Zen and the Art of Meaningful Meetings

Opinion | Digital Learning

Zen and the Art of Meaningful Meetings

By A. Michael Berman     Mar 27, 2018

Zen and the Art of Meaningful Meetings

Last week I had the extraordinary opportunity to spend time in the company of some very smart, interesting and generous university innovators when California State University Channel Islands hosted a meeting for the group, called the HAILstorm. At the end, we were asked to reflect on what we would take away from the meeting and how it might affect our practices on campus. And it occured to me that when you have the chance to get together with people you respect and can talk about common issues with, well, maybe that’s enough.

Perhaps there doesn’t have to be a manifesto or action plans—perhaps the act of meeting has value in itself.

Now I have to acknowledge my privilege. I have access to budgets that enable me to attend multiple meetings of various kinds, and I seldom have to provide a specific justification. I know there are many who can’t travel at all, or who must demonstrate that when they attend a meeting, conference or training that it has quantifiable benefits for their institution.

But only focusing on these outcomes can take away from the benefits of deep discussion, person to person interaction, and time out of the office to think hard about difficult problems—not necessarily to come up with answers, but just to think. And I am absolutely convinced that these times of reflection have an impact on my ability to be effective in my role and provide value to my organization.

Furthermore, the bonds I build in purposeful conversation help me create a network that can provide input and answers to solve problems, as well as understanding support for times of frustration and failure.

After sharing these thoughts with the group, another participant pointed out to me that this is not so different from the conversations we have about the role of our educational institutions. We know that we’ve been challenged to be accountable, to assure that our students can meet specific outcomes, that they progress towards a degree, and that they have the skills they need to get a good job. Ignoring these demands from our communities is not an option—these represent real needs and expectations, and have a lot to do with why we are provided the resources we need to operate institutions. Failure to take these demands seriously will erode public support even more quickly than the path we’re already on.

However, anyone who has spent hours in a laboratory chasing a promising lead that ends up in a dead end, or developed a mathematical proof for a completely useless theorem, or simply sat at a lunch table and debated a topic from a class knows that the value of the journey is as much the moments you spend along the way as it is the destination. The beauty of education lies in the moments of deep connection with interesting subjects, with classmates you respect, and with teachers you admire and aspire to be like.

My call to fellow administrators is this: Please support opportunities for your staff to have more of these experiences. A professional development plan, targeted training, events with specific outcomes and takeaways can all be valuable. And so can the time to simply meet and talk with peers from other institutions.

If we want our institutions of learning to be learning institutions, we have to make room for staff and faculty to have access to deep learning, mentoring, networking, contemplation and sense-making. That doesn’t happen on the trade floor of a large commercial conference.

Sometimes the value of a meeting is simply that: meeting. The value of a conference is conferring. The value of a conversation is having a conversation. The value of being in a room with other people is other people. These are moments that make life worthwhile and if we focus too much on “what’s next,” we can miss what’s now. And that’s missing the best part.

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