Drawbacks and benefits of administrative housework

Mellivora had an excellent post last week about dismantling a culture of discrimination, and many of the issues she discussed were geared towards pretty large issues- sexual harassment, egregious behavior, etc. But so-called “micro aggressions” are also much in the news these days (e.g., here and here), and have been on my mind recently. For better or for worse, I don’t often notice micro aggressions until later, when they add up and a pattern emerges (probably why the name microaggression is so apt). Because of this, it’s really difficult for me to respond to these “in the moment”, and even if I notice it when it happens, it’s difficult to know how to respond constructively.

For me, one of the forms of “administrative housekeeping” that I’ve been thinking about recently concerns note taking.

I take a lot of notes. I take them every single day, in both research and in meetings. Depending on what I’m doing, these notes are electronic or handwritten. When I meet with my students, I take notes on what they are doing, then transcribe my own action items to a separate “to-do” list and file that note page away. When I’m in meetings with colleagues, I’m usually taking notes on my computer or iPad. Some times these notes float away into the ether, but in general, I find my notes super useful, in so many ways. I’ve used them to jog my memory about what else happened in the meeting, to figure out who made a specific comment to follow up on later, sometime even just to provide context to my overall day. They are also, it turns out, also useful to my colleagues and in general, I will happily send my notes along if someone requests them*.

But recently, I’ve been involved in a few groups where the gendered nature of note taking was almost laughable.

First, I was part of a team of three men and two women who needed to review two institutions and produce a report on each one. True to form, myself and the other woman took notes related to one institution each, then the whole team later compiled the reports based on these notes. A few weeks later, I attended another meeting for a different group (a group in which I have a leadership role) and was asked beforehand to take notes by the person (male) convening the meeting. I appeared to be the main person taking notes at that meeting.

On the other hand, at times I take on a “Secretary” role willingly. For example, I actively volunteered to be the Secretary of another group I participate in. My rationale? I have to attend all the group meetings anyways, and given my note-taking habits, I will of course already be taking my notes. By volunteering for the role of Secretary, I won’t have to lead one of the separate subcommittees (though my role entails it’s own set of other work, of course), thus lessening my overall workload.

So, given that I find taking notes so useful and it’s not something I’m going to give up, am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Did I have a right to be irked in the first two cases? And really, is this something I want to hold onto and combat in some way, or just let go? For me, the answers aren’t easily forthcoming. Yes, I have a right to be irked in some cases, but I also want to let it go and move on- this doesn’t feel like an issue I should spend time on. Yet I have found myself thinking about it still, a few weeks after these meetings. In part, this post is an attempt to work through the various issues and potential solutions so I can move on. (Advice and commiseration appreciated.)

To a large extent, it all boils down to a nebulous, intangible, difficult-to-quantify factor: respect. Do I feel respected for the contributions I make to a group independent of my note-taking? Is my history with a particular group or colleague a positive one? For example, I also send notes on another set of meetings** to another (male) colleague, but this never irks me because he takes both of our notes to compile into a greater whole. So perhaps in the negative examples I mentioned above, I generally felt (or was made to feel, in some subtle way) like my intellectual contributions weren’t being respected.

Also, in all of the examples so far, I was taking notes related to administrative stuff. I’m generally relatively ok with being in the background in these meetings, and I find note-taking to be a way to ward off boredom in some of these meetings. But what about research meetings? In this case, I absolutely don’t want to be viewed only as a competent administrator. For example, last year I attended a research meeting where the lone woman among the three organizers was the only head person taking notes, which meant that she rarely contributed to the intellectual discussions of the meeting despite being a highly accomplished researcher. And furthermore, her co-organizers appeared to relegate her to this role, sometimes asking if she had gotten some point down rather than noting it themselves. It’s not that she didn’t want to participate, it’s just that she was so busy taking notes she felt she needed to concentrate on that rather than speaking up. This highlights, to me, that there is an opportunity cost to note-taking: taking good, comprehensive notes is work, so it’s not easy to switch between note-taking and discussion modes. So what to do, without giving up my beneficial note-taking habit?

As one possible solution, I’m contemplating forgoing the computer entirely and only taking notes by hand. Just as we teach our students that taking notes longhand helps you retain information in the long run, perhaps taking notes by hand will force me to focus on only the key points- to separate the wheat from the chaff. This has generally been my practice already for research meetings, but it could potentially have benefits at administrative meetings. I’ve resisted this for some of my admin meetings because it takes a bit of work to transcribe my handwritten notes to electronic form later- time which I’d rather spend on research. For example, I currently type many of my notes directly into the relevant notebook within Evernote, so the notes are searchable and always easily available across my devices. Good OCR software might give me the best of both worlds- hand-written notes that can become searchable. And, it might have the unintended benefit of making some of my colleagues less likely to rely on me for notes when I send them a jpg of the handwritten notes I took, rather than a nice typed word document (though just writing that feels a little petty).

But what to do about the gendered aspects of this? I don’t want to stop taking notes since it’s useful to me, nor do I want to not make those notes available if they can be helpful. And really, it’s not that I shouldn’t be taking notes, it’s just that everyone in the room should also be taking their own instead of relying on me or those like me. More sets of notes on the same topic is never a bad thing since people note different things. This is where I hit up against a wall. I have control over my own behavior but not over that of others. Do I subtly try to encourage EVERYONE at the meetings to take notes, then send them to me for compiling? The first might be good, but the second is just another form of housework. Do I simply say “no” when asked whether I can take notes? This doesn’t work because I often already AM taking notes and it’s difficult to be surreptitious about it. Do I laugh it off and say I’m terrible at it and they’d better ask someone else? Seems to ring false for me. Do I email the post from Sir Richard Branson about taking notes to all of my colleagues? Hmmm, definitely passive aggressive.

Each of us has a different level of tolerance and different forms of micro aggression hit different buttons. But in the end, for me I this is simply one issue that I think I need to just let go (cue the Frozen theme song). I will save my energy for other issues that will surely be waiting around the corner.

* At least so far as I know. The irony of all this is that I don’t think I’m particularly good at taking notes. I tend to write things stream of consciousness and totally disorganized, so if a colleague wanted to do something with these notes, they would have to clean them up a good deal.
** One subtle takeaway of this post- so many meetings and groups!!


8 thoughts on “Drawbacks and benefits of administrative housework

  1. I think it would be perfectly reasonable to respond to an unwanted request that you take notes, “The notes that I routinely take are very informal and just for jogging my own memory. If we agree that it would be useful to have authoritative notes taken at our meetings, let’s discuss a formal mechanism for getting this done.” This way you completely prevent your taking notes from becoming the path of least resistance for the group.

  2. I think you should continue to do what is convenient for YOU (ie take electronic notes if that is what you prefer/saves you time later etc). Then think about what you do with those notes as the situation arises.

    I also sympathise with the person who took notes and didn’t contribute much to the discussion. I find if i take notes (or in another situation, document with photos), then it takes more of my concentration than I would like, if I am also expected to lead, or contribute to, a discussion. This is NOT the same as jotting down aides de memoir for myself, it is when I am expected to document for others. In this I agree with the Comradde above, do what you want, and negotiate as appropriate either before or after the meeting, depending on the situation. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot for the sake of a principle.

  3. I like CPP’s suggestion. Rotating who takes notes (assuming the group meets repeatedly) would be one way of sharing the task. When I’ve served on NSF panels, each reviewer would be assigned to take notes on the discussion for some of the proposals (not ones where the reviewer had written an evaluation and thus took the lead in the discussion). There was also an NSF staff person who was taking notes on each discussion (and I suspect that set of notes was much better, and more consistent, than what the panelists produced). Rotating the task meant that everyone got to participate in the discussion most of the time. So either rotate or get an administrative person to sit in on the meeting to take notes – in my departmental meetings there are times when the admin assistant to the chair will takes notes and then draw up a summary to be circulated among the faculty members.

  4. Note taking at meetings. It is such an interesting area. I have been noted for my good notes. I listen intensely. I have good memory. My notes then tend to be good and are appreciated for the content they capture. Writing notes like this can be tiring, though. I remember the time I was the one taking notes for up to five different meetings. And the time people wanted me in their meetings so I could take notes while they discussed stuff. They were not interested in my collaboration as a peer, but in my service as a note taker. Or the peer who asks me to write my notes first and share them so they can contribute later… and there’s this uncharitable voice in my mind that starts being petty about it. And isn’t it sad? I mean, just how not generous my attitude starts to become. I think it also has to do with my lack of assertiveness about stating what I want or what I need. Note taking is a skill where my level is good, and the fact that other people want me to use it for notes that are important to them, denotes their appreciation for my skill level. How then to refuse in a way that will be polite and appreciative of the request?

  5. I read this post before a meeting on a project I’m collaborating on with three men, including my husband. I was so thankful when my husband offered to take notes for the meeting. He knows I am sensitive to the issue and so he offered before I even had to awkwardly ask if someone else would take notes. I think education is key here – if people recognize there is a bias in how we assign administrative tasks, they can help counter it.

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