Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Well, That Explains a Lot...

In the context of discussing ways to encourage her colleagues to try to reach students at different levels of demonstrated ability, Dr. Crazy inadvertently addressed a very different issue:

there are small changes that one can try to institute at a department level (somewhat under the radar) that increase the level of professorial engagement - like, for example, taking an administrative call for more transparent assessment as an opportunity to come up with assessment objectives that fall in line with hitting that lower third by framing it as "this is what all majors should come away from courses with the ability to do." This way, it's not an attack on specific individuals but rather the discussion becomes one of shared governance and about making the administration the enemy - not students, not other faculty members. (emphasis added)

It's worth rereading closely. “Taking an administrative call for more transparent assessment as an opportunity” -- that is, using the political space created by the administration – results in making the administration the enemy, as a strategic move.

You're welcome.

I have long held that much anti-administration grumbling is misplaced. It's an intellectually dishonest, but politically convenient, way to achieve other things. Much of it is not to be taken at face value.

In my naive, early days of deaning, I used to try to respond point-by-point to the accusations directed at me. In time, though, I realized that point-by-point was missing the point. There's a kabuki element to many of the complaints, a ritualistic assuming-of-the-moral-high-ground that trumps the actual content. That's why detailed explanations of exactly how the complaints were inaccurate, silly, or even slanderous didn't make them go away. In addressing what they were saying, I wasn't addressing what they were doing.

The more successful administrators I've seen have developed the ability to listen quietly and impassively while having invective hurled at them for extended periods at point-blank range. (Good cops do this, too.) I suspect this explains the exponentially higher turnover rate of administrators, as opposed to faculty. Even if you understand, cognitively, the organizational value of the 'lightning rod' function – Tom Wolfe called it the 'flak catcher' – there are still times you're just not in the mood. And the staggering unfairness of not being allowed to hit back ('retaliation') can get to be a bit much.

The shame of it all is that the rest of Dr. Crazy's post is actually quite good, and constructive, and exemplary of exactly the kind of dialogue that I'd hope faculty on my own campus would have (and sometimes do). It's just a little disheartening to read, and see, that the discursive space to have that dialogue rests on slandering those of us who actually make it possible.

Dean Dad,
First of all, my comment was not intended personally, nor do I think that it implied that faculty should "slander" individual administrators or that open dialogue depends on slander. I also don't believe that administrators as individuals are the enemy. Not at all. I was writing off the top of my head, and I was trying to articulate the only way I've managed to have a voice in certain kinds of discussion as a tenure-track person without putting myself up on the chopping block.

I suppose, to clarify, I think that when one is a junior faculty member who cannot stand up to people with tenure in overt ways without risking one's livelihood, using administrative pet projects as a way to get a conversation going with entrenched senior faculty members - and in fact to make some change - is sometimes the only option. Yes, that can then distract and confuse the entrenched, leading them to direct invective and vitriol at "the administration" (as kind of a broad category) - invective and vitriol that may be upsetting for individual people but that ultimately doesn't make a whole lot of difference in terms of how "the administration" sees its role or sets its policies. With those people distracted, it then becomes possible to compromise and to institute (small) changes.

Is that intellectually dishonest? You know, I'm not sure what intellectual honesty has to do with it, quite frankly. I think that this is the system within which I have to work, and only after tenure will I have the power and security to work toward changing that system. Until then, those sorts of changes are totally beyond me, and after tenure, such changes would still be incredibly difficult to spearhead.

Is it strategic and political? Of course it is. Is it politically *convenient*? I'd say no, because it would be much more convenient if one didn't have to do this kind of maneuvering in order to get things done. It's time-consuming, and it's not guaranteed to work.

At any rate, I just thought I should clarify, as I made that comment entirely without thinking or considering how it might be perceived.
If every pre-tenured faculty member who claims they will work to change the system (entrenchment, bickering, in-fighting,turf-battles, relcutance to change or improve teaching, and the intentional vitriol towards non-faculty) actually DID something about it once they had tenure, imagine what higher ed would look like!
Hey, anonymous, what are YOU doing to improve higher ed beyond leaving catty comments anonymously disparaging those who *are* actually trying to improve discourse?

As someone who feels strongly called to teach, I am a little concerned by the adversarial climate it seems in which most instructors and administrators work. I've seen where it trickles down to students in very counter-productive ways. It is my hope that the younger folks on both sides can find a better way in the coming years.
It's interesting to see this response because I'd read that section and took the lower case administration to mean the systems of governance and control rather than the people who administrate (or the Administration).

So what I took away from it was not that you make the people who slog through the administrative side of things the enemy, but rather that you recognize that how things are administered may be the problem. And changing process - in spite of what recent blogosphere debates would seem to indicate - almost always makes more sense than trying to change people.
Dr. Crazy -- thanks for the followup.

I think what concerned me wasn't that you had formulated the words imprecisely; it was that you had (however distractedly) nailed it. If I thought that you had merely gotten it wrong, I would have let it pass. What bothers me is that you got it right.

It's often easier, for a variety of reasons, to heap scorn on The Administration than to address what's really going on. Multiply that by the number of times it happens, and the number of years in a senior professor's career, and you get a pretty toxic climate of opinion.

One area where I have to disagree with you is where you say that whatever animus is generated is largely irrelevant. That's true at first, but it adds up, and I've seen good ideas killed out of needless interpersonal spite.

Anyway, thanks for being a good sport. We could use more of that on campus.
DD, you missed her point: That it might be easier to get a senior faculty member re-engaged by casting the reform as an attack on the administration than to force change from above. As you said, good ideas can get killed out of spite.

Her concern that students in the major should all have a certain minimum set of skills is one that concerns some of us at our CC and is sometimes shared by the administration when they aren't looking only at retention rates rather than learning rates.
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