Unfinished Business

I have often written about my hatred of meetings. I believe what really bugs me is that most meetings in academia don’t actually accomplish anything concrete, let alone all that they supposedly set out to accomplish. This is a common problem with faculty meetings, but it seems broader, and is probably ubiquitous wherever there aren’t clear negative repercussions to poor decision-making that consistently results in unfinished business.

Here’s a recent example: We had a meeting of the advisory board of a journal at a biennial conference in the field. The publisher representative had asked for input before the meeting and I had sent a whole bunch of questions and suggestions. I had also asked that we allot 3 hours for the meeting, because in the past we would always have 1-1.5 hrs and never have enough time to decide anything.

The meeting came and, of course, it was 1.5 hours long. I asked why we didn’t have a longer slot, they said something nebulous about scheduling. In plain English, I figured that the editor who was to run the meeting didn’t want more time devoted to the meeting. We had a very full agenda, as we always do, with many issues that keep showing up over and over. We discussed all those issues (again). Another member and I had a number of suggestions and pushed a bit for votes or some decisive action on several of the items, but all we managed to do was to irritate the editor. He was more concerned with going through the entire agenda than about actually resolving once and for all any of the issues that repeatedly pop up. So yes, we did get to the end of the agenda, with a whole bunch of suggestions up in the air and zero decisions. We will apparently do this again in two years in 1.5 hours. Only next time I might skip the meeting or just keep my mouth shut, because we apparently meet just for show.

I will never understand this attitude. I would much rather address fewer issues but actually resolve them, especially when the meetings are as seldom as once a biennium, than sit and talk about 2x or 3x more issues over and over and over and not get anything done. The latter is a recipe to have someone like me completely disengage, because what’s the fuckin’ point, and life’s too short to waste time like this.

If there’s nothing substantive to meet about,  let’s not meet. But if there is something important to discuss, then let’s move things around and take as much time as needed so we get to the bottom of whatever the problem is. Years ago, I co-advised a student with a colleague, and the colleague wanted us all to meet weekly for 30 min. We did, and if the student was stuck, the colleague listened patiently and then, when the 30 min were done, said “Good job!” to the student, said “Good day!” to me, and was on to something else, presumably another meeting. But I would then clear out my afternoon and spend several additional hours with the student on the board or looking at the code, until we hashed the problem out in detail and the student had a number of very concrete things to try, along with appropriate follow-up strategies. What’s the point of having an advisor (or two!) if you can’t actually get advice when you need it?

If I hate a book, I drop it and don’t look back. If I stop caring about a TV show, I never watch it again. I hate wasting time on anything that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, like business meetings whose only product is unfinished business.


  1. The only thing worse than the meeting that rushes to hit every single item (without resolving any of them) is the meeting that spends 55 of the allotted 60 minutes on information items and then everyone is packing up. I used to be on a committee where that would happen Every. Single. Time. The chair of the committee never seemed to be able to share the minor information items by email and present the more important information items as lead-ins to action items.

    Fortunately, that committee never did anything of substance so I was able to quit without feeling like I’m missing anything.

  2. the meeting that spends 55 of the allotted 60 minutes on information items and then everyone is packing up

    Oh yes! You must be sitting in our faculty meetings. Our chair has his heart in the right place, but is far too loquacious and cannot resits a captive audience. This past academic year we’ve had to reschedule a vote for some important items 3-4 times because he’d always schedule them at the end and we’d run out of time as the informational items were scheduled first and always took too long.

  3. I was on a committee where 95% of the meeting content was informational (could have been sent out as an email), and announcement of decisions the chairs made without talking to the membership (and we were all appointed by the Chancellor – so I kind of feel like we should have been a part of the processes). We met only twice last year – and I don’t think we got anything done. Specific programs were announced at the first meeting, and then in the second meeting canceled due to “lack of interest.” One of those was a program I would have loved to have worked on, and felt as though I volunteered to do so at meeting #1. It was all so frustrating as it is a committee I really believe in. If I were staying at this university, I would try to push back a bit on our group processes, but I’m moving next month, so hopefully I will just learn from this and find a similar committee at my new university.

  4. We currently have FULL DAY meetings which end up being entirely informational due to our excessively chatty Current Leader. I hate them so much…

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