Tag Archives: higher education

How your meetings could be more like classes

Recently, I read a post by Rands about how to run a meeting, and was blown away. Not because of Rands’ excellent writing (though it is; it always is), but because in explaining the attentional dynamics of how to run meetings, he was really explaining how to manage a classroom. I had a bit of a lightbulb moment right there.

I’d never thought about meetings as places that could be like a classroom before, despite the fact that many of the meetings I attend are actually held in classrooms. (Collect one Dunce Point; do not pass GO, do not collect $200.) Oh sure, I understand that you need a facilitator to ensure that everyone who has something to say gets to say it, and that people whose verbosity exceeds their contribution don’t dominate the space. But what Rands is talking about is attention wrangling: making sure everyone stays focused and contributes, and that people go away with their knowledge and understanding improved, and with a clear idea of where they are going next.

This is absolutely what being an educator is all about.

Rands writes:

A referee’s job is to shape the meeting to meet the requirements of the agenda and the expectations of the participants. Style and execution vary wildly from referee to referee, but the defining characteristic is the perceptions of the meeting participants. A good referee is not only making sure the majority of the attendees believe progress is being made, they are aware of who does not believe that progress is being made at any given moment.

… which isn’t really all that far from:

An educator’s job is to shape the class to meet the requirements of the curriculum and the needs of the learners. Style and execution vary wildly from educator to educator, but the defining characteristic is the engagement of the learners. A good educator is not only making sure that the majority of the attendees are learning, they are aware of who is not learning at any given moment.

If you want to take this analogy further, you can think of traditional, top-down, boss-runs-everything meetings as primary education, where the teacher is very much in charge, and hands down information with minimal critique or interrogation from those in attendance. At the other end of the spectrum, adult education at its best is all about facilitating sessions with a light touch, allowing everyone to explore the material for themselves while staying on track. And gosh, I wish I attended more meetings like that. I mean, by the time someone’s old enough to attend a business meeting, they’re old enough to be treated like an adult, right?

Rands’ post made me think about the discussions we are having in higher education as we start questioning the old didactic model and moving towards something more interactive, student-led, and — whisper it — enjoyable. And I started wondering how well those arguments might be applied to the management of meetings in the workplace. Just as it’s a huge waste of resources to have students in class who are not actually learning (or who are doing so in functionally-limited ways), the cumulative workplace productivity that gets pissed away because the bodies in the room aren’t engaged doesn’t bear thinking about.

Disclaimer: I’m not exactly inventing the wheel, here. While I want to believe that many of you work in places where meetings are managed sensibly, I’m assured that there are plenty of workplaces in which meetings are still very much a problem. So if you do work somewhere where meetings are useful, if not actuallt enjoyable, then the rest of this post may not be for you — though I hope you’ll appreciate it as an intellectual exercise, if nothing else.

The person leading the session must add value. Historically, education has involved sitting passively and listening for an hour or two at a time while someone dispenses information, a sort of pre-digital iTunes U on highly degradable reel-to-reel tape. Clearly, in an era where most things worth knowing find their way onto the Internet, and students have to pay to attend university*, such behaviour is nuts: Nevertheless, there remains a population of educators whose idea of teaching is to read aloud from their slides. While I can’t substantiate or quantify this with reference to the literature, I have noticed that when people find out this is something I’m interested in, many of them are quick to tell me about this lecturer they had at university who used to read aloud from … you get the idea. Old-school models of what classes should look like still persist.

Likewise, workplace meetings of the kind where one person talks and everyone else listens are still alive and kicking. Seth Godin argues that disseminating information is a legitimate type of meeting, but I’m less and less sure of this as my time starts feeling increasingly precious. (Though maybe I’m just becoming increasingly precious ;-P). Just as there is a grassroots movement underway to try to rid education of the kind of ‘teaching’ that is really reading aloud, so we should be taking the same approach to eradicate broadcast-style meetings. Surely in both cases it would have been better to send round a document in advance, then take advantage of valuable face-time to have some sort of informed discussion?

Good session management means making sure everyone in the room understands why they are there. Devil’s advocates will by this point be arguing that not everyone reads documents that are sent around. Well, not everyone engages in information-dump meetings either. I mean, you can get me into the room and you can impose a no-laptop rule and whatever other sanctions you choose — but fundamentally, if I can’t see the point, I’m going to go off and be a tourist inside my own head, since that’s where all the really interesting stuff is happening. As educators, when we see this this disengagement happening in the classroom, we try to do something about it by emphasising to those in the room the relevance of what is being discussed. Sadly, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of facilitators I’ve encountered who have run meetings in this way, ensuring everyone is really engaged and taking the time to draw out the more recalcitrant attendees. And I think that’s kind of a shame.

As group size increases, monitoring and remediating disengagement gets harder. I hypothesise that there’s a direct relationship between a facilitator’s skill and what size group they can wrangle at once without disengagement setting in. I had originally written that larger groups are fine for broadcast-style meetings — but actually, larger groups just encourage anonymity, diffusion of responsibility, and loafing. And anyway, if you you’re going to broadcast, why not circulate a video or document so people can watch or read it at a time that’s convenient for them? It’s worth considering the participant’s experience: small groups increase the potential for better-quality interactions between those present.

To keep people engaged, you have to sustain their attention. My most popular post on this site is When giving presentations, the only rule that matters is the rule of attention, and I’m pretty sure this whole argument applies to meetings too. If you don’t get people’s attention to start with, you won’t even get as far as being able to convince them of the relevance of what you are saying. But once you have their attention, you have to wrangle it, or it will just wander off again; attention is fickle. Moving things along every five, ten, or fifteen minutes will help; the brain is crazy for novelty.

Nevertheless, even an agenda won’t save you if each item on that agenda lasts for half an hour or more; even the most pertinent meetings can lose our attention if they go on too long. Here’s Seth Godin:

Understand that all problems are not the same. So why are your meetings? Does every issue deserve an hour? Why is there a default length?

Excepting the rule of attention, rules are a millstone. I’ve seen people discuss photocopying for half an hour, for no other reason than there was sufficient slack in the meeting schedule. Courtesy for other people’s time goes a long way: while this might be all you have to do today, the other person could be squeezing you in between studying, caring for an elderly relative, and working a part-time job. My nightmare is people who schedule one-to-one meetings lasting an hour or more to ‘chat’ about a single issue, with no plan or structure in mind. I mean, at least in a one-to-one tutorial, the ensuing discomfort could be offset by having some pre-prepared exercises to work through, giving the whole thing a bit of structure. Hey, there’s another tip from education: do the preparatory work — it’s a whole lot less excruciating for everyone concerned.

Rules do pervade education: parcelling up learning into arbitrarily-quantised chunks of 60 or 120 minutes is, objectively, pretty weird, when really what you’d like is to teach X until you are done teaching X, or until the students have run out of attention, then call a recess. But much as I find it hard to justify two-hour lectures, I understand that this rules-based architecture is driven by the practicalities of scheduling lecture theatre allocation across the whole campus, for a population of several thousand students, each of whom is pursuing one of a hundred or so different three-year degree courses. Suddenly, organising a one-hour meeting for seven people across different sections of your company doesn’t seem quite so bad, huh? ;o)

It’s worth distinguishing between ‘rules’ and ‘constraints’. By rules, I mean ‘hand-me-downs’: the things we do because the guy before us, or the guy before him, did them that way, and that we’re too lazy to change. Constraints are quite the opposite: these are deliberately-adopted restrictions designed to keep us on track and force us to be creative. Agendas, when adhered to, are one form of constraint; the curriculum can be another. There’s a whole organisational cult around the daily scrum meeting, which is short and time-limited and forces people to get to the point. I know people who work in teams that run a daily scrum, and from talking to them, it sounds excellent. However, it’s almost certainly less well-suited to academics, since the nature of our work means we’re mostly solitary, even when we are doing collaborative research — leaving aside that many of us don’t observe a standard 9-5, or have predictable hours day to day.

Two thoughts to finish with. First, as the estimable David Farbey pointed out at TCUK10,

“Team working is “I’ll do X, you do Y” — not circulating a document for everyone to read.”

And the second, which just scrolled past on Twitter right now (synchronicity or apophenia? It doesn’t really matter): Meetings aren’t work. They’re what we do as a penance for not rolling along like clockwork..

Postscript: Okay, there’s one other rule I like, too: the rule of two feet, as practiced at unconferences and barcamps. If, despite your best efforts, you’re not learning or contributing, go somewhere else where you can learn or contribute. I understand that this might be contentious (leave class? walk out of a meeting?), but I dare you to tell me that there’s never been a meeting, or a class, where the only thing stopping you from leaving was a vague sense of awkwardness that you ought to be there — and I happen to think it can be done gracefully, without being rude.

* Note for North Americans and others: until recently — the last decade or so — a university education in the UK was effectively free. Yes, really free, as in beer. Summary here; you can trace a lot of the bitterness in UK higher education from the moment that Tony Blair’s Labour government (yes, they’re the ones who’re supposed to be socialists) decided to turn universities into businesses. Important exception: Scotland, because it is awesome and now decides its own education funding policies, still does not charge Scottish students top-up fees. Pro tip for future students: be born in Scotland.


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On success and reward in academia

So it’s been six months since I blogged here, which is frankly atrocious. Having said that, it doesn’t really feel like six months, because everything is whooshing past at such a rate (although interestingly, while we all like to agree that time is speeding up as we get older, the evidence for this is equivocal).

Anyway, time to fill the void. Hi, void. How are you?


I’m coming to that, but I need to tell you some stories on my way there.


(Aside: are you following @FEMINISTHULK on Twitter? You should; CAPS LOCK has never looked so attractive.)

This post is coming out of several conversations I’ve had recently about what it’s like to be an academic, and how academics spend their time. I think a lot of this is really not transparent to people who don’t work inside academia; a lot of the time, I don’t think it’s all that obvious to students, either.

First up, here’s Mark Changizi on why he just left academia:

You can’t write a grant proposal whose aim is to make a theoretical breakthrough.

“Dear National Science Foundation: I plan on scrawling hundreds of pages of notes, mostly hitting dead ends, until, in Year 4, I hit pay-dirt.”

Lots of research is by nature theoretical and speculative, the kind of thing you just need to chew on, indefinitely, until you make a breakthrough. But increasingly, funding bodies are turning away from this sort of thing in favour of applied research. Indeed, there’s a massive hoo-hah about HEFCE‘s new Research Excellence Framework (the thing that used to be the Research Assessment Exercise — that is, the attempt to objectively measure how “good” a university department’s research is) and exactly what they mean by ‘impact’.

It’s pretty hard for theoretical research to have impact. (I guess the clue is in the word ‘theoretical’.)

Mark again:

in what feels like no time at all, two decades have flown by, and (if you’re “lucky”) you’re the bread-winning star at your university and research discipline.

But success at that game meant you never had time to do the creative theoretical leaps you had once hoped to do. You were transformed by the contemporary academic system into an able grant-getter, and somewhere along the way lost sight of the more fundamental overthrower-of-dogma and idea-monger identity you once strived for.

Mark’s a theoretician, an absurdly talented one (I can’t even envy him for that, because he’s such a nice guy) — if anyone should be able to thrive within academia, it’s him. But he’s gone, because universities are changing from environments in which academics are free to consider ideas and theories into income-seeking machines.

Wait — you thought universities were about educating people? Well, keep reading, but you might want to be sitting down.

Mark’s experience is different from mine — he’s a theoretician, and I, after many years of not knowing how to describe what I do, have finally started calling myself an applied cognitive psychologist. (My mind is much better at applying theory to existing situations than it is at coming up with entirely new ideas about how the world works.) But what our experiences of academia have in common is that it’s hard to find anyone who will reward us for doing the things we do best, even when those things are ostensibly pillars of academia.

Example? Sure. Here are the things about my job that people senior to me notice whether I am doing:

* Authoring research papers (preferably in high-impact journals)
* Bringing in money through grant funding
* Bringing in money through other means (such as knowledge transfer or consultancy work)
* Attracting negative feedback from students
* Giving a class lower- or higher-than-average marks
* Completing the requisite admin tasks required for my teaching
* Meeting my personal development goals for the year
* Turning up to the relevant staff, admin and committee meetings

Here are some things about my job that nobody senior to me will notice whether I am doing unless something is on fire:

* Teaching well (unless I am namechecked by students right in front of them)
* Reviewing and revising my lecture notes from one year to the next
* Keeping up to date with developments in the theory and practice of teaching and learning
* Being involved in learning and teaching projects at a university-wide level
* Innovating in my teaching (and encouraging or helping others to innovate)

Above all, as I found myself explaining to an incredulous American friend last week, it is pretty much impossible to get promoted on the basis of being a stellar university teacher. I don’t actually think I’m a stellar teacher — but what I’m saying is, there’s no real incentive even to try, because all I’m doing, in striving for teaching excellence, is making work for myself: not only do I have to try to squeeze all this teaching innovation in, I also have to find time to do and write up my ‘real’ research.

So what have I been doing since February? I can’t believe I’m about to type this, but here goes:

leaving the office on time, and going to the gym.

This would be the bit where I proudly announce that I now have a life, right? But actually? I’m exhausted. And it’s not from going to the gym. I’m exhausted because it’s nearly impossible to do my job inside contracted hours if you care about teaching quality. Or if you have many research projects on the go that might one day lead to publications; I have about five of these, and they eat up time and money with no guarantee that the results will ever be publishable, assuming I even have the time and energy to write them up.

teaching vs research time.png

(Disclaimer: the above graph is purely conceptual, being based on no data whatsoever, but I think most academics would recognise it.)

Did you know that academics are estimated to work somewhere in the region of 50 hours a week? Why? Well, as I can now attest from personal experience, it’s the only way they can get anything done.

So where have I been? Mostly, trying not to have a breakdown. Trying to balance having a life with conducting teaching and research to a high standard. Trying to find a balance between using the summer to write up my research findings and taking the vacation time I’m owed (and which I never have time to take during term, because, hello, teaching and admin). Trying to rationalise what I can do, and what I can’t. Practicing saying ‘no’.

It is hard. And the students are back in just over a month and I do not feel rested at all, and I haven’t done half the work I hoped to. And last summer was exactly the same.

So, void, that’s where I’ve been. Interesting times.

It’s not all doom and gloom. I’m learning things about myself, like for instance that I’m a ninja copy-editor — when you give me your poorly-written paper to co-author, I will turn it into something sublime, geeking out for hours while my fourth cup of coffee in a row goes cold. (Now I just need to figure out how to work this way with all my co-authors.) I’ve embarked on a big e-learning project, more about which soon. And I’m slowly getting more clarity about what I want and don’t want in my job. These are all good things.

And the gym? I’ll definitely keep going to the gym. Being fit is great, but more importantly, you should sponsor me to run a half-marathon for charity :)

Thanks for listening; it’s nice to be back.


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