13 November 2006

Meetings, Meetings, Meetings

Although I've not written much about it, this academic year marks a big change in my career: I became chair of my department, moved offices up a few floors to one with windows, and became responsible for working on issues that concern parts of English Studies I've not had much to do with since I was in graduate school. Although I started graduate school with the intention of working in both literature and composition--and in fact chose my graduate school because it appeared to support such a dual focus--I realized as my studies went on that composition studies was really where my heart lies. I like reading fiction as much as anyone, but I'll never be a really good literary critic. So I gradually moved into literacy and composition studies, and that's where most of my work--research and teaching--has been.

Being a department chair involves a whole 'nother way of thinking about my job. My large department offers a broad array of programs, and one of the ways I conceive my job is Advocate-in-Chief for the students, faculty, and staff. I need to help each one of my colleages advance, and in some cases, that means I need to learn about aspects of English I've never thought about for a second. Mostly, this learning is pretty fun, but it's also time-consuming. It's not that I need to spend time reading around, but that I need to be learning priorities. What makes people in subfield A tick? What gets them excited? What gets them motivated? What would make a junior scholar want to come here and work in the field?

I recently found a memo from one of my predecessors, a memo written as the department started the process of looking for a new chair. My predecessor noted that it wasn't so much the time required to be chair that was tiring, but the quality of attention the job requires. And I see what that means, now. I'm making the rounds of my colleagues, talking about where they are headed, what they want from the department and the field. Colleagues are coming to me for help with problems in staffing courses, issues around evaluating part-time faculty, requests for time to teach or research or travel to archives. There are 57 people who report through me. That's a lot of people to keep track of.

So I'm working on trying to get the department to be more efficient at taking care of itself. We meet 4-5 times a year, and I've started conceiving of department meetings like classes: what do I want to accomplish at the end of the meeting, what do people need to know in order to do that task well, and what activities or questions will support them to do that task as well as possible? We've had two meetings so far, and in those meetings I've used a combination of large- and small-group activities to produce brainstorming on a few topics, to encourage wide sharing of views on proposals in process, and to open up some review processes. I was afraid people would think this was too hokey, but I've had pretty good participation. It beats announcements.

We just celebrated the retirement of a friend who taught me a lot about running meetings. Don't call a meeting to make an annoucement, she told me. Use a newsletter or e-mail for that. Call a meeting to make a decision. That made a big impression on me. I also think meetings are good for brainstorming, but the brainstorming needs to be tied to decisions. Organizations need to make progress. They need to get things done. So I run meetings trying to keep the emphasis on what's getting done, or what steps we've accomplished on the way to getting something important done. And I try to make the most of the fact that the department meeting brings together people who don't usually talk with each other. I try to structure activities within the meeting to maximize possibilities for conversation.

My secret plan--not so secret now!--is to use the activities I coordinate over the course of the year to help the department articulate its priorities. If I used the word "strategic plan" in a meeting people would groan, I think. My colleagues just want to get on with their research and teaching. But I think some planning, some strategic planning, will help us get somewhere we want to be. I think we have planning impulses lurking below the surface, and I hope to pull them up in the course of our regular work. We'll see how that goes.

My campus is relatively new and there haven't been very many chairs of my department. We've each had, in hindsights, different kinds of strengths or focuses. The two department chairs who influenced me greatly tended to emphasize vision and/or organization, and that make an impression on me. I have my own style, and the department is a very different place now than it used to be, but I see myself using vision and organization in the interests of advocacy. As a department chair, I want to advocate for my colleagues and our students. And as a department, I want us to advocate for the intelligent uses of and applications of our field. I want us to stand for--and teach towards--literacies that stretch writers and readers, bringing them together, taking them to new understandings, challenging dominant, often sterile, notions of what it means to write and read these days. So this means I'm quietly trying to nudge the department, too. So far, so good. I like the job most days, and most days, people seem to like the job I'm doing. I'm so impressed by how many of my colleages have been willing to listen to me, to pitch in when I've asked, or to turn me down in ways that help me see better what the nature of the task is and who else I can call on to get it done.

So in your worlds, what makes for good meeting and good leadership?


Round is Funny said...

I'm a born organizer, so I love thinking about this stuff. Meetings that are shorter than participants expected them to be are a hit. Also, meetings where every single person leaves with something to do before the next time, and meetings where participants feel like they're running the show and the facilitator is there to keep trains running on time - all make me happy. Oh, and M&M's.

Rev Dr Mom said...

M&Ms for sure!

I detest meetings that are held just for the sake of having a meeting.

I detest meetings where you are given a handout and the convenor reads said memo to you.

I struggle mightily with bosses who do not keep you in the information loop.

I love meetings where at the end everyone present feels like something worhtwhile has been accomplished.

mc said...

I am struggling with some seriously useless, but mired in tradition, meetings, at which much is discussed but nothing is decided. Drives me crazy. So kudos to you for moving things along!

JF, scientist said...

Wow. That's some seriously ambitious thinking! We could use some of that around here.

I don't quite know about good leadership- though I could surely go on about bad leadership. But good meetings: I think everyone staying on topic, having a chance to be heard and know their opinion counts, and clearly defined goals have characterized the ones I've been to.

I'm fascinated by how one motivates people. Keep us posted!

Anonymous said...

It sounds like you are doing great things-- I think you are so thoughtful in everything you do which makes strategic thinking inevitable :). For such a wide-ranging discipline, I can see what a challenge it must be to unify a vision for the department. That being said, I know you are up to the task.

As for my meeting woes, I hate meetings where people have sub-conversations that make people feel left out (but they do it to sound like they are in the know in front of others). People's postering during meetings really irks me, especially when egos are an issue. Maybe I've been working with men too long.

-Woman of Many Talents "WOMT"
(still lovin' my alias)

Mel said...

wow. I wish you were chair of my department. we meet every month, whether we really need to or not...

I myself like a meeting with a clear agenda -- something to be accomplished or decided-- that concludes when that choice or action has been done. But others in my dept seem to prefer wandering discussions that don't really wind up anywhere but let us keep picking at old wounds.

Arwen said...

I mentioned this post last night to my mom-in-law and my partner, during a discussion we were having about how powerpoint has really created a dependence on a particular style etc...
Anyway, they loved the rule: meetings for decisions, email for announcements. It's a simple rule and utterly workable.

My partner sometimes calls meetings, does 5 minutes of meeting - and then because he's got the team booked for an hour - gets them to work together on a necessary project that's been hanging over the team's head. Sometimes asynchronous conversation does stretch dreaded tasks out...