Death by Discussion

Brian Taylor

April 23, 2012

Question: My department chair, "Zippy," is addicted to meetings. We need a new computer gizmo? Let's have a meeting. We've got a sadistic heating system in our building? Let's have a meeting. We have to do something about bathroom graffiti, accreditation, plagiarism, sexual harassment, sick leave, cyberbullying, layoffs, chalk, or new shelves and curtains for the lounge? Let's have a separate meeting for each one!

Let's meet, meet, meet!

Zippy lives alone and doesn't have a life, but we do. How can we get him to leave us alone?

Answer: Ms. Mentor agrees that one person's meeting can be another one's poison. Meetings can chew up your life, eviscerate the blocks of time you need for writing and thinking, and mentor you into oblivion.

They can be good if they're focused, and the best ones can build community: "We're in this together—let's tunnel our way out." Meetings are also the lab for newbies to learn "departmentese," the language of self-interest (so named by Kathryn Hume in Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt).

But good meetings are rare.

Academic souls love to pontificate, and any wide-ranging discussion opens the door to the winds. "Populus" found this out when, as chair at Pop U., he announced that "total democracy" would be his "signature leadership style." Everyone would be invited to every meeting, so "no one feels unheard." Within a month, faculty members were begging for a dictator.

"Fritz" learned that lesson, too, when he forced his faculty to endure 15 meetings in one semester—until senior professor "Anne" rose up and said, "No more. We all have real work to do." Younger faculty members, who'd been missing their lives, wept with gratitude.

Ms. Mentor cheers Anne and wonders why smart people like Fritz won't consolidate the issues into one or two meetings, with a strict agenda. Maybe he's afraid of doing something wrong.

Ms. Mentor knows people who do crave meetings. "Dave," at Impersonal U., uses them for his social life, and he's known for ambushing colleagues and regaling them with what happened at the Faculty Senate. At Miser U., one group of faculty misanthropes created a caucus so they could meet regularly to complain. They also like speculating about everyone else's salaries, which they could look up but don't think is sporting to do.

Large, untamed faculty meetings can bring out the beast in everyone. Nitpickers thrive ("Split infinitive on page 6"). Sycophants glow ("What an elegant synthesis by our brilliant chair"). Professor Van Winkle rambles about the good old days ("Students used to worship Aristotle"). The young are told how lucky they are ("We used Bunsen burners, and one day Professor Archimedes' hair caught on fire. Haw haw haw!").

If there's a leadership vacuum during a meeting, the Great Thinkers rush in. No wimpy immediate needs, no matter how urgent, will stop their deliberations.

When the Great Thinkers take over, any immediate change is doomed. The project may limp along for years, with new levels of ad hoc and standing committees and subcommittees, task forces, research teams, and outside experts, all of whom report regularly in meetings. Meanwhile the troops, the beleaguered faculty, get bored, grouchy, or die, while the train moves on. Once the study is concluded or abandoned, the report will be duly shelved. All involved will be thanked for their service.

But in a fit of mild optimism, Ms. Mentor admits that some things are best handled in face-to-face meetings. Teaching, for instance. She loathes online courses.

Within departments, there should be a greet-everybody reception at the beginning of the year, with good snacks. Anything to do with hiring or firing should not be put in writing until a decision's been made in live discussion. Negotiations or conspiracies about money shouldn't be in e-mails. Scandalous tidbits should be whispered in person and not shared online—because no one can resist forwarding juicy secrets. University e-mails are too easy to find, subpoena, or satirize.

Most nonacademic decisions can be handled by e-mail—preferably by dictatorial decree. "We shall have new lighting on the first floor" needn't be discussed by anyone.

When meetings must happen, it is a far, far better thing to scarf up and digest little bits of cheese as quickly as possible. Have a clearly defined agenda. Have a sample draft. Have a time limit for discussion, and have a vote, after which the meeting is over.

Never succumb to the siren song: "If you really cared about the issue, if you really loved us, you would appoint a committee."

Zippy must be redirected. If he brims with energy, then encourage him to do more for the pay and working conditions of adjuncts. If senior professors won't rein in Zippy's zeal for incessant meetings, you can make deals with friends and take turns attending. You can ask Zippy for comprehensive agendas "to prepare my thoughts. What will we be discussing and deciding?" You can also tie meetings in knots with parliamentary maneuvers—though only truly committed mischief makers, or those seeking material for academic novels, can stomach doing that.

You can bury Zippy with praise, so he'll feel more secure and less needy. You can try to find him a social life. Take him out for coffee. Suggest he hold brown-bag lunches ("We'll talk!") instead of formal meetings. Bring him chocolates. Resist the temptation to sign him up for an online dating service. Or you can, anonymously, leave this column on his desk, with the following paragraph highlighted:

A good meeting is for decision-making. It's not for announcements or incessant frothing and ventilating. Ideally everyone leaves feeling that something's been accomplished. People know what they need to do to make this a better department and a better world. The best meetings are short and pointed, like a good stick.

Question: I'm an eminent scholar who's given talks all over the world. I used to get lovely thank-you notes, some even handwritten. But since the advent of texting, I don't get any kind of thank-you at all, except sometimes an offhand, "Oh, yeah, thanks, bye," as I'm leaving. Is this yet another example of the decline of civilization in our barbarous times?

Answer: Yes.

Sage readers: Ms. Mentor renews her invitation to her flock. Step right up and be a judge for the annual Ackies, the awards she gives for the best academic novels.

Judges may choose to read any academic novels from any year, except the previous winners, listed at Recommended novels for judging are listed at that site, along with more nominations in the comments. Recent correspondents have also suggested E. M. Broner's The Red Squad, E. M. Dadlez's The Sleep of Reason, Will Forest's Naked Co-Ed Philosophy, Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, and Eric Zencey's Panama.

What must a judge do? For each novel you choose to judge, write three sentences about what strikes you about it: plot, characters, verisimilitude, humor or horror, strengths and weaknesses. You must also award your novel a letter grade (A through F). Tough grading is expected. Judges' reports are due to by May 15.

(Past winners, now ineligible: Kingsley Amis, Vance Bourjaily, A. S. Byatt, Amanda Cross, Don DeLillo, Percival Everett, James Hynes, Mat Johnson, David Lodge, Chandra Prasad, Terry Pratchett, Philip Roth, Richard Russo, Jane Smiley, Zadie Smith, and Donna Tartt.)

Ms. Mentor regrets that you will not be paid the mighty sum that you deserve (you won't be paid at all), but no one can ever take away the priceless pleasure of seeing your name in Ms. Mentor's column. There is no higher grade in academia. You can also put it on your vita.

As always, Ms. Mentor invites queries, gossip, and rants. She can rarely respond personally. Confidentiality is guaranteed, and identifying details are whitewashed. No one will know whose dirty laundry you've shared.

(c) Emily Toth. All rights reserved.


Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her latest book is "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is