Meetings: Which Ones Do You Go to? What Do You Do When You Are There?

February 27, 2008, 1:04 pm

I got home last night, after a particularly hectic and brutal start to the week that had caused me to sleep very little the night before. But strangely, I was in an excellent mood, in stark contrast to my feelings about my job when I had left the house that morning. Why? Because I had been in a meeting of chairs of departments. Strange, but true. I felt better because I went to a meeting. This is not just because, for the first time in my memory they took attendance at the chairs meeting and I happen to know that there was at least one person who was absent who is always criticizing me for various sins of commission and ommission. Well, let’s see who gets a demerit now, shall we?

Unfortunately, I can’t write about what happened at the meeting, although I doubt any of you would find the story as entertaining and fulfilling as I did while mulling it over later. I tried to tell N, who was happily watching the Lehrer News Hour when I got home at my now customarily late hour. Her expression indicated that my amusing experiences quickly took on the “you hadda’uv been there” quality of insider humor. I desisted and lumbered off to make a drink and whip up some dinner.

But without revealing all, let me explore the lightness of being that returned to me because of this meeting, a meeting which followed a number of difficult institutional blows to the Progress of the Radical that may, or may not, be resolved without reliquishing another pound of flesh. First, I was reminded that our academic administration has a preponderence of gentle, decent people in it right now: it is much easier not to get what you want when you really believe that the people making decisions are trying to be fair. And I get more satisfaction out of what they can give me, even though, like all faculty, I would have liked more, and I would have liked to have had it sooner. But more importantly, I looked around the room, and all these other people who are chairs are also (mostly) gentle, decent people with whom — whatever our differences on any given topic — I have a long history and a lot in common. In other words, I like them. I cannot overemphasize the sense of warmth this gave me about my work.

In addition, at Zenith the administration now serves coffee and cookies at afternoon meetings. My favorites are the oatmeal ones with dried cranberries and white chocolate chips. More of those, please.

We go to many meetings that are not so nice at Zenith. I actually think that one of the difficult jobs as a chair is to strike a balance between having meetings where people can discuss things and keep cohesion as a community (a particularly different task if you mostly run on borrowed faculty as I do) and doing most of your business on e-mail, because it is more immediate and most people don’t want to come to meetings. And in interdisciplinary programs — a striking difference from departments, in my view — although consultation should always be the norm, in fact, most of your faculty would prefer that the chair make most decisions without troubling them. In departments, the slightest change causes that dreaded word — “policy” — to hove into sight, and all of a sudden you have a room full of people playing “Lawyer for a Day.”

There are other meetings that you must call and must go to. And frankly, much as I dislike them, I think faculty should come to meetings when they are asked to. I don’t think, for example, that colleagues should have to be enticed to meetings of the full faculty by life-changing institutional business, nor do I think faculty have any right to be outraged when legislation is passed in their absence.

As my niece Elizabeth once said, You snooze, you lose. I myself think this is axiomatic, but others do not always agree. The argument is often made by those asking for what is, in playground terminology, a “do-over,” that had an action item been on the agenda, they would have known that their very important presence was vital to the outcome. Unproven. But my real problem with this is that habitual no-shows assume that the other items on the agenda, and meetings in general, are normally just horse shit that is not worth their valuable time, which in fact, is not the case. There was a time, after the Unfortunate Events, that I stopped attending all meetings for mental health reasons, but once I started again, I realized that there is a category of information that you get from meetings — and can ask questions about — that you wouldn’t get to engage or learn about in any other way. And if you stop going to meetings, you get very little feel for the personality of administraion, which makes it harder to do business when business arises.

Some meetings are seen as unnecessary because they are merely practical, or skill oriented (as opposed to a useful meeting that would teach me how to read Lacan without my eyeballs rolling into my skull.) I warn against this view because the university is changing so fast that you can become incompetent quickly. Example: I went on sabbatical, and when I came back I had no idea how to enroll students in my classes. And recently there was a history department meeting I almost didn’t attend because the sole purpose was to introduce a new technology. I read the description and thought, This has nothing to do with me. Then I thought, But suppose I need to cut a department meeting down the line? At least I’ll get credit for this one (which leads me to the observation that many of us are still undergraduates in our hearts.) At any rate, it turned out the technology was very useful, I got to ask a few questions, and two weeks later I have already seen ways to use it in my daily work. Tra-la.

But what if this is not the outcome? What if you are worried that this hour lost will just tank your day? Well, if you can’t listen to the whole meeting, bring something to do that doesn’t get in people’s faces. For example, surreptitiously bringing booze in a coffee cup and getting drunk — not unheard of!– is kind of in people’s faces. Grading papers is also a little obvious, as is reading. You don’t want to telegraph contempt to people: just insulate yourself from your anxiety that the meeting is a waste of time. Which it might or might not be, but you won’t know if you don’t go.

Successful solutions to the problem of staying busy in meetings that I have seen: knitting (knitting is actually a form of listening in my book, although keep the clicking down if you can); the New York Times crossword puzzle; translating Chinese poetry; sketching out your next lecture (hint to the untenured eager to make a good impression: this looks like you are taking notes!); passing notes with friends; playing hangman (there is one Zenith administrator who is a killer hangman competitor); discreetly making faces at a friend and seeing who laughs first (really only possible in large meetings); and doing email or reading the newspaper on your Crackberry. When I was in a position in life where I had to go to lots of meetings, I would handicap thoroughbred stakes races. In Board of Trustees Meetings, where they give you a large book with all the topics in advance, you can interleave the Past Performance Sheets, previously downloaded from the internet, into the binder. If you remember to look up every once in a while, you acquire the appearance of someone who is paying very intense attention. I once handicapped the entire Kentucky Derby undercard in an afternoon when my presence was required for a ten minute presentation, but leaving the room afterwards was not an option. />
I am not suggesting that one should go to all meetings, but my response to last night’s meeting makes me think that the risk of becoming isolated, alienated and powerless might increase if you don’t go to meetings. Those who run meetings have a responsibility to make them substantive, but those of us who are called to meetings have an obligation to try to go. That’s our part of creating community. And whatever you have to do to make yourself go — do it.

Just do it quietly.

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