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.

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