Participating in versus Researching University Meetings

This paper belongs to of the Gothenburg Meeting Science Symposium

Karen Tracy, University of Colorado Boulder (Communication)

As a longtime faculty member at a major US state university, I have participated in and, sometimes, run different kinds of university meetings. The kinds of meetings I have participated in have included decision making about personnel at department, college, and university levels; information-sharing and advice-seeking of upper administrators with chairs or faculty representatives regarding budget, recruitment, retention, technology, etc.; research groups with a few colleagues or graduate students; graduate committees to plan and approve students’ performance on comprehensive exams, theses, and dissertations; regularly recurring department meetings to share information and make decisions about both easy and contentions issues (e.g., who to hire); informal mentoring and complaining meetings with students and colleagues; research colloquia of many different formality levels; and acting as a representative of a university group to determine allocation of scarce resources. To use Bailey’s (1983) distinction my experiences has spanned, ad hoc, elite, and area committees. As a meetings researcher during a heated or bizarre meeting moment, I have often found myself thinking how fascinating it would be to study this particular kind of meeting. Most of the time I do not do so (but cf. Tracy, 1997), but I have had the thought/impulse too many times to count.

In this paper I reflect about how researching most kinds of university meetings positions the self differently than being a participant in these meetings. I also consider why study of university meetings is so challenging to those of us who are regular participants in them. The challenge is particularly acute, I would argue, when the way a researcher studies meetings–as I do–involves taping and analyzing the discourse of these occasions. A close look at talk can make visible people’s usually complex and occasionally unsavory motives and goals. Doing this kind of analysis with people with whom one has relationships can easily be regarded as not a neutral, knowledge-developing activity. After reviewing the kinds of university meetings that have been studied, I describe the distinctive challenges for academics studying university meetings; in doing so, I use my academic meeting experiences as examples.

Bailey, F. G. (1983). The tactical uses of passion. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Tracy, K. (1997). Colloquium: Dilemmas of academic discourse. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex.

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