Little Shop of (Committee) Horrors
“Can’t we all just get along?" No, especially if we’re on the same committee. Maria Shine Stewart takes a lighthearted look at one of academia’s heavier responsibilities.
I could barely believe my eyes when the notice arrived in my inbox, promising an answer to my unuttered prayer. The headline was: “March into April: How to Regroup from Group Work.” It was clarified as Your All-Season Training Package to Surviving Dysfunctional Committee Meetings. Offered via Sighth ® (rhymes with scythe), this well-priced opportunity – with a webinar, unfomercial, and year of follow-up -- could almost pay for itself when compared with the alternative: late-night binges of ice cream and popcorn-chomping out of frustration, and even some therapist bills.
I was smitten with the idea of saving on clothes or travel costs: I could attend in my pajamas as long as I tilted the camera toward my face. For further comfort and to protect my identity, I could wear my wig (don’t ever order one without seeing it), and it squeezes over my hair just fine, especially if I tilt sideways. Lots of tilting and stretching and suppressed sighing are a good way to prepare for any meeting; those critical first steps are kind of like a dress rehearsal.
The more I thought about the egalitarian nature of the Sighth ® program, which promised that “faculty both tethered and off the tether-track will put their heads together to talk about the last taboo in academia: poor committee dynamics (PCD),” the more I suspected I might benefit. Plus, I might sharpen my math skills as the webinar promised to reveal the top five foibles of committee work, the 13 ways to postpone committee work and the 250 things every committee appointee should be sure to do before retiring at the earliest possible moment. Moreover, I learned that research done by those exempted from serving on committees and safely housed in their laboratories with the door bolted has shown that group work may shorten one’s life span in some cases. Or so they reported before a committee terminated the research wing.
But before making a final decision on signing up, I decided that I needed to take stock of what I already knew about committee work.
I. Advance – and advanced -- preparation is important for any meeting. How you feel counts, so dress the part. That sense of power begins at commencement.
The legend is that the formal attire worn at commencement has been carefully preserved through the years as protective garb from the barbs and blows of fate that accompany academic committee work. Wearing hoods and gowns is, contrary to popular belief, not strictly to guarantee full employment for dry cleaners in May. Your academic adviser may have “forgotten” to tell you about the hidden power of commencement attire.
But now that you know, stay at the top of your game while preparing for that next stressful meeting: keep at least one of your gowns freshly pressed and ready to wear. A mace for the mighty – we know who gets to flaunt that at commencement and (if desired) during or after a vote. For the rest of us: a sharp, square hat doubles as a discus to be thrown straight into the open mouth of an opponent (or even to be used as a small tray on which to bring a snack at interminable meetings). The traditional toss in the air is just the beginning. In addition, a gown allows one to stash dozens of notes and resources, as well as the extra weight gained through emotional eating. Finally, a tassel can be moved from side to side as the winds of change shift on any committee discussion worth its salt. And you can always remove it and start swinging it around in a stylish circle, thus reminding your colleagues that time passes, the world turns, and you’ve got somewhere more important to go.
And if meetings make you prepare, I mean perspire … in your loose-fitting commencement garb, it just might feel as if a cool breeze swirls around you at all times. Stand up, stretch, circle around and let it billow. Spinning to the left has been shown to promote creativity in some circles, and vertigo in others. A pity, when all is said and done, that so few (if any) opt to wear commencement garb to committee meetings. I thoroughly advocate this as the first step toward better group dynamics.
Further, More Serious Reading
Christian, D. (2005). 24 Common Sources of Community Conflict. Communities, (128), 25-35;
Eller, J. F. (2004). Effective Group Facilitation in Education: How to Energize Meetings and Manage Difficult Groups. Corwin Press. (e-book);
Grise, M., & Gallupe, R. (1999). Information Overload: Addressing the Productivity Paradox in Face-to-Face Electronic Meetings. Journal of Management Information Systems, 16(3), 157-185;
Mullen, C. A., Bettez, S. C., & Wilson, C. M. (2011). Fostering Community Life and Human Civility in Academic Departments through Covenant Practice. Educational Studies (American Educational Studies Association), 47(3), 280-305;
Olson, G. A. (2010). How to Run a Meeting. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 13 July 2010.
Rakel, B. A. (1996). Committee Meetings. Nursing Management, 27(9), 32F-32G.
Raliff, G. L. (2011). Managing Effective Meetings. Academic Leader, 27(12), 3-4
II. Growth is the name of the game, so observe those adept at serving on committees. Jump-start the process.
My friends too polite to post comments here may be thinking: “But Maria, you have been an adjunct faculty member for the past 18 or 23 years, depending on how we count! You are barred from committee service!” That in no way disqualifies me from expressing an opinion or needing the training package, I counter. I have participated in civic groups and in professional associations, though after this column runs, those invitations may abruptly stop. I have covered countless school board and government meetings. I have even thrown my commencement cap into the ring, volunteering to serve the very limited and occasional adjunct slots on committees open to me, and it has been thrown right back at me.
At one place I worked, I was envious of those who regularly covered administrative and faculty meetings. “How did it go?” I’d ask, with genuine wonder. “All they did was talk, talk, talk,” was my pragmatic boss’s reply, with a roll of the eyes. Another time, I attended a prestigious board meeting. To my shock, most questions discussed by movers and shakers and captains of industry were approached in a circular manner worthy of lots of tassel-spinning and could have been promptly resolved by taking a walk over to the coffee stand and asking some students their opinions.
I’ve observed group work under my own watchful eyes in my own classrooms and have just enough study of personality theories, types and approaches to motivation in my counseling studies to at least have an educated, if not downright skewed, opinion. When I re-entered teaching 20 years ago, I knew I needed a brush-up on groups, so I attended a workshop with some leaders in the field. In one exercise, a facilitator asked us to gather by sibling order (youngests with youngests, middle children with middle children, etc.). It was a conversion experience, and I therefore support full disclosure of sibling order on committees: it affects group dynamics, acknowledged or not.
III. But is the advice worth the price?
Eager to get my last few questions answered, I picked up the phone and called the American Institute of Committee Knowledge (AICK) trainer, Lindsay Snock, to learn more. “PCD, poor committee dynamics, is nothing to be ashamed of,” Snock said. “We help participants air out problems at their institutions and flap into better organizational health. My verb choice is deliberate. Our company symbol is the duck sporting the T-shirt of any college we serve. Our webinar will position clients for success in, on, around, between, and under committees, the last bastion of what-do-academics-do-all-day-anyway.”
Snock also sent me the unfomercial that was broadcast throughout the United States, and which I had missed. Here are highlights, reproduced with permission:
- “The first most important thing to watch out for when you are on a committee is the windbag. We all can agree on who that is, and it is most definitely never oneself. You must stress the importance of stopping the windbag before she/he gets started. A college meeting is not the U.S. Senate. It’s not the House of Parliament. On your committee, you have got serious work to do within a time frame of six to ten years. Our conference on Sighth ® will share the 12 guaranteed ways to pump air out of any windbag.”
- “The second thing to watch for is the person who can’t attend a meeting due to some emergency, often nothing more serious than a lost nose ring or a dog needing to go to the vet because it ate homework. That person ‘phones it in’ … the endless data gathered or the tedious report written. Nope. Speaker phones do not listen to other speaker phones. Tip for committee members: If you’re not here, you forfeit. Or at least get a better phone.”
- “The third thing to watch for is the person who insists she/he ‘needs more coffee’ or ‘takes insulin’ and ducks out of the meeting for extended blocks of time, especially when it’s time to vote. That doubles or even triples the time spent at committee meetings. Only those with no known physical needs are suitable for committees.”
- “The fourth most important thing to watch for is the dangerous person who calls herself/himself ‘anal’ and then tries to take over the committee, insisting that others keep to the agenda. On top of that indignity, this person then books dozens of additional meetings well into the next century, sends follow-up emails 10 to 25 paragraphs long, with endless bullet points. Anal is a word never to be used in public, and anything Anal does should be discreetly avoided."
- “The fifth thing to watch for is the newbie who offers creative (i.e., makes-you-look-bad) ideas. Devices-to-deflate-the-windbag may be used to muzzle the newbie. Just one snarky ‘yadda-yadda-yadda…blah-blah-blah’ will stop this person from disturbing your committee’s entropy, we mean energy, ever again. If that fails, try dead silence."
- “The sixth thing to watch for is the procrastinator. She or he will save critical information for the end of the meeting but really wants top billing. Carry a strong analgesic; double-check the maximum dose. Next time – do cut the meeting short before the procrastinator begins.”
- “The seventh thing to watch for is the person whose sullen silence means she/he is not getting her/his way. Make no mistake. That individual may take revenge in a typical passive-aggressive fashion, usually by undercutting or contradicting viable solutions early in the game in the next round of decision making."
After watching it, I decided that I may not need the whole training package after all. It’s pretty much common sense.
Maria Shine Stewart teaches writing on three campuses and works as a contributing editor/writer for a northeast Ohio business publication. This is part of a column, A Kinder Campus, that explores human relations in the academy. It offers anecdotal and research support for the idea that when we work kinder, we work better. Workplace morale, civility, and collegiality count. Goodwill is free, so stock up and spread it around. Topic suggestions are welcome. Contact email@example.com.
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