Tuesday, March 10, 2009


The Litany

For some reason, there's a persistent subset of people – both faculty and staff – who can't raise one issue without referencing ten more. Worse, they aren't raised in the spirit of “this connects to that,” but in a spirit of “and ANOTHER thing...” I call it the litany.

In my early, naïve days of administration, I used to attempt point-by-point refutations of the litany. I discovered quickly, though, that this just feeds the fire. If you're accused of ten things and only shoot down eight of them, some will assume that you've admitted to the other two. If you aren't careful, the emails start to snowball quickly, with responses to responses to responses, each farther removed from the actual issue at hand. And any infelicity of phrase will just make things worse.

Back then, I lived in fear of being accused of 'stonewalling.' Anything put out there, I thought, had to be responded to.

Over the years, though, I've found that it's often better just to ignore the litany, and either respond only to the single key issue, or to nothing at all. The distinction in my mind between that and stonewalling has to do with whether the actual issue at hand gets a response. Anything can be on the table, but not all at once. All the stuff that comes after “in the context of...” should either get its own discussion or not, but it shouldn't hijack the conversation at hand.

Worse, if you actually bore down beneath the layers of litany, it often boils down to “I'm still nursing a decade-old grudge, so leave me alone.” That's why responses that only address the current issue can seem so anticlimactic, yet still be oddly effective. (I've thus far resisted the temptation to end some of those with “happy now?,” but sometime before I retire...)

I've tried to figure out the mindset behind the litany, especially when it happens over and over again. I've come up with a few theories, but this is not meant to be comprehensive.

1.Perceived lack of opportunity. If I'm confident that I'll be heard over and over again, I can postpone discussion of one idea in favor of another. If I don't know when/if I'll get heard again, I'd better shoot my entire load now.

2.Inability to prioritize. If everything is important, then leaving anything out is unconscionable. Better cover every base, just to be safe.

3.Deep unhappiness. It's more of a cri de coeur than a serious attempt at problem-solving.

4.Arrogance/narcissism. My worldview is so all-encompassing that to share only a part of it wouldn't be right.

5.Showboating/Rallying the Troops/Waving the Bloody Shirt. The clue to this is when the email is cc'ed to half the known universe.

6.Attempting to Look Informed. 'nuff said.

I'm sure there are more. But whatever the thought process behind the litany, it's distracting and tiresome, and it prevents real conversation.

Wise and worldly readers – have you had experience with the litany? Have you found a reasonable explanation for it, or, even better, a really effective way of cutting it off?

There's also the foot-in-the-door technique (researched by social psychologists).
actually it is more like the door-in-the-face (make lots of big request in the hope at least one of them will be accepted)
I think I *do* the litany....

But mine tends to come in the form of random thoughts, sent by email, and I am hoping that the person in charge will file it, remember, add it to the agenda, and either fix it or decide it doesn't need fixing. It's largely so that I can stop worrying about it.
Lately I've been dealing with a number of people who do the litany. It's incredibly frustrating, especially since the topics are always the same and any attempt to engage people seriously just results in these awful circular conversations. It doesn't help that all of the worst offenders have been around for many years longer than I do.

One technique that I found worked well was to not take these issues seriously. In one individual's case, this resulted in me turning everything he said into some variation of "that's what your mom said." It's juvenile and rude, but I actually had amazing success with this approach. People who had known the litany guy for years were surprised that I could get him to shut up simply by commenting on his mother's fatness/stupidity/promiscuity/whatever.

I eventually stopped doing this because it was truly rude, but I'm currently paying the price as I get stuck listening to his angry rants. Sigh...

(Note: this is within a university-operated volunteer organization, so your mileage will almost certainly vary)
Are you sure you aren't my Dean?


When I am the originator, the one primary complaint that led to the e-mail often reminds me of other issues that never quite rose to the level of getting me to open up a new e-mail. However, I only do this with certain people in administration (such as my Dean) who I know can hold more than one idea in his mind at once. In other cases I am extremely careful to put each observation in its own message.

On the response side, I would never do it. I would expect you to ignore any "litany" that shows up in response to a request for feedback from the faculty on a specific topic. You should demand focus in e-mail, like in your great post about running meetings. The best answer to off-topic comments would be a request to submit them as a formal request, in ranked order of importance, so the college and its faculty can take them up in turn.
For some of my faculty, the litany itself is set in stone, so that I can reliably predict exactly what will be said next. I therefore like to think of it more as the 'catechism'.
Al - I know one department where it was proposed that certain individuals simply stand up at departmental meetings and say "I hearby register my usual list of complaints."
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