The Happy Academic has been in the fog before, too…

This past weekend, I had meant to blog about an article in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, “Entering the Fog” by Frank “not his real name” Midler. Midler, a “newly tenured associate professor at a large Midwestern research university,” writes about his experiences participating on one of the key faculty committees at his university, something called the curriculum-policy committee. His department chair says it is an important group; a colleague who had been on the committee before describes it as “the fog.”

With those two potentially conflicting remarks, I went to my first meeting, where I met some familiar faces (other untenured faculty members) and some unfamiliar ones. The latter, I learned, were grizzled veterans of the committee, who had represented their departments, in some cases, for 20 years. An associate dean and his crew of selected college advisers (the people who knew the regulations inside and out) came in and sat at the head of the table.

I soon realized that both of my colleagues were right about the committee. Its membership consists of one representative from each department in our College of Arts and Sciences. In some cases the representative was a department’s director of undergraduate studies; in others, an interested and experienced faculty member; and in still others (like mine), a green colleague who needed seasoning.

And it was like entering the fog. I had no idea what was going on. The advising staff and long-time committee members were bantering about policy or gossiping about colleagues (weirdly, I couldn’t tell the difference) while the associate dean was bouncing a large multicolored Super Ball with frenetic energy off the table in front of him. The ball escaped only once or twice, at which point one of the advisers would run after it.

That Super Ball story is either completely made up or it has “outted” Midler because if it is real, this dean (or somebody who knows this dean) just read about himself.

Anyway, I’m my department’s representative to faculty council right now (in the second of a three year term), and while there are some similarities between my committee and the committee Midler talks about, faculty council is considerably less foggy. We vote on things, the committee is very much run by faculty, I think that the work we do actually represents “input,” and I think that the committee is a positive example of the institution’s efforts at “shared governence.”

Still, when I first started down the tenure-track path as a Happy Academic, I was most certainly not schooled in work like this. In fact, when I started my first tenure-track job, I was surprised that this sort of work existed at all, and I continue to be surprised at the amount of time that this kind of work can occupy. When I was an undergraduate and then graduate student, I assumed that college professors taught classes and did some research and maybe went to a few meetings. After I actually became a professor, I learned that a significant portion of my job– at least a third, maybe more– in reality involves work that has little to do with my own teaching or scholarship: meetings for certain, but also responsibilities that can probably be best labled “paperwork.”

Along these lines, I was (and continue to be) surprised that there actually are faculty members who seem to put these meetings and other paperwork at the center of their careers. Without being too specific here, I will just say that, like Milder, I have a number of colleagues at the university who have been on faculty council (and similar kinds of committees) for decades. I have mixed feelings about this, sort of like I have mixed feelings about term limits in Michigan state government. On the one hand, having folks on these committees who have been on them for a long time brings experience and consistency; on the other hand, “new blood” can be a good thing.

Finally, this article makes me think a bit about this concept of “shared governance.” The Community College Dean had a post that related to this, and I think he basically has some good points. Like I said, Faculty Council is a place for the faculty to give input about the way things work around here– the “shared governance” concept. But there is a very fine line between things where faculty have real input and things where faculty are more or less required to “rubber stamp” the directives approved by administrators. Further, sometimes “shared governance” looks an awful lot like administrators trying to get faculty to do the work that administrators ought to do themselves. But that’s a slightly different story.

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