Monday, April 15, 2013

And Now for the Group Sing: Department Meeting Early Thirsty

The chair of my previous department had a theory that academics, especially people in our field, just aren't satisfied until they've registered their opinions on a subject, even if their opinions are substantially identical to the already-expressed majority opinion. Everyone, he thought, just wants to be HEARD, and everyone will be happy if he or she has had a chance to weigh in... whether such "contributions" to the "discussion" actually add anything or not. As such, he held that all the real decisions about anything get made in one of the committee meetings. Department meetings, by contrast, were like group therapy: a chance for everyone to be heard, whether or not anyone was listening. He was endlessly patient in giving each member of the faculty an opportunity to express him or her self fully on each and every issue. We weren't always patient with each other, but attendance at dept. meetings was excellent and everyone stuck around the whole time, because, I think, no one could stand to miss a chance to put in two cents.

I used to roll my eyes at his chair-as-therapist stance until I got to my present (and hopefully not long-term) institution. The dept. meetings are infrequent but invariably torturous, as the chair has an agenda, written without input from anyone else, to which the meeting will adhere come hell or high water. Normally I would applaud such focus, and indeed I think it can be used constructively, but the chair mostly uses it to silence questions and criticisms, not to mention the fact that he rarely has a good idea of the things that the rest of us actually think NEED to be discussed. It doesn't help that we are a large, mixed-discipline department and that the faculty belonging to the largest subdivision - which has the lion's share of required classes - cannot be fully convinced that the rest of us actually exist and have our own needs. Everyone already knows I'm in the humanities, so I'll just say that this subdivision's discipline rhymes with "Frenglish."

Q: So, what is the most misery-inducing aspect of your department meetings? Dept. meetings are pretty miserable in general, but what makes YOUR department meetings EXTRA-SPECIALLY miserable?


  1. Thanks to the moderator for editorial clean-up, btw, especially the graphic.

  2. In the department I used to teach in, meetings were generally avoided like the plague and were held only when absolutely necessary. Part of that was the fault of the administrators. The department head was too "busy" grooming himself for promotion and butt-kissing his way up the pecking order. The assistant head, who as supposed to organize such gatherings, was in heavy training for retirement and was such a steady worker, he was nearly motionless. (When I heard that he finally retired, my first thought was: "How can one tell?")

    That being said, most of our meetings were a complete waste of time. Usually, they were held to reinforce whatever the department head wanted to do. Alternate ideas or criticisms (which were rare because we generally knew that it was better to keep our mouths shut) were often entertained but only for the sake of appearances.

    Since the department head usually ran then, usually all we heard was edu-babble and biz-buzz. It sounded impressive to outsiders but it was generally empty rhetoric.

    The head "empowered" us to call meetings when we deemed them necessary, in keeping with the TQM/CQI doctrine that he convinced the institution's senior administration to inflict on all of us. For that purpose, a small white board was hung on the wall and if there was something we felt was necessary to discuss, we'd write it down. Those items would later comprise the next meeting's agenda.

    One day, I got stuck with running it as most of the items were written by me. I ran it like a tight ship and I cut down on the side-chatter, which some people took umbrage to. Two results came of it. One was that the meeting took half the time that it normally would have because I got down to brass tacks.

    However, the second thing was that most of my colleagues were unhappy with it and that was the only time I ever had that job. I couldn't figure out why they would be since nobody liked meetings and wanted to get them over with as quickly as possible. I did that. I guess there's just no satisfying some people.

    1. Shortly after I started grad studies a long time ago, I somehow was appointed grad student representative to the department's faculty meetings (nobody else wanted the job, as I recall). It was quite an eye-opener.

      Those weren't meetings--they were knife fights but without any sharp instruments present. What I saw completely destroyed the illusion I had that professors were cordial and civilized with each other. Some of them were so wild and woolly that I thought that a donnybrook would break out at any time.

  3. At the high school I used to teach at, all of the various art-related disciplines were grouped into one department. We had department meetings about twice a year, and nothing ever useful happened in them besides our time going away. One memorable year, the meetings consisted of all of us touring each others' rooms and listening to the room owner describing their class.

  4. My department is generally split into two camps, and the most passionate adherents in each camp HATE the people in the other camp.

    Me? I try to live at peace with all the world, but pay for it in elevated blood pressure and horrific migraines.

    Today's meeting was especially horrifying. Open warfare. If I am offered early retirement, I will take it in a heartbeat.

  5. I'm kinda the odd one out in my department. We're a Hamster Studies department that's run by an Interpretive Hamster Dance mafia, so although my specialty (Hamster Fur Weaving) is necessary to run a Hamster Studies department, my colleagues don't much care what I think. As a result, little of what goes on in meetings ever pertains to me, and when I do contribute, nobody really cares what I way. Even so, I pretty much have to attend faculty meetings because I'm not yet tenured and my absence would be noted.

  6. We try not to meet too often. Lots of stuff we cover is stuff I don't have any control over, so I just let it all wash over me. I have learned how to pick my battles. And my battles do not include:

    the impact of various administrational decisions
    administrational requests
    accreditation woes
    the necessity to "look sharp" in the face of the latest crisis
    useless news from the useless faculty senate
    when we should schedule the next faculty meeting
    student evaluations
    bullshit about generating data verifying that our students "learn"

    My battles do include:

    new hires
    tenure decisions
    class sizes
    student awards
    Making sure no one fucks with me, because seriously, don't fuck with me

  7. Wylodmayer, until I realised the post was from you and your mixed department was in the humanities not STEM I was wondering if I'd sleep-posted, because this post is exactly what my department is like.

    Not sure whether to be happy to be understood or sad someone else has the same misery...

  8. Our department meetings are often scheduled on Friday afternoons from 3-5. It was especially fun to meet the Friday before spring break! Thanks Chair!

  9. There was a time (over a ten-year period after I got here) when our department meetings were full of passion and actual discussion. We had a new dept head who came from a stronger place and tried to change the local (sleepy) culture. He failed and left, and everybody went back to sleep (other awake people left, too).

    Smarting from the experience, the local old people made sure the next department chairs would be paper-pushers, with no creativity, vision or drive. And they were very successful, so ours is an infrared death: no collective energy at all, though some individuals may still be alive. Department meetings reflect that: their most notable feature is that nothing of consequence is ever discussed. There are votes for tenure and hiring areas, but those are prearranged in smoke-filled rooms and most people vote by absentee ballot.

    The department chair makes trivial announcements. The self-appointed "dean of the faculty", enamored of his own voice, fills the air with his pedantry while we do the inward eye-roll (nobody cares what he says, but challenging him would prolong the misery.) I'm fighting with the chair, so lately I haven't honored his meetings with my presence. Or I go for half an hour if there is entertainment potential, then leave.

  10. Our department meetings usually are blessedly free of tension, and the chair is very good at keeping us focused on the agenda. But we have many more than necessary, and people sometimes present stuff about their own accomplishments or travel or things their kids are doing. I mean, with video and power points!

    We're a mixed bag of subdisciplines, and most of the scheduling, curriculum, and textbook stuff doesn't apply to mine. So my favorite pastime (apart from grading quizzes) is betting with myself about how long it will be before XXXX does YYYY.

    -- before Popular Proffie checks Facebook on the smart phone.
    -- before ADHD Mama says, "Well I just think . . ." and repeats what she's already said twice.
    -- before Knitting Nellie says, in a passive-agressively soft voice, that she had brought this same issue up to the department WITH HANDOUTS the previous year.
    -- before Busy Busy Barbara volunteers her "minions" (students) to do some awful campus event grunt work in our place.
    -- before Prickly Pam says she feels personally insulted by some general statement.
    -- before Easygoing Ernie makes a joke that cuts the crap and brings us back to the real point of the discussion. (Thanks, Ernie!)
    -- before Smartass Sue says, "can we just vote and go home?" (Thanks, Sue!)