The Duck of Minerva

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Business Meetings are part of the “hidden curriculum””

November 1, 2021

I can’t quite recall when I went to my first conference business meeting, but I remember the feeling that I didn’t know what was going on, or why I was even there. As a graduate student, I didn’t understand the purpose of business meetings. Now in my role as President of International Studies Association Midwest, it strikes me that maybe there are other people who don’t understand what business meetings are, or why they should attend them.

Business meetings are part of the “hidden curriculum,” academia’s unwritten set of rules. Many graduate students and junior faculty – especially first-generation or historically excluded scholars – may not know about aspects of the hidden curriculum that others find obvious. The hidden curriculum matters: understanding the unwritten rules of the game helps scholars navigate and succeed in academia – it makes it much easier for us to avoid the chutes and climb the ladders.

The rules of the game – and the benefits of following them – are obvious… once you understand them

Examples of the hidden curriculum are everywhere – if you know where to look for them. They include rules about “how to be a student,” such as showing up to office hours, asking for letters of recommendation, and proper email etiquette. They also include a range of expectations about professional academic conduct, such as how to present at conferences, the way to properly format a CV, and understanding the role of a discussant. The rules of the game – and the benefits of following them – are obvious… once you understand them.

Attending business meetings is really important. Here are eight reasons why.

  1. Business meetings are where the rules and bylaws of organizations and sections get codified. They’re where the section’s membership deliberate and vote on a number of consequential matters, including what awards to offer, the composition of the board and its representatives, and the details of allocating panels at conferences.
  2. Business meetings are where the section usually hands out awards, such as “Best Graduate Paper” or “Best Faculty Paper.” It’s a place to celebrate this work, and also to learn about opportunities for you to nominate yourself (or others) for an award.
  3. High-profile service assignments, such as board memberships, get decided at business meetings. For women, first-generation, and historically excluded scholars, business meetings provide crucial opportunities to shape the composition of professional organizations. Representation matters. Ensuring a voice for all genders, backgrounds, and theoretical perspectives helps advance professional diversity in real and meaningful ways. Women+ especially tend to take low-profile departmental or university service assignments, so leadership roles in professional organization provide an important opportunity for them to secure recognition for their successes.
  4. Business meetings are where you can learn about pertinent issues facing the discipline. Discussions can range widely. They include, for example, cases of infringements on academic freedoms, concerns about the geographic location of conference sites, and trends in the demographic composition of the discipline.
  5. Business meetings are places where you can put faces to names. You may hear a name that you’ve only read in printed articles pronounced properly (or mispronounced!). They provide an opportunity to introduce yourself (or be introduced to) other scholars that may serve (or have served) as reviewers of your manuscripts, hiring committees that have looked at your job application, or writers of your tenure letters. Business meetings are a place of structured interactions that may be less intimidating than conference receptions and other settings for unstructured social interactions.
  6. Business meetings are not stodgy, boring, or irrelevant. The first time I attended a business meeting, I recall a lot of joking and laughter. I didn’t quite understand what was funny, but it was clearly a place where people were enjoying themselves.
  7. You do not need to be invited to a business meeting. In general, any registered conference participant or section member can attend. You just show up!
  8. Business meetings are where reception drink tickets get distributed. Those tickets entitle you to complimentary drinks at the section’s reception, which often happens directly after the business meeting.

If you are a non-junior scholar who usually attends business meetings, you can play an important role in the socialization of graduate students and junior scholars in the discipline. Invite them to business meetings. Encourage them to attend.

Ask your students and junior colleagues for permission to nominate them for positions as section officers

If you are a regular attendee of business meetings, you likely know the schedule of board member nominations. Plan in advance to nominate someone; ask permission from your students and junior colleagues to nominate them. After all, there’s a good chance that they’re too intimidated or uncertain to arrange for their own nomination (or to nominate themselves). They may not even know that that it’s possible for a graduate student or junior scholar to serve as a section officer.

If your department has a professionalization course or series, make sure to cover the topic of business meetings, and to talk about your experiences at them, as norms and practices can differ. For example, at ISA Midwest board member nominees are expected to stand up and say a few words, informally, about their candidacy before the vote. This often includes a brief description of their current position (graduate student, faculty member, institution, etc.), the scope of their work, and their connection to the conference.

If you are a non-junior scholar who usually attends board meetings, plan to nominate a woman+, BIPOC, or first-generation scholar as a board member.

Before the meeting starts, have a game plan in place. Many business meetings are currently being held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This makes it a lot more difficult to “scan the room” for potential nominees – and thus easier to default to traditional demographics of board members. 

The “men in the middle” are particularly important in this regard, as they have the opportunity to change the demographic composition of boards and make the rules of the game more egalitarian. Be deliberate in your recruitment of potential board members. This is an essential aspect of mentorship and a way to help point out the ladders to those scholars who may not know they exist.