Meeting the need for better meetings in academia

A boring meeting. Wait, isn't that repetitive?

A boring meeting. Wait, isn’t that repetitive?

This past year I involved myself in some university service positions, which meant attending a meeting nearly every week on top of occasional faculty, workshop, and focus group meetings, not to mention one-one meetings with colleagues, coauthors, and students, and of course—Who could forget!?—class meetings.

We all, whether in academia or government or the private sector, hate meetings. As Sir Ken Robinson said in a TED talk, academics “look upon their bod[ies] as a form of transport for their heads. Don’t they? It’s a way of getting their head[s] to meetings.” Yet, just as registrars continue to rely on fax machines for receiving transcript requests, we continue to rely on meetings to plan, organize, and discuss.

We—especially those of us in academia—really need to stop complaining about the meetings for which we have no one to blame but ourselves and start working toward better decision making when it comes to meetings.

Should you call that meeting?

If you have the authority to call a meeting, please review the following flowchart first.

A flow chart that helps determine whether or not to have a meeting.

A flow chart that helps determine whether or not to have a meeting

The impression you should get is this: you probably don’t need that meeting. If you decide you do need a meeting, the following checklist should help you prepare for an effective meeting that draws attendees and produces actionable results.

The last question—Does this necessitate a face-to-face meeting?—is where meeting conveners often show their lack of consideration for attendees. I strongly recommend chairs and deans look into video conference technology more for announcement-based meetings. Setting up a conference in YouTube Live or any of half a dozen reputable video conference applications is a breeze now. Saving faculty from a trip to campus on off days or from sticking around after their class meetings for a forty-five minute presentation on the nuances of a draft strategic plan may make the difference between a room full of agitated complaints or a happier, more productive faculty.

How to lead a meeting

The trick about meetings is that you don’t lead the meeting during the meeting. You lead well in advance by preparing.

A checklist for preparing for any meeting, assuming you needed to have it in the first place.

A checklist for preparing for any meeting, assuming you needed to have it in the first place.

Keep in mind too that meetings disadvantage already marginalized members, including women, minorities, and junior scholars.

Beyond the faculty meeting

For all the demands of pushing the boundaries of knowledge with new research, academics seem very slow to adopt new methods. I place team productivity software very near the top of the list of recent developments that most of the academics with whom I work refuse to acknowledge, much less adopt, so I suggest a great alternative to regular faculty meetings: Slack.

I started using Slack for a couple classes last semester after joining the Teaching in Higher Ed group, and I love it. Channels neatly organize announcements, discussion, and even public assignment submission. Academics could greatly benefits from many of Slack’s core features:

  • Private channels for faculty, exam, dissertation, and search committees.
  • Keeping up with prospective and current majors and even alumni without separate (e)mailing lists.
  • Integrations with cloud services make sharing documents easy.
  • Of course, the GIPHY integration keeps things light and fun too, way more than an off-the-cuff joke by that senior faculty member everyone secretly despises but laughs at anyway.

Into the classroom meeting

Automatically scheduled meetings eliminate the ability to use the flowchart above. We meet because it’s on the schedule, not because we need to meet.

Although we call them “classes,” our courses have automatically scheduled meetings as well, and this may be our greatest disservice to the profession as a whole. We don’t give our students or ourselves the opportunity to determine whether or not a face-to-face meeting is required. (I would say this only applies to face-to-face courses, but many online courses also include mandatory synchronous meetings scheduled in advance of the beginning of the course. Some programs even require synchronous meetings within online courses.)

We could do ourselves and our students a great favor by relaxing meeting requirements, but even if not we can also better prepare ourselves for these meetings from the perspective of active learning. This doesn’t mean reorganizing lecture notes; in fact, dropping the lecture notes and letting students own the class may be the best means of salvaging the required scheduled meetings thrust upon us by glacially-slow-to-adjust higher education administrations.

Jeremy L. Wells

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