Don't Be Afraid of Committees
People often ask me why I serve on so many committees. I usually tell them a story about my grandfather. When I was a young child, I often saw him in a T-shirt that read, “Don’t ask me, I’m not on a committee.” Beneath this motto was a trail of enigmatic paw prints. To my young eyes, the paw prints seemed to indicate a level of playfulness and mischief, but also perhaps an element of dehumanization. Even before I knew what a committee was, I made up my mind that I wouldn’t make the same mistake. I would be on a committee.
For most of my life, this thought remained dormant. All that changed, however, when I finished my M.A. at Chicago Theological Seminary, having submitted a translation and commentary on an essay Derrida added to the French edition of The Gift of Death, and made the decision to stay for my Ph.D. as well. Perhaps unexpectedly, given the connotations that a “seminary” calls to mind, my motive in staying there was the intellectual freedom provided by the interdisciplinary Ph.D. program, which would allow me to pursue my interest in contemporary continental philosophy and to seek out resources in the Christian tradition that would resonate with the interest in St. Paul shown by Badiou, Agamben, and others. (My interest has since shifted somewhat, but of course that is one of the benefits of intellectual freedom.)
Having made a significant commitment to the institution, I decided that I would become more involved. The easiest way to do that seemed to be to volunteer as a student representative to Academic Council. I was one of several student representatives, and though there was a place on the agenda for us to bring up matters of student concern, we most often had very little to contribute. I attended very faithfully, though, as a way of getting a feel for how faculty self-governance works in an independent seminary.
The following fall I signed up for a second term on Academic Council. Starting the previous spring and continuing into the fall, there was considerable controversy at the seminary about the decision to convert student housing into a commercial rental property, and I worked with some of my fellow students to attempt to put together an “open letter” from the student representatives to the Academic Council and the leaders of student groups to the Board of Trustees, expressing our concern about the situation. Due to my involvement, the dean named me as one of two student representatives to Academic and Student Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees.
My service on Academic Council also made me eligible to serve on the search committee for an open faculty position in New Testament. That same year, I began a two-year term as the seminary’s student liaison to the American Academy of Religion, which required submitting various reports and -- of course -- serving on a committee at the national meeting, which that year largely served as an opportunity for us to ask a high-ranking administrator in the academy questions about the organization and its future.
As I reflect on the events of the last year, then, one thing seems pretty obvious: I’ve served on a lot of committees. Now that I am making the transition toward my comprehensive exams and dissertation, I am planning on retiring from student leadership (with the exception of serving the remainder of my term as student liaison), and this seems like an appropriate time to reflect on what I’ve done in the course of serving on these committees. First, I’ve become acquainted with some of the routine tasks of faculty self-governance and with the role of the board of trustees. I couldn’t have chosen a better time to be involved -- the seminary was in the process of adopting a new strategic plan and going through its periodic re-accreditation. I’ve also served my primary professional organization at the national level and seen a faculty search from the inside. The search committee in particular was truly a great opportunity for me. I got to look through applicants’ files, giving me a chance to see what kinds of qualifications applicants for a competitive position generally have, to assess what seemed to be effective cover letters, and to see what kinds of things recommenders say. Beyond that, I was able to sit in on a few informal interviews with our most promising candidates at the national meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature.
All of this was very valuable experience, and although it sounds like a lot of work, it really wasn’t. Much of the actual decision-making, for both the faculty and the board, took place in the closed executive sessions. Thus the responsibilities of students, and so also the expectations of outside preparation work, were limited: Our primary role was to allow student voices to be involved in the conversation. Even at the peak of my involvement, I was averaging under two hours a week, and most of the time it was considerably less. Since I was in my coursework stage, I was normally on campus anyway on the days when the committees met.
Several of my fellow student representatives complained that Academic Council seemed to be a waste of time because we never “did” anything, but I came to view it as a kind of informal apprenticeship, somewhat similar to the two teaching assistantships that I held that same year. Unlike at some institutions, where the TA is expected basically to teach the entire class, I served as a true assistant, taking care of grading and other clerical tasks and also attending all the class sessions. At first, I viewed the class sessions as a boring ordeal, but gradually my perspective changed and I realized that it was a great opportunity to shift my focus away from the course content and observe the professor’s teaching style -- what works, what doesn’t, what I’d want to adopt, what I’d do differently.
In addition to providing a service to the professor, then, the teaching assistantship helped me to shift gradually from the mindset of a student to that of a teacher. Most grad students are aware of the need for this process, but few seem to be very conscious of the fact that teaching and research are not the entirety of what an academic does -- the nuts and bolts of administration are a major factor as well. Certainly few pursue an academic career because they want to do committee work, but it is an integral part of what it means to be part of a self-governing faculty. Taking the opportunity to participate, by necessity largely as an observer, in the various administrative processes was a very helpful way of getting a realistic view of what the professional life of an academic is really like.
A big part of that for me was simply observing how much time faculty had to devote to meetings and to preparing for them, particularly during the re-accreditation process. Perhaps more important, though, was the kind of informal “ethnography” of committees that I developed over time -- the politics of what is said and what remains unsaid, the role of the moderator in keeping the meeting moving and setting the tone, and a whole variety of other factors that an observer is able to pick up on in a way that someone suddenly thrown into the midst as a more active participant might not be able to.
Above all, I became convinced that patience and a sense of humor are the most important qualities to have in committee work. Patience allows one to see the value in the function of periodic meetings as a way of checking in and making sure that even matters that might be taken for granted are explicitly addressed -- that is, to appreciate the role of regular committees as helping to make sure that things continue to function smoothly and the way that not having to “do” anything can often be a positive sign. A sense of humor works to help maintain that level of patience by keeping what can easily become a tedious process from becoming too burdensome.
For my part, I often found humor in observing the small details of what was going on -- the way that certain seemingly simple decisions could be indefinitely deferred, the people who seemed to enjoy the sound of their own voice and the people who made it their goal to say as little as possible in each meeting, the occasional surreptitious piece of reading material smuggled into the meeting. Much of the time, these small observations served only as an occasion to chuckle to myself, but on rare occasions, I have experienced moments that approach the sublime.
The best such moment came in the course of the meeting of the student liaisons at the AAR. The administrator who had come to our meeting was discussing concerns about how certain institutions were conducting their interview processes, including meeting in inappropriate settings, asking inappropriate questions (particularly about sexual orientation), and basically engaging in a wide panoply of inappropriate behaviors. He assured us all that the AAR was doing everything possible to crack down on such behavior among the users of its job listing service, and speaking on behalf of the AAR more generally, he said, “We are committed to being appropriate.”
“We are committed to being appropriate” -- it is a line I have treasured in my heart and meditated upon ever since. Perhaps I should make a T-shirt.
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