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Meeting Expectations

July 16, 2014

Many professors dread meetings, and with good reason. Pushy colleagues, dull presentations and documents filled with “corporate mumbo-jumbo,” as one professor put it, make many department discussions bores at best and ego-fueled brawls at worst.

Two scholars from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, however, are determined to rehabilitate the much-maligned practice. Meetings, they argue, are a good thing.

In Meeting Wise: Making the Most of Collaborative Time for Educators, forthcoming from Harvard Education Press, Kathryn Parker Boudett and Elizabeth A. City write that meetings provide rare opportunities for educators to promote learning – not just for students but also for themselves. Great meetings, the authors say, are like great classrooms. With sound preparation, clear goals and stimulating activities, adult professionals can use formal meetings to learn from one another.

Currently, educators are wasting too much time in poorly run meetings, Boudett and City write. Many meetings, for example, include tasks that don't require collaboration and are better done alone. Restructuring meetings to make them into learning opportunities rather than dead time to be endured boosts an educational organization's effectiveness, the authors argue. And they think they can tell us how to do just that.

Meeting Wise offers a set of guidelines and case studies, with the aim of giving educators practical advice for improving the efficacy of meetings. The text is more than a handbook, however. Boudett and City seek to encourage educators to reconsider how they think about – and approach – the meetings they lead and attend. Educators need not view meetings as annoyances or distractions. Instead, the authors argue, these venues can be rich sources of collaboration and invention.

The book begins with an appeal to imagination that may strike some readers as a foray into fantasy. “Imagine that you are looking forward to every meeting on your calendar for the next week,” Boudett and City write. “When you get to each meeting, you engage deeply with colleagues as you make meaningful progress toward a shared goal. You leave energized and purposeful.”

It sounds optimistic, yes. But try the strategies they outline, and the results might surprise you, the authors said in an interview.

“Professors, like most people, don’t like to waste their time,” Boudett and City said in an email. “But many meetings in higher ed can feel like a waste of time because the purpose is unclear and the process does not support full engagement of everyone in the room.”

Common problems that plague faculty meetings include the lack of an agenda and a small number of voices dominating the discussion, the authors said.

“There seems to be an implicit assumption that smart, thoughtful people know how to collaborate well together, but that’s not true,” they said. “Classes deserve our attention, but so do meetings. If they’re important enough to go to, they’re important enough to make worth the time.”

Boudett and City have composed a checklist offering pointers that educators can use to ensure meetings go well. An effective meeting has a clear set of objectives, and is demonstrably connected to other meetings the group has had and will have. Meeting leaders should incorporate feedback from previous meetings, allocate time to each activity on the agenda, and assign roles such as the facilitator, timekeeper, and note-taker.

Assigning roles is critical for reducing conflict and increasing productivity, they argue.

"Our experience is that people generally can accept when they are not the decision makers, but they do mind when there’s uncertainty or vagueness about who actually is making the decision," Boudett and City said.

Educators can apply similar strategies to in-person meetings and virtual meetings (meetings that take place over Skype or on a conference call). In virtual meetings, participants should use stronger "conversation protocols" to clarify when someone is supposed to talk and when someone is supposed to listen, the authors said.

Philip Nel, an English professor at Kansas State University who blogs about faculty life, estimates that he spends 8 to 10 hours a week in meetings with faculty, administrators and students.

“And I’m not even an administrator,” Nel said.

The English professor’s estimate is fairly fine-tuned. In 2011, he spent a week documenting what he as a professor did all day, exhaustively chronicling his activities on his blog in an attempt “to make visible the (usually invisible) work that academics do,” he wrote.

Nel’s figure of 8 to 10 hours a week accords with the findings of an informal study that John Ziker, chair of Boise State University’s anthropology department, conducted in April. Ziker polled Boise State professors about how they spent their working time. He found that faculty spent 17 percent of their time in meetings, including meetings with students.

Ziker, a department chair, spends at least 20 percent of his time in meetings, he said.

“Scheduling is always a problem,” he said. “It might break up your day so much that you can’t get much done.”

City and Boudett said departments that have too many meetings generally exhibit some symptoms. These signs include “weak attendance, people strolling in late, and people coming because the meeting is scheduled, not because there is a reason to meet.”

Those departments, the authors said, should try for fewer, better meetings – then reassess to see if the group needs to meet more often.

“In our own work, we reduced the number of faculty meetings, but now we’re increasing them again because faculty have articulated some very specific learning goals that they realized they want to pursue together,” Boudett and City said. “We have a hunch that the impetus for the renewed interest in meetings might be that we have gotten better over time in making the meetings feel worthwhile.”

Professors complain about meetings taking too long, or meetings that end with nothing resolved. At the same time, they protest when the administration does not consult them. Nel said that resolving this meetings-related contradiction requires leaders with good judgment.

“You want to be consulted about the really important things, like if your Board of Regents is going to change your social media policy, as has happened at Kansas State University,” the Kansas State professor said. “What you need are the people running the meetings to be able to make those judgment calls about what you need to discuss and what can simply be summarized.”

Most professors don’t loathe meetings qua meetings, Nel said. What’s vexing for faculty are “the minutiae, the arcane regulations, all the corporatization of the university that’s annoying; unreachable aspirational goals that the university has adopted as part of some business plan to attract investors,” the English professor said. “All that stuff’s not really our core mission.”

Meeting Wise is aimed at educators of all stripes. Some advice, however, may leave professors cold. For example, the book advises leaders to energize a room by having everyone sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or engaging in a Rock, Paper, Scissors tournament.

“I have done these sorts of activities for years and only once have some of the participants looked at me like I had three heads,” City said. “Most recently, I led a group in the Hokey Pokey. You just can’t be in a bad mood with the Hokey Pokey.”

In any case, meetings have become a fixture of academic life, and it’s unlikely that will change soon.

“[Faculty] have three obligations: teaching, research, and service,” Nel said. “And service is part of what keeps the institution going. I don’t think it’s fair to say, 'All this committee work takes away from my teaching and research.' ... Someone has to do the committee work, so step up.”

 

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