Sitting Around the ‘Totem Pole’ of Documents

Last week I attended a meeting having received a bundle of papers, about ½ inch thick, the week before.

By way of background, I had been asked by the head of a small college that runs masters courses to be an external advisor. I was to be one of two external voices at an important validation meeting with the university that accredited them. For the college (that does some fantastic work in sustainability, ecology and the way we interact with the world) this was a very important meeting. I had arrived the day before, had dinner with the faculty and met with some of the students very informally, they shared some of their work with me and how they went about things. In short, I got a real feeling for the ethos of the place and what they were seeking to achieve.

So, back to the meeting. There were about twelve of us sat around a large boardroom table with a chairman who called the meeting to order. Each of us had our own ½ inch bundle of paper in front of us that would come to form the focus for much individual shuffling and attention.

What I noticed were the number of times various important topics and phrases would crop up that would have very common meaning but were being used in quite different ways. Even the subject of assessment caused a disconnect between those in the room; some had a very traditional view, others saw it being integrated throughout the entire experience of learning. But there were others such as transferable skills and how resources were managed. From my visit I had seen at first-hand how thoroughly (but less conventionally) these issues were being effectively dealt with.

It seemed to me that we were all sitting around a Totem Pole, in this case staring at the piles of identical paper in front of us. Each of us had our own view informed by our personal experiences. Many of us thought we were looking at the same Totem, but in fact those different angles and perspectives became the sources of division and tension. In many cases this can be good, and forms the basis of a creative engagement. I did not feel that was the case here.
So, what could be done? One response might be to ask for more detail to be put into the paper work, and that is what was requested during the course of the meeting. However, to me there seems to be something absent. Wouldn’t it be better to just stand up and walk around the Totem, to actually see and feel other people’s perspectives? The day I had with the students and staff was invaluable, I could sense the work they were doing, and how they went about it and the importance of their overall project they were embarked on. What brought this home to me was a comment by one of the university staff afterwards: ‘… of course, we used to go out and speak with the students, we just don’t have the time anymore’. Paperwork is important, but it can never replace lived experience.

Just as a post script, I’m pleased to say that the meeting was actually a success and that the course has been validated.

One thought on “Sitting Around the ‘Totem Pole’ of Documents

  1. Pingback: The Real Value of Totems |

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