Friday, January 30, 2009

Executive decision

Committee work is a funny thing. On the one hand, committees are notoriously unproductive. If you want nothing to get done, the best thing to do is to form a committee, am I right, people?

And yet, being on committees can also be one of the only ways to be surprised in academia. We surround ourselves with people who think like us, in our departments, and form cliques against the people who think otherwise. On a committee, though, we are forced into a relationship with people not of our choosing, people we don't know well (if we're lucky) -- and it's remarkably difficult to predict ahead of time what unlikely alliances will emerge.

When that happens, you can end up seeing people in new ways. Stereotypes and expectations fade, and people with complex principles and motivations emerge. One of the most revealing things that can happen in this kind of work is when a proposal is floated and someone unexpected rises to be its champion. Sure, sometimes people do exactly what you think they're going to do. But those times that they don't -- it's like pulling back the curtain on a reality that you never knew existed.

And as grueling and thankless as commitee work is, there are times when (believe it or not) a committee finds another way -- something the people bringing issues before them didn't see or apprehend. That's creative work. As frustrated as I can be with the glacial pace of collective action, it has a virtue that no top-down dictate can muster: When it's done, everyone agrees that something has happened, because everybody did it. Bringing something into being by fiat may be faster and less troublesome, but not everybody may buy into your assertion that the world has changed and we have a new one to live in.

I met today for the first time with the executive committee of my scholarly organization's board of directors, and I may be overly influenced by the newness of it all. But we did a couple of things today that I don't think a single person arriving in that room would have predicted. And I was stunned and gratified to find likemindedness in places where I would not have guessed. Even though most of what we discussed is still very much in process (if not in limbo), it was a good day. And for a day-long committee meeting, as you can imagine, I count myself very, very lucky.

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