Two Cultures in Meetings

Prompted in part by Rob Knop’s post on meeting with humanists, an observation about the nature of academia attributed to our late Dean of the Faculty, a former Classics professor:

The key difference between disciplines in terms of administrative business on campus is that scientists tend to do their research work (experiments, calculations, simulations) in on-campus labs and offices, while humanities faculty do their research work (reading, writing, and thinking) at home. This means that humanists only come to campus in order to teach classes and socialize with colleagues, while scientists come to campus to do research, as well as to teach and socialize.

This leads to a radically different attitude towards faculty meetings and committee meetings, which in turn explains a great deal about the way colleges and universities operate (below the fold):

Humanists tend to be perfecetly happy to go to meetings on campus, because it gives them the chance to socialize with colleagues while also accomplishing something worthwhile for the campus as a whole. As these meetings occur on campus during the day, they don’t conflict with research activity directly.

Scientists, on the other hand, tend to resent having to attend meetings, because those meetings directly cut into research time. If we’re sitting in a faculty meeting, we’re not in the lab or office doing more useful work, and that means we have to stay later, or come back in the evening to get work done. It’s a much greater imposition on scholarship, which is why science faculty tend to get more cranky about having to go to meetings than faculty in the humanities and social sciences.

The implications of this difference for the operation of campus governance are left as an exercise for the reader.

(And again, while I heard this theory from an astronomer, it originated with a Classicist…)

10 thoughts on “Two Cultures in Meetings

  1. This seems violently at odds with observation at any of the institutions I’ve been involved with, where the scientists are the ones who actually do the heavy lifting of faculty governance (grumbling all the way, of course), perhaps because the scientists are the ones who are actually on campus. Anecdotally, it also appears that the fraction of university leaders and upper administrators who have scientific backgrounds continues to climb, at least at the private and better public institutions (where political patronage doesn’t play a role in appointments). That may, of course, have as much to do with the fact that successful lab scientists must learn to become successful managers as it does to any eagerness in attending meetings.

  2. I’ve noticed that many academic meetings also tend to be closer to the buildings used by the humanities. Science buildings tend to be isolated from the other buidlings.

  3. I dispute the validity of your thesis. Scientists work EVERYWHERE. What other explanation is there for the concept of back-of-the-envelope calculations or the regular sight of thesis/paper writing in bars and bubble tea shops? Or Clifford’s posts about getting out of the office? =) (And I have a few envelopes that will indeed be pasted soon into some sort of record, along with printouts of all my records. And damned if I shouldn’t have learned subversion a long time ago.)

  4. Roman, you’re a theorist. That is, if you’re the Roman I think you are.

    I do some work at home– as an astronomer, my lab is the telescope, and I only occasionally am actually collecting data. The rest of what I do is on the computer. As such, I work at home sometimes, although as a rule I work in my office most of the time.

    But a lot of scientists do work in their labs day in and day out, and as such *must* be on campus to do a good portion of their work.

    I hadn’t thought about this in terms of faculty governance, however. Indeed, I guess I didn’t realize that humanists did most of their research work at home– again, one of the hazards of being at a research university, where I really don’t have much of a clue about the people outside my department.


  5. I think that the easy answer to Astroprof’s objection is the old “if you need something done, give it to the busiest person you know” In the same way that scientists get more of their work done on campus, they feel that if they’re at a meeting, it bloody well better be productive. Whereas the thesis claims that for humanities professors, meeting time is pre-designated as socializing time, and can therefore be unproductive.

    There’s also the issue that science (and engineering and math and computer science) tends to lend itself more towards straightforward/linear thinking which tends to be more useful for “heavy lifting”.

    Note: I’m not sure that I’m convinced by the thesis, but it seemed like a fun thing to defend.

  6. The claim isn’t that people from the sciences don’t do their share of faculty governance work, it’s just that they resent it more than the humanities people do. It may even be that that resentment leads people from the sciences to be more productive when they do have to take on committee assignments, as Brian suggests.

    My experience of academia on the faculty side is limited to, well, my current job, but I haven’t seen many administrators who came from the sciences. The vast majority of our plethora of deans have backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences, and the same was true of my undergrad alma mater.

    It may also be that the effect is magnified by being at a small college, where the size of the faculty necessarily forces people to interact more closely than at a larger institution. It’s definitely been my experience, though, that the faculty meetings I go to draw many more people from the humanities and social sciences than from the natural sciences and engineering. And it’s never the science faculty who suggest that we really ought to have more meetings for further discussion of whatever issues get brought up.

  7. High energy physicists of course spend all of their time plotting ways to get out of town. Not that it always helps.

    I have seen many university adminstrators come out of the sciences at major research institutions. At those universities the grant funding brought in by the sciences is vitally important, so the scientists end running the place.

  8. I don’t undrestand why the false first statement made it through all the replies: where does the idea that humanities scholars do all of their research at home come from? Everyone replying to this posting simply accepted that assertion — with no evidence, no studies, no references, not even an argument — and used it as a basis from which to offer their own comments. But the premise is incorrect and unsupported. Libraries, archives, museums, offices, workshops, and more, humanities scholars do research everywhere.

  9. I don’t undrestand why the false first statement made it through all the replies: where does the idea that humanities scholars do all of their research at home come from?

    In this specific case, second-hand from a Classics professor.

    It might be more accurate, for the purposes of the laregr point, to phrase it as “humanities scholars do not do their research primarily in their on-campus offices.”

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