Wednesday, August 13, 2008
It’s a difficult concept to work with, since anything both old and unwritten will necessarily be subject to differing recollection. Over the years I’ve been in countless discussions in which different parties recalled the same ‘past practice’ differently, each with great conviction and moral fervor. Past practices also sometime outlive the contexts in which they originally made sense, but they don’t lose their quasi-binding power for that. They’re a way of giving moral force to “but we’ve always done it that way.”
Over the years I’ve made my peace with the concept of past practice, even with the obvious shortcomings and difficulty of application. (I’d rather be explicit and actually document what we do, but that’s me.) Now I’m wrestling with past non-practice.
A few seemingly great ideas have percolated up of late on campus. In looking into whether we can do them, I’ve run into several very confident “oh, we can’t do that”s. When I’ve asked why, there’s invariably a silence, followed by a variation on “we’ve never been allowed to do that.” When I ask why they weren’t allowed, I get variations on “long gone so-and-so never allowed that. I think it was based on a statute or something.”
This does not inspire confidence.
So I’ve gone to the union contract, the union leadership, the HR director, my counterparts at nearby cc’s, and folks with very long memories. Nobody can point to a rule that would actually forbid what we’re thinking of doing, nor can anybody explain why forbidding it would make any sense. In fact, most of our neighboring cc’s already do this, apparently without issue.
And yet, I keep hitting that same wall of theological rejection. It can’t be done, because it can’t be done, because it can’t be done. Someone told me so, and we’ve never done it, so there.
Wise and worldly readers – have you found effective ways to defeat past non-practice?
I don't know of any way to get a passive-aggressive administration to move.
Now if my reading of this is correct and the faculty have proposed a good idea that is in common practice in your state and the folks above you won't do it, the next option would be for the tenured among them to take it to the local paper so a reporter asks your boss instead of you.
If there is still resistance, and as ccphysicist suggests it's from above, answer how it ties in with whatever the school's front-and-center issue is. Are you battling student attrition? How will this help? Are you trying to cut costs in one area? How will this help?
Another suggestion-- bring someone in from one of the schools successfully doing this for a talk or to present on how x program has worked at their campus. Have them speak to the target audience you need to convince.
It's really hard to speak generally without knowing specifics.
Is this going to become an annual posting? I remembered you having a very similar "rant" a while back, so did the requisite search, and lo and behold... "http://suburbdad.blogspot.com/2007/08/youre-not-wrong-but.html"
Almost EXACTLY one year ago!
Coincidence--or have you had to sit through the same annual meeting?
One reason my present contract includes a clause about the timing of meal breaks is that some mid-level admin felt that placing one's lunch break at 8:45 in the morning was a reasonable thing to do. Teaching for over five hours in a row with only three 5-minute breaks to take a dump, grab food, and get to the other end of a crowded building was not fun.
Following past practice gives people a level of predictability in their jobs, a way of knowing what their duties and conditions will be.
Seems to me past non-practice is part of the same thing. Without knowing the specifics, it might be a way of avoiding having extra (uncompensated) work dumped on someone, avoiding liability/blame/responsibility for something, or institutionalized memories of something bad that happened that no one likes to (or is allowed to) talk about.
The result was that the potential roadblocks to my preferred solution themselves suggested exactly what I wanted--the ultimate buy-in, since it became their idea instead of mine. Far from being resistant to the change from past practice, they became advocates for change.
This may not always work, and I suspect it's not far from what you have already tried, DD. It may well be that it worked for me because the stakes seemed relatively low (although the precedent now set could be used in a much broader way). It also may work better for someone midway in the hierarchy such as myself--I was working more or less with peers in the system, not superiors nor subordinates.
But if your personal position in the hierarchy is part of the problem, perhaps you could appoint a Dean's Homunculus to go forth and generate consent.
The case is different if the innovation actually runs into concrete opposition from a constituency that feels its own interests are threatened. Then you need to win them over. But if you think they're being passive-aggressive, the line about other constituencies being on board with the change might force them to actually articulate their opposition. (Perhaps I am naïve, though!)
As you describe it, by the way, past practice is like the common law, only without the jurists.
We need to own up to the fact that we work in bureaucratic organizations. As Weber noted all those years ago, effective coordination of people in bureaucracies requires documented guidelines that all agree to follow. As a general principle, the less explicit the rules are, the less likely it is that a college will fulfill its mission. "We've always done it this way" is just not a viable governance strategy.
Or this new procedure/idea you want to implement will cause discomfort or inconvenience to someone at your college. So they use past practice to go against it.
I suggest you do what heather said, pitch it as a pilot program and let those who are most against it evaluate it with specific, written evaluation check sheets. Let those who might sign on to the procedure/whatever implement it. If it concerns grades or something permanent, ask for volunteers to do it, and if it fails, make sure their careers are not damaged. A pilot program could do that.
If there was a good reason for the past practice not being done, you will find it out soon.
That way, everybody can feel good that they didn't implement this themselves before, while still being able to support it now.
Past practices don't somehow automatically cancel management rights. An employer's not excercising a right in the past does not mean that right no longer exists.
This principle works the same way in the real world: The fact that someone has never exercised his/her right to criticize the President of the United States does not mean that s/he's lost the right of free speech/expression.
Management's right of assignment is something that's common in most collective bargaining agreements. Faculty members might have enjoyed four-day-per-week assignments for decades; however, management still has the right to schedule folks from Monday through Friday.