In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.
July being July, meetings take on a different tone than they have during the rest of the year.
The biggest change is the attendance. Very few faculty are around, obviously, but even staff and administrators concentrate their vacation weeks around this time. That makes perfect sense; the kids are out of school, there’s less going on at work (and therefore less of an overwhelming pile to confront when you return), and taking significant time in, say, November is pretty much out of the question. Even June is still pretty busy, since the fiscal year closes at the end of June and the first summer session is the busiest.
But for most of July and even early August, attendance at any given meeting is a bit of a crapshoot. Scheduling meetings to get critical mass in place requires a sort of hopscotch.
I’ve noticed that along with the looser dress code and the spottier attendance comes a more freewheeling approach to agendas. The meetings aren’t any shorter, but the agendas are, and the remaining time is filled with digressions that are alternately useful and, well, not. The conversations become more open-ended, which requires a different frame of mind.
The upside is that you can sometimes find the reasons behind the ideas. This is the time of year most likely to lead to the “aha!” moment when a side comment suddenly casts a previous position in a new light. When the discussion doesn’t have to move as promptly from item B to item C, there’s time to ask the “why are we doing this anyway?” questions. There’s real value in that, even if only about half the people who could benefit from it are actually in the room.
It’s also the time of the year when I can finally read all those reports. Good God, the reports. People who haven’t done administrative roles in the era of electronic communication don’t appreciate the sheer volume of reading that has to be done. It’s a very different kind of reading than I did in grad school, or when prepping to teach a class. (For one thing, the acronym count is a lot higher.) In olden times, firing off multiple copies of long, detailed reports required effort and photocopying expense, which at least motivated some level of selectivity. But with email attachments, anyone can send infinite prose to everyone.
Plowing through the attachments is a very specific kind of reading. I still haven’t mastered reading long documents on screens, so I wind up printing out most of them -- go ahead and laugh, Gen Y -- and reading first for action items and financial impact. (In grad school, the question was “what does this work assume?” When teaching, it was either “how can I teach this?” or “what grade should this get?” Now it’s “and you want me to do...what?”) The trick is in doing that without succumbing to a corrosive cynicism.
This kind of reading also has to be interruptible. Even in July, the idea of having a couple of uninterrupted hours to plow through an 80 page report is just otherworldly. When I moved into administration, I had to learn to be interruptible without getting overly crabby or forgetting what I was doing. (It’s still a work in progress...) In July, the uninterrupted chunks are longer, but still finite. So now that 80 page report gets read in three sittings instead of six, which is something.
Come late August, everyone will be back, and we’ll be back in “GET IT DONE NOW” mode. For the next six weeks or so, though, it’ll be nice to be able to take the occasional step back, let some alternatives to the usual suspects have some floor time, and make headway against the email attachments.