Friday, August 10, 2007
"You're Not Wrong, But..."
I was in one of those discussions recently at which phrases like “you're not wrong, but...” got tossed around.
That happens a lot.
In trying to bring clarity to some fairly shaggy but long-established processes (the legal term is “past practice”), we're frequently running into conflicts between what would actually make sense and what we can realistically expect to achieve, given the different understandings held by various stakeholders.
It's a hazard of a place with a long history and lots of long memories.
We have some policies and practices which have outlived their creators, and for which nobody can give a compelling explanation. But individual stakeholders see their own roles, and don't want those challenged. (There are plenty of compelling explanations for this or that little piece of the picture, but nobody can explain how it's supposed to hang together.) It's sort of like a cargo cult, except that the cultees have graduate degrees.
The problem is that some of these historical holdovers might not hold up to legal challenges. So we're trying to find ways to protect the college from exposure, without causing local mutinies.
It's a tough sell, given that a term like “liability” is terribly abstract, until it becomes terribly concrete, at which point it's too late. There's rarely any warning. You're just humming along, doing what you've always done, and bam!, you're subpoenaed and effectively hosed. It's hard to convey the possibility convincingly to folks who've been humming along, undisturbed, for many years. But it would be a failure of duty not to.
The challenge of it comes from trying to anticipate objections.
Since nobody ever wrote down the original rationales, people with roles to play in any given process have come up with their own explanations. (Creative minds abhor a vacuum.) Many of these explanations are partially or entirely implausible, and some of them are mutually exclusive. But since they haven't been tested in a very long time, they've fallen into the “goes without saying” category. And there's no quicker way to raise people's hackles than to violate a “goes without saying.”
Having bumped, hard, into some indignant “how could you possibly”'s based on some very weird personal understandings, we've learned to try to anticipate them. It's harder than you think. Quick: what do you think goes without saying? Chances are, most of it you wouldn't even think of until it's violated. We've had multiple instances of running multiple drafts by many people individually, hearing no objections, and then getting picked apart by those very same people at meetings. I don't think it's (usually) a conscious attempt to ambush; they just don't fully perceive the implications of change until it's suddenly concrete, at which point the accusations fly.
So administrative meetings are becoming, by necessity, exercises in preventive ventriloquism. What would such-and-such say about this? Why? Is there any validity to that? Can we get around that without losing what we really care about? Can we at least establish an explicit process that will gradually lead, over time, to what we really care about? Since foot-dragging and passive-aggressive sabotage are incredibly easy, we can't just push policies through without buy-in. But we won't get buy-in – however deserved – if we don't take account of the worldviews of the various snipers who don't know the war is over. So we look for 'better,' rather than 'best.' 'Defensible,' as opposed to 'correct.' Not being wrong doesn't necessarily mean you're right.
If nothing else, pushing some 'pretty good' solutions should at least force some discussion, and get some of those 'goes without saying's out into the open. If we can clear out some of the twisted theoretical underbrush that has been allowed to grow unchecked over the years, maybe we can actually start to make some progress. If not, at least I'm getting better at doing characters.
There's lots of "here, do this... you should obey us unequivocally because this should be the most important thing in your life!" and "No, you can't spend any time by yourself, even on your lunch break which we're not paying you for because it's a 'family concept,' and therefore we should be your entire social circle as well!" and so on.
(Not to mention my favorite: "We don't need to do things that show that we appreciate employees, because we spend money on benefits! The next time one of your employees complains that they're overworked, underappreciated, or that they have to come in on Saturday, just remind them that 11% of your budget goes to making sure that they have health insurance!")
I'd love to have someone think through a policy (really, at all) with "what someone else might want/need/think" in mind, instead of "what I want right now" or "how can we cut money that these stupid stupid employees are using?"
This is the norm in my field, software development. The solution there is to quickly mockup *complete* simulations of proposed new systems and get people to play act their way through using them. For some reason, play acting with a concrete toy is much more effective than reasoning (whether on paper or aloud) about an abstract future reality. For more on this, Google "paper prototyping."
I have no idea how to get tenured faculty to play a new game, BTW -- that's your department :-).
In fact, to be 'appreciated' is to cede ownership of your job to administration: they are like hosts, who appreciate and thank you for the nice bottle of wine you brought to dinner along with your own sweet self. But in the end, it's their dinner, their house, their show.
I don't like that model at all. We're all in the cc-thing together, all responsible, no one in a position to be doling out happyfaces.
I don't want their thanks or their gratitude, unless I do something out of the ordinary, beyond the call, or as a favor. Yet when I show up in two weeks, our Prez is going to show her appreciation by thanking her faculty for being the best and doing wonders and being caring and so on.
Well, gag me. See that I'm paid please, Mme. Prez, and hold the encomiums.
Most of all I dislike being praised for caring, which our Prez invariably does with a rich, warm, throbbing-with-emotion voice.
Praise for faculty 'caring' does violence to the language. I don't care about my students in any but a professional way. It would be unprofessional to care! It would cross boundaries and make it harder to teach. I want to do a good job, to teach well, to be fair, friendly, decent, knowledgable, and so on. But everyone has their rotten little story--in the whole universe I only care about a half-dozen or so, none of them ever, pray god, a student's.
Unprofessional to care? Why is that?
I care about my students. I want to see them succeed. I want to see them grasp the material in a tangible way that enables them to grow, and make a difference.
Perhaps things are different at a CC than at 4 yr and R1 universities, but I always viewed my role as not just professor, but mentor.
They like to imagine all our students enter WUNCC with terrible deficits and problems, which, naturally, students are helpless to deal with on their own, without major doses of smarmy-style 'caring' on the part of adults who, of course, know what's best for them and shouldn't hesitate to advise freely.
I see it differently: all our students are in community college and, hence, by this thing alone, already a thousand times better off than the many who aren't: I have nothing to my students about life, no advice at all.
Of course, some students buy into that world-view that they are helpless and need 'caring', to our institutional shame. So, I'll be dealing with someone's lame essay, but they want to 'explain' and blather about their relationship problems, kids, poverty, and a bunch of other stuff a hell of a lot more interesting than English composition but--to the extent I listen to it (not much)--not what the taxpayers of the State of WayUpNorth are paying me for.
So, when I sneer and snarl at the notion of caring, I don't mean I won't work hard to teach my students. I mean I'm not trained to do anything BUT work with writing. I have no therapeutic insights, no uplifting caring speeches, and--in the last analysis, if I'm honest about what does and doesn't matter to me--no deep compassion either. If I start feeling a species of compassion for strangers, I'm either on my way to sainthood or to the store to buy sentimental cards. Neither is that likely in my case.
That's what I meant by boundaries: my problems aren't students' business. Their problems do not become mine because the State of WUN deems me fit to teach college composition.
But, hey, when it comes to their writing, I have a lot to say! Those problems I go right after, yessir.
Here's the flip side: how much interest do you have in what we might call sumptuary issues? Tardiness, cellphones, position on paper of student name, coffee in class, and so on? A lot of teachers feel they are in the business of turning out 'better' people and so they deal with stuff like this. They prove they care by acting in loco parentis (to adults!) in the guise of providing a good learning environment or something.
Me, I find dealing with student writing takes all my energy. None of that sumptuary stuff is relevant to the business at hand. Neither is involving myself very deeply in the lives of my students.
The counterarguments are: "We've done it in a technically illegal way for the last 25 years with no problems" and "The law will only be enforced against malicious offenders, not good-hearted people like us".