Meetings: The Student Affairs Professional’s Greatest Nemesis?

Meetings: The Student Affairs Professional's Greatest Nemesis?

After taking time off from GotDegrees (partly because I needed to take time to live life in order to have something to write about, partly because I needed to take time to survive selection season), I’ve decided that I need to cut back on posts for a while- but not by much: Starting in March, I will be posting TWICE a weekon Tuesdays and Fridays. Every now and then I may post a few surprise pieces outside of the general schedule, but I feel like it’s a good idea for me to slow down so I don’t burn out and so I don’t burn you all out as readers.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming:

Meetings_Too_Damn_High

What did you do between the hours of 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM yesterday? If you’re currently working in any capacity, particularly if you’re working in student affairs, I’m willing to bet my next check that you spent at least a third of that time (maybe more) in meetings. Meetings with students, with your colleagues, with campus partners, parents, vendors, community stakeholders, supervisors, so on and so forth. Meetings to talk about projects, staff performance, collaborations, “learning opportunities” (read: any and every stupid stunt students can pull that result in conduct cases), etc. This is part of the work we do, and part of being a white collar professional in America. Sometimes strenuous, sometimes frustrating, but it’s how things get done in the workplace. Such is life, right?

So why do we complain about it so much? If people have to write articles and in some cases entire books about having better, more productive meetings, something is clearly rotten in the state of Denmark no matter how many of us claim to love what we do.

Why Does This Matter?

This topic came up for me a few weeks ago and was the focus of my second PHEATURE Phriday because as much as I love the work I do, I find that I often feel like I’m part of meetings to set up other meetings to talk about the content of more meetings; a good friend and colleague often says that at my institution “we have conversations about conversations,” and rarely, if ever, does anything actually come out of this endless loop of talking. Granted, change in higher education usually moves at a glacial pace, so I can’t say I’m surprised, but I can say that I’m over it happening without being questioned, especially when my personal and professional time is involved. One of the articles I posted in the aforementioned piece noted that professionals spend nearly 9 hours a week in project update meetings, and I actually think this figure is quite low for SAPros- I can spend that much time in individual staff one on one meetings alone so it’s W closer to 15-20 hours for me.

In most cases, I can deal with this- I love meeting with my students and catching up, or checking in with colleagues on projects we’re doing together and in these instances these sessions are as much social as they are professional (more on this later). However, there are many, many cases where I feel like my time might be better spent elsewhere- and clearly this is a sentiment shared by folks in and out of higher education. At a time where we are dealing with decreased funding and resources, fewer staff doing more work, and an increasing sense that accountability to stakeholders is necessary, why are we fine with sitting in rooms for hours at a time, wandering down winding paths that lead to nowhere? We don’t have time for this, nor do we have the energy to dedicate to this project- especially if we want to help our students and ourselves. Higher education is often served with a heaping side of bureaucracy, and it’s no wonder that students can often feel like we don’t hear them or see them and their concerns and needs- we’re too busy sitting in the conference room next door discussing how to do the work instead of doing it! I imagine that this trend also contributes to burnout among staff- another issue we don’t need when most of us already do the work of multiple professionals.

Why is this happening? How did we get here? How do we fix the problem and save ourselves from the scourge of infinite meetings?

3hrmeeting

Why Do We Have So Many Meetings?

Let’s be honest- if I really knew the answer to this question, I would be a public intellectual selling books on the national stage and hiring a staff to run this blog for me (life goals?). There are a million reasons why we may have an excess of meetings that pop up on our calendars and why we allow them to take over, and there’s no way I can cover them all here. I do think that there are some common ones that I’ve seen that really grind my gears (in the words of Peter Griffin) and that I think we can work on. In no particular order:

  • Disorganization and Miscommunication. To an INTJ like me, wasting my time is like spitting in my face or insulting my mother- there are few things you can do to me that will anger me more. When we have meetings to update others on projects, make decisions, or otherwise do the work needed in our organizations we end up meeting the most when we don’t dedicate the time to prepare beforehand. Think about the last staff meeting you had to attend- did you actually read through the notes from the last meeting or the required readings or materials to discuss? If you didn’t, on behalf of the people who did, you should probably know someone likely resisted the urge to throw something at you- or worse. Other questions I have for you: Did you set an agenda? Time limits? Action items at the end of the meeting? If professors can do it for classes, why can’t we do it as professionals? Not communicating that you didn’t meet expectations, or providing updates that may change the nature of the conversation is another major issue here that can further make more work for others (also not a good look).
  • Desire for Social Interaction: Remember above when I said that some of the best meetings can be times for social interaction as much as they are for professional development? Don’t worry- I haven’t changed my mind on that and I really do believe it. However, the problem lies in the tendency for the scale to tip in the favor of the social side and not to do enough in the way of professional work. In most cases, people who work in student affairs are naturally social- even if they tend to be more introverted, they usually (hopefully!) like helping others and working with others so it’s natural to get caught up in conversation, even if it is professionally stimulating. However, staff meetings are rarely the best time to do this- in the case of my student staff team that meets from 8:00-9:30 PM (usually split into two halves each for 45 minutes), the LAST thing they want to do is to sit in a room late at night so keeping it strictly or mostly business is highly preferred. Coffee dates, lunches and happy hours are better suited for non-work related chit chat- save your best energy for the tasks at hand in the workplace.
  • Reluctance To Set Limits: This works a couple of ways- for one, I think we’re reluctant at times to cut conversations off and to ask people to hold their thoughts for more appropriate times or places, either out of a fear that we’re stifling discussion or that we’ll upset someone. This leads to meetings that have no agendas, fluid agendas or agendas that get tossed out completely and to meetings that run way over the scheduled time. No one wants to be the person who cuts off others or makes others upset- but by allowing folks to talk unchecked and for meetings to go on and on, you’re far more likely to upset people by wasting time. The other way that limits are needed and often neglected is by using one type of meeting to address multiple concerns and levels of concerns instead of being strategic about time. In our roles, we have many minor needs, some day to day concerns, major crises and emergent situations, and long-range concerns- spending hours having a larger conversation about strategic direction when you really need to figure out what’s happening in the office this week makes no sense and can severely impact your office’s ability to move forward in meeting any challenges at all. It’s true that in our profession we are often overworked and have to do the work of what should be two or three professionals- but in doing so, we need to prioritize what’s important, learn to say no, and spend the time we do have in the right places.

How Do We Fix This?

So here’s what we know so far:

  • Meetings are often crucial to our success as SAPros.
  • They’re also a huge drain on our time and energy.
  • We’re partly to blame for some of this due to bad habits.

Clearly, we can’t do our work without meeting together- so how do we do it better? Some suggestions from me below:

  • Be realistic and efficient about time and resources. If you only have time for a 60 minute meeting, don’t pull together material for 90 minutes or more- realistically you should be setting aside at least 10-15 minutes of your time for any unexpected issues, questions, concerns, announcements, etc. My personal rule is to have enough content to fill 75% of your time because you’ll more than likely run over. If you don’t have enough to talk about or if your topic can easily be covered in a quick e-mail exchange or through stopping by someone’s office, avoid putting another meeting on your calendar. Respect the time of whoever you’re meeting with- students, staff, faculty, or otherwise- and don’t overbook.
  • Set an agenda- and actually follow it. I don’t have large staff meetings unless I have some set agenda planned- make sure you know what you want to get out of times together and do your best to share that with folks in the meeting (bonus points if you do it beforehand). NEVER schedule a meeting longer than 10-15 minutes without an agenda- it’s way too easy to get off track and lose focus.
  • Do your homework BEFORE the meeting- or be honest about it if you didn’t. If you need to read something or review notes beforehand, DO IT. It’s exhausting and infuriating to have to take time out of my schedule to sit in meetings where I spend time watching others do things they could have done before they got to the meeting. I get that this can’t always happen- the nature of our roles requires flexibility, but me allowing you to disrespect me and my time isn’t being flexible- it’s being negligent. If you can’t adequately prepare, let whomever you’re meeting with know so you can reschedule- don’t be the office douchebag who always comes in empty-handed.
  • Make sure to end the meeting with takeaways and action items. This one is harder to do. We can’t always ensure action on everything we discuss. It’s still important to work towards having concrete takeaways and towards giving folks work to do afterwards- it can curb the need for more meetings and provide opportunities for professional growth.
  • Connect with colleagues on your own time. Notice that I didn’t say that you can’t be social in meetings when it’s appropriate. Some degree of this is necessary and you do need to get along with your colleagues when working together so it’s to be expected that you’ll want to catch up. However, dragging out a meeting when others have important work to do isn’t a good look- and for the introverts in the room who run on lower reserves of social energy, it’s draining to be stuck in endless social interactions. If you’re spending longer than 10 minutes a meeting doing this, consider setting up a separate time to check in or making that part of the meeting optional.
  • Check your ego at the door. SAPros like to talk and to get their opinions and thoughts out there- again, not a surprise- but talking just to hear yourself speak or to avoid making a decision isn’t being collegial. Be willing to take the space you need and to make space for others and to consider your office or department’s shared goals, mission and values in making decisions. Resist the temptation to place yourself and your wants above your students’ needs.
  • Consider reorganizing your meeting structure. One of my favorite professional reads of the past few months was Patrick Lencioni’s Death By Meeting. One of his suggestions is to implement varying levels of meetings to best use time. A quick 5-10 minute check-in at the beginning of each day can give everyone a sense of the daily agenda and any emergent issues coming up, while a weekly staff meeting can be used best for project updates and more ongoing concerns. Larger conversations or summaries can be done in monthly progress meetings while strategic decisions are usually best saved for quarterly off-sites or retreats. However you choose to do it, be thoughtful about when and where you spend time so you don’t get caught up in larger issues and ignore the day-to-day dramas.

spiderman_meetingsAgain, I’m not opposed to meetings in general- if I was, there’s no way I’d survive as long as I have in a career that requires so many of them. However, if we’re going to avoid burning out, angering each other and neglecting our biggest stakeholders- our students- we’ve got to rethink how we do them going forward.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this piece and got something out of it! Please share your thoughts on whether you think our meeting culture is excessive, as well as any tips and tricks you use to run great meetings. I’ll be back later in the week with a very long overdue PROTIP Phriday- thanks for reading and as always please, please, please like, comment and share with your friends! See you again soon!

J

PHEATURE Phriday: 5 Words To Ruin An Interview With A SAPro

PHEATURE Phriday

 

So if you’re a regular reader of my PROTIP Phriday posts, you’re probably wondering what’s up- no post last week, and now I’ve come up with this new series, PHEATURE Phriday- what the hell is that? Let me explain. While I love my PROTIP posts, I’ve found that they don’t get the exposure I’d like for them to, and I’ve also found that at times it gets hard to actually come up with them week in and week out. In an attempt to not burn the theme out, I’m swapping in a series that will appear every other week, PHEATURE Phriday (yes, the corny PH- prefixes will stay). PHEATURE Phriday will be a space where I can highlight anything and everything that catches my eye in a given week- posts can have one specific focus (as today’s will) or be a summary of stuff that’s been on my mind or on my social media feed. I’ll try this out for the next couple of months and see if it gets more exposure- I may also get bored with it and try something else (remember: my soapbox, my rules…) so we’ll have to see.

So, what am i featuring pheaturing this week?

#FiveWordsToRuinADate

#FiveWordsToRuinADate!

If you’re on Twitter, you’ve probably seen this hashtag recently- it’s been picking up steam since the middle of January. We’ve all been in that situation where you’re out with someone and everything is good… until they say that one thing that makes you look at them funny, smile and nod while you plot your exit strategy. Maybe you’ve even been the one dropping the bomb occasionally- hey, it happens to us all eventually… The point is that someone actually took the time to come up with a hashtag to highlight some of them- and it took off like wildfire. #FiveWordsToRuinADate got coverage on CBS News, Glamour Magazine, DailyMail.com, CNN, Huffington Post, USA Today… and if you read some of the Tweets that use the hashtag, you can clearly see why:

https://twitter.com/uwupilocij36/status/560731897337098241

#FiveWordsToRuinADate taps in to that inner instinct we all have to occasionally let the worst of us slip out at the absolute worst times- and our need to be able to relate to each other around the awkwardness of shared cultural rituals like dating. The posts are hilarious and have definitely kept me laughing over the past two weeks of running training sessions and doing interview after interview after interview for summer staff positions… so much so that I’ve been inspired to do my own student affairs themed spinoff for my first PHEATURE Phriday.
If dating occasionally brings out the awkward in us all, the interview process can trigger some of the most oddball behavior known to man. I’ve been privileged enough to be part of interview teams for various roles for a long time now, and sometimes I’ve heard things that made me want to cry, scream, drop the phone or hang up in disgust. In many of these cases, I’ve also had to put the end of my pen in mouth to keep from laughing my you-know-what off at the insanity of it all. In an attempt to bring a smile to all of our faces at the end of the workweek, (hopefully) start a new trend, and to offer some words to the wise to anyone interviewing next week, here’s a few examples of #FiveWordsToRuinAnInterview with a student affairs professional.

Note: Examples based on actual comments or things I imagine people saying, but edited to protect the guilty…

 #FIVEWORDSTORUINANINTERVIEW (With An SAPro):

“I’m allergic to glitter glue.”

“Challenge and Support? What’s that?”

“Icebreakers give me night terrors.”

“No nights & weekends off?!!”

“I have to do rounds?”

“Do you have free gyms?”

“That’s a big time commitment…”

“We get paid HOW MUCH?!!”

“How’s the dining hall food?”

“Hedgehogs can’t live in halls?”

“I don’t DO bulletin boards.”

“When do I get promoted?”

“Do we get offices too?”

“So YOU’LL be my supervisor?…”

“You want me to WHAT?”

“References might be an issue…”

“You’re paying for my move…”

“My hotel room kinda sucked…”

“Meeting with STUDENTS? Oh crap…”

“I’ll have the filet mignon…”

“Just one drink with lunch?”

“SHOTS! SHOTS! SHOTS! SHOTS! SHOTS!”

“Please- you’re my only hope!”

“YOU CALLED MY LAST BOSS!?”

“I can’t smoke with students?”

“I don’t like many people…”

“Six more months of probation…”

“Can you call me back?”

“Questions? Don’t you ask those?”

“My mom’s in the lobby…”

That’s it for my first PHEATURE Phriday… hope you enjoyed and that you stop by every other week to check them out! PROTIP Phriday will be back next week- I promise! Until then, enjoy your weekend and watch your words… especially if they come in multiples of five!

J

What I Learned About Student Affairs From… How To Get Away With Murder

 

HTGAWM[1]

When I wrote and uploaded my post from this series focusing on Scandal, I had no idea that it would eventually be read 4,000 times- but once it caught on I knew that a post on How To Get Away With Murder would have to follow at some point. Now that our long national nightmare is almost over and Shondaland returns to our TV sets tomorrow night, I decided it was finally time to take a closer look at the newest of Ms. Rhimes’ trio of top-billed shows and how it can be used to highlight key lessons in student affairs.

I’m not just selecting HTGAWM to get hits (although that’s definitely a factor here); the lives of Professor Annalise Keating and her Keating Five captivated me from the beginning. Want proof? Here’s what I said on Facebook the night of the premiere:

HTGAWM_GotDegrees
OK, so I didn’t know the correct spelling of her name at the time… sue me 🙂

I love this show not only because of its amazing lead character- though Annalise really is impressive in her own way and I love what fellow Rhode Islander Viola Davis has accomplished- but because of the inside perspective we get on her students’ lives and what the overall law school experience is like. Whenever we see higher education on our TV screens, it’s typically of the 18-22 year old undergraduate variety (with the exception of Community, which may or may not be next on my list…) so seeing the graduate/professional school experience dramatized provides great fodder for conversation. That and the whole flashback, double murder mystery angle makes for some great TV, particularly if you’re in college administration.

What I Learned About Student Affairs From... How To Get Away With Murder

So what can we learn from Annalise and her crew both when class is and is not in session?

The Keating Five (and most other graduate/professional students) are in need of serious student support resources.

Middleton University’s law school is one of the best in America- on par with Harvard and Yale Law if we take our main characters’ word for it- but we might not know it if we looked at the lives of the students. I’m assuming that Middleton doesn’t have grad housing, but if they did Wes may want to look into it; law students living next to drug dealers who get mixed up in coed murder plots isn’t really a good look. Connor Walsh, our resident nymphomaniac, could probably benefit from some visits to the campus counseling center for his many, many issues. Michaela Pratt could probably benefit from some sessions too, as well as a trip to the campus LGBTQ+ Center with her fiancé when he visits again. All of the Keating Five could use some hobbies and exposure to extracurricular activities like the Law Review they were exposed to early on in the show- clearly they get into trouble when they have time on their hands… In short, law school is no joke and Middleton clearly has a lot of room to grow when it comes to easing the pressure for their charges.

Student affairs professionals know all too well the struggles of the students on HTGAWM even if they don’t have a JD- no matter what you study, graduate school is a challenge that we may not necessarily prepare students for enough before or during their course of study. Our country is college-obsessed; we do everything we can to clear the way for students to make it to an undergraduate experience and to develop K-16 pipelines- but with the job market changing to the point where today’s BA equals yesterday’s high school diploma, not stretching the conversation to at least include the idea of post-baccalaureate study puts students at a disadvantage if they do end up reaching for more education. Colleges tend to do a solid job of offering career education and services, but graduate preparation tends to fall on departments- what if students decide to go to graduate school in a different discipline (I highly doubt for instance that my Psychology or Africana Studies advisors could have prepped me for my Higher Ed program no matter how amazing they were)?

If students do end up making it to grad school, they do so often with obligations to partners and families, jobs, a pile of undergraduate student debt, and an even bigger pile of stress and pressure to make the next few years count. Are our institutions doing what we can to support them? Do the grad programs or schools in your institution have offices of student affairs? Connections to other resources on campus? Do they highlight opportunities for learning and growth outside of the classroom? Better yet, are you collaborating with SAPros in grad schools and programs to give students in our undergraduate programs a taste of what graduate school life is like? Offering these types of opportunities can give students a better mental image of what life after the BA is like- so they don’t end up like our Middleton heroes.

Refusal to check one’s privileges can really throw a monkey wrench in your work- even if your dad is a federal judge.

Walking, talking privilege and great comedy relief in one compact, preppy package...
Walking, talking privilege and great comedy relief in one compact, preppy package…

 

As someone who has attended and worked at elite institutions of higher education, I’ve seen enough Asher Millstones to last me a lifetime- he’s cocky, arrogant, culturally appropriates like it’s his second job, flirts openly with his indirect supervisor (although it’s probably Bonnie’s fault for taking it further), and just plain gross. He probably deserves to be knocked out with the trophy that was stolen from him late in the season. However, he does seem to have a moment of introspection and reflection in an episode where he has to work with Annalise and the rest of the team to help clear the name of a defendant from one of his father’s old trials. After finding out that his dad allowed a senator to perjure himself in order to get a federal appointment, he has to confront not only his father but also the idea that many of the advantages he received in life as a result of his dad’s position were based on lies- which for a while is too much for him to bear. In the end, he comes clean to Annalise about what he knows in exchange for the trophy and for protection of his father’s legacy- a step towards acknowledging his privilege without completely destroying his family.

What can we learn from this? All of us- yes, ALL- have privilege in one way or another. Even if your identity is targeted on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and ability, if you have a Bachelor’s degree you are in the top 30% of the country when it comes to educational attainment (Master’s Degree? Try top 10%. A Ph.D or professional degree would put you in the top 1-5%). Simply living in a good neighborhood or a more wealthy state or region of the country can provide us opportunities that we don’t even realize until we think about them. The point of checking privilege is not to get bogged down in beating yourself up for having it or to have pity on those who are targeted- it’s to recognize how your background affects the work you do, the decisions you make, the people you choose to hire and promote, etc. and actively working to remedy any unintentional situations where you show bias. Sometimes you have to do it strategically like Asher did so you don’t endanger your position, but it’s still important to take action. Tears and defense mechanisms won’t make things better- self-awareness and swift movement will.

Trying to save everyone will only lead to you losing yourself.

I couldn’t do this post without taking a minute to focus on Keating Five member Laurel Castillo- we did go to the same university for undergrad after all (don’t believe me? Frank references it in the first or second episode). Laurel represents Brunonia well- she’s brilliant, kind, and wants to get her JD so she can use it to help the underprivileged. Great, right? The only problem is that she seems to look for the good in everyone and help them even when it’s to her detriment and to the detriment of her team. In an episode where she tried to help a teen who was accused of his father’s murder, she almost blows the case and her own reputation to clear his name. She takes on extra work with the local legal aid office to build a better relationship with her boyfriend, Kan… but ends up cheating on him with Frank and compromising herself (and getting embarrassed when Frank’s girlfriend catches them in the act). Overall, I still like her and will still claim her as a fellow Brown alum, but I’m going to need for her to get her life together.

Student affairs professionals get into this field to help people- we clearly don’t do it for the money, short hours or ease of work- but at the same time we need to recognize that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. If you’ve done work particularly with alcohol and drug education, you’re probably familiar with Prochaska’s stages of change that describe the work necessary to create change on an individual level; spending excess time on people who are precontemplative and not ready for change is an easy way to get frustrated and burnt out very quickly in this field. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a student is to expose them to resources, build up an argument for changing their behavior, and then leave it up to them to do the rest of the work- at the end of the day this is THEIR learning experience (you’ve completed yours) and they need to be in the driver’s seat.

Finally, boundary setting with your students is crucial- no loose appendages on dead girls’ phones, please…

What I Learned About Student Affairs From... How To Get Away With Murder
Not the question you want to get asked by your spouse… or Human Resources for that matter…

If you’re a regular HTGAWM watcher, you know where you were and what you were doing when you saw the scene I posted at the end of my last “What I Learned…” post that begins with Annalise removing her makeup and wig and ends with the best question between two married tenured professors ever: “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?” Sam and Lila’s affair is a blatant, clear violation of ethics and most institutional policies. It’s a a no-brainer if I ever saw one… which is why I’ll focus on the real culprit here: Annalise. No, she hasn’t slept with anyone yet (unlike Sam, Bonnie and Frank)- although her relationship with Wes suggests something is up between them it’s not of the carnal variety- but she clearly has issues with boundaries when it comes to her students. Her office and home occupy the same building, and she doesn’t do much to separate the two and keep them out of her business. The Keating Five come and go at all hours, which leads to Wes catching Annalise in a compromising situation and eventually to the center story of the season: Sam’s death at the hands of her students (again, mostly Wes’ fault… seems to be a pattern here). At the end of the Winter finale it becomes clear she’s probably done much more to trample on traditional student-professor boundaries- it’s truly a wonder that she’s able to keep her messiness a secret and if she still has her job by the finale it will be an act of God.

Common sense (or your grad program’s professional ethics/proseminar class) would tell you that sleeping with students is a no-go, but there are many, many other ways to cross boundaries that are much more innocuous at face value. Are you inviting individual students to your apartment or office late at night without witnesses if you’re a live-in staff member? Are you allowing students to know intimate personal details of your life? Do you take students out for meals or for drinks (illegal if they’re under 21, still potentially shady if they are of age given the circumstances)? If you’re doing something with your students that you only do with friends, or if you’re doing something that could be turned around on you later and used to make you look bad, don’t do it. If your boss wouldn’t do it with you, don’t do it. If it generally doesn’t seem like it makes sense- don’t do it! You have plenty of time to be friends with your students when they graduate or no longer work for you- and at that point, no one will have anything to say about impropriety. Remember, kids- true love and friendship waits until May… and Public Safety usually doesn’t take days off!

How-To-Get-Away-With-Murder-GIF1[1]

That’s the end of the road for HTGAWM lessons- hopefully this post will be as enthralling for you as the show will be tomorrow night. As always, feel free to add any additional thoughts in the comments below. Friday will be the first of a new series that will feature things that caught my eye this week- Pheature Phriday (PROTIP Phriday isn’t going away but is on break until next week)!

J