A tale of two day-long meetings

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgPurdue is now on summer time, which means it is a time for day-long retreats, meetings, and types of work. I've experienced two flavors of day-long meetings, and have one or two insights to share with you about each.

My first meeting was one scheduled months in advance, with various academic heads of state (ok, not really) and leaders from across campus. The day was organized to get some specific kinds of work done, and I had high hopes; however, as it turned out, half the attendees had not read their email, and therefore had only done half of the preparation for the first activity (a teambuilding activity); this activity rather set the tone for the rest of the morning, in my opinion, and also feels fairly representative of the response to many other kinds of work this project has required.

I didn't really feel like I had much of a role in this day-long meeting. I'm on the leadership of the project, and I'm conducting the research components, but I am also the youngest person and most junior person in the group, and I sure felt like it.

An example or two: We had a brainstorming activity, and the brainstorming devolved into lots of criticism or arguing about what we were "supposed" to be doing, although as this was the leadership group, I'm not sure why they were looking to others to outline the "supposed to" part. We had a few sessions on program planning, and when area leaders shared the discussion of their program where ideas were supposed to be shared and considered, not judged per se, we devolved into more criticism. When I pointed out that I was impressed with the discussions that had developed for each area, and asked for people to be a bit more positive in giving constructive feedback, I was told I had misunderstood the criticism. I don't think I did. There was a lot of passive voice talking -- such and such "should be done" or "should be decided," rather than people deciding to make decisions themselves.

I left the meeting disgruntled to say the least. I felt put down, devalued, that my time had been wasted by people who were patronizing to me because they don't even see why I am involved. Not a great feeling.

The second meeting was an ad-hoc meeting to try to accomplish some desperately needed work that was supposed to happen last academic year, and didn't. Specifically, this has to do with my department's teaching load, strongly influenced by two introductory courses for first-year engineering students. The courses serve 4 credits for 1750+ students, and rather than having 1 3cr course and 1 1 cr course (that almost a quarter of students fail even though it is attendance based P/F) in the fall semester, we are working to make it a 2 credit course taught across fall and spring (2 semesters). There are advantages and disadvantages to this layout; debating these have taken the larger part of a year in my department. And no one has actually developing curricula, or involved many of the people who were slated to actually *teach* this course.

Rather than waiting much longer for someone to do something about the curriculum, because I am one person who will be teaching this new course in the fall and I didn't want to be left as unprepared as it looked like might happen, I took the bull by the horns and invited all the prospective course instructors to block out a week of May/June to try to discuss and nail-down the course's learning objectives, schedule, assessment. I didn't wait for someone to say, "will someone take the reins?" nor did I ask anyone's permission to do this. I just did it. My assistant booked a room for a week, one with whiteboards on many walls, and wall space for flip-chart stickies. I brought in a printer, and we had a computer with projector, big stickies, large, medium and small stickies, all my course notes and textbooks for the two times I taught the 3-cr course, sharpies, dry-erase markers, and (I confess) junk food.

We took over the space for a week -- we determined some house rules based on rules of improv comedy and the assumption of the benefit of the doubt of colleagues. We decided that as many people as could make time would have to be enough, and we asked those people who couldn't come if we could get their input in some other way - by phone, conversation, or through iteration on written documents. We determined what needed to get done as we went along, and we set out some goals for where we wanted to be by the end of our time in "the room."

People chipped in how and when they could. People brought lunch for others, or snacks for everyone in the morning. People popped in between meetings, or at the end of the day before they had to go pick up kids from daycare. People wrote thoughts on post-its and left them for others to find. If you found yourself in a conversation that was not being productive or where you were disengaging, it was up to you to step away and engage in something else (a sort of "open space" approach to the conversations).

It was hard work, but well worth it. By the end of the first day, we had a gameplan, some questions we needed to find answers to, a beginning calendar for 2009-10, some thoughts for a 3-year roll out of all the changes to make, and the start of a list of learning objectives.

It took THREE DAYS to come to some agreement on learning objectives. We made concept maps out of stickies, pulled ideas from various syllabi and past discussion documents, added, subtracted, wrote them up on Google Docs and sent them around to the group, did more editing, figured out how they related to some other curricula and courses, and then iteratively thought about how to assess them.

By the end of the last day, we weren't done. Shock. Not really. But we also had a group of committed folks who were willing to put in a bit of extra time; now (3 days later) we have a 30 page manual, organized course objectives, a plan for assessment, and a couple of cool projects that we think might solve a bunch of concerns of folks not able to be in the room.

To this meeting, I felt I had contributed. I knew that, if I wasn't contributing, I felt the authority and validation to go to a different task to contribute. I felt the space to be creative and optimistic, knowing we would get to the "real world"ness of details later. I felt my contributions and ideas were valued, as I heard them reflected back at me by others, and saw them appear on the walls, integrated into a new set of ideas.

ENGR 126/131/195 redesign groundrules

Some of our groundrules, from the Syracuse Cultural Workers

ENGR 126/131/195 redesign
Planning the schedule

ENGR 126/131/195 redesign

Using the How People Learn framework to structure class activities and assessment

So what were the differences between these two day-long experiences? From my perspective:

  • One expected participation and was disappointed; one was happy to take whatever people could contribute;
  • One was top down; the other was grassroots;
  • One presumed everyone was on the page when they weren't; the other developed house rules over time;
  • One was where people were paid to be there; the other was a volunteer effort, even if it was self-motivated to prepare us for the fall;
  • One was taken over by strong voices in the room; the other was anarchic but in the end more productive;
  • One was attended by people who apparently know better; the other was attended by people who wanted to do better.

Okay, a little snarky, I know. Sorry. I'm not trying to criticise the particular offering itself, per se, really. But I offer the contrasting story in another of the "just do it" series of posts I seem to be writing -- all the second meeting took was someone to book a room and commit some time, and be inclusive in inviting participants and grateful for whoever would show up.

It was a great help to have a project room where we could leave all our stuff, and for the time to be long enough to make some progress. We're now in the phase of writing up what we discussed, and sending it to the rest of the team for their input, and hopefully their willingness to take a particular chunk and run with it on behalf of everyone else. I'm very grateful to my colleagues (particularly Matt, David, Senay, Robin, Chell, Teri, Eric, Monica, Bill, and Cordelia) who participated in the grassroots effort -- some people dedicated a huge amount of time and effort to this planning, and it will really show. I'm almost excited to think about the fall. :-)

Speaking of which, I had better get back to editing that manual...


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I think you are learning that "teambuilding" and "brainstorming" and "centering" and all those kinds of happy horseshit actually don't move groups towards goals. What moves groups towards goals are (1) having an appropriate process for decision-making and (2) having members of the group that are competent and engaged in the substance of the goals.

Meetings focused on process are almost always doomed to failure. Process needs to be either agreed on ahead of time or imposed from above. This then allows a focus on substance.

CPP - yes to (2) but I disagree a bit re (1). We had no process when we started -- *we* decided on the process *at the beginning,* as part of the process. Not before. Not from above. We decided.

While meetings on process might be doomed to failure, I don't think that meetings *that discuss* process are so doomed. What I was trying to convey was - don't wait for someone else to sort out the process. Just DO something that ends up contributing.

After all, I think the medium - the process, here -- is part of the message about who makes decisions. If you wait for some top person, then apparently you want a decision-making hierarchy. If you just decide, and convince a lot of people to agree with you, call it academic freedom and your hierarchy will be left in the dust.

I am speaking from a departmental context where we have too democratic a process, which favors the status quo way too much, because any decision requires near unanimity. So I am not unbiased.

The key difference I see in the two cases is that in the first case, the participants are there to satisfy some external objective (someone else says it's needed.) In the second, everyone already has bought into the ultimate objective, and the issues are all around helping each other achieve them.

That, plus the fact that from what you write the second group had some rather pressing urgency as well -- no "mañana" effect.

PS: how is Google Docs working for you as a collaboration tool?

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 07 Jun 2009 #permalink

I have used Google Docs (the word processing program and the spreadsheet) to good effect. We co-wrote the major parts of a grant with one, and I kept track of attendance and grades with my TAs using the other. Re this collaboration process -- we used the spreadsheet function to keep track of all the different learning objectives and how they mapped to the Purdue Engineer of 2020 objectives, or to the strategic plan, or to the original faculty documents (approved by the college) and so forth. But, while the collaborative process works well for those with Google accounts, some folks find it too "new fangly" to partake of, so we never get their edits in the mix. Also, once we want to transfer to a "nice" format, we have to take it offline and head back to Word or Pages. So, in short, well enough.

It sounds like your first meeting was probably for people from a range of disciplines, while your second meeting was primarily people from your department. Your description of the second meeting almost sounds like an artist's commune, lots of sharing and leaving notes everywhere in the space and all that. Your department is, as I understand it, focused on educational research and related matters. People in those fields often find value in "team building activities*" and other things that CPP refers to as "horseshit." People in a lot of other disciplines (especially STEM disciplines) tend to see these things as "horseshit", and the STEM folks often prefer something more direct.

Rather than opining on which side is correct, I'll just say that if everybody in the room likes that style of running a meeting and gets into the almost artistic vibe, well, great. They're into it, they're doing it, it's working, so all good. But if other people find that the style isn't working for them, rather than decrying their refusal to fit in maybe it's better to figure out what does work for them.

In my own STEM discipline, the pedagogy researchers have a favorite lecture* on "if they aren't learning are you really teaching?" Well, one can turn this around and say "If they aren't getting into it, is it really a team-building exercise?" Say everything you want about how wonderful this sharing activity is and how dynamic and creative it is to create a certain environment, but if it just isn't working for that audience then it just isn't working for that audience. You can say that they're all a bunch of evil, cold people who are way too linear or whatever, but if your goal is to work with them then you need to work with them in whatever way actually, you know, works.

*Sorry, interactive learning exercise.

BTW, I'm not trying to be too harsh or advocate for the more linear, direct STEM people who don't like "teambuilding." While I urged you to be more accommodating of their style, I find myself needing to learn to be more accommodating of other styles when I work on university committees. The very direct, linear, literal viewpoint of the more mathematical disciplines doesn't work well when I need to do something with a person from humanities. I can sit there all I want and say that those people need to just strip this problem down to basics rather than being so indirect, but if I am the one who wants something that requires them then I won't get anywhere waiting for them to change. I change my approach when I am coming to them for something.

By the same token, when people from outside my discipline come to my department for some sort of project or whatever, I expect them to realize what they're dealing with and respond accordingly. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in the physiology department, curse at your motherfucking comrades :) When in the English department, embrace the vagueness. When in the physics department, use numbers rather than adjectives. When in the engineering education department, expect it to look more like an artist's studio rather than a machine shop. When in the mechanical engineer department, expect to see a lot of machine tools. And so forth.