Friday, February 09, 2007

Herding Cats

It's currently 8:21 a.m., 17 degrees outside, and I'm sitting in bed with my feline friends typing up the minutes from yesterday's meeting. The title of this post is no insult to my little furry companions; rather, it's a reflection on the job of running a meeting of faculty members, which is further instantiated by the difficulty of trying to sum up the conversation that I had with them. Oy.

Let's see if I can give you a thinly-veiled look at the meeting. First: a snapshot of the group. Eight members, from five departments and an special office, representation from four schools at Ascesis U. As I hand out the agenda, the dean's secretary shows up to take a picture of the motley crew for the website. Outside. In the snow. Everyone gets up, puts coats on, marches out the door, at which point one committee member--Tex--starts "asking" me about his request to teach in the fall, which actually comes out like this "you ARE going to get back to me about teaching." He then segues into a discussion of his teaching evaluations from this past fall, while I try to get the other six faculty members to arrange themselves into some sort of winsome shape for the camera.

We pile back in to the meeting room, having now expended fifteen minutes of a 55 minute meeting period. We have the obligatory five minutes of griping about the room (it's architecturally unsound, we should move, people are made sick here, etc.), before I can turn the conversation to the agenda, at which point I begin burning through the announcements at lightning speed. A committee member who can only be known as HippieWoman stops me at two, to inquire about the spring semester, at which point another committee member, Bossypants, turns to me to discuss how our spring semester offerings will intersect with a new program at Ascesis. Except no one else at the table knows what the crap Bossypants is talking about, so she has to stop and explain it to everyone, and it's confusing if you haven't been sitting in on the last two months of meetings about the new program, so it takes me five minutes to explain the logistics, another five to re-explain it, and then another ten to explain how it is, as HippieWoman says, a good opportunity for us, but also, as Captain Bringdown [**note: this is his OWN name for himself, not mine. And it's not always accurate, but is a bit in this particular case.] says, something we need to be careful with as it goes forward.

That's just the announcements, kids. If you're still following along, we're 35 minutes in, and I haven't even gotten to the first order of business, which needs to be settled ASAP. So, as a committee, we need to determine a procedure for (here's the thinly-veiled part) "buying a pair of shoes" with another department. This is tricky on many levels. Who will get to wear them when? How do we pick the pair of shoes that's best for both of us? Clearly both departments want the most high-end, comfortable, long-lasting shoes we can get, but what happens if we want Manolo Mary Janes and the other department wants Mephisto hiking boots? How will we resolve this?

Talk about opening the gates of Hell. Here are some highlights:
HippieWoman: You tell that other department that we want one shoe all the time! We need to establish our position of power immediately!
Bossypants: I agree. We're buying this pair of shoes together, and thus we need to tell them that we're half owners. When we go to the store, we have to check the soles--I don't care if the other department is focused on the laces. We care about the soles!
Kfluff: Well, actually, I think we care about the laces too, but maybe in a different way.
Bossypants: yes! we care about the laces too! And thus the shoes should give us a part of one of its laces in advance, and that way we can use it to assess the shoes.
Mr. Bossypants: But the shoes ALSO have to have great soles.
Kfluff: It seems to me that we're suggesting a large, multipart shoe assessment process that will stretch over a few months, and will be rather work intensive. There are two models for this: a smaller committee participates in the entire process from start to finish, and all of us trust that committee, or all of us take part in all of it.
HippieWoman: Well, I'm happy to help out at the end.
VeryPregnantColleague: I'm happy to help until I give birth.
CaptainBringdown: In our department, we use a committee or else we'd never agree on anyone.
Bossypants: In our department, everyone sees the shoes! Because we have to be interested in their soles!

There was a time in my career as the director of this ACUN when I really believed that you bring all of the information forward to the committee and let them make a collective decision. That time, my friends, is over. I realize, as I read through the above, that I spend half a week, every week, thinking about these issues and dealing with their consequences. This committee? They spend 55 minutes a month thinking about them, and never see what their work reaps. I will say this, however. Hearing these ideas helps me solidify my own position; so as I sit there and nod and smile and take notes for meeting minutes, I begin to see exactly how I'll proceed. To quote an overused commercial cliche:
Struggling to facilitate a conversation among colleagues=gallons of emotional energy.
Doing what you want in the end? Priceless.

2 Comments:

Blogger Lee said...

I love the shoe analogy! Almost pee'd myself.
I just started as the solo faculty on a hiring committee for a new VP and I found myself amazed at the orderliness the meeting. This is in direct opposition to a recent gathering of faculty which had more orneriness. I now understand the power of an agenda and someone who knows how to wield it.

Thursday, February 15, 2007 8:56:00 PM  
Blogger kfluff said...

Forget wielding an agenda; I'm all for a chair and a whip with this group!

In all seriousness, though, I begin to realize how it's a very particular skill set to run a meeting.

Friday, February 16, 2007 10:43:00 AM  

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