Thursday, March 16, 2006


How To Be Lied To

There’s a cute piece in IHE about how professors learn to respond to the inevitable dead grandmothers around exam time. It got me thinking about how learning how to be lied to is one of the prerequisite skills for administration.

I get lied to several times per day, with a certain wax-and-wane depending on the rhythm of the semester. Immediately after the deadline for dropping classes without ‘extenuating circumstances,’ student liars crawl out of the woodwork. In my sixth year of deaning, I shouldn’t still be surprised by what some students consider extenuating, but it still happens. (Best Excuse Ever: “I’m in love.” My response: “How nice for you.”) Since there’s no penalty for the student for a frivolous appeal, a student who knows he’s failing has every incentive to take a shot at a mercy withdrawal. After all, the worst that can happen is what was going to happen anyway. Since ‘extenuating’ is in the eye of the beholder, students line up to try their luck at competitive whining. What they learn from this, I’m afraid to know.

Still, student lies are much less disturbing to me than faculty lies. Having spent years as a full-time professor, I’m acquainted with student lies. They’re usually fairly benign, the goals are short-term and obvious, and even the most unpleasant students eventually go away.

Faculty lies are much more demoralizing.

They’re worse for several reasons: faculty stick around much longer, the tenured ones can lie with impunity and know it, a certain gamesmanship surrounds faculty/administration interactions, and the difference in available information to the parties in the conversation means that statements that I might consider too stupid even to rebut will be taken as gospel by the faculty union rep. Worse, sometimes the facts that would discredit a lie are confidential. So the lie stands uncontradicted, leading the ignorant to find it credible. Very annoying.

To preserve my self-respect, I’ve come up with a few strategies to avoid lying myself. Changing the subject is a classic, but I get more mileage out of a simple, truthful “I can’t talk about that,” or “there’s more to it than that.” They’re both true, as far as they go, but they both allow me to imply doubt where necessary without actually revealing anything.

What’s harder is maintaining my self-respect when the tenured so-and-so in front of me is feeding me crap, knows he’s feeding me crap, is enjoying feeding me crap, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

In all but the rarest of cases, simply calling bullshit on them is out of the question. As soon as you do that, the initial lie becomes irrelevant, and the conversation shifts to process: how do you know it’s bullshit? Have you had a formal hearing? I didn’t know I needed my union rep with me! You’ll be hearing from my lawyer!


Since my personality doesn’t allow me to try to engage in competitive lying, and my position in the org chart doesn’t allow me to penalize lying, I instead go out of my way to make lying irrelevant. It may still be low-risk, but if it’s also low-reward, it may become less attractive.

That means maintaining a poker face, responding slowly, mastering the noncommittal grunt, putting things in writing, and always looking for the positive. To a professor who has the luxury of “thinking critically” all the time, it probably looks vapid. But I don’t have the luxury of being able to make myself look smart; I have to keep the organization running. If that involves me looking smart, great; if not, not. (Honestly, sometimes the blog is an outlet for the critical-thinking side I don’t get to show on the job.) The smarter faculty figure out pretty quickly that they get much more from me by being truthful, so they shift to truth as a strategic move. But some just can’t accept the idea that an administrator cares about truth, or are so wrapped up in their own little political obsessions that they just can’t escape. I drive those folks nuts. They just can’t figure me out.

I endure being lied to by trying to place it in the big picture. At the end of the day, if telling me tall tales makes Professor X feel better so that he can actually focus on his job, then my patient endurance has improved the college. If listening through the twisted paranoid fantasies of Professor Y gives me some insight as to what makes him tick, I have a better chance of getting what I need from him later. I have to have faith that I can see the outlines of a pony beneath all that horseshit. I don’t reward emotional manipulators by taking the bait. I keep enough distance to avoid getting sucked into other people's psychodrama.

And I curse like a sailor on the drive home.

Grrr... The dead grandmother thing really pisses me off. Unless your lie detector is 100% accurate, I still think it's better to err on the side of caution as far as students go.
"I'm in love" is cute! MUCH better than another dead grandmother!
I'm most interested in the lies the faculty tell. Will any examples be forthcoming?
I can only imagine!

What impressed me early on as an observer of faculty:dean relations was when the new dean suggested to the tenured prof that his sabbatical report needed a bit of substance, that it was the dean who was gone the next year.
I love this line: "I have to have faith that I can see the outlines of a pony beneath all that horseshit."

Great post.
Gotta say: I admire you as a dean if you encounter more lies from faculty than you tell. My experience where I'm at now is that faculty tell lies to the dean only because the dean tells lies on top of lies on top of more lies. This dean had convinced me that all administrators must have to lie out of necessity, but perhaps you prove that's not true.
I'm always tempted to periodically announce the running toll of family deaths, car accidents and other tragedies which befall my students. The only problem is that on the off chance that there have been actual car accidents, deaths and other tragedies it will make me seem cold and callous. Teaching mathematics already puts me pretty deep into that column to begin with.
Timna -- you're dead-on. I'm constantly struck at how commonly new deans will be charged with bringing change, and then blamed for causing conflict. Conflict is the cost of change. Lots of otherwise-intelligent people haven't figured this out, or think they're somehow exempt.

Anon -- you're absolutely right that administrative lying is real, legion, and corrosive. I've promised myself that I'd leave the job if I couldn't live with the person the job made me. I've gone to great lengths to do the job honestly, or at least not deceptively. (Sometimes I'll go with tact over candor, replying 'how interesting' instead of 'are you on crack?,' but I don't consider that lying.) It's harder this way in the short term, but I think it'll pay off in the long term.

Examples of faculty lies? I only missed two classes last term. It's not what you did, it's how you did it. I strongly support this initiative. I can't possibly teach this class without $500k of new equipment. Students are busting down the doors for my pet course. Of course my colleague shows up for office hours. No, I don't get any royalties for assigning my own book. I spoke with that student, and the matter is resolved.

There are plenty more, some much more inflammatory, but they're a little too close to home to blog about.
Lying - what a great topic! I have no administrative experience, but in teaching I have gotten tons of lies. At my Top Notch University I almost expect it since the students are spoiled and will just DIE if they don't make an A. There is a very strong push to try anything and everything that might improve a students GPA. But at my cc, where I teach mostly adult learners, I also get liars. And this really really bothers me. It makes me wonder if they'd support their own children cheating on exams and denying it straight to my face. I don't know why I thought adults wouldn't lie - but I really did.....

After reading your post, I'm thinking maybe lying is just part of the perceived power struggle between teachers and students or faculty and administration. Maybe it's hard for some peple to imagine that what's best for everyone might not be what's best for them right. this. second.
Lies, Secrets, and Silence, Adrienne Rich reminds us, are the paradigms of power. My last experience at Sadistic College taught me, like Anonymous, that administrators, when they are liars, are usually full-on pathological liars who would most likely be better off in a well-padded booby hatch than behind the oaken desk. The Dean there, Ms. Velvet-Glove Cast in Iron, was absolutely horrible when it came to lying (There were two things I hated about her: Her Face!).

My new Dean seems much more upfront, which agrees with my own personal style. That's not to say that one should blurt out the truth at all opportunities. Universities are still human endeavours, and as such deserve a modicum of falsehood and white lies to maintain the social grease on the wheels. But trying to be as honest yet tactful as possible seems like a good principle, although one I have been punished for. Tant pis! But we muddle on, hoping for the best, and attempting to stay as true to ourselves as possible.

Student lying? Common as corn, and not as bothersome, in my book.
How about some administrative lies? I have no intention of seeing you lose your job; Of course I'll support you; Just tell me what you need and I'll get it; Sorry, there's not enough money for promotion/development/sabbatical this year.

Deans and presidents give faculty and students a run for the money in the lie department, at least where I teach.
I'd be interested to hear more about how the culture promotes and rewards lying on both sides. Most of the lies I see aren't so much lies as projecting a certainty and knowledge on an issue where no one can really get either. But I've found that if I don't project certainty or if I ask for evidence, I'm either taken as weak or as opposing the measure. Any thoughts?
Oso Raro -- sorry to hear about Sadistic College. I know it's not unusual for very high-level folk to be, uh, veracity-challenged. We had a candidate here for a very high position who we caught lying, repeatedly, in a single half-hour interview. We couldn't get rid of her fast enough, but now she's very highly placed elsewhere. Scary.

Pi -- no argument. I've made a point of trying to buck the trend, and most of us at my current school do, but it takes real effort.

CSC -- great point! There's a lot of bluffing, which can be read as either optimism or lying, depending on how much you're counting on it. Some of it seems to be necessary; I was once called on the carpet at my previous school for being too candid in public. In some ways, it was a valuable lesson. Sometimes, you just need to make a leap of faith that a given project will work.

I've found, though, that too many failures eventually leads to a paralyzing, defeatist cynicism, especially among faculty. I consider that worse, since it precludes even the possibility of success.

I've tried to use the rhetoric of experimentation, when discussing new initiatives. I grant upfront that not everything will work, but I don't see that as a reason not to try anything. Some get it, some consider me just another empty suit. Comes with the job.
You might find Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullshit" helpful in responding to the question "How do you know it's bullshit."

Be advised, however, that Frankfurt distinguishes "lies" from "bullshit." The liar knows the truth and wants to conceal it -- the bullshitter simply ignores distinction between truth and falsehood.

(While you're at it, make sure your library has a copy. If you can't find a way to justify the purchase as supporting the curriculum, then have it added to the professional development collection).
Yeah, the combination of thinking that it's a game to be played and swearing like a sailor seems to do a pretty good job for me.
Faculty lie: "I can't make it to office hours today because of my migraine." (When I really should have said, "I can't meet you today because you'll give me a migraine, I'm feeling cranky, and I just wanna take a nap."

(Yes, that was I.)
Sigh. Depressing topic.

(I've got a question for you over at my site.)
And I too would love some examples of faculty lies.
here's one that beats your dead grandma!
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