Building a Better Meeting, Part I

So last week I promised a post on building a better meeting.  For this first part I’m going to focus on questions of structure.  In a subsequent post I’ll look more deeply at questions of substance.  And for the record, I in no way have mastered all of these tactics, but I’m working on it!


Let’s start with length.  No meeting should last longer than 1.5 hours and many can be much shorter.  Even if you have a full docket, schedule several shorter meetings.  Even under the most charismatic leadership, after ninety minutes attention wanes, focus wanders, and discussion becomes unproductive.  Bad decisions often get made when everybody is tired and just wants to get.out.of.there.  Now certainly this rule can be bent if you are close to a resolution or have only a minor issue left to address.  And no, at first people won’t enjoy having more, but shorter meetings, but once you demonstrate that these meetings will be focused and productive, you stand a good chance of winning them over to your ways.

Agenda.  Please have one.  I am amazed at the number of people who have told me that one of their meeting pet peeves is the lack of an agenda.  And circulate that agenda in advance so that participants will be prepped and ready to dive in.

Frontload the agenda.  There are various ways to do this.  I realized that in our department meetings we always saved the general announcements for the end.  Which meant that nobody paid attention because everyone was tired by then.  So I moved announcements to the top of the agenda.  Beyond that tweak, put the hefty, need-lots-of-discussion items at the beginning of the meeting.  You want people’s best energies and attention being spent on the most important topics.

Manage the agenda and the time.  Honor people’s time.  There are probably few things more frustrating than sitting in meeting that feels like a waste of your time.  So as convener, you have responsibilities.  Begin by starting the meeting on time.  I’m dazzled–and frustrated–by how many meetings don’t begin on time.  It’s an insult to the people who are punctual.  If the meeting starts at 3pm, it starts at 3pm.

Keep the agenda moving.  While discussion is important and one of the goals of a meeting is for individuals to have a chance to weigh in, you have a responsibility to move things along when they have stalled.  Depending on the circumstances there are various ways to do this.  Call for a vote if you think that further conversation isn’t going to move people in their positions on an issue.  Resolve to do further research or gather more information about an issue that will help the group to make a decision at a future meeting.  Say that discussion will continue for xx more minutes and that then you will move forward (see below for other timekeeping ideas).  If it feels like people are just repeating themselves say that you will open the floor for comments from anyone who hasn’t spoken yet and that otherwise, everyone has had a chance to make their case.  If necessary, formally table a discussion (see discussion of Robert’s Rules below) for a future meeting.

To aid you in the management of time and agenda, indicate a set period of time for each agenda item.  For example: “Revising the major (30 minutes), scheduling office hours (10 minutes), etc.”  This keeps you on a schedule but also sends several important messages to participants: (1) time will be managed so this meeting will be a productive use of their time and (2) certain items will not be belabored.  The time limits do not have to be written in stone.  Clearly, if a lively and productive discussion about revising the major occurs, you can go for 40 instead of 30 minutes.

Robert’s Rules of Order.  While there is always that person who is a bit obsessive about the application of these rules (you know who I’m talking about!), they are an excellent guide, and they provide structure and options when a meeting is turning into a quagmire.  Not all meetings require this much structure, but it probably wouldn’t hurt to agree as a unit that when necessary the Rules can be invoked.

These guidelines can really be boiled down to one bit of advice: use time efficiently and effectively.  The specifics outlined above are just some strategies for making that happen.  In the next installment I’ll explore the content of meetings in more detail and examine how to create a meeting with substance.


Summer. Solstice.

Summer. While acknowledging that everyone at a university continues to work during this season, it is definitely a slower time. A time to take stock and catch our collective breath. Even on a twelve-month administrative calendar, the pace slows. Meetings are bit less frequent. We reflect this shift in various ways. Those who normally wear suits, might embrace a more casual Friday approach to dressing. We get around to taking some of our vacation time.


This slower pace provides an opportunity to assess and plan and strategize for the coming year. This could be big: drafting a plan for restructuring advising in your department. Or it could be small: creating a new schedule for department meetings that better matches teaching schedules.

Solstice (we just celebrated the summer one) literally means the sun standing still.  What if you stood still for just a few moments? Put aside the grading, the report writing, and the to-do list. Sit still. Reflect on the past year. What were your biggest frustrations? What were your greatest accomplishments? If you could make the coming year different, what would that look like? You don’t have to solve all the problems and have all the answers right now, but start taking notes and thinking about it. I find that if I start writing it down, it imposes some order on the thoughts that swirl through my head. It also initiates a brainstorming process. Something about committing those thoughts to paper (virtual or otherwise) allows me to begin transforming nascent, ill-formed ideas into something more concrete and perhaps even achievable.

Tales Told Out of School is going to take a similar opportunity this summer and address some issues and challenges that plague her—and perhaps you—but that are hard to tackle in the midst of the busyness of the regular academic year.

And the first topic, to be addressed in my next post, will be Building a Better Meeting. Stay tuned.

The View from Inside

So earlier this year I posted about the perils and opportunities of holding an interim position.  As I noted there, I decided to be an applicant for the permanent position and I just concluded that interview process (no word yet on whether or not I got it–will update accordingly once the news is in).  So what I’d like to offer now are some reflections on being the internal candidate for a position.

This was the first time I found myself in this position.  It’s important to note that I was a candidate for an administrative spot, and I think there would be some slight differences were it a faculty job, but I’ve tried to offer some general suggestions.


1.  Take nothing for granted.  Make no assumptions.  I have been at this institution for twenty years, and yet I didn’t assume that anyone knew what positions I had held previously, what courses I had taught, or what topics my research covers.  I have been here longer than many current administrators and faculty and so it was important to explain my qualifications to them.  Even colleagues who have been here as long as me do not necessarily know the details or relevance of my experience and skills.  Further, I had to meet with the members of my department.  Even though it had only been eight months since I chaired that same department, I came prepared to discuss my research.  Many of them knew me only as their chair, but this meeting was meant to highlight my scholarly activity.  So I came prepared to outline the significance of my previous work and the contours of my current project.

2.  Be sure you are being treated like the other candidates.  Case in point: my interview schedule included time for me to prepare for my public presentation.  But a room for that prep time was not identified, because the organizers assumed I would simply go back to my campus office.  But of course doing so would not have afforded me any peace and quiet and would have instead exposed me to questions from my staff, a ringing phone, and the temptation to check email.  So I asked the chair of the committee to provide me with a neutral space for that time.  He did and it made a big difference in my preparation.

3.  Resist the temptation to be too familiar.  There will be no escaping the fact that you know some of the people you’ll be interacting with really well.  Certainly, it gives you an advantage and removes some of the nervousness that other candidates will have, but try to avoid letting conversations become too personal or devolve into discussions of your kids’ school, where you board your dog, or the new grocery store that just opened.  You are there to be interviewed and most of the discussion should be focused on that.

4.  Don’t try to do your day job AND interview.  I had one day where I was done with my interview schedule at 3:30.  I considered going back to my office and getting some work done, but thought better of it.  I had already had a busy day and the part I was playing during the two days of my interview was job candidate, not interim director.  So I went home and rested instead.

In all, it is a delicate balancing act to be the internal candidate.  Familiarity with the institution and your colleagues should ease your anxiety, but not detract from your status as candidate.  Your colleagues’ familiarity with you may lead them to unintentionally make assumptions or get too personal, so you need to be your own advocate and ensure that you are taken seriously as a candidate.

Try a Little Tenderness

It’s midterm at my institution.  And maybe it’s exacerbated by an especially rough winter, but everyone seems really frazzled and on edge.  Good will and kind words are in short supply.  So in the interest of a little more campus harmony and a little less friction, may I suggest the following strategies as you interact with your colleagues and your students (and for those of you of a certain generation, enjoy the “Pretty in Pink” reference below)?

* I never cease to be amazed at the power of saying “thank you.”  At this point in the semester, with a few possible exceptions, everyone is working hard.  And you know what?  We all want to be recognized for our efforts.  It will cost you nothing in the long run to thank your assistant when he hands you the report you asked him to prepare, to email and thank the staff person in the registrar’s office for finding that information you needed, or to thank that lovely student who held the door for you when your hands were full.

* Students are stressed.  And yes, that will make them behave badly, but remember: you have the power in this relationship.  If they’re pestering you with emails about what’s going to be on the test or when you’re going to hand back the graded papers, take a deep breath before you respond.  You can still hold your ground on test preparation and your timetable for returning work and insist that they treat you with respect.  But do so in measured tones without rising to the level of their anxiety and frustration; this will go a long way to diffusing any potential conflict.

* By this point in the semester everyone is busy.  Your busy is not special.  Your overwhelmed-ness is not unique.  So stop acting like the rules don’t apply to you or that you should be treated differently when it comes to meeting deadlines and interacting respectfully with your colleagues.

* Please don’t send the exasperated email that you dashed off when you got that infuriating message from your colleague or student.  Go ahead and write it, but don’t send it.  Let it sit for at least twelve hours and revisit it later.

* And when in doubt, breathe, hydrate, and eat an apple.  And hope that the end of the semester comes soon.


Until this year I was a department chair, a position I held for five years.  One of the most important observations that shaped my experience in that role was that I was neither fish nor fowl.  I wasn’t quite administration–I was still expected to teach and engage in research.  And yet, because I had some administrative authority, I wasn’t purely faculty, either.  It was occupying this position of middle management, in fact, that led me to launch this blog.

I’ve crossed somewhat more decisively to the administrative side now, but still feel the tug of faculty loyalties and am quick to give voice to faculty concerns–even if they’re not really mine anymore–in gatherings of upper level administrators.  That said, as I sit in more and more gatherings of administrators, I’ve gained an understanding of–and even appreciation for (gasp!)–some of their perspectives, even when these run counter to the opinion of the faculty.

So, in this installment I offer a few lessons from each side of the aisle in the hopes that some measure of understanding–even it it isn’t equivalent to agreement–will improve relations between faculty and administration where they are strained or in need or repair.  Sometimes we need to put the shoe on the other foot.

Lessons for administrators:

* Most faculty are on a 9-month (or some approximation thereof) contract.  The wisest thing I ever heard said at a conference was that universities should plan on getting most of their important business accomplished between October and April.  Plan accordingly.  And don’t act surprised when faculty balk at administrative decisions made in July.

* Most faculty work hard and play by the rules.  When you create punitive policies that stem from your ire over the faculty member who doesn’t keep office hours or abuses the university’s travel policy or engages in other kinds of egregious behavior you demoralize your chief asset.  Go after the bad actors individually and stop punishing everyone.

Lessons for faculty:

* Faculty governance is holy and should be protected.  But deploy it wisely.  Don’t be an obstructionist for obstruction’s sake.  You discredit this important component of the academic system when you use it as a bludgeon or abuse its purpose.

* An unwillingness to see beyond the narrow confines of “your course,” “your department,” and “your research,” is counter-productive to the larger mission of the university.  You are part of a larger organism.  Of course your teaching and your discipline and your scholarship matter, but you need to acknowledge their place in a larger matrix of decision-making and priority-setting.  Fight the good fight, by all means, but acknowledge, and perhaps even leverage, the role of your course, your department, and your research in the broader work of the institution.

In short, when tensions between faculty and administration sour or hit a rough patch, we get worse at seeing things from the other side.  I’ve argued before for a kind of shadowing as a remedy to this, but failing that, we would be well-served to put the shoe on the other foot occasionally and take these lessons to heart.

Breathe, Hydrate, Eat an Apple

I’m having a crap day.  I can’t log into the university’s idiotic timecard system.  One of the students in the program did something stupid.  There are various little fires in the office that need to be put out.  And I have a sore throat and feel like I’m getting sick.

All of this means I’m finding it hard to focus and get anything accomplished.  And all I really want to do is go home (not an option, I’m here until about 7:30 tonight) and eat an enormous bag of potato chips (that is an option–the snack shop in the student center is open; but it’s not a good option).

So what’s a harried administrator to do?  Hydrate, breathe, and eat an apple.  Seriously.

Red Apple.jpg

Breath is probably the first thing to go when we get stressed.  I don’t mean that you stop breathing, of course.  But I do mean that your breath becomes constricted and tight and maybe even labored.  So take a minute.  Sit still.  Breathe in slowly and deliberately.  Breathe out slowly and deliberately.  Repeat.  Several times.  It may not work the first time.  If I’m really stressed that first attempt at a deep breath is HARD.  But it also demonstrates to me how constricted my breath has become.  Stick with it.  The slower, easier, deeper breath will come.

Now hydrate.  Chances are your day is a marathon, not a sprint.  So you need to fuel it properly.  I am convinced that water makes everything better.  And really, could it really hurt to drink a couple of glasses of water when you’re feeling stressed?

Finally, eat an apple.  Or some other proxy for a healthy diet.  Chances are that bag of potato chips might be satisfying in the short run, but later I’d be beating myself up about bad choices.  And once I’d had the potato chips I’d figure there was no harm in a succession of poor nutritional choices.  But an apple?  That’s healthy.  And easy.  And it makes me look good.  Then I can say to myself, “take that, stressful day!  You tried to bring me down, but I took deep breaths, drank some water, and ate an apple.”

Some days are truly awful and perhaps irredeemable.  And I won’t lie: some days absolutely require potato chips (or something stronger).  And in those cases, indulge a bit, be gentle with yourself, and move on.  But if you can, try to do even just one of these three things.  If you do, I think the day will be at least a little bit better.

Here and Now

For many of us today is a holiday.  And yes, I am using it to run errands, get caught up on laundry, and go for a run.  But I am also trying to use it to pause and reflect as a way of honoring the occasion.

Ours is a world that desperately needs more justice and peace, and less division and hatred.  But these are overwhelming tasks.  I talk a good talk, but often feel like I fail to deliver on anything truly transformational.  But what if I boil it down to the essentials of my chosen vocation, higher education, and my daily work?  It is easy amidst the various crises that plague our profession to lose sight of our purpose.  And don’t get me wrong, the resolution of these crises–the exploitation of contingent faculty and the rising costs of higher education, for example–are at the core of ensuring that this world has more justice and peace, and less division and hatred.  So let’s keep doing that important work, but in the meantime, how do our daily tasks and interactions intersect with these larger aims?

We are here because students have come to us for an education.  That education encompasses everything both in and beyond the classroom while they move across our campuses–both the brick and mortar ones and the virtual ones.  And I know that we are all doing more with less and that class sizes have grown and advising loads have doubled and tripled, and that they upper administration is bloated and doesn’t get it.  But despite all of this, can we carve out moments and gestures that might make a difference?

Not long ago I had to sign about 200 form letters that congratulated students on a significant accomplishment.  In addition to signing my name, I wrote a simple “yay!” on each.  In total it maybe added 5 minutes to the tasks of signing all those letters.  One of the recipients of that letter recently thanked me for doing this.  At the time, I wasn’t sure it would make a difference, but it did for this student.  And that’s the tricky part: you never know what the impact of gestures like that might be.  And so it’s easy–and trust me, I’ve been there and done that–to just not bother.  I often lack the fortitude and the patience to take the time to do the things I’m prescribing here.

And it’s not just the nice stuff.  We can probably all recount stories of the professor or advisor that held us accountable in uncomfortable, but necessary, ways.  So this is not an argument for babying or pandering or being a pushover.  Our students’ education is certainly what we teach them in the classroom, but it is also the accumulation of all those other interactions–the conversation in the classroom door about why they were absent last week, the response to the frantic email that comes the day before a big exam, the advice about what classes to take next semester and why.  All of those scenarios might require stern words and consequences.  But the way we deliver that message–the words, the tone–will matter.

So I will continue to fight the good fight for better pay, lower tuition, smaller classes, and more tenure-track lines.  But I will also strive to remember that one part of achieving those things is  built on the accretion of these smaller, daily moments and how I handle them.

Betwixt and Between

Aside from liking the word “betwixt,” I’ve been wanting to write for some time about the experience of being appointed as an “interim” to a position.  It is an odd place to be.  You are betwixt and between.  Neither fish nor fowl.  I am currently in my second interim position.  The first was a few years ago. I knew at the time of the appointment that it wasn’t a position that I did not intend to apply for the permanent position.

This time it’s different.  The provost appointed me to be interim director of a program earlier this fall.  And I love this job.  And I want to apply for the permanent position.  So, what are some guidelines for and potential pitfalls of being an interim?

First, you need to make the decision I described above.  Is this a job you want to keep?  Will you be applying for the permanent position?  If the answer is “yes,” then here are some things to ponder:

* Your job just became an audition.  Even if no one year knows that you intend to be an applicant, this is the time to be particularly attentive to your interactions with colleagues, your tone in emails, your attendance at events.  These little things will matter once you become an acknowledged candidate and your colleagues are weighing your suitability for the position.

* You already have the job, so clever projects that you initiate and accomplishments that you achieve reflect well on you.  It is tempting, while an interim, to fall into the trap of not wanting to be too bold.  You’re a placeholder and there’s no guarantee you’ll be in the position a year from now.  But if you really want the permanent position, resist the temptation to be cautious.  Take advantage of your insider status–no other applicant will have it–and set some goals for things you want to accomplish that you can then discuss in your letter of application and (fingers crossed) your interview.

Even if you don’t want the permanent position, you have some interesting things to ponder.

Is it possible that holding this interim post is a potential stepping stone to something else that you want?  If it is, what are the things you can do while you are interim that would enhance your application for that other position? Is this a chance to demonstrate your ability to supervise a staff, manage a large budget, initiate curricular innovations, any of which would, in turn, make you a stronger candidate for a different position?

Maybe you are “just” a placeholder, stepping up to fill a post until someone else is hired and afterwards you’ll go back to what you were doing before.  You shouldn’t let this limit you.  And you should avoid the trap of thinking that you are merely a babysitter.  That will only result in boredom for you and low morale for your staff and faculty.  It’s like we tell our students: you’ll be more satisfied and do better work if you’re researching a topic/identifying a project/pursuing an internship that really interests you.  Assess your new, albeit temporary, work environment.  Is there a contribution you could make to the smooth functioning of this office?  Is there a project or initiative housed in this office that you could really sink your teeth into and leave knowing you’d accomplished something constructive?  And nothing is more demoralizing to the people you’re working with than the attitude of someone merely acting as a placeholder.  Find a way to do the job with integrity so that the rest of the office can do the same.

Betwixt and between is an undeniably odd place to be. But there are ways to embrace and own it, regardless of your endpoint. I’ll keep you posted on my own campaign to land the permanent position.

Something/Anything: Momentum

Many of us, I’m guessing, are taking advantage of the combination of some form (however brief) of winter break and the advent of a new year to assess and recommit to various projects.  My dilemma is a perennial and common one: finding adequate time for my own research and writing.  Over the years I have tackled this problem in various ways: writing a certain number of words each day, setting aside a day of the week devoted to these tasks, and, more commonly, bemoaning the fact that I can never make as much headway as I want to (the last one, admittedly, is not really a solution).

Chances are I’ll be writing a similar entry this time next year, but for now, I’m putting my faith in momentum.  I have decided that I will do something/anything related to my current research project every workday (now that I’m “administration” and putting in longer hours on campus, I try to protect my weekends more).  The something/anything can be reading secondary works, taking notes from primary sources, writing actual text, tracking down a source–as long as it contributes to my project, it counts.  This will, I think, be better than a daily writing challenge.  I’ve benefited from that previously, but it measures productivity in only one form: words on a page.  And frankly, that’s not how I work.  I’m always writing a bit, running back to a source, writing some more, being reminded of a secondary source I read a long time ago, writing some more–you get the idea.  This approach will also be better than setting aside a day a week.  Doing that makes it hard to keep my head in the game.  I’m always trying to remind myself where I left off and what I was thinking the last time I sat down to work on things. And it should be obvious why the daily something/anything approach is better than the third option, noted above, of simply bemoaning.

I tend to think of momentum solely in terms of movement or progress forward, but it is also, of course, a force that becomes more powerful with greater mass (hey, I’m a historian, not a physicist!).  So the something/anything approach should also make the project grow, giving it greater heft with each passing day, thereby contributing to its forward movement.  I’ve deliberately not quantified something/anything in terms of time or words.  If I get on a roll and work for 45 minutes, great.  If I get to the end of the day and realize I have to squeeze something in before I go to bed and all I do is order some books from interlibrary loan, so be it.

An implicit part of this plan, then, is to set reasonable, achievable goals.  Because I’m pretty sure that setting myself up for failure would be the opposite of momentum.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

What You Don’t Know

Forewarned is forearmed–or so the saying goes.  And so when I took up my new position I had extensive meetings with the outgoing director.  She walked me through the major responsibilities of the job, highlighted the most pressing current issues and concerns, and discussed the staff that I was about to be working with daily.

Truth be told, it was the last item that interested me the most.  I had previously supervised two people and would now be supervising four.  These two staff people were without controversy or trouble.  I was nervous about working with people I had never worked with before and apprehensive about working with an even (modestly) larger staff.  So I welcomed any insights and advice she had to offer about these four people.

I quickly regretted my eagerness and wondered if sometimes it wasn’t better to not know things.  Let me explain.

My colleague told me many things about the staff I was about to supervise.  Problems with tardiness and a reluctance to do certain things.  Long-standing interpersonal friction between staff members.  And so I steeled myself–ready to stamp out bad behavior and unwilling to brook personality conflicts within the office.

And then a funny thing happened.  I saw little or no evidence of the problems she had described.  There were a few tiny bumps in the road, but overall, the office ran smoothly.  At first I credited a kind of honeymoon period, with the staff trying to be on their best behavior.  But now, ten weeks in, I think it’s something else.

I think my ten-week experience is the result of a difference in management styles.  I respect my predecessor in this position, but she managed the staff differently and I think some of her management style contributed to the problems and conflict.  More importantly for me, is that I discovered I had a management style that worked (more on this in a future post).  Having only ever managed one office before, I felt largely untested.  But it turns out that clear expectations, communicated with a light touch have gone a long way to minimizing trouble.  Early on, I did stumble.  But this was because I was expecting the worst from the staff, based on my predecessor’s comments.  Hence, the title of this blog post.  I might have been better off not knowing these things about the staff.

But in truth I’m not actually saying that I would have done things differently.  Part of my orientation to my new position needed to include information about the staff.  However, the lessons I have learned are to consider the source and to have faith in my own management skills.  And I’m not saying there won’t be problems in the future and that my leadership won’t be tested.  But going forward I will manage the information I receive about my staff carefully, withholding judgement and resisting the temptation to make too many assumptions, and worse yet, decisions, based on that information.