Get to the point: John Kaag’s guide to academic meetings

Meetings are an inescapable annoyance for most academics, but there are ways to make them more tolerable, says John Kaag

September 12, 2013

What are meetings for? I’m sure there are good answers, but at the start of a new academic year, I am having trouble thinking of any.

At its best, I suppose, a meeting could be an eloquent testament to the superiority of several minds over one and to the value – both intrinsic and instrumental – of genuine consensus. But in higher education, there are ample opportunities to experience meetings at their worst.

You can tune these meetings out by tuning into your own thoughts – and as academics we are pretty practised at doing this. But people keep interrupting us, asking us to take part in their pointless, soul-sucking discussions. In my younger, bolder days I handled this problem by making it painfully obvious that I was hard at work right in the middle of the meeting by getting my laptop out (mobile phones are far too subtle) and typing away. But I’ve now led enough meetings that I’ve come to think of my younger self not as bolder but as unspeakably ruder. So this solution isn’t an option for me.

I’m sure I’m exaggerating the torture of spending an hour of my pitifully short life listening to someone else wax poetic about something else about which I care nothing. I know that people in other professions endure worse agonies much more frequently. But this is precisely the reason that I didn’t go into other professions. As a rule, I work by myself and I like the idea that I am master of my own professional destiny. I obviously interact with others when I teach, but then I’m the one doing most of the talking, which makes this type of meeting immensely engaging – at least to me.

Unfortunately, most meetings are attended by peers who are very much like me. Which means we vacillate between being incredibly bored and incredibly interested by the sound of our own voices. Go ahead, protest. I’m sure the protest will be articulate and well reasoned, but above all, I’m sure it will be unnecessarily long-winded. This is one reason that meetings tend to last much longer than they need to, and rarely end with the satisfying closure their participants long for. But I’ve been occupying myself in meetings by thinking of ways to negotiate these problems, and have hit on a few broad points for general discussion.

First, never have a few broad points for general discussion. Broad points and general discussion are to be enjoyed over dinner, not at a conference table. By all means, arrange faculty gatherings with dinner; just don’t expect to accomplish anything. Their value – and they do have significant value – isn’t to be measured in discrete accomplishments, but in fostering the “fellow feeling” that many departments lack. Trying to foster this at formal meetings through open and lengthy discussion, however, is counterproductive in at least two ways. First, the setting of most meetings does not lend itself to fellow feeling and open discussion. And second, the general discussion often obscures the concrete issues that necessitated the meeting in the first place. So stay on task and avoid generality.

This point about staying on task is obvious. Only slightly more obvious than using an agenda, distributing it beforehand for feedback, and limiting the items it contains to only actionable points. Obvious. Obvious. Obvious.

This brings me to my second point about meetings: avoid, at all costs, the obvious. Don’t insult your attendees’ intelligence. Don’t read the minutes to them or bore them with reports that they could read on their own. And don’t say something that could easily go unsaid. None of this is an easy trick to pull off with academics; in my limited experience, I either overestimate the knowledge of my listeners (like most academic articles do) or infantilise them (like a lecture course gone wrong).

You’ll also regret meeting to discuss decisions that have already been made. Cicero instructs us to “avoid any specific discussion of public policy at public meetings”, which seems humorously impossible until he tells us that it means “holding on to positions that you have already won”. In other words, do not rehash something that is settled. This point isn’t obvious – at least, not for most academics. On the whole, we’re drawn compulsively to revisit topics that have already been discussed, sometimes at great length. It is sort of our job. In our writing, we tweak a well-established theory and then make it our career to tweak it again and again.

But while this might be acceptable for a career (although I’m somewhat sceptical), it will make the next department meeting wholly unbearable. So I will leave you with another one of Cicero’s gems: “Brevity is a great charm of eloquence.” Perhaps the greatest of them all?

Now please excuse me: I must be off to my next meeting.

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