Yes, but…

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Why are faculty meetings so miserable?

I think it’s because, as scholars, we’ve trained ourselves in ways that make it almost inevitable.

Think about the basic moves of a scholar’s career. To paraphrase Birkenstein & Graff’s work on academic templates, the origin of almost every piece of research can be summarized as “Although the phenomenon of __________ is relatively well understood, it is not yet clear how ______ takes place.” Or, to paraphrase even more briefly, “Yes, but…”

We make our bones by carving out some small aspect of a larger problem and complicating that aspect, bringing it to center stage. So what happens when a dean brings a request to the table? Or when a hiring committee is down to its last candidates? Or when a policy needs to be revised? We gloss over the 78% of it that we might agree upon, and raise the disagreements to the top of the pile so that we can exercise our analytical powers upon them. By so doing, we find aspects of the problem that we might natively have agreed upon and make them unstable as well. Before long, a pretty reasonable idea is remanded to a subcommittee for further study, but not until all 35 people in attendance have given us their unique reading on the underlying problem that makes this problem insoluble.

Sometimes this strategy is taken up on purpose. A common block to data-driven curricular reform is to read an interesting and evocative piece of assessment, and say “This is really powerful. You know what else we need to study is…” This puts the onus back upon the assessment team, and the speaker is never held responsible to act any differently. But I think most of the time, we’re just enacting the very best skills of academic life in venues where they’re counterproductive. (And all of our very best skills are counterproductive in some venues.)

Here’s a proposal to make faculty meetings enjoyable. Whenever someone comes to the table with a recommendation, ask yourself whether that recommendation is cruel and mean-spirited. If not, ask yourself whether you think it irreparably damages the department or institution, whether it rises to the level of existential threat. If not, say—out loud—”That’s a terrific idea. Go for it.” And then let it go and take up the next item on the agenda.