The Limits of Autonomy

As workers faculty are an odd bunch.  They tend to be largely autonomous as they go about their workday.  They are required to be on campus to meet certain responsibilities: teaching, attending meetings, holding office hours.  But they don’t punch a clock.  You can call their offices at a particular time between 9 and 5 when you know they are not doing one of the above or related activities, but there is no guarantee–or even expectation–that they will be there.  They arrive on and depart from campus largely on their own timetable.  Theirs are tasks–grading, reading, writing lectures–that can be performed offsite.

Particularly in disciplines where the single-authored book or paper is the norm, they carry this autonomy over into their scholarship.  They perform their research and write in relative isolation.

All of this autonomy, in turn, means that their interactions with other colleagues are random, coincidental.  They’re on campus the same days that certain colleagues teach, but may not see the ones who teach on other days.  You bump into someone in the hall, on the elevator, in the parking deck and that’s where conversations take place.  Our substantive contact takes place in that most dreaded of forums: the meeting.


This autonomy has its benefits and I am not looking to dismantle it.  But I am not sure that this autonomous way of life for faculty is always a good thing.  As I have argued previously it encourages a narrowness of thinking  where faculty talk about “my course” and “my research” and aren’t prodded to think about the larger aims of their department or college.  It elides questions like “where does MY course fit into the larger departmental curricula?”  This autonomous behavior also contributes, in part, to the silo mentality on campus.  Should we be surprised that there isn’t more cross-college collaboration (my university has a generous funding program for this that goes largely untapped) when we simply don’t interact with our colleagues all that much outside of meetings?

(Note: I have painted a deliberately bleak picture of faculty separated from one another [though this *is* mostly what I see on my campus] to make my point and do acknowledge that there are departments/colleges/ universities where this is not the norm.)

Some administrator colleagues at my home institution and elsewhere have taken the stick (as opposed to carrot) approach to this lack of faculty cohesion: insisting that faculty be in their offices a certain number of hours per week, creating course schedules that bring faculty to campus 4 or 5 days a week, etc.  I don’t find much merit in these approaches.  They are interpreted as punitive and if they are intended to promote cohesion and collaboration, I suspect they will fail.  Faculty will simply punch the required clock and then leave campus.  Simply being required to be in your office does not necessarily mean that you will talk to the colleague next door about a new project.

No, instead, as I often am, I am more about the carrot than the stick.  More about quality than quantity.  While the cohesiveness of departments or units will invariably be a function of personalities, other responsibilities outside of work (childcare, for example), and personal preferences, I still maintain that it is important to create spaces and times where departments come together for more than just meetings.  Now, fear not, I’m not proposing (though I used to jokingly threaten my department with this when I was a chair) some scary team building retreat.  I’ve been in academe long enough to know how poorly that would go over.

But I have learned that the common denominator of food and drink can make an enormous difference.  A space to have a cup of coffee and cookie or a space to gather and eat lunch can have small, but remarkable, effects on a work space more generally.  When I was a department chair I instituted a weekly coffee chat (detailed here).  Senior faculty, adjuncts, and tenure-track colleagues would stop by, chat, and move on as their schedules demanded.  But it broke down barriers and encouraged casual conversations that often naturally, and without a meeting agenda guiding it, became discussions about teaching, curriculum, and research.  The kinds of conversations that you can’t artificially manufacture or script but that lead to collaborations and projects

This semester I will put my money where my mouth is and try a variation on this.  I’ve long wanted to bring together faculty from across my home college (Liberal Arts and Social Sciences) to discuss promoting the humanities.  You know how foreign language departments sponsor language tables where students and faculty gather to practice a certain language?  I want to try something similar for faculty where the “language” we are practicing is the humanities.

Past experience has taught me that two things will be important at the outset.  The first is food.  No, seriously.  We will need to meet over food and coffee.  Doing so relaxes people, creates a different atmosphere, and encourages a kind of sociability that a thing called a meeting doesn’t.  The second is the absence of a rigid agenda.  This goes against everything I’ve said previously about meetings.  But I think in this instance, the conversation should be more free-ranging.  It is okay for the meeting to have a purpose: bringing together like-minded colleagues to discuss promoting the humanities on campus.  But for at least the first few gatherings, I think there needs to be space for lower stakes conversations, getting to know one another, and just chatting.

I’ll let you know how it goes.


9 thoughts on “The Limits of Autonomy

  1. What a thoughtful reflection…and spot-on, since I see exactly those dynamics working well at our liberal arts campus (University of Minnesota, Morris). We’re small (c. 1900 students) and that brings many benefits, including regular and stimulating contact with faculty members across all disciplines and offices. Required office hours and forced schedules would only dampen that enthusiasm, as you say: what works here are regular get-togethers with food, collaborative events, and more recently, gift certificates for coffee chats. Amazing what a free cup of coffee can accomplish! I can’t imagine my professional life without the influence of my colleagues in the sciences, language, literature, theater, and so on, and your campus is lucky to have your leadership.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I will echo Jennifer’s remarks about how lucky your campus is to have your leadership. Due to budget cuts, we can no longer have food at the majority of events at my institution. However, many faculty have chipped in and brought drinks or baked goods so as to promote coming together with a bit more enthusiasm for the informal events that would likely not be attended without the draw of a cookie or a cup of coffee.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. we didn’t have $ for the weekly coffee chat I did in the department, either–we were under similar budget constraints. A few bucks from all participants, though–and the occasional good will donation of cookies, kept us in coffee and sugar and snacks for a semester.


  2. Congratulations from someone who has long lauded the value of unstructured conversation that is fortified by nothing more than food, drink, and good will.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The unstructured get-together time sounds like a great idea. I would add that the “autonomy model” only works if the participants accept that the trade-off for autonomy and for setting one’s own schedule is the expectation that the work gets done. I agree with you that requiring faculty members to be in their offices X number of hours per week won’t create faculty cohesion – but a more structured work schedule along those lines may be something to consider *if* faculty members are not adequately performing (e.g. showing up unprepared for classes, not providing input or participation in departmental/program initiatives) under a more self-directed schedule.


  4. Excellent points, Liz! I read “It goes to eleven” last year and instituted weekly “Elevenses” in my dept. of 17 faculty, for much-needed morale improvement. We provide coffee, tea, and a fruit tray and pastry item (scones, bagels, or muffins) from campus catering. Cost is about $60 per week, paid out of gift funds. The key seems to be limiting it to just an hour. Faculty hatched some co-taught special topics courses as electives, along with a couple of research collaborations. I also replaced “provided lunch” at semester end with a potluck. I’m astonished at how much fun this is and how successful; faculty still socializing an hour after lunch ended!


  5. We used to have a room in our building allocated as a staff space – we kept the mail pigeon holes there (with recycling boxes, so people were encouraged to sort their mail there and then and so hang around), a general noticeboard, some old chairs, and had a corner with a counter and sink with a microwave and kettle and water cooler and fridge. Just having a place to make a coffee, rinse a cup, etc., and the fact that most people check for mail most days, increased the chances of the sort of casual, friendly interaction that you’re talking about. We’ve lost it now – inefficient space use – so it takes more planning to meet anyone (the mail boxes are now in a literal locked cupboard, with no space for recycling bins or more than one person, so no-one hangs around, and the water cooler is banished to the far top corner of the building in a space where no-one works or teaches (it’s awaiting refurbishment) so most people don’t even use it, never mind hang around it a bit.

    Meanwhile, my Head of Department is trying to make us set up formal research discussion groups with agendas and scheduled meetings (and no refreshment budget) and gets mad when he encounters resistance or what he considers to be deliberate misinterpretation of his instructions (e.g. several of us who consider our interests to be cross-cutting signed up to multiple groups and he was Not Pleased. Apparently having a social scientist interested in knowledge transfer dynamics in a STEM-problem group, or a STEM person in a historically focused group, is a Bad Thing. Who knew? Amusingly (to me, anyway), the social science person who came to the STEM-problem group and me, the STEM person who went to the other group, are currently writing a grant together… which came about from an idea which was fostered when I dropped in on their office hours to see if they felt the email (sent to both of us) telling us that we had Done It Wrong was inappropriate or if I was over-reacting, and we got the chance to chat…

    All of which is to say, stick to your guns, and good luck with it!


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