Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Paper Trail Theory

I just plowed through four piles of documents submitted by faculty and chairs, recommending various professors for promotion, tenure, or reappointment. Were I a martian encountering them all for the first time, I’d wonder why earthlings are so upset about the educational system: according to the files, everybody is practically perfect in every way!

Except that they aren’t. And many of the people who wrote those documents have said very different things to me in person. They just don’t want to commit it to writing.

And here’s where the whole ‘paper trail’ theory of management falls down. According to the paper trail theory (wait – if I want this to catch on, I have to use capital letters: okay, according to The Paper Trail Theory…), whenever some sort of correction or improvement is needed, the manager should document the problem (sorry: the issue…) in a steadily escalating series of writeups. That way, should the low performer continue to fail to improve, any adverse action can’t be characterized as arbitrary or capricious.

Where it collapses is in the differential weight given to written (as opposed to spoken) criticism. Since we don’t want to demoralize the low performers, many of whom have tenure and are therefore bulletproof (or at least immovable), we try to be encouraging. Anything negative is communicated orally, when it’s communicated at all. Since some well-entrenched figures have shown previously-unsuspected gifts for drama when they’ve been criticized in the past, their chairs have decided that it just isn’t worth the trouble.

The net result is a herniating pile of documents crossing my desk, testifying to the unadulterated wonderfulness of all and sundry. This, in the name of ensuring accountability.

The perverse result, of course, is that any adverse actions that have to be taken (and they do!) wind up looking more arbitrary and capricious than they actually are, since the paper trail seemingly contradicts them. (Close reading, of course, reveals that there are actually different levels of praise; to suggest anything less than superhuman powers, in this in-house scheme of grade inflation, is in fact to call someone a blithering idiot. But good luck getting that to hold up in court! “Your honor, when I referred to Prof. X as ‘the best teacher I’ve ever seen,’ you need to read that in contrast to when I referred to Prof. Y as ‘the best teacher God has ever seen fit to create, in this epoch or any other.’” That’ll fly.)

I came to the party late enough to see the forms in a late stage of evolution. They used to have two categories: recommended and not recommended. That didn’t work, since everyone was recommended (for promotion, or tenure, or whatever). So another category was added: highly recommended. Then everyone was highly recommended. Now there’s a fourth category: Most Highly Recommended, which, predictably, everyone is. In my crabbier moments, I like to imagine what the form might look like in ten years. Extremely Highly Recommended, with Sugar on Top. So Superlatively Recommended That the Confines of Mere Language Fail Me. It’s sort of like solving the problem of too many A’s by giving more A-pluses.

Ironically, these same people complain at length about grade inflation for students.

Although I’m philosophically opposed to grading on a curve, I’m beginning to see the logic. If you stipulate, in advance, that there will be a lower end, someone has to fill it. With each person considered independently of every other, though, it’s awfully tempting for the front-line manager just to write nice things and save the nasty stuff for meetings.