ASSOCIATES (2007, November, v. 14, no. 2)


Committee Participation: Voluntary Insanity?

cfox.gifCharlie Fox
El Comino College

When I was in the second grade my mother was called to the school for a special conference with my teacher. Miss Abbot was concerned over my lack of participation in classroom discussions and my reluctance to take on leadership responsibilities. According to my mom’s account of the meeting, there was speculation that I might be, as it was called before the age of political correctness, “slightly retarded.” Think Forrest Gump. My mother, who was more inclined to believe that I was a genius and far too advanced for what Miss Abbot was trying to teach me, humored the woman and suggested that, before we started testing my IQ, we try vitamins and see if I didn’t perk up. To be honest, my memory of the event is hazy, however, my guess is that then, as I am to this day, I was painfully shy and didn’t want to draw attention to myself.

In my adult life and, particularly, in my library life, this shyness has stayed with me. It is, in fact, one of the main reasons I have enjoyed working in the library at El Camino College. For the most part I am left alone in my little office in the library basement. I can keep the door closed and most of my business is conducted via telephone and internet. I have become a self-proclaimed “mole person.” For a long time I made it a point to show up for meetings using a combination of stealth and cunning that would allow me to find a place in the back row, strategically blocked from the meetings’ leaders line of sight by the broad shoulders of the person sitting in front of me. For a long time I believed that this practice of stealth meeting attendance would protect me from the most dreaded of all responsibilities: the committee.

But if my years in the library have taught me anything they have taught me that no amount of shyness, no amount of lurking in the back row of department meetings, no amount of hoping for some sort of magical invisibility would save me from the inevitable call to “voluntary” participation in one committee or another. At some point I would be called. Eventually I was.

I have been a library media technician for fourteen years. Until about a month ago I had, in that time, participated in four committees — one of which was mandatory, two of which required little participation, and one in which I realized almost immediately that I was in way over my head and, if I volunteered an opinion, really would make a fool of myself, thus deepening my inherent shyness and forever relegating me to the ranks of the back row for the rest of my life. After that fourth experience I began in earnest trying to avoid any further involvements, humiliations, or funny ideas that I was a committee kind of guy. I would be the loner, henceforth known as “that guy who works in the basement,” someone you didn’t want to deal with unless you had to. I would become the ultimate mole person.

It was working, too, right up to that moment in our last unit meeting when my ear began to itch at precisely the wrong time. As I was bringing my hand up to scratch my ear I heard our unit director saying, “We need one more volunteer for the Program Review Committee.” She was looking at me when she said it and she saw my hand on my ear.

Close enough. Before I could bring my hand back to the table top I was in a new committee, one that was going to be otherwise populated by MLS librarians. At that point I could have raised my hand, for real this time, and respectfully declined the appointment. After all, there is nothing in my job description, nor is there anything in our union agreement that requires committee work on my part. I’m a firm believer in the idea that it’s okay to admit you have gotten yourself into something for which you are not qualified, as was the case in the committee prior to this one. After a half-dozen meetings in that committee, I sent an e-mail to the committee chair and respectfully removed myself from further involvement.

I’m not sure what made me keep my hand on the table this time. Call it personal evolution, call it boredom with a job that is otherwise rooted in rote and routine activities, call it a latent spirit of adventure that must, every seven years or so, rear its ugly head and force me to do things I would otherwise choose not to do. What I really believe is that the need to be involved in the operation of our library and to be an agent of change in the decision-making process of this library became greater than the desire to simply sit back and accept the decisions of others as the status quo. Either that or I was finally taking the right kind of vitamins.

I’m glad I made the decision to go ahead and participate in the newly formed committee. It afforded me a chance to shed my mole person status and to demonstrate to a group of degreed librarians that I really was capable of making valid and useful contributions to the project at hand. It has also made me a supporter of the idea that all support staff should, at some point, take on the task of voluntary committee work. Here are a few reasons why.

When was the last time you added something to your resume? We work in a world that is controlled by people with Masters Degrees. That being the case, it’s important that the resume reflect not only our technical skills but our involvement in activities that reach beyond the technical and into the realm of the decision makers. Ideally, that’s what committees are supposed to be doing; making decisions on behalf of and for the good of the larger community. You’re going to make a deeper impression on your prospective employer if he or she sees that you’re not afraid to step up and volunteer when others might be hiding at the back of the room, doodling on their note pads and trying to stay awake.

By the same token, volunteering and serving on a committee heightens your overall visibility within the workplace. Even if you’re not looking for work elsewhere, the opportunity exists to deepen your impression in your supervisor’s mind and in how he or she regards you. One of the common complaints among paraprofessionals is the lack of respect afforded them by their superiors.

Another is pay equity. Committee work can give strength in both of these arenas. Anyone who has the courage to raise their hand when the call goes out for committee volunteers will gain the respect of their superiors. And in the struggle for pay equity these experiences will not go unnoticed. Among the list of components that make a good employee, active participation is a big plus.

Interestingly, when I find myself on a committee I hear lots of comments from people who never volunteer. The most popular comment is the one about how committees are a waste of time and that they rarely make any difference in the way things are done. There’s a grain of truth to that statement. When my division — Instructional Services — was reorganized from a “division” to a “unit” there was a great deal of talk about what we would call ourselves. The administrators responsible for the reorganization automatically tagged us with the title “Learning Resources Unit.” We in the unit felt this was a confusing name since our group already had a department called the Learning Resources Center (LRC). How confusing would it be to have to tell students that the LRC was located upstairs in the LRU? Everyone, from our unit director to our staff of librarians to the support staff felt we not only could come up with a better name, we felt it was our right to do so. So we took the appropriate step. We formed a committee that would canvas the other members of our group and come up with a title acceptable to all unit members.

I volunteered for this committee and I, along with five other members of the library staff, worked very hard for about a month, discussing, dissecting, discarding, modifying and, finally, agreeing on a title for our unit that would be representative of all aspects of our group, including the Library, the Learning Resources Center and the Media Services department. It was a good name, too. Unfortunately I can’t remember what it was because the vice president who could have presented our recommendation to the Board of Trustees for approval chose to bury it, feeling that his choice of LRU was good enough.

There were people on that committee who announced with great emotion and finality that they would never serve on another committee. There were others in the department who took great pleasure in saying “I told you so.” For me it was a matter of perception. Yes, it was true our work in that committee provided no change, either for the better or otherwise. From a time-management point of view we wasted about six hours of our work life over the course of a month. However, I look back on that particular committee with pride. We might not have accomplished what we set out to do but those of us who volunteered bonded in a shared experience that brought us together both as colleagues and friends. Sometimes you have to accept the possibility that your hard work will have no effect on the quality of your working environment. If that’s all you’re focusing on then you’re missing out on the best part of the task: that sense of dynamic involvement in how your business is conducted.

And now I’m on this new committee, “volunteered” by our director, to generate student and faculty satisfaction surveys and a program review that will reflect the activities of the various areas within our unit. I had no idea what a program review was. I knew what a survey was but had no real experience in creating one. By the end of our first meeting I knew what a program review was and what the results of our work as a committee would be: either something of vital importance or more information that would sit on the desk of some vice president until everyone forgot what the purpose of the work was in the first place.

At least I know why I’m here, and it goes beyond being “volunteered.” I’m here because, as an active member of my unit, I have something of worth to offer, quite probably something no one else will think of. Knowing that, and knowing that, no matter what we produce, we’ll share that common experience and cultivate a mutual respect for each other is enough to keep at it.

What all of us need to remember is that no matter where we work in the library and no matter what the capacity, we know things about our jobs that other people do not and will not know unless we volunteer the information.

Charlie Fox is a library media technician at El Comino College, Torrance, California. Active in COLT (Council on Library Technicians), he is the Southwest Regional Director. Charlie was editor of Library Mosaics for six years and is also a published writer, musician, and songwriter.