Skip to main content

Caring about (handbook) language [1]

Once again, I find that I seem to care more about language than most of the people around me. Yesterday, we had a presentation from the Faculty Organization Committee (FOC) on what were supposed to be minor, clarifying language changes to the handbook.

Here’s one of the changes. In the current handbook description of rights and responsibilities for two non-overlapping groups, one group is identified as Full-time members of the faculty, including members of the faculty in shared positions, and Regular part-time members of the faculty and the other as Temporary part-time members of the faculty. FOC has proposed to replace the first with Regular members of the faculty, including members of the faculty in shared positions, and Regular part-time members of the faculty and the latter to Term faculty.

As you might guess, I raised concerns about the change. First, we don’t have the term Term defined anywhere in the handbook. My quick conversations with a few people suggest that there is not a consistent definition of the word Term (at least in casual usage). For some, Term encompasses anyone who is not a Regular faculty member (that is, not on a contract with an expectation of renewal). For others, Term only encompasses full-time people with limited term contracts. Since the Faculty Handbook is a form of contract (and, when last I checked, is explicitly referenced in our actual contracts), we should not be using undefined terms for which there is no common understanding.

But I’m more concerned about the change in rights and responsibilities. Full-time term faculty are being switched from one category of rights and responsibilities to another. Now, it may be appropriate to change the rights and responsibilities of term faculty. I heard one good argument for doing so at the meeting, but not from those presenting the proposal. However, it is inappropriate to treat such a change as a mere language clarification.

It may be that we are also completely removing part-time term faculty from consideration. That strikes me as wrong. But I can’t tell whether or not we’re doing that, because the language of term is unclear.

Some other issues I’m concerned about in the changes also stem from undefined terms. The Faculty Handbook refers to standing committees. What is a standing committee? The Oxford English Diction [2] says a standing committee is A permanent committee that meets regularly [4]. But some folks use standing committee to refer only to the committees that are mentioned explicitly in the handbook [5,7].

Committees are complicated. When I asked about, say, the committees that are associated with concentrations, the response was FOC doesn’t handle those. But just because FOC doesn’t handle those doesn’t mean that handbook policies don’t apply to them.

So, let’s consider the kinds of committees we have at Grinnell. We have some committees that are more-or-less permanent and meet regularly. Following the OED model, I think we should refer to these as standing committees. We also have some ad hoc committees that are created for a limited time and scope. We sometimes refer to the latter as task forces.

We can divide standing committees into two groups. Some standing committees are under the aegis of FOC. Other are not. Some move back and forth. For example, our committee on Tutorial and Advising is under the FOC umbrella but our Concentration committees are not. Many of the boards on campus, such as the board of the Wilson Center for Leadership and Innovation started outside the umbrella but are now part of the FOC process.

We can further subdivide the committees under the aegis of FOC. I think I count four groups. (i) There are committees defined in the handbook.
(ii) There are committees that are not defined in the handbook that FOC nonetheless appoints faculty to and that the rest of the faculty approves. (iii) There are committees that are not defined in the handbook that the president appoints faculty to, such as the Institutional Review Board. Traditionally, FOC nominates faculty for the president to appoint. (iv) There are other committees that FOC appoints people to, but that the faculty don’t approve. It’s been some time since I’ve been on FOC, so I might have trouble classifying all of those perfectly.

Amazingly, we can do one more level of division. In the handbook, there are committees whose membership is explicitly elected in individual elections. For example, we have faculty-wide elections for Council (at-large), Personnel (at-large), and FOC. Similarly, we have division-wide elections for Personnel and Curriculum Committee. Some memberships are implicit. For example, the Chair of each division is on both Executive Council and the Faculty Salary Committee. But many of the committees are elected as a slate at the last faculty meeting of the year. These include ASFAC, ISC, and CSFS.

I’m not sure that we need to go to that level of detail in classifying committees. But we do have to explain what we mean by standing committee and we do need to distinguish between handbook committees and non-handbook committees, and between FOC-governed committees and independent committees. It almost makes me wish I was back on FOC [8].

Where was I? Oh, yeah, I was complaining about handbook changes at the faculty meeting. So, here’s the problem. As far as I can tell, I’m the only person who was concerned about the language and the implications of the change in language. And that makes me wonder: If no one else cares, should I really care?

[1] I wanted to call this Language Matters, but that’s a bit too much of double meaning, even for me.

[2] Or some simulacrum [3].

[3] It makes me happy the Google can figure out what I mean when I type simalcrum.


[5] Let’s see … Executive Council, the Faculty Personnel Committee, the Faculty Salary Committee, the Curriculum Committee, the Faculty Organization Committee (FOC), the Committee on Academic Standing (CAS), the Admission and Student Financial Aid Committee (ASFAC) [6], the Instructional Support Committee (ISC), the Physical Education Committee, the Public Events Committee, the Teacher Education Committee, and the Committee for the Support of Faculty Scholarship (CSFS).

[6] I’m not sure why ASFAC is preferable to CASFA.

[7] One administrator said, The term is defined on the Web site. I’m sorry, but the Web site is not part of the handbook. Our administrators should know that.

[8] I’m clearly way too busy this year.

Version 1.0 of 2017-11-07.