Thursday, February 09, 2006

 

I Heart Data

It’s time to start making decisions about which departments will get to hire new full-timers for the Fall. Per usual, the demand for new people exceeds the supply of funding, so the VP and I have to make some choices.

Listening to my chairs, I get a particular impression of where the needs are. Looking at the data, I get a very different impression.

Seized by inspiration (okay, impatience), I ran the course counts for the last two semesters, and manually counted off how many sections in each area were taught by adjuncts. Through high-level math, like addition and division, I found the percentages in each area. Suffice it to say, the percentages are a pretty bracing reality check.

The relationship between chair complaints and objective reality is almost random. One department is nearly all full-timers, and the chair of that one (wisely) doesn’t complain. Other than that, I could find no relationship between the truth and the complaining. The loudest (and most self-righteous) complainer is actually in the middle, slightly below the mean. The department in the worst shape complains a bit from time to time, but nothing like most others.

Maybe it’s the social scientist in me, but I’m fascinated by the mismatch between perception and reality.

Malcolm Gladwell has a pretty good essay in this week’s New Yorker about empirical studies of the costs of homelessness. He notes that most people think of homelessness as a chronic condition that can be ameliorated through broad provision of social services – soup kitchens, shelters, etc. Drawing on the work of some people who actually went into the trenches and did some counting, he found that the bulk of the social costs of homelessness (medical care, mostly) derives from a very small percentage of the homeless. Narrowly-targeted but dramatic interventions in a few hard cases produce greater results than broadly-provided but shallow instances of help, like soup kitchens. Gladwell notes that narrowly-targeted, dramatic interventions are hard to sell, since they’re morally counter-intuitive (i.e. they seem to be rewarding bad behavior). But from an objective cost perspective, they’re far more effective.

He describes it as the difference between a standard bell curve and something that looks like a hockey stick. Interventions that target the entire length of the curve won’t achieve very much, since most of the curve doesn’t matter much, and the part that does matter needs far stronger interventions than we would ever apply across the board.

I’m quite taken with this idea, since it seems to explain a persistent frustration of mine. In a tenured and unionized setting, interventions are damn near impossible unless they’re across-the-board. But the across-the-board interventions mostly just hassle the majority, who didn’t need it anyway, and are far too weak to affect the really awful few. The perception of what constitutes fairness pretty much forbids anything that might actually be effective.

Over time, various across-the-board policies pile up as the attempts to corral the few loose cannons keep failing.

What’s so lovely about data is that it doesn’t pull punches. It shows quite clearly where ‘reputational knowledge’ is simply wrong.

Now comes the hard part. How does one do surgical interventions in a process-oriented, tenured, unionized setting?

Comments:
Amen:

"In a tenured and unionized setting, interventions are damn near impossible unless they’re across-the-board. But the across-the-board interventions mostly just hassle the majority, who didn’t need it anyway, and are far too weak to affect the really awful few. The perception of what constitutes fairness pretty much forbids anything that might actually be effective."

And...it's not jusy unionized shops. The same is true at my cc. The result is that we have a steady drip of new requirements, initiatives, measurements, outcomes, task forces..ad infinitum. One of my colleagues said years ago in a fac meeting: "I just want them to leave me alone and let me teach." And there are the social costs; we reduce efficiency, initiative, effectiveness, individuality to rut out the awful few. It might be better to simply carry those awful ones, transferring them out of harm's way.

Another of my colleagues refers to the asmin as the Department of Solutions For Which There Are No Problems." And he's not wrong.

I'm not sure how to resolve the dilemma, but you have put your finger on it.

Peter
 
Well, I think a start (perhaps) would be to put the data that you tabulated in front of all of the faculty (not just department chairs). If that's the starting point for the conversation about how decisions will be made, then it could send the message that the squeakiest wheel (in terms of loud-mouthed bitching and moaning) will not get the grease.

In my experience so far in my department, complaining is the way to get noticed and to get what one wants. I'm probably the most vocal of the junior faculty in my department, and generally I am shit on less than the people who keep their heads down and their mouths shut. Example: the only time I've had one of my upper-division courses not go is this semester, and I have reassigned time; among my junior faculty cohort, I believe everybody has had upper-division classes taken from them and they've been reassigned service courses at the last minute. Ostensibly this is about enrollments, but I've made a case for my courses that weren't at the stated minimum and they've gone. However, if the process were more transparent (people have only known this about my courses because I've told them in an effort not to be the lone junior faculty member in my department who speaks) then my bitching and moaning wouldn't work. Which would, in fact, be fair and just, and which I actually wish were the case, even though I wouldn't get all of the privileged treatment that I now do.

The reason in your case (I think) people make the noise they make is because it's worked for them in the past and because the lack of transparency about hiring decisions has meant that they can do so with impunity. Make the process more transparent and they might not like your decisions but after a few times through the process maybe they'll realize that making loud noises doesn't get them what they want and accept your decisions as fair and just, or at least that's my theory.
 
I have no data or suggestions to offer you, but thank you for not rewarding people just because they complain. Remember, employees behave in the way one trains them to behave!
-I'm accounting as fast as I can!
 
It's telling that the department which is worst off doesn't complain. It seems to be the other way round: It doesn't have full-timers, because its chair doesn't complain enough. So you can't blame the others for the trouble they make: It's what works best. Which isn't fair, but common.
 
Make the reports you generated manditory for the chairs to submit with any request for full time faculty slots. If a chair does not submit them and your records show that the department needs new faculty, show them to the chair and ask why no request was submitted. If this goes on for a second year, remove the chair. Unions do not protect chairs.
 
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