If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Tale of Two Committees

I serve on a committee that manages the undergraduate curriculum of an interdisciplinary program at my university. It is my main institutional service. I also serve on a committee that manages the graduate program within my department. It is my main departmental service.

Yesterday I met with my undergraduate committee. We have met twice so far this semester and have no plans to meet again until the Spring. At our first meeting we brainstormed a list of tasks for ourselves (mostly from last year's list of uncompleted tasks). I was given one task (a peer observation) to complete outside of the committee meeting. I completed the task and wrote a report. The report outlined concerns that I had that I felt should be addressed by the committee. I brought them to the attention of the committee chair and we agreed to discuss them in yesterday's meeting.

During the meeting we discussed my concerns (which everyone shared) and agreed upon a very watered-down solution. We then discussed the original agenda item (1 issue from the very long task list generated in the previous meeting). After discussing this issue for some time a decision was made to shelve any action and instead to concentrate on implementing the watered-down solution for the other issue by the end of the semester. There were no action items or tasks delegated by the end of the meeting nor was a new meeting date set.

I like the people on the committee and I am very committed to the interdisciplinary program. However when a program has no funding, barely any staff, and borrowed faculty, there is no chance of accomplishing much of anything. So instead we spin wheels and discuss what we feel we should do, as if we are ever going to do it, and then go our merry ways.

Drives me batty.

My departmental committee met this morning. We started the semester with a very long list of tasks, many of which are time sensitive. We also have a long range goal that the department has been putting off for some time now. All the committee members feel the time has come. We have opted to meet weekly throughout the semester and to devote a full day for our long range goal during the winter break.

While we often go off on tangents in meetings (as all academics do) someone always reigns us in. We have agendas for each meeting and work through them. We end with action items, delegated tasks, and confirmed meeting dates and times. We've made progress but still have far to go.

Again, I enjoy spending time with all of these people and I am personally committed to the tasks we have assigned ourselves. What makes it possible to progress in this committee? At the moment two of the members have been given lighter teaching loads to free up their time for administrative work. In addition we have been assigned an assistant who has no other administrative responsibilities outside of this committee.

This was not the case last year for this committee (which is why we have such a long task list this year) and has not always been the case for other committees in our department.

The entire process of managing by committee goes against my better judgment but I understand that it is the lifeblood of academia. What I really can't get behind is pretending we are accomplishing tasks just because we attend a committee meeting. Why spend time developing plans we know full well we don't have the resources to execute? I sometimes feel we would be better served by grabbing a cup of coffee and discussing the weather.

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