Sunday, 5 August 2012

A Tale of Two Meetings

As one becomes more senior, it seems inevitable that a greater percentage of one’s time is spent in meetings. As a fledgling assistant professor, during a given week perhaps only 10% of my time was spent in meetings. As I built up my research program, there were more weekly meetings, mostly with students but also with collaborators. It was only once I became an Associate Professor with tenure that administrative meetings began to have a significant impact on my daily routine. These meetings were mostly in service of the inevitable set of Departmental and University committees that needed representation.

Beginning in 2005, when I became Acting Chair for Computing Science, I reached a critical tipping point: administrative meetings out-numbered research meetings. Over time, this trend has only accelerated such that most of my working day is spent in meetings, with only a small percentage of time available to meet with students or discuss research. I don't bemoan this change; after all, it was my choice to assume administrative responsibilities.

In the past two weeks, I have had two meetings that stand out in my mind. The details of these meetings have been obfuscated to protect the innocent, as well as being slightly embellished (to make a point).

Meeting A
A colleague and I met with a graduate student to discuss progress related to their thesis. The student had a satisfactory work plan that would take her through the remaining tasks towards a successful graduation. But as she talked, it dawned on me that the work could be couched in a more general way. I interjected with my idea, and for the next hour or so we went off on a brainstorming tangent. Suggestions and ideas flowed easily, and the level of excitement kept rising. Eventually, we had to stop, but only because of other commitments. We resumed the next day and made more progress, but the level of passion had been partially diminished by the interruption.

The result of the meetings was an important contribution to the student’s thesis, and one that will allow us to make broader claims about the impact of her research. The real value to me was the joy of being creative. The first meeting was exciting – even inspirational. I have had many exhilarating research meetings in my life, some of which are forever imprinted on my mind. They are very special memories. Letting one’s imagination run wild is one of the joys of life.

Meeting B
I sat around the table with four colleagues, discussing strategies for dealing with an important administrative problem. There were few options available to us, so each was assessed for its short- and long-term impact. By the end of the meeting, there was consensus on the right strategy to adopt. It was a workman-like meeting, focused on the matter at hand with no deviations from the agenda. In summary, it was a satisfying meeting that achieved all of its objectives.

For a professor, job satisfaction comes when one has at least 10% of their time for “inspiration” to offset the 90% for “perspiration”. Although we all love the time we spend being creative, you can’t eliminate or play down the importance of perspiration. After all, it can take a lot of work (perspiration) to realize one good idea (inspiration). The chance to come up with a new idea -- imaginative, innovative, inspired -- is seductive.

Research meetings can take me to an intellectual high that is greater than anything I have ever experienced in an administrative meeting. Administrative matters can lead to creative solutions, but in my experience they are the exception rather than the rule. I go into every research meeting hoping to be excited, but I go into every administrative meeting praying to be satisfied.

The implication for me is obvious: I need more meetings that generate ideas -- brainstorming -- and less that deal with mundane matters.

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