty.  And retreats.  And panicked students.  I always think I’m ready for August and then suddenly it’s Labor Day weekend and I’m already behind.

But not this year!  This year I will not let August get the better of me.  If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I value planning and lists.  So before it’s August 23 and you’re wondering what happened to the first three weeks of the month, take stock and get ready for the semester/term/quarter and academic year that lies in front of you.  Divide and conquer: what will the teaching and service demands on your time be?  Is there anything you really want to accomplish in one of your courses this time?  What’s something tangible you can do to make your thankless work on that committee a bit (or maybe even a lot) more tolerable?  Go back to my post on balance and think about those anticipated and unexpected moments when you might be able to squeeze in some research time.  Prepare for those by making a list NOW of the smaller tasks that you could do when that hour becomes available.

In other words, get ready.  “But,” you say, “I’m organized.  I want summer to last a bit longer.  I don’t want to start making lists yet.”  I can almost guarantee, however, that time will accelerate.  That writing your syllabi will take longer than you thought it would.  That when you get home from that department retreat on August 14 the last thing you will want to do is think about the Committee of Thankless Work.  So do yourself a favor.  Make even just one list now.  Before your mind is racing.  Before your plate is full (or fuller than it already is).  August is a cruel month.  You think it should still be summer, but the pace will quicken and suddenly it will be the first day of classes.

So while your head is still clear look at the expanse of the upcoming term and year and set some goals–big or small.  If they’re big, break them into their smaller components.  And then arm yourself with a couple of lists, plans, strategies–however you want to organize and name them.  And then reward yourself by sitting outside with a cool drink and telling August that you’re ready.

Role-Playing

No, I don’t mean Dungeons and Dragons.  And I also don’t mean some horrible team-building exercise where I play the role of the exasperated faculty member and you play the role of the department chair trying to help me.

What I do mean is a better-informed sense of what goes on in the daily work life of people on my campus and your campus.  What is it like to be the dean?  What is it like to be an adviser?  What is it like to work in student life?  What it is like to be a faculty member who teaches a large survey course?  What, dare I ask it, is it like to be a student at your institution?

In this age of demands for greater accountability and demonstrations of the value of a college education, we have all dug deep into our campus trenches, adopting a defensive posture.  Our constant refrain, regardless of which part of the university we speak from, is that “they” don’t understand.  Don’t understand what it’s like to teach large classes, balance the university budget, tutor poorly prepared students, etc, etc.  We would do well to remember that our enterprise is a common one: at the end of the day, when we are acting on our best intentions, we all want what is best for our students.

But universities are complex institutions.  As faculty our rhetoric rightly highlights the educational mission, and hence the centrality of our role in shaping curriculum and teaching classes.  We  are quick to rail against administrators who don’t get it, who don’t understand what happens in our classrooms, who are out of touch with our students.  Both our rhetoric and our railing may be appropriate, but at the same time, I wonder about two things.

First, to what extent is the educational mission of the university dependent upon those other pieces–and thus the work of non-faculty–falling into place?  About five years ago I had an administrative position that required me to implement a new general education curriculum.  This provided the opportunity to interact and work with a broad cross-section of the university.  I emerged from that experience with a much deeper appreciation of the work that advisers, admissions officers, student life leaders, and others do.  I realized the extent to which what happened in the classrooms of faculty who taught in the general education program was dependent upon the training and hard work of these individuals (It also gave me a ready supply of allies across the campus when I need questions answered and help with solving problems).  Prepared, enthusiastic, well-advised students, who get the occasional chance to blow off steam at events sponsored by student life are the students I want in my classroom.  That doesn’t happen without the dedication of the admissions officer, the adviser, and the student life specialist.

And as a corollary to this, what could we, as faculty, gain from role playing or putting ourselves in the shoes of our campus partners?  Could we better understand what it’s like to advise stressed students about their financial aid?  Or the difficulties of creating a vibrant campus life on a mostly commuter campus?  Or promoting good study habits amidst noisy dorm life?  You get the idea.

By the same token, what if we turned tables on this proposition and also encouraged our partners to sit in on a class or invited them to a department meeting where we discussed the common challenges of helping students with issues of time management?

I’m also going to propose that we move role playing up the food chain of the university.  When was the last time your dean or provost sat in on a class?  Or attended a student life event?  But by the same token, when was the last time that you looked at the university’s budget spreadsheet and sought to understand the how your state (if you’re at a public institution) subsidizes (or doesn’t subsidize) higher education and the pressures that creates?  Or appreciated the shifting demography of graduating high school seniors and the challenges that creates for admissions officers?

My point is simple: we’re in this together.  Rather than cry that no one understands the work we do, we should encourage others to see us in action and then return the favor for our campus partners.

 

The Myth of Balance

Balance.  Elusive and, frankly, mythical.  Consider the following from writer Elizabeth Gilbert, posting on her Facebook page, where she speaks out against what she calls the “subtle tyranny” of the concept of balance: “To say that someone has found the secret to a balanced life is to suggest that they have solved life, and that they now float through their days in a constant state of grace and ease, never suffering stress, ambivalence, confusion, exhaustion, anger, fear, or regret. Which is a wonderful description of nobody, ever.”

But if you’re like me, I suspect you continue to hunt for balance.  For those of us in academe, it’s that mythical balance among teaching, research, and service (never mind, trying to carve out some time for hobbies and exercise!).  Let me propose a different way of framing the problem: rather than searching for the elusive state of balance, instead be on the lookout for openings and opportunities.  One of the advantages of our profession is that it’s never the same day twice.  A meeting may get canceled, a student may miss an advising appointment, and suddenly an hour opens up.  And at least  a couple of times a year a new term/quarter/semester begins and we have the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start again.  All of this requires recognizing that there will rarely–if ever–be an uninterrupted block of several hours when you can Work on the Book or Plan the New Course or Finish the Curriculum Report.  You will need to capitalize on the unexpected hour or anticipate when there will be some brief grading lulls during the semester.

This is what I mean by anticipating or seizing openings and opportunities.  Rather than beat yourself up because you didn’t do something related to your research today, see if there’s an hour or two in the coming week when you could write 250 words or enter some material into your database.  Taking this approach will also necessitate breaking the work into smaller pieces.  You may know what the finished product should be (The Book, The Course, The Report), but work your way back from that endpoint and then break that big project into its constituent parts (I should add that I’ve found this to be a good strategy for battling procrastination, too.  Once a project seems more manageable, I’m more likely to work on it).  That way, when you find that spare hour you have a clear sense of the tasks at hand, and you’re ready to dig in and make some progress.

Balance in all its illusory forms–work-life (a false dichotomy anyway), teaching-research-service–should not be the goal.  Its holy grail-ness will just keep frustrating us and making us feel inadequate.  In the place of balance, we can put planning and preparedness that will allow us to see those pockets of time that lurk within our existing schedules or appear unexpectedly, and make the most of them.

The Fine Art of Delegating

Delegating.  Put it at the top of the list of things I do badly.  After five years of being chair I know this about myself and still haven’t figured out a way to do it better.  So in this period of slowed-down summer timetables, I offer the following reflections on why academic chairs need to delegate and some strategies for how to do it.

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The most obvious reason for delegating is to reduce or at least redistribute your workload.  Even though we all know that we can’t do it all, we consistently behave otherwise.  Call it micromanaging, call it control issues, but whatever you do, call an end to it.  I doubt any of us need more to do.

Another reason to delegate is that your colleagues need to be both cognizant of and invested in the work of the department.  If you do everything, magically and behind the scenes, you risk creating a faculty culture of disengagement where faculty don’t know, for example, the work that goes into identifying and recruiting students for the departmental honor society.  Or the logistics of organizing an event with a visiting speaker.  And what happens when you’re not chair anymore?  There will be a profound lack of institutional knowledge and memory that will make your successor’s job that much more difficult.  Further, as we know from our best classroom practices, the more students participate, the more they are invested in their education.  So, too, with faculty.  Delegating will help to create a participatory and engaged department culture.

Delegating also signals your confidence in your colleagues.  Managing everything yourself may make others think that you don’t trust them with certain responsibilities.  Even if that’s not the case, you don’t want to mistakenly foster that impression.

So, there are clearly benefits to delegating.  But doing it should be purposeful and directed.

To begin with, delegate strategically.  Simply going into a faculty meeting and asking for volunteers to work on various tasks or projects may not always be the best strategy.  You may not get the best people for the job.  Instead, try to match people well–play to the strengths and passions of your faculty.  It’s no good assigning someone with poor organizational skills to a project that will involve managing complicated spreadsheets.  Someone with a talent for chatting and conversation is the one you want to send to the open house for freshmen who are choosing a major.  Such maneuvering can even be a way to get otherwise reluctant faculty to take on projects.  If Dr. X has consistently expressed concerns about the declining number of majors then maybe Dr. X could work on designing an outreach program.

Next, build in some accountability.  Delegating makes me nervous because it means releasing control of a task or project.  I do much better when I release it with expectations like “Report back to me by such and a such a time,” or “Bring me a draft of the document in a week,” or “Please be prepared to make a report at the next faculty meeting.  You get the idea.

Finally, be prepared for delegating to fail sometimes.  Even the most strategic and deliberate delegation with clearly articulated expectations may flop if there is a failure of responsibility and follow through.  And the buck does stop with you, so you will need to pick up the pieces.  Try to figure out what didn’t work in that particular instance and apply it to future decisions.  In all, the benefits of letting go will outweigh those instances where it doesn’t work.

On the Brink of Two Sixes

So today marks the start of my sixth year as department chair (and the end of my fifth month blogging about being a chair).  In those five, relatively short years I’ve weathered an environmental disaster that forced the department to relocate for an entire academic year, one staff resignation, two faculty resignations, severe budget cuts that required finding a way to avoid having a staff member fired, and a massive, rushed curricular overhaul.  And of course I’ve seen the usual slew of grade disputes, student complaints, faculty meltdowns, and broken photocopiers.  Oh, and I got stuck on the elevator once.

And yet I still enjoy my job.  I love that everyday is different from the one before it.  I like that I’m still close enough to faculty, students, and the classroom to be closely connected to the mission of the university.  I also attribute my job satisfaction to several other factors–some the result of good fortune, others the result of deliberate strategies.

To begin with, I work with good people.  I inherited a strong, collegial department.  In the past five years, to name only a few accomplishments, my faculty have published books and articles, served constructively on college and university committees, and taught a writing intensive curriculum in survey courses that enroll as many as 75 students.  This past spring one received a Fulbright and two others were awarded a prestigious humanities grant.  It is my good fortune to lead such a talented group.

Okay, but before you decide I’ve become a complete Pollyanna, I can tell you that everything is not always rosy.  The same faculty that delight me can also sometimes stress me out.  And there is never enough money in my budget.  And sometimes they don’t come to fix the photocopier soon enough.  So I have strategies.  Here are a few of them.

1.  Restraint.  No email checking after 6pm.  No good can come of this.  I’m a department chair, not a brain surgeon.  There are rarely emergencies.  Anything that happens on my email after 6pm can wait until the next morning.

2.  Sweating.  I know that the best cure for the anxiety and stress that this job sometimes involves is to go for a long, sweaty run.  Nothing restores my mental health more quickly.

3.  Blogging.  When I started this blog a few months ago, I did so because I wanted to turn my work as an academic chair to a new constructive purpose.  Thinking and writing about my experiences has been a tool for professional development and expanded my professional networks.  I also hold the hope that it has been useful for others.

4.  Cake.  I’m not kidding.  As a friend’s tumblr account about academic kindnesses recently reminded me, cake makes everything better.  I often bring donuts to the office for no reason.

So as I enter my sixth year as chair and the blog enters its sixth month of existence I will continue to hope for a year that doesn’t include upheaval (knowing full well I won’t get it) and will continue my quest for strategies, perspectives, knowledge, and the occasional donut that will keep this job fresh.

Conversations About Change

An emerging theme in my weekly blog posts is the question of change in higher education.  Most of us would acknowledge the need for change, which would, of course, vary by institution.  Yet we also face several challenges: we may disagree with our upper administrators and other colleagues about the changes needed.  Even if we find common ground, there will inevitably be conflicts about how to make these changes.  And an increasingly hostile mood hangs over these discussions.  Citing the case of a dean at the University of Saskatchewan who was fired for disagreeing publicly with his president, I wondered recently how to have necessary and timely conversations about change in higher education if the threat of being fired and silenced hangs over us.

In response to that post, a couple of readers asked if I would write about overcoming the fear of diving into the conversation and trying to make change at their universities.  Whether because they are junior, worried about making waves, or just not sure where to begin, such fears or trepidations are understandable–but also surmountable.  What follows is a kind of mental checklist that might help initiate the process.

Goals: What do you want to accomplish?  What are your priorities?  In other words, choose your battles.  Many issues in higher ed would benefit from attention/change/a breath of fresh air, but no one can do it all.  What is important to you?  Changing the curriculum for the major?  Modifying student advising? Lobbying for different promotion and tenure guidelines?

Scope: Having identified your goals, make your work manageable and do-able.  Scope is everything.  Chances are changing your department’s tenure and promotion guidelines, for example, is a big task.  How can you break that change into smaller pieces?

Allies: Make common cause with folks who share your concerns.  This can be especially useful for junior faculty who may not be able to give voice to all of their opinions.  At the same time, choose wisely.  The firebrand who speaks passionately about something you care about, but also seems to inspire eye rolls when he/she speaks at faculty meetings, may not be your best bet, especially if you’re not tenured yet.  But chances are there are some sensible people in your department/college/program with whom you can unite.  And don’t hesitate to look beyond your own unit or college.  Universities are trying to do more with less these days.  If you can find interdisciplinary or cross-college allies, your plan may be more appealing.

Leverage: Be in tune with what your relevant professional organizations, accrediting agencies, and other organizations are saying about your area of interest.  The ability to leverage the position of groups like the American Historical Association, National Association of School Psychologists, or National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (to give a few examples) will lend credence to your arguments.  Administrators don’t like to be perceived as out of touch with larger trends.  And for better or worse, there is research that suggests some conversations go better if your audience thinks it’s not your idea.  (See my blog post about this).

Timing: Though the time for making change will never be perfect, be cognizant of other changes and developments occurring in your unit and at your institution.  You may have a great idea about the core curriculum that could garner support but if your institution is already implementing a massive curricular change, you may do better to wait.  On the other hand, being aware of these other changes may convince you that your ideas dovetail with things that are already happening.

Persistence: Academe moves at a snail’s pace (though I think it doesn’t have to move quite as slowly as it does).  I’ve been trying for over a year to get a medical humanities program off the ground at my institution.  Despite the support of faculty colleagues and deans, it is slow going.  So even a decent idea with reasonable support can take time.  So be willing to see your plan through to its conclusion.

Reality check: With all of these factors in mind weigh the pros and cons of starting your change conversation.  What will you need to do and who will you need to work with to get the conversation going?  Will you be able to do this work without too much of a cost to other responsibilities (research, teaching)?

Are you ready to take the plunge and start the conversation?

Breaking News and Making Change

Two stories have dominated the higher ed landscape in the past weeks.  The first was the firing of the Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan.  His firing was not the result of fiscal malfeasance, sexual scandal, or some other egregious impropriety.  No, he publicly disagreed with his president about a strategic reorganization plan for the university.  File:2010 newspaper press France 5125942563.jpgThe second is the recently-reported news that “at the 25 public universities with the highest-paid presidents, both student debt and the use of part-time adjunct faculty grew far faster than at the average state university from 2005 to 2012.”  The report is quick to note that there is not a cause and effect relationship at work here, but does contend that such evidence merits a closer investigation of the allocation of resources.

On the surface, these two items might not seem to have anything to do with each other.  But their juxtaposition in my news feed made me wonder about how campuses manage the common enterprise of higher education and how to bring about change.  The traditional model of higher education in this country is not necessarily broken (as some would contend), but it is certainly under fire and in transition.  The old ways and models don’t necessarily work anymore and need to be modified and even changed.  Questions about cost, value, and delivery abound. The leaders of colleges and universities are being asked to demonstrate the efficacy of  their institutions and shrewd management of increasingly limited resources.  This is a daunting and unenviable task.

Yet like many a beleaguered institution, on many campuses this has not led to an open conversation, but has instead prompted retrenchment, defensiveness, and hasty processes.  Anxious to satisfy critics, accreditors, and to be accountable and deliver results, administrators move quickly (the reorganization plan at Saskatchewan, that Buckingham objected to, for example, had a timetable of less than a year).  Quick fixes–especially if they can be delivered by a new software program–seem to be the coin of the realm.  Take the vexing issue of student retention.  Despite the overwhelming evidence that relationships with full-time faculty are one of the keys to student success and persistence, many campuses have resisted cracking that nut or only nibble at it, because it would involve, among other things, the messy and longer-term work of working closely with faculty and critically examining teaching and co-curricular activities.  (But faculty are obstructionist, you might say.  Guess what?  Their obstructionism is winning if it’s kept you from asking anything of them).  Applying this evidence to the problem would also, of course, require less reliance on part-time faculty.  We are mostly not having these conversations.

In addition, these fast-acting administrative leaders who will brook no disagreement on the path to greater “efficiencies” are also exceedingly well-compensated.  Citing the study noted above, “the median total compensation of the 256 presidents in the survey was $478,896, a 5 percent increase over the previous year.”  There is a profound disconnect here.  The upper administration is profiting at a moment when student debt is rising, tenure-track lines are declining, and the exploitation of adjunct labor is exploding.

I’ll circle back around, then, to the idea of the common enterprise of higher education.  Higher education needs to critically examine itself and make changes.  I’m not obstructionist and I’m willing to sit at that table and do the work.  But we can’t start the work if we can’t have the conversation.  I agree with Timothy Burke who is quoted in the Inside Higher Ed coverage of the Saskatchewan case as saying, “It is ridiculous to demand unquestioning loyalty to all aspects of the decision and to handcuff the judicious, intelligent capacity of managers to critically assess the decision as it is being made.”  Further, the accountability and efficiencies that are the heart’s desire of so many administrators need to start at the top.  The deck is doubly stacked against those of us willing to work for change if our voices are being silenced and our budgets are being starved.

Time Well Spent?, Part I

A recent study of how professors spend their time, “The Long, Lonely Job of Homo academicus,” attracted significant attention.  Many of us were gratified, if not happy, to discover that our colleagues also spend an inordinate amount of time in meetings and squeeze their work in at all hours of the day and night, with no real divide between weekends and weekdays.  Despite research being the coin of the realm, it appears that we all struggle to make time for it, wedging it in around the legitimate, but time-consuming, demands of teaching and service.  The report probably contained very few revelations for members of the academy.  And overall, I suppose, we felt validated in our common misery.

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Overlooked in all the reposting, tweeting, and commenting, however, were the serious questions at the heart of this study about productivity and accountability.  A sympathetic dean at Boise State had helped fund the project  as a result of an interest in understanding “how work habits played into variable outcomes across faculty and departments.”  As someone at a university where individual colleges just went through a tumultuous round of revising workload policies, I am interested, too.  Our work may be long and lonely (though I would challenge the use of the word “lonely”–and will in a future blog post), but what are the consequences of this?

One of the most striking findings of the study is that we spend a lot of time in meetings (ranging from student advising to committee work), approximately 17% of our workweek to be exact.  Much of this work is necessary and some of it, like student advising, is not really negotiable.  And in the short term, the committee/service burden of faculty is unlikely to change radically.  But I do think there are ways to make this work more manageable.

First, how might we be more strategic about the committee work we agree to?  Rather than making decisions based on when we receive the request (have we already agreed to too much?  are we in a bad mood?  do we like the person asking us to serve?), we could prioritize those eventual decisions, in advance, based on any number of factors.  I decided a few years ago, for example, that working on curricular issues was important to me.  So instead of agreeing to serve on committees devoted to budgetary issues, student life, etc., I respond to requests linked to curriculum.  It is also worth considering, before you say “yes,” whether or not this committee will provide the opportunity to change or improve something that you care about.  Holding true to my commitment to curriculum, I landed on a committee evaluating our GenEd program, only to discover that this committee (due to leadership and other issues) was not going to accomplish anything productive.  I have since resigned.

* Moving from individual decisions to broader concerns, how might we change the culture of meetings at our institution?  We all have, I suspect, a horrifying collection of anecdotes about the endless PowerPoint presentation, the meeting that isn’t really a meeting but is an occasion for people to talk at us, or the agenda-less conversation disguised as a meeting.  We can’t always control the format or structure of meetings, but when we can we should insist on a focused use of our limited time.  We need, for example, to start flipping meetings.  Need me to digest the information in the PowerPoint?  Send it to me ahead of time and then we can have a productive conversation about its contents during the scheduled meeting.  Walk into a meeting where an agenda has not been distributed or articulated?  Indicate that you want to this to be a good use of everyone’s time, and ask what the objectives are for your time together.  Insist, whenever possible, that meetings not last longer than 1.5-2 hours.  It is the very rare meeting that produces meaningful results after 2 hours.

Studies like the one cited here may point us in the direction of other ways that the culture of the academy needs to change to allow its members to do their best work and serve their students, research, and institutions well.  But in the short term, it would be time well spent to make strategic decisions about our committee work and to manage our meetings more productively.  I welcome your thoughts and comments on how to do both.