I’m taking a stance. No more ‘over coffee’ meetings for me!

Note: this post is a comment on what I regard an unsatisfactory practice in academia in which I have participated: it is not aiming criticism at any other single party. Admittedly, it falls into my ‘archaeorant’ category and therefore is not particularly about archaeology and mortality.

When I was a student, a fair fraction of archaeology academics conducted a large portion of their social lives and academic lives in the pub. Some had their life expectancies foreshortened significantly as a result, and those like me who neither liked excessive alcohol consumption nor could not afford it – let alone could not cope with breathing in the smoke of tobacco and other substances inhaled in those environments – didn’t join in.

Then at a former university,  my colleagues liked to have ‘tea breaks’ in a community room with easy chairs. This created the occasional conversation of interest, but often the talk was focused on colleagues insisting they were in  possession of social lives, sports debates mainly about cricket, plans for world archaeological domination, and bitching about anyone who wasn’t there. That was another practice I came to realise I shouldn’t participate in, not because I didn’t like the tea, but I couldn’t stand the stumps and wickets.

As a middle-aged academic, no longer are ‘pub meetings’ deemed appropriate and acceptable on a regular basis, and smoking is thankfully banned from all public spaces and from University campuses. We have no tea/coffee space to go to without paying and thankfully none of my colleagues like cricket.

However, there is a new plague stalking academia. Rather than holding a proper meeting in a proper office, or (dare I say it) in a ‘meeting room’ (and here I include Skype and ‘telephone calls’ (remember them?), recent years I have found myself drift into, and sometimes actively promoting unaware of their latent evil, the murky and sordid habit of ‘meeting over coffee’.

Let me just say that again, so that its true horror filters through.

Let’s meet over coffee

Outside of when deployed for genuine ‘catch up’ social events and loose open-ended discussions about potential mutual interests, the very words fill me with dread. I see it in emails, perhaps a vain attempt to diffuse tensions and encourage attendance of unpopular meetings. After the short relief of focusing on my work – teaching, research and/or admin – and the need for a break, I find myself trapped in a long awkward endless ‘conversation’ that persists… ‘over coffee’.

What actually happens in these ‘over coffee’ meetings? Many can be pleasant. But they always start with the ritual of queuing to get the coffee, and a tedious process of showing I’m an employee so that VAT is charged to me. I don’t even like coffee but there I am again, buying of my own volition a grande mochachocofrappucino latte sundae with cream.

Cake is sometimes essential, but the meetings are never called ‘over cake’. Why not? That’s a separate issue.

Then you sit down. Business is conducted within earshot of students, within earshot of fellow academics from other departments, within earshot of even (by way of example) the Vice Chancellor or the parents of prospective students. You end up nattering about meaningless meandering topics, or trying to convey impossibly complex academic problems, or making hopelessly complicated decisions regarding teaching, research and administration that no one is taking proper notes about. Random senior officials of the Uni saunter up to talk about other issues, colleagues and students try to bother me about unrelated subjects, and worse still, I have to endure the incessant music trickling out at low volume but compressed over a narrow range to make it impossible to ignore.

I’m not the only or main victim. Most of the time I see the people with me are the ones who are trapped, having to endure yet another endless anecdote or rant about my teaching or research. No way to escape.

Well no more! ‘Over coffee’ meetings can sod right off from now on and here’s why. I came in especially to attend a meeting ‘over coffee’ only to wait 55 minutes for the ‘over coffee meeting’ to begin and one of the key people was a no-show. This might have happened had we met in an office, but I suspect not. And because we were in a cafe space with poor internet connection and away from our phones and emails, we couldn’t readily ascertain what was going on. Instead, I got stuck with a coffee I didn’t even want and a wasted hour. I don’t blame others, but I’m angry because I stupidly agreed to meet ‘over coffee’.

So for me personally, enough is enough. I need to take back control! No more paying for drinks I don’t like simply to do my job. Instead, it’s back to the pub for me, or else a three-course slap-up meal at Chez Jules French restaurant on Northgate Street. Monsieur Creosote: here I come!

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