Is there any saving “the meeting?” Well, maybe!

Yes, they are a pain. But John Cleese is right: colleges (from the department level to the committee level), like any organizations, can’t function without them.  As well, collaborative group projects for students can be a high-impact learning opportunity — but students like meetings about as much as we do.

I appreciate finding tips that make collaborative work easier — figured you would, too. So, here’s a piece from today’s online Chronicle on how working groups can hack their own organizational dynamics not only to improve performance, but to enhance buy-in from members as well.

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Regrouping the Group Meeting

They’re often a colossal waste of time. So how do we make them useful?

Regrouping the Group Meeting 1

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

How often do you hear a colleague say, “I’m so excited to attend today’s group meeting,” or a student remark, “How is it possible that my group meetings are so stimulating and engaging?”

What’s that? You’ve never heard anyone say those things? Me neither. I dread meetings for the same reason that everyone does: They’re usually a waste of time.

Most often, a meeting consists of a group of people who gather to discuss a particular
topic, to make or move toward a decision, or to (dare I use the b-word?) brainstorm. These well-intentioned discussions too frequently involve only a few of the many present. The decision would usually be more efficiently made online. And as for brainstorming, the idea seems to work better in theory than in practice.

All across the country on a weekly basis we suffer in meetings. We waste time, we snooze. More and more, we don’t even pretend we’re engaged. People go to meetings with their phones purposefully juiced up, ready to send texts, check email, or play Fruit Ninja.

And that colossal waste of time occurs on a wide scale. Take research groups: According to the National Science Foundation, in the United States for the disciplines of science, engineering, and health combined, there were 62,947 postdoctoral researchers and 626,820 graduate students in 2011. At a rate of one two-hour group meeting a week, that amounts to roughly 69 million hours of their time spent each year in a typical research meeting—and that doesn’t count undergraduates, faculty members, or staff members. Out of those 69 million hours, we probably squeeze, at most, a million hours of true productivity.

It was that huge loss of potential that led me to seek a solution to my own research group’s weekly meetings.

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Best outcomes for interdisciplinary goals: Double-down on silos?

I teach and research in Communication Studies, which has been described both as an academic discipline and an interdisciplinary field. Even those who insist on the “discipline” label as a matter of scholarly identity will admit that the discipline is internally quite “interdisciplinary”: there are not only numerous and diverse sub-fields (e.g., relational/interpersonal, organizational, rhetoric and public address, mass communication, cultural media studies, etc.), but numerous and diverse approaches to study (e.g., close textual analysis, qualitative ethnography, quantitative content and audience analyses, experimental design, etc.). One of the things I love about my discipline is the potential it has to put diverse scholars in conversation with one another in areas of common interest — for me, for example, political communication, media studies or visual communication. But like any discipline, it has its devotees of narrow research silos as well. And these folks are often accused of insularity and an unwillingness (perhaps an incapacity?) to speak to others outside their silo when cross-silo collaboration should be encouraged.

Moreover, some of my best friends are in interdisciplinary area studies! (How’s that for a backhanded compliment?) Fields such as gender studies, Africana studies, environmental studies and so on are rich with possibility not just for interdisciplinary research, but for teaching and public advocacy as well. And the growing economic and social pressures on colleges and universities have sometimes led to the encouragement of interdisciplinary collaboration for scholars in disciplines whose silos are having difficulty meeting market demand in areas such as student enrollment (he said with some distaste).

But while interdisciplinarity is enjoying a moment of seemingly uncontroversial approval in higher education, the champions of academic disciplines are pushing back… and with some compelling reasons. From my tomorrows-professor e-mail listserv (have you subscribed yet?), here’s a provocative piece originally in Inside Higher Ed (which you should also follow… details below).

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Folks:
The posting below offers a counter argument to the emphasis on interdisciplinary research in higher education. It is by Scott Jaschik and it appeared in the February 26, 2014 issue of Inside Higher Ed, an excellent – and free – online source for news, opinion and jobs for all of higher education. You can subscribe by going to: http://insidehighered.com/. Also for a free daily update from Inside Higher Ed, e-mail <scott.jaschik@insidehighered.com>. Copyright 2014 Inside Higher Ed. Reprinted with permission.

Regards,
Rick Reis  (reis@stanford.edu)

A Call to Embrace Silos

Everyone, it seems, wants to promote interdisciplinary work. College and university presidents love to announce new interdisciplinary centers. Funders want to support such work. Many professors and graduate students bemoan the way higher ed places them in silos from which they long to free themselves, if only they could get tenure for interdisciplinary work.

Jerry A. Jacobs, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, wants to end the interdisciplinary love fest. His new book, In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and Specialization in the Research University (University of Chicago Press), challenges the conventional wisdom that academe needs to get out of disciplines to solve the most important problems and to encourage creative thinking. The most significant ideas (including those related to problems that cross disciplines) in fact come out of specialized, discipline-oriented work, Jacobs argues. Further, he says that the idea that disciplines don’t communicate right now is overstated — and that such communication can be encouraged without weakening disciplines.

[more after the jump]

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