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Rules of the Game

Rules of the Game
May 20, 2011

In the first episode of the third season of David Simon’s brilliant Baltimore cop drama "The Wire," the second-in-command of a drug gang, a character named Stringer Bell, begins to run his heroin dealing gang's meetings according to the rules of parliamentary procedure. The first meeting ends when Bell tells his lieutenants and soldiers to "adjourn your asses." You'll probably never work for a dean who ends meetings that way. But when you do land that first tenure-track appointment, and attend your first meeting of the entire college’s faculty, your dean probably will be running the meeting according to the rules of parliamentary procedure, or some close approximation of it.

Parliamentary procedure sets out standardized rules for running meetings, setting forth codified protocols for how to conduct debates and undertake votes with fairness and civility. You should learn it, and learn it well. Unfortunately, graduate students are very rarely taught the rules of parliamentary procedure. Not learning parliamentary procedure, however, can mean finding oneself lost in meetings, embarrassing oneself in front of new colleagues, or worse, offending a fellow faculty member (or a whole contingent of them).

Essentially, learning parliamentary procedure is a relatively easy way to increase your own professional ethos with relatively little effort. One way to learn parliamentary procedure is to volunteer to serve on committees that are open to graduate students in your department. There are a host of benefits to serving on such committees, which will help to professionalize you in ways far beyond simply learning the ins and outs of parliamentary procedure, as well as perhaps adding a modest line to your CV.

If the option to serve on departmental committees or subcommittees isn’t available to you as a graduate student, and it often isn’t, or if you’ve already left the graduate student ranks, parliamentary procedure can be learned quickly from cheap, widely available guide books. Just as the characters in "The Wire" refer to it, the standard text for learning parliamentary procedure is Robert’s Rules of Order. Stringer Bell's lieutenants are referencing the full unabridged text, but you can probably get by with the In Brief version, which only costs about seven bucks. Plenty of other guides are available as well, and you can probably find a guide for even cheaper in your local used book store.

A working knowledge of parliamentary procedure is both easy to obtain and critical to full participation in departmental, college, and university decision-making. A savvy quorum call can prevent a vote on a controversial measure, or a shrewd call to question, if ratified, can end debate and force a vote. And when you’re a new faculty member, don’t you be the one to make the savvy quorum call or shrewd call to question. You probably don’t want to be noticed by your dean in that way. Similarly, within your own department you’ll need to carefully gauge when you can appropriately wield all of the rhetorical moves made available by parliamentary procedure.

Realistically, the full scope of activism enabled by a thorough knowledge of parliamentary procedure may not be available to you until after tenure, politically speaking. Using the protocols of parliamentary procedure to promote your own contingent’s agenda isn’t Machiavellian, but it could easily be perceived that way, a perception that might hurt your career. But even if you aren’t making that vote-vexing quorum call during your first years as a member of the faculty, you’ll want to know parliamentary procedure simply so that you know what’s going on around you, and you’ll want to be able to offer help to your senior colleagues in the department.

I'm a firm believer that graduate programs in all disciplines should offer classes in professionalization, covering topics such as parliamentary procedure. Too often the critical skills of professionalization, which can and should be taught, are left to the whims of mentorship, with great results for some graduate students and tragic results for others. Professionalization courses could cover all of the assorted minutiae that, while individually small, are in sum fundamental to life and success in the academy. Unfortunately, a variety of institutional pressures make such classes rare. In exceptional cases graduate programs do offer, or even require, such courses. More commonly, but still not commonly enough, many graduate programs offer occasional professionalization seminars. Yet, I have never seen nor heard of a seminar covering the basics of parliamentary procedure, which means that you’re probably going to have to teach yourself.

In my own department, which numbers around 30 faculty members, we rarely follow parliamentary procedure, reserving its formalities for only the most important or controversial discussions and votes, which are infrequent. When you land that first job, you likely won’t have much of a sense for your own department’s culture regarding such procedures until you show up for your first meeting.

Because larger groups of people present more opportunities for chaos to ensue, larger departments are more likely to follow rules of parliamentary procedure more strictly and more consistently than smaller departments. For example, when I attend meetings of my entire college’s faculty, parliamentary procedure is essential to the functioning of these much larger and often higher-stakes meetings. Large professional organizations (such as the Modern Language Association) follow parliamentary procedure, and sometimes an important resolution or motion is scuttled unintentionally when a delegate uniformed about the protocols of parliamentary procedure makes a misstep. Sometimes even a small departmental committee will at least loosely follow parliamentary procedure, as was the case when I served on a curriculum committee during my own Ph.D. program.

Clearly, learning the rules of parliamentary procedure is not nearly as important as finishing your dissertation or polishing your job materials, but learning the fundamentals, which can be achieved quickly, can help you to project professionalism and competence to your new colleagues, and help you to avoid a damning faux pas.

As a disclaimer, I should point out that learning parliamentary procedure can help you to navigate the rules of the game when it comes to important academic meetings, but it won't teach you squat about how to navigate departmental or university politics. You'll have to figure those ins and outs the hard way, by asking quiet questions, observing, and lots of listening. There is no formula. I’m lucky to work in a collegial department, where departmental politics are negotiated with incredible civility. Not all departments are so civil. But a quick read through a guide to parliamentary procedure and a little careful observation can at least prevent you from showing up to your first departmental meeting, making a memorable blunder, and having your department’s Stringer Bell turn on you and tell you to adjourn your ass.

 

 

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