Set the agenda and make your very own camel

June 18, 2004

Today you can't escape the committee, but why try? Embrace the five Ps and change your world, says Nick Saunders

We all love committees, don't we? Well, maybe. The truth is that sitting on a committee is widely regarded as a chore, though in fact it can be an opportunity. Committees are strange creatures - composite entities of, say, ten people, some committed, others drafted, most resigned to doing their administrative bit. Although there are exceptions, most members are chosen by their heads of department rather than volunteer, though not necessarily on an ad hoc basis. All institutions are increasingly bureaucratised, and ever more committees, subcommittees and working groups seem to spring up each year. While some may groan at this development, it is difficult to see a workable alternative. Given this, there is a lot to be said for grasping the nettle, making a virtue of necessity and being first in line for a committee that interests you rather than being placed on one that doesn't. So, should we resent committee work or exploit it?

Committees are powerful beings - in and of themselves as regards formulating policy, and in the opportunities they offer to the skilled operator. Not without foundation is the old chestnut that a camel is a horse designed by a committee, but more often, the decisions made by specialist committees are the fruit of passionate argument, informed reasoning and experience.

Committees educate their members, especially the new ones who are introduced directly into the nervous system of the department. Politics, personalities, policy, priorities and problems are the five "Ps" that dominate most committee meetings. It soon becomes clear to the initiate the relative standings of the committee members and how and when to time an intervention.

There is an undoubtedly chore-like quality to the mechanics of committee work - agendas, minutes, action points and reports, to name the most obvious. But this is just a necessary structure. Far outweighing this is the opportunity to fly a new idea, comment on current issues and judge the interests and motivations of other committee members. It is often the case that those who sit on a committee learn as much about each other (and themselves) as they do about their remit. A common belief is that sitting on committees is an alternative route to promotion for those more skilled in policy-making than research or publication. While I don't doubt that this can happen, I have never seen it in more than 20 years, though this may say more about me than the potential of committee work for personal advancement. What is clear is that we all have different skills and should use them to make the strongest possible contribution. In my experience it seems that, with few exceptions - that is, those who rise to the top - individuals who enjoy committee work are often not those most active in research and publication. This is affected by academic discipline and the research quality of the department and institution. Such are the complexities of and pressures on a modern university that both are equally and increasingly required, and old prejudices increasingly untenable.

Nevertheless, each of us has our favourite committee story. A long time ago, in an institution far away from UCL, I was not a little surprised to find a whole department of dedicated committee sitters. Even the coffee breaks felt like extended meetings - or was it vice versa? There was never-ending discussion about new courses, foreign students and teaching quality - yet in the research assessment exercise all that could be offered was little more than a couple of book reviews. This is an anecdote of the extreme, and much has changed. Today, we are all expected to be research active, our administrative load increases and we cannot escape the committee. If we are able to choose, then we should do wisely, and perhaps end up teaching and administrating in a system to whose shape we have contributed rather than inherited.

Nick Saunders is reader in material culture in the department of anthropology, University College London.

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