Tuesday, October 7, 2003

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The merits of faculty retreats

Michael Froomkin and Eric Muller are having an amusing debate on the relative merits of faculty retreats. Michael votes thumbs down [UPDATE -- Froomkin contests this description], while Eric believes them to be the epitome of Habermasian discourse.

I gotta go with Michael on this one. The idea of a faculty retreat sounded good the first time I heard it -- probably because I thought it would be held at some secluded lake somewhere with generous coffee breaks. In actuality, the retreats I've attended (all before I was at the U of C) were day-long marathons of bad pizza, bad flourescent lighting, and bad pontificating.

This gets to the nub of why I'm pessimistic about retreats. It's not that I don't respect my colleagues -- I respect and admire the erudition they all bring to the table. However, at the risk of destroying the glass structure that houses this blog, academics as a group are prone to liking the sound of their own voices way too much.

[Cue sound of glass tinkling!! Most of your colleagues aren't so egotistical as to have pontificating blogs!--ed. Yes, but reading my blog is optional for Internet users. Listening to colleagues at an all-day retreat is usually mandatory.]

UPDATE: Of course, as Kristin from Mad Pony points out, there are other forms of turture in academia.... like being compared to Mr. Feeny from Boy Meets World.

posted by Dan on 10.07.03 at 02:13 PM


"Votes thumbs down"? More like "expresses s fear and trepidation". No thumbs up or down until it's over.

posted by: Michael Froomkin on 10.07.03 at 02:13 PM [permalink]

How anyone could think that a faculty retreat is a good idea after attending a faculty meeting is beyond me.

posted by: Jeff Cooper on 10.07.03 at 02:13 PM [permalink]

The problem is that faculty get a lot of practice in delivering lectures, and they unconsciously slip into that mode. Sometimes, too, there's an assumption that expertise in one area is transferable to other areas. I agree with you: faculty retreats *might* work *if* a *lot* of thought is put into defining the *goals* of the retreat and how to create *actual* confrontation of ideas and exchanges of views that lead to the accomplishment of those goals. But in practice, few in control of the retreat have that particular expertise.

posted by: Michael Ham on 10.07.03 at 02:13 PM [permalink]

During my academic day my experience of faculty retreats ran the gamut from the second or third rung of Hell to the ninth. Most were dreadfully boring with little being accomplished and most of the participants snoozing. However, I did attend one retreat that was not like that. This retreat was entitled "How we are failing our female students." This was in the early 90s when the silly Gilligan pseudo-research on how woman's different way of knowing was not being met by institutions of higher learning. The goal of the retreat organizers was to somehow change everyone's teaching style to make it more woman centric. I got dragged to the retreat because I have published papers on gender wage differentials. Before the retreat a colleague and I asked the organizer if we could look at student grades. She thought that was a good idea (she later regretted it) and lobbied the administration to allow us to have them. What we found was that in EVERY major women's grades were higher (the largest difference was interestingly in Economics where the differential was over half a grade point). I also looked at the awards list of the Business school and found that eventhough female students were only 1/3 of the business they won over 70% of the awards the previous year. My colleague, who more politic than me, said we should present these results as a cause for 'celebration' on how well we are doing with the coeds. That did not work. Instead many of the participants became irate. Saying that our research showed nothing and telling us about all the terrible things that happenned to them (on average two decades earlier) when they were students. For the rest of the retreat no one would talk to us or even sit at our table when having meals (it was a two day retreat and we presented first). I guess I did not realize the purpose of the event was therapeutic not educational.

posted by: Larry Levin on 10.07.03 at 02:13 PM [permalink]


It seems like to me that you were the victim of PC gone bonkers. The real reason women get better grades is that they're better cheaters. Cheating doesn't work in the marketplace, however, hence the wage differential.

posted by: Chun the Unavoidable on 10.07.03 at 02:13 PM [permalink]

My weblog of today has words of comfort for those who must suffer through boring faculty meetings. See the last paragraph of


posted by: Eric Rasmusen on 10.07.03 at 02:13 PM [permalink]

Hah! Academic retreats are mere walks in the park. Ok you were bored. I know, I used to sit through your classes.

I have been to law firm retreats. Imagine a pack of hungry wolves arguing about who gets the loin chops from that deer over there. Boredom is easier to handle than terror.

posted by: Robert Schwartz on 10.07.03 at 02:13 PM [permalink]

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