Why wasn\’t I invited?



A new program head frets about his exclusion from a department meeting

Question (from \”Fergus\”): I’ve just been appointed head of a small program (call it \”Gazelle Taming\”) in our department. Our classes are always offered at the same times, thanks to tradition (which isn’t a problem). However, the staff—the heads of our department’s various programs—have a weekly meeting to which I have not been invited. My predecessor was not invited, either, but he was a lazy slug who finally retired.

The first staff meeting since I became a program head was held last week. I expected to be invited as a matter of course, but got no notification. When I asked my department chair about this, Prof. Chair said, \”The head of Gazelle Taming has never been involved in staff meetings.\” I insisted on attending, and I did.

The meeting was mundane, mostly about course scheduling. A few items seemed mildly Machiavellian, such as jiggering enrollments to compensate for unpopular teachers or times of the day. None of those affect my program. Still, I would like to attend staff meetings to represent Gazelle Taming, but Dr. Chair refuses to put me on the notification list. Should I complain to the dean?

Answer: Ms. Mentor confesses she’s somewhat amused by your epistle. This has been a winter of great discontent, with monster snowfalls, flu epidemics, and worldwide woe. And so the problems of one little person who wants to attend staff meetings—well, they’re more than a hill of beans in this crazy world.

But still …

Ms. Mentor has long heard from people who bemoan academic meetings. She’s written about them as \”Death by Discussion\” and \”Bored by Department Meetings,\” as well as in various crannies in her two books. She’s told her flock how to orchestrate department meetings, and how to regard them as a peculiar kind of theatrical display. Some academics have perfected the art of \”meeting sleeping,\” seeming to be alert when they are not. Others doodle. And, Ms. Mentor regrets to report, there are some senior scholars who spend meeting time surfing for porn or cat videos.

But you, dear Fergus, want to add to your schedule of meetings!

Ms. Mentor has truly never met anyone of your ilk.

She congratulates you (maybe) on your sense of responsibility. You want Gazelle Taming to be recognized, and your presence at staff meetings will ensure that your field is acknowledged. She presumes that you have tenure, but if you don’t, your energy will be noticed (though perhaps not always appreciated). You will be seen as some kind of go-getting up-and-comer who believes you can improve on the performance of your predecessor. That could be good for something.

However, what will you gain by attending staff meetings?

By your own account, the Machiavellian decisions don’t affect your program in Gazelle Taming. If you’re fairly new to academe, the wrangling might be interesting, especially when the participants speak \”departmentese,\” the language named by Kathryn Hume to describe the use of lofty, vague terms to obscure one’s self-interest.

You may enjoy translation exercises. \”It is always to our advantage to …,\” for instance, usually means \”I want it now,\” which is much too crass.

But unless you’re writing an academic novel, such decoding games will soon pall. You’ll realize that those staff meetings—if you manage to bull your way into them—aren’t doing much. No one’s going to throw you out bodily, but they may be less than gracious. Or you may get very very bored.

Ms. Mentor suspects that many weekly meetings aren’t really needed. Research groups do need to share their progress, but other committees often meet out of habit, or because their participants are lonely. Getting together socially can be scary (\”I have too much work, I couldn’t possibly find time for dinner\”), so a weekly meeting can be a way of getting together without guilt. It isn’t fun, so it must be all right.

As you say, it is important to attend a meeting where your interests are involved. Meetings about salaries or hiring, for instance, are essential. Real Decisions are being made, instead of a ritual re-enactment of the famous slogan: \”The fights in academia are so intense because the stakes are so small.\”

Ms. Mentor urges you not to be seduced into thinking that if you’re not invited, you’re being insulted. This isn’t eighth grade, in which social losers are never invited to sit at the lunch table with the cool kids. (She also asks you to ponder how many future academics were cool kids in the past. She once met a professor who’d been Homecoming Queen but who still had emotional scars because the photographer said she wasn’t as pretty as the runner-up. You were better off huddled in the library.)

Also, if you’re not invited to the staff meeting, it won’t be like that jolly party you weren’t invited to, the one that’s plastered all over Facebook. Meetings aren’t raucous, usually, and Ms. Mentor doubts if anyone wears funny hats. Maybe once a semester, someone may say something clever, and that bon mot will be repeated for years afterward. (Professor Wag’s comment about \”little boy humanists\” is still repeated, though he said it c. 1980 and died a decade ago.)

We are all desperate for humor.

And so, to keep yourself in good humor, and in good fighting shape for the enhancing work of teaching, grading, research, writing, and useful service, Ms. Mentor urges you to abandon the staff meeting power struggle. It is one of the rare moments in life—an electrocution is another—in which not being invited is a saving gesture.

If you see your colleagues filing dolefully into the staff meeting, greet them cheerfully (even if you’re thinking, \”There go the suckers!\”). You can think of yourself as being part of Virginia Woolf’s Society of Outsiders (Three Guineas), or as a disciple of Emily Dickinson, who wrote, \”The soul selects her own Society.\” You can view yourself as a majestic loner, standing on a mountain top with your favorite gazelles, overlooking the plain of those huddled masses struggling to breathe free. Well, Ms. Mentor is perhaps overdoing the ecstatic thrill of not going to a meeting. Perhaps she is more of a blather-phobe than most people you know.

But based on your epistle, she does not see that you miss anything by being left out of staff meetings. You may gain a little time to linger over breakfast or have a late-afternoon coffee. You may, as Walt Whitman wrote, \”loafe and invite my soul.\”

You have been freed from toil. Throw away your chains. Have a snack.

Question: Is Ms. Mentor seeking book nominees for her upcoming annual column on Academic Novels, and should I send my nominations by email?

Answer: Yes.

Sage readers: As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes gossip, rants, and queries. If readers would like to add their eloquent testimonies about the value of academic meetings, she is always eager to hear their warblings.

Ms. Mentor regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and she recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle’s forums. She cannot give legal or psychiatric advice. All communications are confidential, anonymity is guaranteed, and identifying details are muddled and swathed. This month’s column is about everyone you know, so your colleagues will all suspect that you are \”Fergus.\” Or maybe they are.

Author Bio: Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is Ms. Mentor’s New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (University of Pennsylvania Press).