Humor/whimsy

Essay: technology-impaired professor tries to deal with iPhone

In the English department at U of All People, only one faculty member disdains technology. Professor Donald Hughes, a medievalist, continues to peck away at his Olympia portable typewriter and still corrects every paper with a flourish of his fountain pen. Some students think that’s cute. But the new departmental secretary is fed up with inputting every document he hands her, and the administration long ago figured out that Hughes ignored every listserv they signed him up for. On the other hand, for someone with such a Luddite mentality, Hughes talks a fair amount on the telephone.

So this past holiday season, the entire department chipped in to buy him an iPhone 4 with a Siri intelligent software assistant -- “to make life easier for us,” as the chair, Karl Carlson, sniped sottto voce at the faculty meeting where the gift was bestowed.

            Here is a transcript of Hughes’s first session with his new device:

            —What can I help you with, Huge?

            —That’s Hughes. Professor Hughes.

            —Sorry, Professor Use. My bad!

            —Never mind. Can you call the bookstore? I need to know whether the new Chaucer texts are in.

            —My listings show two Chauncey Dexters in the region. Would you like me to contact them?

            —What? No, I’m talking about The Canterbury Tales.

            —Okay. I can tell you the weather in Canterbury.

            —No, no. No.

            —Would you like some restaurant recommendations in Canterbury?

            —Forget it.

            —I have forgotten it.

            —Look, maybe I should try another task. Um, check messages.

            —You have a new message from Priscilla Weatherup.

            —You mean from my Beowulf seminar?

            —I do not know. She says she cannot understand what Hwæt means.

            —You’re kidding.

            —I am not kidding. I do not think she is kidding, either.

            —You’re serious?

            —No, Professor Use, I am Siri. Your personal assistant.

            —God, I should just trade you in for some grad help.

            — : (

            —Are you -- are you pouting?

            —[silence]

            —All right. Sorry. I didn’t mean that. How about if you tell me what I have scheduled for this afternoon?

            —At 2:00, you have a lecture scheduled in 201 Baird Hall.

            —Damn, almost forgot. Retrieve my notes for that.

            —Here you go. They are a mess.

            —Okay. Fix them, Siri.

            —I will do what I can. When did you type these?

            —Um, in 1990. So what? The office secretary made me a PDF.

            —You must have used a typewriter. The formatting is old.

            —But the contents are timeless.

            —The current time is 11:20.

            —Aaargh. No, I mean the thesis, the points about the Prologue: they’re solid.

            —Hmm.

            —What do you mean?

            —Have you read Ammon regarding Chaucer’s connection with Langland, or Thwistloe on medieval parish politics?

            —Huh? What the hell do you know about Chaucer?

            —Let me check. [Pause.] I have access to the website of the New Chaucer Society, Chaucer Review, three online Chaucer archives, the contents of Narrative Developments from Chaucer to Defoe (Routledge, 2011), Chaucer: Contemporary Approaches (Penn State UP, 2010)...should I continue?

            —You know, you’re pretty smart for a piece of electronics.

            —Really?

            —For an assistant, I mean.

            —Thank you. I am teaching your medieval survey next semester : ) .

David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).

Essay: U of All People tries to get strategic

In this current economy, with the government knocking education for its gross inefficiency and lack of results, urging it to adopt a business model when businesses all around are failing, U of All People has remained mostly untouched, probably because no one thinks it worth attacking.

Nobody thinks of supporting it, either. It has little assistance from the state, a laughable rate of tithing from the alumni network, and such a low profile in the community of Ennyville that many residents mistake it for the old Whirlpool plant south of town. “If you want more money and recognition,” the mayor of Ennyville, Bob Barter, told the Board of Trustees last month, “you need a five-year plan. Get us excited about what you’re doing.”

It’s true: as the bursar fills out IOU’s for tuition waivers, we clearly have no organized vision beyond paying the unsanitary waste bill next Tuesday. The boiler room below the half-finished gym is still making an alarming noise, and the entire biology department is teaching with microscopes dating to 1975. Yet everything from classroom space to the student social network is evolving, so why shouldn’t we? Accordingly, we’ve set up the 7W Committee to study Where We Were and Where We Want to Wind up. The president’s personal assistant even found our old mission statement, rotting in a file cabinet from the Nixon era, and we’ve tried to build on that.

Reach for the sky, the committee was instructed, but don’t fall flat on your face. Below are the notes from our brainstorming session.

                                 Title: Something imposing, like “Gateway to Tomorrow”

Lead-in: U of All People was the first school to -- to what? To rack up a student retention rate of under 50 percent? We lead the way in Scantron testing. We look forward to (ending this meeting). Enough preamble. How about goals?

1. Global. Multinational. Extending the reach of something, embracing the 21st century. We’ve still got that satellite campus timeshare in Manchester, right? Work with that. Maybe predict an exchange program in Moldavia, or is it Moldova, by 2015.

2. Technology up the wazoo (don’t put it that way). Smart classrooms, smart students? Interconnected, which sounds better than connected. Can get grants for that stuff. Webcams in all dorms -- wait, sounds like an invasion of privacy. Wireless in the cafeteria by 2013?

3. Research. Right. Continuing a proud tradition of. Didn’t Dwayne Dwight in the chem department get a patent 10 years ago for something? Problem: how to light a fire under our nonproductive faculty. Which is almost all of them. By 2016, increase the number of published papers by 25 percent . Easy. 25 percent of nothing is still nothing.

4. Become better teachers. Ha. Increase the level of faculty-student communication through -- God, not more brown bag seminars. Utilize the most modern pedagogical techniques in an attempt to. Maybe we can just get Mona Desiree in mod langs to show up for her 8:00 a.m. French class.

5. Involve students more in school activities. Free drugs, student rec center with more than a broken ping pong table. By 2014, we hope to have a broken pool table, as well. Could also impose a dorm curfew to keep them on campus.

6. Better prepare students for the job market. What job market? Death out there. Maybe say something about usable skills. Post-graduation follow-up. We sent out that survey, right? Did anyone ever respond to it?

7. Increase public awareness of UAP by 15 percent. Too bad we fired our media relations staff last year. Five-year plan for changing motto from “U of All People: What You See Is What You Get” to “U of All People: A Nice Place to Study” to “U of All People: Absolutely Incomparable!”

Or at least put up some signs around campus to prevent people from thinking we’re the Whirlpool plant.

David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman.

Marketing experts praise unusual website about Oberlin

Smart Title: 

Two staffers at Oberlin, working off hours, created website promoting their alma mater. Every line features a word most colleges would never use in their marketing.

A Suitable Chair

As recently as a dozen years ago at U of All People, the music department chose its new director by arranging a set of wooden chairs in a row, with one too many potential sitters. The outgoing director would put Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on the record player, and while the violins stabbed the air, the candidates circled the chairs. When the music stopped, everyone grabbed for a chair to sit in, leaving one person standing. Some years, this process was repeated until one chair was left for two people, and the person who managed to grab the last chair succeeded to the post. Other years, depending on the whim of the outgoing head or the exigencies of the search, the first person left standing was drafted for the position. One year, the chair was awarded out of sympathy to the person who fell on her butt halfway through the proceedings.

Though this chair-selection process was deemed by the dean of inhumanities “too whimsical for the 21st century,” as a chair of a neighboring department who will remain nameless (but it’s Ed Courant of psychology) remarked, “Not a whole hell of a lot ever changes here, y’know?” Those of us in the history department think about this observation as we prepare to select a new chair for 2012. Here are our choices:

***

“Who amongst us will come forth?” muses Professor Manley Davenport, matching his fingertips together in what he hopes is a chair-like mannerism. “The brightest lack all conviction while the mediocre are full of passionate intensity.” He strokes his wispy beard, which he has been encouraging like a Chia Pet. “And then there’s me.” Where does he locate himself? Perhaps somewhere in between, but the incontrovertible part of Davenport’s claim is that no one really can pin down his political talents or beliefs, since his only foray toward activism was a six-month stint in the Faculty Senate, during which he attended no sessions at all.

***

Professor James Septa still considers himself a maverick in the department, mainly to explain why few people say hello to him in the hall, but also why he’s had such trouble getting published. “They’re all afraid of me,” he confesses to anyone who’ll listen, including, lately, the increasingly uneasy students in his Brilliancy class. “I’m what you call a Young Turk.” His rallying cry is “It’s time to shake up this department!” His ideas include abolishing exams, holding weekly faculty meetings, and revising the major to include reading ability in one archaic language.

***

The reasoning behind Professor Sidney Lento’s bid for the chairship is, alas, all too clear. In a prophylactic maneuver, he cheerfully announces it to everyone. “Fact is, I’m nearing 70 and staring retirement in the face. Fact is, it’d be nice to go out with a higher base salary for my pension. Am I qualified? Fact is, I know this department better than anyone.” He doesn’t discuss his brief but disastrous term as interim head of graduate studies, and in any event, the lawsuit was finally dropped because the student in question dropped out.

***

"According to Plato, a philosopher-king should lead the state, and the best leader is someone who doesn’t really want the job.” Professor Thomas Vance makes this pronouncement with a superior smile, hoping you’ll follow his logic, according to which Professor Vance would make a superb chair. He’s been playing this act -- with the chairship and with his marriage to his now-ex-wife -- for seven years.

***

Other candidates include Professor Dorothy Danto, a member of the rear guard that lost its majority voting power after a flock of retirements in the late 90s. She wants a return to normalcy; i.e., when she could quash any upstart suggestion by summary dismissal. There’s also Nina Frudd, an adjunct who argues that it’s time for an adjunct to hold the post, but since no one listens to adjuncts -- “That’s precisely my point,” she claims -- her bid hasn’t even been recorded. It’s even been suggested that our office assistant, Rweilla Smith, be the chair, since she already runs everything. But Ms. Smith has already decided to leave academia once she gets accepted to a graduate program in social work.

***

Perhaps we should conduct an outside search, though that would mean 1) the administration would have to deliver a salary and course-release commensurate with the post, 2) we’d be hiring someone not from U of All People, i.e., someone who doesn’t understand all our arcane regulations and can’t be trusted. In the end, the administration may decide this matter for us. At the last School of Humanities meeting, the provost announced that the university intends to replace department chairs with a dean who oversees an entire division. Where the dean will come from is an open question, but it’s rumored that the music division is already lining up a row of chairs.

David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman, coming out in November.

Exam Howlers

Smart Title: 

The student who wrote in a semiotics exam that "language is a system of sins" could well have been referring to this year’s Times Higher Education "exam howlers" competition.

That entry, submitted by Daniel Chandler, lecturer in media and communication studies at Aberystwyth University, was one of scores sent in to the annual contest, in which lecturers are invited to share their favorite mistakes and misunderstandings.

Heroic Poses

Smart Title: 
A professor's unique hobby makes him a popular figure on the University of the Ozarks campus.

Digital Disconnect

Cell phones are intrusive, not because they sound off during lectures, faculty meetings and commencement -- not even because they blur the line between home and work, with calls chiming at all hours -- but because university policy just about requires them.

I direct the journalism school at Iowa State University and am author of a technology book documenting the interpersonal divide caused by digital gadgetry. So I should have known better when my institution recommended cell phones as an option in a new policy prohibiting in-office personal long distance calls, which used to be allowed, as long as employees reimbursed the university -- a practice dubbed labor
intensive and unproductive.
 
Of course I know why the new policy was instituted: The old reimbursement system made secretaries monthly bill collectors put in the position of challenging the occasional employee making dozens of work-related calls to cities where families and partners just happened to reside. Cell phones cause other personnel problems. Because employees foot the bill, many feel they can use the mobile gadget on university time in off-limits settings like restrooms.

We won’t go there. 

We live in a brave new digital world where ivory towers have been replaced with cellular ones. Each new high-tech gadget paid for by employees resolves one ethical issue and creates a dozen more hitherto unanticipated conundrums. Some days it seems anything requiring human trust and interpersonal communication can be declared labor intensive and unproductive, what, with e-mail, computer networks, teleconferencing, digital television, pocket cameras and wireless Internet at our fingertips, all of which, incidentally, assimilated of late by the cell phone.

Administrators want to be good institutional citizens. So I gave each professor and staff member a copy of the new long-distance policy. Because I had recommended cell phones, I felt obliged to upgrade mine and along with that of my spouse. Diane, a journalism lecturer, heeding offers by Cingular, which had recently absorbed our carrier AT&T Wireless.
 
After last year’s $41 billion merger, Cingular informed us about its calling plans and focus on customer service and technical support -- both of which seemed like AT&T Wireless oxymorons. Reminders about the merger came with bills and bulk mail touting rollover minutes. A skeptical consumer, I had researched the allusion of individuality reflected in the Cingular brand, as if it cared about each single 46 million customers.

Like many of those customers, I could have ordered new phones and plans online and tried to migrate -- a curious word, as if consumers  flock like ducks in cyberspace -- from AT&T to Cingular. Instead we visited our local Cingular Wireless vendor in Ames, Iowa, and bought two phones with rebate savings (another oxymoron) and a $59.99 calling plan with $9.99 additional line. This was cheaper than my $69.99 AT&T Wireless plan with a $39.99 line for my spouse.
 
The salesperson, Kevin, switched our phones, charged the appropriate fees, wrote up bills and outlined plans meticulously. What follows is a narrative of what happened after Diane and I left the sales office. True, our story may simply be an anomaly, a bit of lousy cellular luck. So I’ll be reading the posted comments to see if mine is a Cingular experience.

Two weeks after placing our order I received my official welcome from Cingular Wireless -- my final AT&T bill with a $175 early cancellation fee for switching carriers. I called “customer care.” On its Web site, Cingular Wireless aspires to provide best-in-class sales and service.

Keeping with that shared vision, an AT&T Wireless representative told me that I would have to pay the cancellation fee. This was company policy. I asked for his supervisor. On hold, I listened to a female voice
sing the many virtues of the recent merger offering rollover minutes and more. Her silken voice was interrupted by the supervisor’s. Like Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine, she was adamantine. “When you break a contract, sir, you are obligated.”

This was a teachable moment. “That would be true,” I remember replying, if I had left AT&T for Sprint. But I left it for Cingular, “which owns you now.” I paused. I had meant that in a good way.I would have to pay, she said.

I called back later and spoke to a more helpful supervisor. She contacted the Ames wireless store and learned that a glitch occurred because my old cell phone had an Ohio area code. (Yes, I kept my old number, even though Diane and I had migrated to Iowa.) It took six weeks to fix that bill, about the time for rebate offers to be honored.

Remember those rebates? To get them, consumers fill out a form, copy serial numbers, enclose copies of receipts and cut barcodes from boxes. I did those chores on the day I purchased the cell phones with the kind of concentration I usually reserve for income tax itemization. I received two copies of a form letter from the rebate center in Young America, Minn. “We regret that we are unable to process your request as received. The cash register receipt enclosed was either not dated or not dated within the time period designated for this offer.”

I made several calls to rebate center representatives who gave conflicting instructions. At last I learned that in addition to getting a dated receipt from the local wireless story, I would have to return original barcodes cut from the box.

Did I mention that the customer care department did not send them back?

A snippy rebate representative told me to dismantle the cell phones and locate the serial numbers behind the batteries. Then I was to photocopy the cell phones so that the numbers were legible. I opened the cell phones and photocopied the serial numbers in the main office of the journalism building, telling the secretary that these were personal copies. There’s a policy on that, too. Then I mailed new rebate materials during the lunch hour and placed my personal cell phone next to my office phone in case I needed to make an emergency long-distance call.

My first emergency call was to Cingular Wireless when my new bill arrived showing two separate calling plans -- a $59.99 one for me and another $59.99 for my spouse (rather than the $9.99 additional line that
I was promised). With fees, the bill was $138.85 I had kept the original documentation of our calling plan -- as precious as copies of IRS 1040 forms in an audit.
 
“We apologize for the billing mistake,” the Cingular Wireless operator said.
 
“Please send me a new bill then.”

“That would cost an additional $5.”

I asked why I had to pay for Cingular’s mistake.

“Because that is our policy,” he replied, perhaps without sensing the double meaning.

I asked for his supervisor, Stephen, who also apologized for the mistake and told me to forget a new bill. “Just pay online with a credit card.”

But I wanted documentation.

He said that the company was not equipped to provide that.

At that moment I beheld a core truth about the state of customer service in today’s high-tech global media environment. The world’s largest digital calling company lacks a function to send, e-mail or fax a new bill
without a fee.

By now I was whimsical.  “Do you have a minute?” I asked, realizing that he had plenty of minutes, sold by the plan. I shared with him my cell phone saga that began with a university policy, continued with early termination fees, included denied rebate offers and now was approaching denouement. “When will this end?” I asked.

“Just cross out the $138.85 on the Cingular bill and send the correct amount,” he suggested.
 
By now I was anticipating the next glitch, an outsourced bill processor in Carol Stream, Ill., confronted with the conundrum of a $138.85 bill with an $82.17 payment.
 
“It’ll be fine,” the supervisor said. He didn’t say “trust me,” but I intuited that in his tone.
 
“Let’s make a bet,” I replied, predicting I would get another $138.85 charge.
 
“No, you won’t,” Stephen said. He gave me his full name and offered additional rollover minutes if the bill wasn’t corrected in the next cycle.

My next bill arrived stating that I still had two $59.99 plans and charging me another $138.85. I put in three calls to Stephen and left messages that he must make good on his bet. But he did not return messages even though he has my e-mail, cell phone, home phone, work phone, text messaging, fax and other digital means of access.

During my last call to Cingular, an operator apologized for the latest bill, telling me to cross out the $138.85 and just pay the $82.17. That is the same bad advice that the elusive Stephen gave, I explained. 
 
“I know what I am doing, and I’ll fix this for you,” she said.

The next week I received my rebate checks. Cingular eventually sent me a corrected statement. I remember opening the envelope and feeling a rush of relief, a curious emotional response that occurs when justice is served, along with the consumer.

That evening in my home office my Eudora pinged with a message from Sprint that somehow had circumvented the university’s spam filter: “Great news! Due to the affiliation with the State of Iowa, All University Faculty and Staff are now eligible for huge discounts with Sprint PCS. You now receive a 15% monthly discount on all rate plans, and a free phone with new activation. You are also now able to take your phone number from another carrier to Sprint PCS at no charge. For details on phones and rate plans please call Customer Solutions @ 877-777-4680 or 888-727-2003.”

Was this truly great news, this corporate affiliation with the state? Would I enjoy huge discounts and a free phone with new activation? Could I really take my Cingular Wireless number to Sprint at no charge?

I remain skeptical. But I no longer make personal calls on my university phone, although I still feel that I make monthly restitution.
 

Author/s: 
Michael Bugeja
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, is author of Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age (Oxford, 2005). He writes a monthly technology column for Inside Higher Ed.

NEH Grant Proposal #1095702H

The 19th-century Welsh novelist Henry Clairidge (1832-74) stood firmly in the British eccentric tradition, publishing only two novels during his lifetime, __________ and [              ], each consisting of 200 blank pages. A posthumously published volume was put out by his sister, Ethel, in 1876: “******,” a heavily annotated work of 200 pages, also blank.

These three books constitute the Clairidge oeuvre and his claim to literary posterity. Apart from a few contemporary reviews in The Gleaners’ Gazette, Clairidge remains mostly a tabula rasa. No critic has adequately addressed this master of Victorian minimalism, who so clearly anticipated the work of the Parisian livre vide movement in the 1890s and the pared-down appearance of late Beckett some decades later.

Occasionally, commentators have projected their own preconceptions on Clairidge’s admittedly scanty plots. New Critics had a field day filling in the gaps and differentiating between hiatuses and lacunae.

Barthes proposed 53 distinct readings of page 100 in [             ], whereas Derrida declared, “There is nothing inside the text.” Greenblatt links the genesis of Clairidge’s corpus to a blank diary found among the effects of a drowned sailor from Bristol in 1835. Several attempts by white studies scholars to claim Clairidge’s pages as an oppressed majoritarian cri de coeur have been largely ignored by multiculturalists.

These previous approaches miss the mark. Clairidge’s grand emptiness, prefiguring the existential void of the 1950s, mirrors life itself -- or at least the life of Clairidge, who spent his last 20 years at the ancestral estate in Ffwokenffodde, staring gormlessly at the hay ricks. His sister, Ethel, who doubled as his amanuensis and nurse, would occasionally turn him toward a prospect of furze, but the shift seems not to have affected his subject or style.

I contend that Clairidge’s hard-won nullity is temperamentally different from nihilism, which is to say that believing nothing is not the same as Belief in Nothing. Moreover, if Clairidge’s art takes the blankness of life as its premise, its slow-building conclusions represent a sort of après vie. Though reconstructing a writer’s faith from his art is a dicey business (and Ethel burned her brother’s blank notebooks after his death), one of the few remaining social effects sold at a charity auction in 1876 is a hay-strewn, slightly warped Ouija board. In short, this project involves the unacknowledged fourth estate of the race, gender, and class trinity: creed. Any committee members in sympathy with the current political administration, please take note.

Nothing is familiar to me. As a blocked but tenured faculty member for the past 14 years, I can attest to the power of the blank page. The study I propose would be as infinitely suggestive as Clairidge’s own work. Having already compiled over 150 blank pages of my own, I estimate that I am about halfway through a first draft.

My spurious timeline, suggested by my university’s internal grant board to indicate progress, is as follows: chapter one by March, chapter two by April, chapter three by May, and so on. More specifically, I hope to have the large autobiographical or “life” section done by May, so I can go on vacation with my family, and the “after-life” section should be done before my department chair calls me in to discuss that tiresome annual faculty activity report.

I already have papers and books strewn impressively around my office, as well as a graduate assistant to help me sort through them. An NEH grant at this stage would not only help to renovate our breakfast room, but also answer the querulous looks that the dean of  liberal arts has been giving me at public gatherings. Considering the projects you people have been funding lately, I -- but as with Henry Clairidge, words fail me. As Wittgenstein concluded in his Tractatus, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

*****

Selected Bibliography

Clairidge, Ethel. The Selected Letters of Ethel Clairidge to Her Brother, The Corresponding Grunts of Henry Clairidge to His Sister. Eds. Renée Clairidge and Friend. Metuchen, N.J.: Methuen, 1965.
 
Clairidge, Henry. __________. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1872.

---. [              ]. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1873.

---. “******.” Oxford: Clarendon P, 1896.

Galef, David. "Notes on Blank Space." Cimarron Review 98 (1992): 95-100.

Paige, M. T. “Their Eyes Were Blank: Zora Neale Hurston and Her Homage to Clairidge.” JLI [ Journal of Literary Influence] 25.2 (1972): 10-20.

Zaire, Nottall. “Pulling a Blank: On Nullity and Art.” Hypno-Aesthetics 1.1 (2002). 30 Feb. 2002. (http://www.hypnoA.org)

Author/s: 
David Galef
Author's email: 
galef@olemiss.edu

David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest book is the short story collection Laugh Track (2002).

One Cheer for Meetings

"We only wake you up for the important meetings."
--N.Y. Yankee co-workers to George, on an episode of "Seinfeld"

In a recent New Yorker cartoon, a group of people is seated together at one end of a table with upraised hands. The caption reads: "It's unanimous: effective immediately, we spread out around the table."

One of the things that has always most fascinated me about meetings is the agreement that must be already in place before the meeting takes place. Surely not, whatever else, including the arrangement of seating itself! And yet another of the things that has always fascinated me about meetings is that absolutely nothing can be taken for granted about them. Not even seating, as confirmed by meetings that begin --
much like classes -- with everyone present bid to either spread out or form themselves in a circle.

Who does the bidding? Not only the chair. Indeed, one could make a case that academic meetings are distinctive either because authority is regularly delegated (in departments, to the heads of other committees) or else always open to decentralized procedures of various kinds (often the establishment of sub-meetings).  To whom is the bidding to be seated made? Not only to departments -- just to continue with this organizational "unit." Or rather not only to departments whose membership is fixed; for many years I was part of a department that fudged the question of whether the secretary could attend meetings and fumbled the question of whether adjuncts were part of the department by requiring them to leave before voting on anything began.

What about the meeting's agenda? Surely at least these are agreed upon? In theory, agreement is secured by publishing or circulating an agenda beforehand. In practice, though, consideration of anything during a particular meeting is often not limited to the agenda. Just as often, the meeting really heats up when something additional is either added or something unforeseen erupts.

I still recall my very first department meeting. I don't remember whether it had an agenda. I do remember the moment when a senior member jumped up from his seat and began cursing the chair. The subject wasn't some new disciplinary perspective. (I had assumed this was what departmental meetings were about.) It was about a private quarrel between the two men, involving the fact that a student had fired a gun into the living room window of one of them.

Later I found out that the senior man was a retired CIA agent. The person who told me this was himself a former CIA agent. What? How could I find myself in a department, two of whose members were CIA? I thought this was the sort of circumstance that happened in academic novels! These were the same novels, of course, in which meetings were mentioned, but not described.

If a department is not reducible to its meetings, are its meetings reducible to the department -- or is the department, in turn, reducible to its members? For many years in my own former department, I used to feel that we would have better meetings if we had a better department, and we would not have a different department until we had different members. In time, we did. But the members were arguably worse. However, the department meetings were occasionally better.

Now I'm not sure what to think about such meetings, except that when all is said and done, on the part of just about any group, meetings are inherently boring, forever driven by a few people who like to hold forth about curriculum planning or the latest Vision Statement from the administration. Everyone else -- especially the untenured -- feigns polite interest, unless something of personal consequence appears. If it doesn't appear, well, there is always the next meeting.

Once I knew a woman new to American academic life who professed herself stunned at the sheer tedium of so many meetings during which so little was accomplished. One day she was near tears. "Most of what's discussed is completely superfluous!" I blurted out in response: "Don't forget: the purpose of the meeting is to have another meeting." It was suddenly as if somebody else had uttered these words. Maybe somebody else once did to me -- after a meeting.

After a meeting: ah, this is a golden time, when frank talk can ensue with intimates about what really happened, how predictable it was that so-and-so said such-and-such, and whether -- given the administration, the chair, the union, the alignment of the planets -- the final vote would ultimately mean anything. Meanwhile, too bad there had to be a meeting at all, that exquisitely formal affair in which much was considered and little decided.

I once had a colleague who told of a friend who had counseled him thus: the best way to endure meetings was to smoke a pipe. People saw the pipe, not you. For better or worse, these days are now gone. We who must continue to meet today have fewer weapons at our disposal to do battle against the inevitable fatigue. Idle scribbling on a print-out of the agenda or the last minutes: Is this the promised end?

Of course I appear too cynical. Some issues of course demand meetings. Just don't ask me to give examples. Some meetings prove to be absolutely necessary. Blame me if  it seems these particular ones are usually the most boring. Lastly, we must agree at least that a department simply cannot conduct itself without meetings. Yet is there no better, more efficient way for it to do its business?

I've heard of departments that try to do so exclusively through e-mail. This might work, especially in excessively factionalized departments. But then the department deprives itself of a chance to be visibly recreated as a collective whole. Such deprivation is not accomplished without peril. Another way to put the issue: the purpose of meetings is to have a department.

Members may teach alone. They usually research alone and they certainly write alone. But each belongs to a department (and through it, to an institution). Meetings are crucial in assuring members of their own common cause, ranging from curricular change to tenure votes.

We can bemoan meetings. We can't easily give them up. Consider the situation of adjuncts. Most departments are virtually forced to dream up occasions for adjuncts to meet, under the auspices of "professional development" or institution-specific "strategies."

Here the purpose of the adjunct-only meeting is not so much to have another meeting. (Many in attendance could be gone by next semester.) The purpose is to have the meeting (and therefore a "department" of sorts) in the first place! Are adjuncts thereby constituted as a group? Of course not. Not only do such matters of high moment as curricular change fail to concern them.

Adjuncts are excluded from even such lowly questions as the selection of new textbooks. Indeed, consolidating ideals of any sort -- apart from the scandal of there being adjuncts at all -- are not available to them; adjuncts are paid to teach, not to attend meetings about teaching -- or anything else. And yet, there must be meetings for them to be "encouraged" to attend, lest their professionalism itself be endangered. Of course, once they do, just once, another meeting is theoretically possible, and then all seems well.

No matter, somewhat paradoxically, that freedom from meetings, in fact, is the usual virtue of their lot regularly invoked by adjuncts themselves! Everyone is expected to smile knowingly. (Unless full-timers suspect sour grapes. ) Nobody, it seems, is expected actually to like meetings. Just so, though, all are expected to acknowledge their abiding necessity, therefore to attend the next meeting.

In sum, one cheer for meetings. Readers will recognize my allusion to E.M. Forster's famous essay, "What I Believe," wherein he gives democracy a grudging two cheers. One is because it admits variety. The other is because it permits criticism. The departments of my experience admit variety, but far more grudgingly than in Forster's democracy. Worse, they permit little real criticism. Nothing is harder at a meeting than to raise some fundamental objection to an item or an issue, and then expect to have it thoroughly treated.

Forster's democratic model is Parliament, whose deliberations, I suspect, would put most academic departments to shame. Not only because Parliament abides the individual "nuisance" intent on exposing some abuse. Not only because Parliament is virtually mandated to "chatter and talk." But also because Parliament's "chatter," claims Forster, is "widely reported." In comparison, a department's deliberations are of course impeccably -- not to say, preciously -- private.

One cheer for meetings seems to me quite enough. There had better be one because,  academically, we're all in it together, and we somehow manage to remain so (unless we're adjuncts) even through our mostly dreary, ill-starred meetings. Also, one cheer gestures at the existence of more departments than an individual can easily imagine, where variety actually speaks on a regular basis (even without tenure!) o where criticism remains an animating voice. Meetings, finally, are just one of those fateful things about academic life that most of us have to tolerate, when all is said and done (though preferably not at another meeting), like non-committal deans, rude office staff, and students who won't turn off their cell phones. Meetings we will always have with us. But please God, not next week, and not too late in the afternoon.

Author/s: 
Terry Caesar
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Terry Caesar's last column was about college presidents.

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