Reflections on visiting Chapel Hill

Part of the arrangement with my Dean that enables me to work remotely for this academic year was that I would return to Chapel Hill for the beginning- and end-of-semester faculty planning meetings. I returned from visiting Chapel Hill a few days ago, for the beginning of Fall semester faculty meeting. Since these bi-semesterly trips East are part of the deal, I wanted to comment on them here.

First of all, I completely understand why the Dean wants me to attend these meetings. (I’m just happy that he didn’t ask me to attend every faculty meeting. Though of course he wouldn’t; that would be completely untenable and he’s a pragmatic guy.) Face time is important. Being remote makes face time even more important. You wouldn’t think that I would think this way, being such a big proponent of remote work of all types: distance learning, research collaborations spanning multiple timezones, you name it. Even when we still lived in Chapel Hill, I worked at home whenever it was feasible for me to do so, mostly because I got more done that way (despite the distraction of the refrigerator).

But face time is important. For one thing, it helps my colleagues see that I’m still fully engaged, even if they don’t see me in the halls. And in fact I’ve tried to make it a point to be very responsive by email (which, despite Paul’s best efforts, is still the communication technology that most of my colleagues use almost exclusively), so that my colleagues see that I am in fact fully engaged, & no less responsive than if I were local. The 3 hour time difference presents some challenges to that, since my morning starts at around their lunchtime, but I reply as quickly as I can.

For another thing, it helps me remain feeling connected to the School: remote work can be isolating. I usually prefer to work at home, but I can easily go overboard… I can not leave the house for days at a time and barely notice. But then I find that my social skills start to slip away. So forcing myself to interact with actual humans — other than my immediate family — is useful.

So anyway, I was in Chapel Hill, ostensibly for the faculty meeting. Which was useful, to be seen and to participate in the life of the School (to the extent that “the life of the School” happens in faculty meetings). But honestly, the really useful and productive part of being present in Chapel Hill were the informal interactions that I had while there, not the formal ones. In the weeks leading up to my trip, I scheduled a bunch of meetings for my time in Chapel Hill, to try to maximize my time in town. I met with several colleagues within SILS, to discuss ongoing projects that we’re collaborating on. I met with folks in ITS Teaching and Learning, to talk about my MOOC and work out technical details and logistics of video production and passing files back & forth. I met with my Teaching Assistant. In 2 days of face-to-face sit-down meetings, I got a huge amount done, and made the kind of progress on projects that would have taken days or weeks of email exchanges to accomplish.

It’s funny, I always forget how productive face-to-face meetings are, until I don’t have any for a while. The key, I think, is to have not just an agenda, but specific goals for deliverables and/or decisions that need to come out of the meeting before it’s over. As I’m writing this, I’m realizing that I’m talking to my future self here as much as I’m talking to my Dean and colleagues.

I’ll be back in Chapel Hill in December, for our end of semester faculty meeting. Note to my future self: schedule meetings with colleagues further ahead of time next time. And have the deliverables and/or decisions that need to come out of meetings clear before we sit down.

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