Tuesday, February 15, 2005


From Faculty to Administration

It’s been a relatively slow week, so I’ve had the chance to reflect on the most bracing change when I moved from faculty to administration. It’s the definition of ‘smart.’ On faculty, esp. coming out of the theory-drenched 90’s, the definition of smart was the ability to see hopeless complexity where others saw only the obvious. The obvious answer was, by definition, ‘complicit’ with some other set of assumptions that vitiated the good done by the obvious answer. Paying attention to what Foucault called the “capillaries of power” involved tracing ever-more-esoteric relationships between phenomena. Specifying a responsible party for just about anything was hopelessly reductionist; ‘agency’ as a concept was embedded in logocentrism, itself an imperialistic paradigm.

In administration, the exact opposite is true. After a problem is identified and a little group brainstorming has been done, the major task is to narrow down the possible courses of action. Reductionism is not a flaw; it’s a necessity. Pare down the possibilities to a few do-able “action items,” with responsible parties, measurable outcomes, and budgetary needs specified in advance. A good manager can move from problem to solution relatively quickly, and can summarize that solution clearly.

After years in pomo theory seminars, just getting used to the concept of ‘action items’ took some time. You mean we’re supposed to just pick something and do it? Now? Based largely on hunches? With crappy data? Or no data at all?

On this side of the desk, one of the real shocks has been to discover how many decisions are made on hunches. I don’t mean that as a criticism – an educated hunch is not entirely arbitrary – but just as a discovery. The tools of empirical social science, I’ve found, are useful almost exclusively after the fact, when they’re useful at all. As Hegel put it, the owl of Minerva spreads her wings at dusk.

In a way, the discovery is liberating. Decisions that some on the outside take to be indicators of sinister underlying motives are often completely unconnected. In fact, when confronted with accusations of sinister underlying motives, a manager’s response of ‘huh?’ is frequently both honest and accurate.

That’s not to deny larger political realities, but instead to suggest that actions may, in fact, be more intelligible than sometimes thought. To my mind, this is cause for optimism. Extrapolate this lesson to, say, the government: if we assume that (say) Bush has a few core convictions, a few empirical assumptions, and very little patience, we can explain a remarkable proportion of his actions. I’d argue that his core convictions and assumptions are largely wrong, but they’re intelligible. (That’s probably at the core of his popular appeal – people who don’t follow politics all that closely or understand it all that deeply can understand Bush. That wasn’t true of his opponent, sadly.)

This Fall we’re rolling out an entirely new program, based pretty much on a shared hunch that it might work. I know that I’ve settled in as a manager because I’m okay with that.

A couple of years ago, Dinesh D'Souza wrote a book about the strange and mysterious governing qualities of Reagan. How Ron's decisions and his appeal were remarkable, complex, and deep, defying analysis.

One reviewer chose to point out that this "depth and complexity" could simply be the illusion generated by trying to find depth where none exists. Reagan was, in fact, a very simple man. Taken that way, his decisions, appeal, and bad hair all make sense.

This is the "Jerry Lewis Error." Lewis was beloved in France largely because his antics were so asinine, French film critics went insane trying to find depth in them. Rather than back away and see the films as the dumb joke-fests they were, the critics invoked abstruse theory and crammed the movies through their pre-existing hyper-complicated understandings of film. Like trying to run a sports car on buttermilk, the tools collapsed. Thus baffled, the critics declared Lewis's oeuvre to be the works of genius.

On a related note, a biographer of Nixon, whose name escapes me right now, said that the conflicts and paradoxes of the man's behavior befuddled the researcher, until he had a moment of clarity. Nixon, he realized, was simply an amoral man who would do whatever it took to get ahead. Simple as that. Viewed through that lens, the man is easily and accurately understood.

To PoMo theory, I offer the wisdom of William James: "Whatever universe a professor believes in must at any rate be a universe that lends itself to lengthy discourse. A universe definable in two sentences is something for which the professorial intellect has no use." (from "Pragmatism")

Here endeth the yammer.

I'm having a spin through your back issues (after you referred back to an original post about moving to Mom-at-home, Dad-at-work coupledom).

The insight and summary in this one really hits home.

It isn't just academics, but lawyers who go the same way.

I have seen lawyers fail as managers (and found it a complete pain to manage lawyers myself), because they applied the "analyse it and find the perfect answer" approach.

Similarly, if you take a tool used for finding out who is to blame after the event (which is what the law excels at), and put it into a compliance programme, you get an unwieldy impractical overly legalistic thing. And we have posters and warning signs everywhere, a kind of visual pollution. Sigh.

Management is about taking calculated (or instinctive) risks. Action trumps inaction most of the time, and failing to take action is the biggest risk of all.

I am reminded of Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister (if you haven't seen this 80s British serial you should!)

"The Civil Service has the engine of a lawnmower, with the brakes of a Rolls Royce"

Keep on writing, keep going on instinct, and let us know what you think.

Love the blog.

Will I have the capacity to pay off the advance in the given time allotment? For the most part, moneylenders expect borrowers to reimburse their credit when they get their next paycheck, which is ordinarily a two-week time allotment.
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