Secrets of a Good Meeting

Assuming meetings can be good, here are my suggestions for how to have a good one.

Meetings happen. In the academic world, they happen and they are often bad. My goal in any meeting, whether I’m the chair, a member or a reluctant attendee is to make it better.

These suggestions are primarily for meetings in an academic setting for a regularly meeting committee. I’ll discuss other types of meetings later.

There is a manipulative edge to these suggestions, so even if you don’t want to use them, you should be aware in case others want to use them against you.

A good meeting:

  1. Has a purpose. This means there is an agenda, stated or not, of specific decidable items, and the goal of the meeting is to get to that decision point where a vote happens. There may be discussion about the item, but one can push towards the decision point by summarizing the discussion at the point and actually asking “Are we ready for a vote?”. I’m always looking for a lull in the discussion where I can try to insert the vote. If an item comes with all members having already had access to the information, I might call for an immediate vote. If the items are not technically voteable, I still would want to call for some mark that says (1) we talked about it and (2) we agreed on X (and we don’t need to continue to talk about it). If there are undecidable items like announcements and open-ended discussions, I would push for those to be discussed briefly, but then pushed to being delivered or discussed via email or other means. This also applies to items that become unvotable; make a list of the relevant issues and get someone to figure them out and return with them to a future meeting (or not at all!).
  2. Takes the time it takes, no more, no less, (up to the set limit).  If you set aside an hour, you don’t have to use the entire hour.  If you have 5 items to decide on, and you get to the point on all 5 and it has been only 20 minutes, adjourn. If you set aside an hour and you see you can’t get to all the items, decide which will go to another meeting or can be resolved by other means, and end at an hour (after making sure you summarize what has been done). If you are supposed to meet and you aren’t ready or there’s nothing urgent to meet about (and you have another meeting scheduled soon), don’t meet.
  3. Does not create work for no reason. Just because you have a meeting and have time during that meeting and there is something interesting/fun/good that you could do, doesn’t necessarily mean you should do it.  If there’s time for discussion of a topic and no one jumps on it, then you don’t have to have the discussion and can go to the vote. If something would be better if just one person worked out the details and then brings it back to the committee, then you don’t have to try to have an all-committee brainstorm and edit party.
  4. Has some rules. There are Roberts’ Rules of Order and one should know enough of the idea of them so that things run smoothly, but it doesn’t make sense in most cases to follow them to the letter. In my experience, they are used to have something not happen.  For example if a proposal is made, then you can force the question seeing if there’s a second.  If there’s no second, it is dead. In the same case, if it gets a second, you can keep people on the discussion and going back to #1, call for the vote early and often.
  5. Has a chair that acts like a chair should. Overall, a good chair knows they have authority, and uses that to make the meeting and committee successful. The chair doesn’t have to be neutral, but should put the efficient progress of the meeting ahead of his or her personal interest in the topic. A chair should prompt for discussion, and cut it off when it goes astray. A chair should move the committee towards the vote and summarize and record any results.


Some secrets to having a good meeting that are more manipulative:

  1. Whoever speaks first sets the topic.  If there’s no agenda or if the item is somewhat open, whatever is said first will be the primary focus of the discussion on that topic. For example if someone says they are for something giving specific reasons, everyone else, for or against, will respond by addressing those specific reasons. If you speak first you define the limits of the conversation. If there’s some wording of some idea that’s needed, the first version will be basis for the final result. If you speak first, you can help this by always pointing back to the thing you said. If someone else does this and you want to redirect, you’ll need to mark the end of the conversation, maybe by giving a (biased) summary and marking what you agree with, and then raising the new direction, like it is the important part of the discussion and a new topic.
  2. Bad meetings can be made worse by asking about definitions.  Usually bad meetings are bad because they end up being an unfocused discussion about some topic. These can often be made worse (and possibly to the point of adjournment) by questioning the underlying definitions of the basic elements. So for a good meeting follow #1, and if someone brings up the ‘definition question’, be ready to resolve it by either re-clarifying or summarizing the current discussion, or stating the ‘obvious’ definition, or by pushing it onto the questioner for resolution now or at a future meeting.
  3. He or she who writes the minutes really has all the power. In most cases committee members don’t remember exactly what went on during a previous meeting, so the minutes are an important record of the action. If something has been decided, according to the minutes, then it shouldn’t be brought up again for discussion (unless new information has come up). Thus, whoever writes the minutes has the chance to formalize and even change decisions that were made. Meetings that don’t have a formal agenda and don’t clearly get to decision votes are very susceptible to this sort of manipulation. If you want to avoid it, make sure that votes happen, and that what is voted on is written done as it was designed. If you want to use this to your advantage, offer to take the minutes or write up a report on a specific topic. This can be good for all if you have some particular insight into the situation that might be hard to articulate during a conversation, or if there’s additional data that needs to be found and added.

The Hand You’re Dealt

Some thoughts on what it means in teaching to work with the hand you’re dealt

A month ago or so I was talking to a colleague about a course that we both have taught in the past and we got around to the issue that the students often entered the course without as complete of a background in a particular area of mathematics (the details don’t matter, but what comes next does). We had different opinions as to what one should do about this. And my colleague commented, “You have to face reality and deal with the hand you’ve been dealt.” I nodded, but then realized that what I thought that meant was completely different than what he meant.

I took it to mean that we had to work with the knowledge that our students came with, possibly avoiding or deemphasizing parts of the course that required a knowledge deeper than they could handle, or maybe we should rethink about how those elements of the course are presented. My colleague thought it meant we should take time out of the course to (re)teach the relevant material, possibly taking a good part out of the course to do so. Personally, I don’t choose to reteach prerequisite material.  I am willing to remind students of this knowledge and provide resources or references for them to learn it on their own, but I don’t want to go backwards. But now I wonder if this makes me weaken the course or avoid the tougher topics. Or if I’m challenging them enough.

Another twist to the interpretation is what it means when we say a student doesn’t have the necessary background. There’s a big difference between the student actually not ever seeing the relevant material, between having seen it but not being currently that fluent in it. I tend to assume that the latter situation is true, which justifies not doing an extensive review or reteach, but also doing some short, just-in-time reminders of the relevant material in the current context.  Good or bad, this approach avoids going too in depth into the background material and forces me and the students to figure out the parts that are useful for the course material.

I’m still not sure how these choices impact the course; it is good to be aware and maybe I can pay more attention to why I’m making the decisions I make.