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

Thursday, October 14, 2010

On Being A Committee Member

I am on way too many committees this year.  While my service committee membership has increased substantially with the award of tenure, that's not what's dragging me down. Unfortunately the real problem is all my own doing: doctoral and masters' thesis committees.

At the beginning of the year I thought I was on 10.  This seemed like a lot to me and when I mentioned the number I was met with looks of shocked disbelief, pity, and humor by my colleagues.  Turns out I'm really on 12: I miscounted by one and then discovered one I had forgotten.  The one I forgot is for a student in another department.  I agreed to be on the committee my first year at SouthLite.  The student was ready for the proposal defense and was in a bind.  She had to scramble to reconfigure a committee due to a number of situations outside of her control.

She defended and barely passed.  Her topic is interesting but her proposal had several gaps. I gave feedback on revisions and then never heard from her again.  I honestly thought she had dropped from the program.  Fast forward 4 years to this past weekend when I received an email while I was on vacation requesting availability for the final defense in 2 1/2 weeks.  I've yet to see a finished product but have been promised it 2 weeks-to-the-day before the defense.

Two weeks is, in my opinion, a bare minimum for sending around a proposal or finished dissertation, especially one I haven't looked at in 4 years. Today I got a request from another student for a proposal defense date two weeks from today.  Again I have not seen a draft and it looks like the earliest I could expect one would be the end of business tomorrow.  I find this unacceptable.  I think I would have allowed it previously but in the next two weeks I need to: route my grant, review a manuscript, review two sets of internal grants, and participate in a doctoral defense in addition to my normal teaching and administrative duties.  My days are so chock full of meetings I literally have no time to review anything in between them.

Of the 12 committees that I am on, I am the outsider member for 7.  This, I now realize, is insanity.  I mistakenly thought the outside member would have less work, or at least no more work, than any other member, excepting the chair.  In most cases this has not been the case. Worse yet, for the committees within my department, I am chair on 4 out of the 5.

I find being the outside member particularly difficult.  It takes me several hours to really review a proposal or finished product and give good feedback.  Often I end up questioning the methodology, not because it is outside of my field but because it is incorrect.  I am never too sure if the advisor/chair left the student to his/her own devices without proper guidance or if the advisor/chair thinks the methodology is appropriate.  My university is one that is "growing its research abilities and infrastructure" and, to be blunt, some of the departments are weaker than others.  In my own department I (a) am more confident of our methodological abilities and (b) know what to expect from my colleagues in terms of how they do or don't mentor their students.  As the outside committee member I am uncomfortable being the person that needs to hold the student to a higher standard of rigor, but have ended up there several times already.

I know one of the reasons I am asked to be on committees is because I take the job seriously. Students know if they give me something to read I will give them thoughtful and detailed written feedback.  I'm not saying my colleagues don't take their roles seriously.  I think it is more likely they aren't very good at giving feedback and/or when pressed for time they read drafts quickly. I've been singularly unimpressed with some of the questions that are asked during comprehensive exams and defenses.  I am not mean and I don't ask trick questions but I am thorough and I press students to think through issues.  Most of the time it is appreciated and I enjoy doing it but it takes a lot of time to prepare for an oral examination or a defense.  I don't think students have a clue just how much time and effort it takes and if I had only one student a semester I wouldn't think about it either.


Drax said...

Oh, Hell yes. Fire all weapons! Empty the arsenal! Take no prisoners and show NO MERCY! If standards of excellence are bent too far, what's the flipping point? Good for you and carry on.

Annie said...

Hi Brigindo,
It's difficult when you are more knowledgeable, thorough and conscientious than the other committee members. It happens, and I'm sure it's especially hard when you are the "outside" committee member, and you are probably expected to "rubber stamp" the concensus. I guess, like in any thing, you have to pick your battles; but, how do you excuse incorrect methodology? As a way to survive this, you probably have to give the most attention to your own department, perhaps become co-chair on a few committees, and start saying "no" until things clear up. Unfortunately, you may have to let some things slide, for some students, and focus on the things that will help them the most, and ensure the soundest research they are capable of producing. Good luck. At least the weekend is coming up. Or, you can do what Drax says, and stand your ground. That's good, too.

Julie said...

All of the committees boggle my mind. I don't know how you do it, but you are awesome (and a role model for me).