King For A Day: Tips From the Kid Crashing the Chair's Meeting

Today I got to be department chair for a bit, attending the (presumably) regular meeting of the various department chairs in my division. I had some spare time, and I'm in need from some University goodwill, so why not go, right?

As it turns out, there are a lot of reasons you might not want to go to a Chair's meeting and a lot of finely tuned etiquette involved in these moments, and so I offer you some tips to consider should this offer ever come your way.

Tip #1: When someone asks you if you can do this sort of thing, make sure to ask what's the on the agenda before you agree.

As it turns out, if the meeting I attended had a "$10,000 Pyramid" title, it could have been any of the following: "Things That Are Pissing People Off," "Things That Cookies Cannot Salvage," or even "Things That Will Cause the Chair Of History to Cite University Historical Precedent for Twenty Minutes Without Drawing a Breath."

(Seriously, history chairs, what the hell? If we stop the jokes about your discipline being irrelevant, will you go easy on the soliloquies?)

We talked about technology, we talked about a failed university PR event, and we talked about scheduling meeting times. Department chairs have a lot to say about these things. All of it angry. Even a cursory examination of the agenda would have revealed this, allowing a suitable excuse to be formulated to help avoid the meeting.

Now, this is actually the second - maybe the third time - I've done this. Today's was the most amusing because there were special guests (more special than me!). And if you think being a tree-shaking, untenured faculty member makes you unwelcome at one of these things, try attending as the person who is in charge of the technology that's been dropped from on-high (and a little haphazardly) onto the university community.

Tip #2: If you're the guy in charge of the technology that's recently been dropped from on-high (and a little haphazardly) onto the university community, when the leader of the meeting asks something like "So, does anyone have anything they want to ask about the new technology?" you must flee the room.

This is a blood in the water moment. The person running the meeting has just dumped chum in the metaphorical waters. If you don't get out, you've only yourself (and years of bureaucracy-induced madness) to blame.

I'm not sure, but I think the reason for this may be that department chairs have moved just far enough up the ladder that they rarely get to complain. They hear lots of complaints, but they rarely get a chance to cut lose themselves. And that's a shame, really, because they're pros. Ever seen someone who doesn't like Blackboard but uses it anyway because they think they must talk about why they wish they weren't using it? Kick them in the shins then ask, and you've got what this meeting was like.

Tip #3: If you're the tree-shaking, untenured faculty member at the Chair's meeting when the chum's in the water, think carefully when and how you open your mouth.

There are acceptable reasons to open your mouth: taking a bite of a cookie is a good reason. Trying to cut past the overly-specific complaints to a general suggestion in order to move on to the next bullet point on the agenda is not. This makes the natives angry. They've earned their venting time by helping to prevent things from falling on you when you last shook a tree. Let them have their fun.

Also, suggesting things leads to committee work. Always. Instead, ask for more cookies. Cookies never lead to committee work.

Tip #4: Many other things lead to committee work.

Among the things that increase the likelihood of a committee being formed with you implicated in its membership are the following: taking notes, nodding, any vocalization which sounds remotely positive (Ex: "Yes!", "Mm-hm.", "You go, girl!"), vocalizations which sound remotely negative (Ex: "No.", "Uh-uh.", snoring), direct eye contact, showing up late, leaving early, allowing someone else to speak, interrupting the wrong person speaking.

If you get sucked onto a committee, my advice is to try your best to become the person in charge of it. The reasons for this are three-fold. First, the person in charge of a committee determines how often and when the committee works. And in most cases, their schedule will be the exact opposite of yours. Second, being in charge of the committee means you get to set the agenda, and that means you can try your best to force a quick, non-bureaucratic solution. Third, the person in charge gets to order the cookies.

Tip #5: Any meeting you can walk away from was probably just seconds shy of being so long you lost the feeling in your lower extremities.

Plan accordingly.

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Brigindo said...

Once again a brilliant post and extremely helpful too. I've never been invited--hope it never happens--but now at least I'm prepared.

October 24, 2008 at 9:20 AM
ash said...

This is the funniest thing I've read all week--thanks!

October 24, 2008 at 9:02 PM