“The reason campus disputes are so nasty,” an old saying in academe goes, “is because there is so little at stake.” Or words to that effect.
If you have never experienced this bit of irony, you are fortunate. But it’s amazing sometimes how disputatious we can be when serving on a committee charged with, say, resolving the matter of parking places. Reserved parking on campus can get the territorial juices flowing. Teaching loads and other matters of scheduling can also get testy, but at least there is a relation to the instructional mission of the school with scheduling.
Committees can be boring, pointless, and soul-crushing. But they are absolutely necessary if we have any desire to achieve a semblance of shared governance on campus. One challenge is making each committee meeting as constructive as possible. It’s not easy.
A couple of recent articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education explore the role and scope of academic committees. One, by Peter Monaghan, called “Making Committee Service Count,” discusses common issues found in committee service. Please have a look. One point the writer makes deserves special note—namely that, with the preponderance of classes now taught by adjunct instructors, who are often unable to serve on committees, a greater burden is placed upon full-time teachers. You may find yourself spending much of the day in meetings. This can drive a teacher nuts.
Faculty members want to make sure each meeting has an explicit purpose, but generally understand that committee recommendations may run into trouble, higher up the administrative ladder, especially when financial resources are involved. Along the way, it is important that committee members don’t feel like a speed bump. To repeat, this isn’t easy.
The other article is more light hearted. It’s by Ms. Mentor, also known as Emily Toth, a professor of English at LSU. The piece is called “Ms. Mentor Muses About Academic Meetings,” and contains a number of sage observations.
Large, untamed faculty meetings can bring out the beast in everyone. Nitpickers thrive (“Split infinitive on page 6”). Sycophants glow (“What an elegant synthesis by our brilliant chair”). Professor Van Winkle rambles about the good old days (“Students used to worship Aristotle”). The young are told how lucky they are (“We used Bunsen burners, and one day Professor Archimedes’ hair caught on fire. Haw haw haw!”).
Meetings can chew up your life, eviscerate the blocks of time you need for writing and thinking, and mentor you into oblivion. They can be good if they’re focused, and the best ones can build community. But good meetings are rare.
Most nonacademic decisions can be handled by email — preferably by dictatorial decree. “We shall have new lighting on the first floor” needn’t be discussed by anyone.