Although the semester does not start until the end of the month, I went into the office to do some work today. This is not abnormal for me; there are many parts of the job I refuse to do from home, in an effort to better separate my work life from the rest of my life. I actually spent a fair amount of time in the office during my sabbatical. I write better in the office, do not want to have to worry about bringing home everything I might need, and have become very good about closing the office door and making sure nobody knows I’m there.*
I managed to get quit a bit of work done, even if my pre-sabbatical plans were much grander. I drafted the introduction and first two (of four) chapters, have a good sense of where the next two chapters will go, and even spoke with some editors at a press that would like to see this draft when I am done with it. Although I need to take some time away this semester – because I am teaching, starting my gig as the director of my department’s graduate program, and have a smaller project with a hard deadline to work on – I am more excited about this project now than I was when I started it. I hope to have the whole book drafted by the end of the summer.
Anyway, I went into the office today. Finalized and made copies of my syllabi, made copies of some handouts I will need, responded to a few emails…and stayed abut 90 minutes longer than I had planned. 90 minutes longer than I needed to. And thinking about this on the walk home, I realized something that I’m sure many of you already know:
The office is not necessarily where work gets done; quite often, it’s also where work gets created.
One of the best things about being on sabbatical was that I did not have to be on campus, for any reason. I was not ever expected to be there. So if somebody needed me, they had to email me.** This was very different from most semesters, when all someone had to do was come to my office. After a couple weeks, we all get a general sense of who is around at what time. I hold regular office hours, and am always in my office when I get a break between classes, as well as at the start and end of each day. So once we all got familiar with the department schedule/routine, people who needed me could generally count on when I would be on campus.
This, inevitably, led to many informal chats, conversations, and even a couple pick-up meetings, most of which could have been handled by an email (or, sometimes, not at all).
I know I’m not alone in this, but I loathe most meetings. And that’s because most meetings are too long, and many of them don’t need to happen. But sadly, many people feel that “work” requires meetings. This is another aspects of “the corporate university” that is slowly but insistently creeping in on our work. And unfortunately, there are a great many faculty who embrace this model.
A few years ago, I was on a committee chaired by such a person. At the start of the semester, the new chair suggested that we meet every month. Confused, I asked what it was we were working on, as we didn’t have anything carrying over from the previous semester. This chair told us that there was no work that had to be done, but s/he thought it would be wise to check in once a month, so we could “debrief” and “brainstorm” if there was a need to. By our third meeting, we had some work to do. But the first two meetings – which this chair called, and scheduled a conference room for – ended five minutes after they began. This was the most extreme version of such pointless meetings, but certainly not the only example. More often, this kind of wasted time comes in the form of people wandering by and turning a simple “can I ask you a quick question?” into something far more prolonged.
This is only going to increase next semester, when I officially start a new administrative position. There will be required meetings – with the graduate committee, with the university graduate studies program, etc. – and that will be bad enough.*** I have no doubt that here will be even more of these meetings that cold have been emails, too.
One thing I need to do a better job of when I get back is doing a much better job of not getting swept up in this wave of the corporate university. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mind productive meetings. (I even managed to sit in on a few of them at the end of last semester, as I was transitioning into my new role. Productive meetings – which get things done, and don’t waste time – can actually be enjoyable experiences.) But unproductive meetings, and non-meetings that turn into meetings, and meetings that really should have been emails, need to be avoided, if not eliminated.
*When I was discovered on campus, the most common question I was asked was some version of “I thought you weren’t working this semester.” It’s both sad and unsurprising that so many of my colleagues equate “work” with “teaching.” (Several people actually suggested to me that I was wasting my sabbatical by spending it working. With that kind of attitude among the faculty, I can see why administration wants to cut sabbaticals. Luckily, many of us do not see sabbaticals that way.)
**Sometimes, people emailed me even when they didn’t need me. But on the whole, the number of nonsense emails dropped while I was on sabbatical. I’m really going to miss going days at a time without someone emailing me.
***I have already had one such meeting, and will have another one soon. There are many people I need to be in contact with to do this job well, and one of them seems to love turning emails into meetings. Twice now I have emailed this person for information – information that could have been sent back to me over email – but this person insists on meeting in person to deliver this information. I don’t know this person well enough yet to know if this s/he loves meetings (and a fair number of people do seem to keep track of their productivity based on meetings) or doesn’t want to commit information to email (and a fair number of people, especially administrators, do seem keen on not ever committing to specifics).