Friday, March 07, 2008


The Fantasy of Clarity

My cc is dealing with a statewide initiative that may or may not succeed at its intended goals. It's fairly high-stakes, it's mandated by legislation that says 'what' but not 'how,' and it would involve – if it succeeds – upending some longstanding local political compromises.

I'm in the enviable position of being my campus's rep to the statewide committee working on this. Which means that I'm also the translator, updating my college on the project as it unfolds.

The project has moved quickly thus far, and is starting to encounter the first serious pushback. I assume that the pushback will grow more intense, compromises will be made, deadlines will be amended, compliance will be hit-and-miss for a while, and the whole thing may or may not collapse.

That's not intended as a criticism; any real statewide change should be expected to raise serious concerns. That's how these things are done, in the absence of a dictator. And yes, I support the absence of a dictator.

But some of the feedback I've encountered locally has surprised me. In retrospect, it shouldn't have, but it has.

In trying to respond to some of the proposed changes, some of my faculty have insisted loudly and vigorously that they're owed a clear timeline, flowchart, and list of different outcomes and their attendant consequences. They want several months of open meetings locally to formulate the first response, which they imagine would occasional several more months or even years of statewide debate. When all is said and done, which would require years, anything unwelcome or ambiguous should be gone.

Uh, nope.

The legislation says it must be in place by this Fall. Decisions are happening on the fly, by necessity. Nobody knows how it will come out, what the consequences might be, or if the whole thing is an exercise in windmill-tilting. And by the time several years of discussion could have passed, the political climate will be meaningfully different in unforeseeable ways.

In this case, the kind of step-by-step clarity they're looking for is simply a fantasy. That's not how politics works, and it's not how statewide groups of self-interested local actors work when laboring under an ambiguous mandate.

But some of them are utterly flummoxed by the prospect of ambiguity. It's striking to see.

It's sort of like the difference between “the scientific method” as control-freak K-12 educators teach it, and the way scientists actually work. Yes, timelines and flowcharts and “hypothesis-procedure-findings-conclusions” can be useful heuristics. But that's all they are. They're sometimes helpful as ways to simplify a complicated and messy reality. They aren't reality themselves.

One of the mental adjustments I had to make when I moved into administration from faculty was adjusting my burden of proof. As faculty, in my own discipline, I had been trained to spot flaws in arguments, and to try to construct ever-tighter cases. In administration, that's a recipe for failure. Since much administrative work involves acting for possible futures rather than explaining slices of past, waiting for a publishable level of clarity usually requires missing the moment. You have to make decisions with incomplete and imperfect information, and act on them. That's not to say you don't try to get the best information you can, obviously, or that some folks don't just give up and shoot from the hip. But when moments of possibility come along, you can't wait until you're absolutely, positively certain. You have to take a deep breath and take your shot, even if you don't know quite how it will play out. You need to trust your intuition, even knowing that it will sometimes fail.

Some of the faculty have never made that shift, at least in this setting, and don't seem to get it. Standing on what they understand as principle, they're asking for the kinds of proof they would ask for of academic arguments in their own disciplines. But by the time that level of evidence will be available, whatever will happen will have happened, and the local input the evidence was supposed to inform will have become irrelevant.

Although some local critics don't seem to see it, there's a level of proof lower than 'publishable' but higher than 'guessing.' That's the zone in which a great many decisions get made, simply by necessity.

If you want to participate in the decision-making – which is a good thing to do – you have to let go of the fantasy of clarity, and of the paralyzing fear of getting something wrong. After the fact, some of the decisions will look stupid in retrospect, and those involved will get criticized, both fairly and not. That's the cost of participation.

You can insist on absolute rightness, or you can get involved. Not both. I'm just a little surprised at how many want both.

You know, I'm not sure that the folks who are looking for absolutes are applying scholarly rigor to a practical issue. In my experience, those who do this sort of thing tend not to do a whole lot of research. I'd argue that the most productive scholars that I know tend to be much more pragmatic - otherwise they'd never publish anything. I also think that this is a strategy that some use to retain a kind of passive-aggressive control. If you get so bogged down in the *language* of something and all the possible outcomes, by default you retain control through making action (and change) impossible.

I suppose the challenge is to bring these people, kicking and screaming, along for the ride. The only way I've seen this done is by giving the appearance that you're giving in on some things. Set up a subcommittee of these folks to do research and to produce the flow charts, etc. (and if they won't do the work, well, that's on them) and maybe set up two open forums over the next month to give the faculty a voice in the process (and if they can't or won't come, well, again, that's on them). All the while, however, it's got to be made clear that this is going to move forward with or without them because it's been mandated by the legislature, and so the best response is not to dig in your heels, but to try to determine the direction of the conversation before it gets determined for you by lawmakers. This may/may not work, but it'll probably make it go slightly more smoothly than if you take the approach that those who want all of this to drag on don't want to be involved or can't be involved. If you take that approach with the faculty, you become the enemy. You'll be in a much better position if you can convince them that you take them seriously and that you're advocating for them (as much as is reasonably possible of course, and often these types aren't terribly reasonable, but it's worth a shot - also, get some more pragmatic faculty on board with you as allies to chip away at the resistance of the others, which might go a long way toward facilitating this process).
What Dr. Crazy writes about forming a sub-committee on timelines would be relevant if it was being developed inside, but my read of the article is that this is being imposed externally.

In a world where faculty are increasingly being asked to define a set of goals for their classes that have measurable outcomes so that the value of some classroom innovation (say decreased use of technology) can be tested and/or instructor performance evaluated, it strikes me as eminently fair to ask administrators to do the same thing when imposing their change on the college (or a group of colleges).

The initiative has goals, imposed externally. It is fair to ask what measurable outcomes will be used to evaluate the success or failure of the initiative relative to those goals. It is fair to ask when (a timeline) those outcomes will be measured, and it is fair to ask that the timeline for implementation be specified so it is clear that the outcomes are measured after the implementation has taken place.

It is not "pushback" to ask questions that make it obvious that the initiative is, at present, half baked and might be headed for failure simply because no one (including the people who came up with it) knows how to implement it.
Funny... hmmmm! My cc is dealing with a state cc system wide initiative that may or may not succeed at its intended goals. It's fairly high stakes, not mandated by legislation, but by the cc system head of my state. If it succeeds it will change the equation between institutions, students and instructors in profound ways. I am in the unenviable position of being a representative from my college to one of the working groups that has signed on to produce this change. This work is time consuming, on top of heavy teaching loads, and utterly unrenumerated. I am also a translator - both to members of my discipline system wide and to my college. The project is moving very quickly (our deadline is Jan. 2009) and there is just the beginning of a "push back " which I suspect will get worse. As ccphysicist said (regarding your post) perhaps this project (in my state) deserves to be questioned. Maybe it ought to be derailed, or at very least placed on a much longer time frame.

To ask for clarity and a reduction in ambiguity is not demanding absolute rightness. There should be no contradiction between involvement and demanding that the process make sense.
If you want to participate in the decision-making – which is a good thing to do – you have to let go of the fantasy of clarity, and of the paralyzing fear of getting something wrong.

This is easier to do if you have something like the illusion of power and it's easier to do when failure is an acceptable consequence of your actions. It sounds like your faculty don't have power but will still have to deal with the consequences of this change. That's an uncomfortable place to be. In this case I'd interpret the request for clarity as a desire for control and treat it accordingly. I'd also pay attention to who is weathering the storm well and think about mentoring them for administration.
CC Physicist: My sense was that the mandate was from outside but that how to respond was an inside issue, and thus that the hemming and hawing was about how to proceed in responding to the mandate. If the concern is *ways* of responding to the mandate, then I think it's possible that the naysayers could be put to work.

If I was wrong about that, then I totally agree with everything that you say in your comment :)
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