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Advanced faculty wrangling techniques

September 23, 2011, 9:05 am

Getting a group of faculty members together to accomplish something has often been compared to herding cats. I disagree. When I want to get my cats all into one room to do something at the same time, all I have to do is stand in my kitchen, open a can of Friskies, and yell “Num nums!”

Three cats in a neat row.

Cats, neatly lined up. Completely unlike faculty.

Not so with faculty. If you have, say, 20 professor cats, and you would like them all to arrive in the same place at the same time, you can’t just send out a general email to all 20 of them that says “Num nums will be served in the kitchen at 6 pm.” Most professor cats will just delete that email, if they see it at all. Only 2 or 3 professor cats will show up – the ones with the most interest in num nums and the most criticisms to offer. They will spend the whole time coming up with ways to improve the num num experience, and at the end of dinner time they will have come to an agreement that next time, instead of opening a can of shredded salmon flavored cat food, you go out, catch a fresh salmon, clean it and gut it, and serve the fresh raw filets on ice. And at least three of the no-shows will complain that num nums were served without them, why didn’t anyone tell them there would be num nums.

The lack of response is especially confusing because the professor cats are the ones that suggested the num nums in the first place. They like num nums. They wrote the grants that got the funding for the num nums. And you already polled them and picked a num num eating time that worked for everyone.

So next, time, you decide to make it more personal. Instead of a mass email, you send individual handwritten invitations to each professor cat, that read something like this: “Dear Dr. Kitty: As per the schedule that is clearly posted on the kitchen website, num nums will be served tomorrow in the kitchen at 6 pm. I have made sure that both tuna and chicken flavors will be present, as you suggested last time. I hope to see you there.”

This time the results will be a little better. Maybe half of the professor cats will show up in the kitchen within 30 minutes of the announced time. But others will delegate the num nums, and you will receive several emails from grad student and postdoc cats asking questions about the purpose of the num nums and whether there will be turkey flavor. A couple of other professor cats will call your office phone at 6:05 pm – despite the fact that you have made it known that you will be in the kitchen, not your office, at 6:00 pm – asking where the kitchen is and how to get there.

Afterwards, you will have some leftover num nums that absolutely must be fed to all of the professor cats who were not in attendance, even if you have to feed them a couple of days after the deadline. So you individually email each of the professor cats who didn’t show up: “Dear Dr. Kitty, We served num nums yesterday at 6 pm, and you were not present to eat your num nums. Please come to my office by 5 pm today in order to eat your num nums.”

At least two will respond with, “Sorry, I didn’t realize the num nums were for me.”

Four cats eating their num nums in an orderly fashion.

It's easy to herd cats.

Now you start getting smarter. You realize that the only way to get all the professor cats to eat all their num nums is to make it a requirement in order to receive funding for future num nums. You develop a complicated – but user friendly – online tracking system so that you will have data on which professor cats ate their num nums and which did not. Now you will have to send even more emails and meetings with instructions on: when and where num nums are served (even though it is in the same place every day and has been in the same place every day for the last 5 years), how to report one’s consumption of the num nums, the requirements for eating num nums, and the consequences of not cleaning your plate.

Some professor cats will complain that you send too many emails. Other professor cats will complain that you don’t send enough emails.

You will still never get more than 75% of the professor cats in the kitchen at the appointed time, and you will spend a large chunk of your day fielding complaints about the online tracking system and answering questions that never would be asked if the professor cats had simply read the 6 emails carefully explaining the process, or went to the kitchen website and clicked the tab marked “Daily Num Num Schedule.”

No matter what you do, you will still have to run down the street after wayward fluffy tails, waving a can of num nums and feeling like an idiot.

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