Friday, September 02, 2011


Status Anxiety

Earlier this week I had a pair of meetings right on top of each other that made for a hell of a contrast.

The first involved a discussion of academic programs that haven’t been achieving the results they should. When I suggested that years of sustained underperformance constituted a pretty good case for trying something different, I was upbraided by a long-tenured professor who was Shocked and Appalled that I would dare to suggest that the program was anything less than perfect. As far as she was concerned, the only possible formula for improvement involved more of the same.

Later that day I had a meeting with a hotshot young entrepreneur with audacious plans. He was relaxed and confident, and while I can’t say I was entirely persuaded, I couldn’t help but enjoy both his energy and his ambitions. Without spilling any beans, I’ll just say that he’s attempting to create an entirely new category of company, and it actually makes sense.

And I thought, hmm.

The key difference wasn’t so much age or gender; I’ve seen energy and ambition cross those lines over and over again. It was the presence, or absence, of status anxiety.

The entrepreneur was utterly confident that he was on the right track, that the future would be better than the present, and that one way or another, all would be well. His primary frustration was speed; he wanted things to move considerably faster than they already are. The fact that the current company exists in a hovel, and that nobody has heard of it, bothered him not at all.

The professor, by contrast, seems to think that the only options are either preservation or decline. She has been doing the exact same thing for many, many years, and as far as she’s concerned, her dues are paid. At some level, she must know that the world doesn’t quite believe her, so she scrambles to squash any audible echo of her own doubts. Initiative is crushed by fear; even the possibility of change is taken as a direct threat.

All of which is to say, status anxiety is self-destructive.

If both of them get what they want, in a few years the entrepreneur will be running a successful, rapidly growing company doing a new and exciting thing. The professor will be doing exactly what she is doing now.

I’ve never had much truck with Platonism, and I’m not about to start now. The idea of the Fall from the Golden Age is paralytic, if not fatalistic. It prevents the creation of anything new. Worse, it even forestalls serious discussion of how to improve what’s already there. If all change is decline, then the best that can be done is to strike a tragic, if dramatic, pose as the doomed champion of a fading, imaginary past, raging against the dying of the light.

Worse, it seems to me that even doing traditional education well requires a real faith in the future. The very act of teaching is a sort of bet on the future, a devotion of resources that could have been otherwise engaged to something with a long-term payoff. If there’s no sense that the future will be better, why bet on it? What’s the point?

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen successful ways to help people get past their own status anxiety and focus on the future? Or is it just an occupational hazard that slowly overcomes people who once knew better?

Wow, DD -- good post.

I think part of the problem is the people who self-select into the respective jobs. Academics have fought hard to be part of a *very* old-fashioned and slow-changing system. (I mean, we still dress up in medieval robes on important occasions!) There's a lot of institutional and individual commitment to stasis here.

Plus, let's face it: if you are a traditional academic, the future is not looking bright. Change is almost certainly going to be bad change from your perspective. The only way to be more optimistic about the future is to have goals that aren't strongly centered on the survival of the academic status quo. There will always be room for educators, but not necessarily for associate professors in tweed jackets. 

How to get people past that? Only giving them something else positive to strive for. What could Shocked and Appalled professor be doing if she wasn't running Failing Program?
Good point.

If the program is failing, you should eliminate it along with its faculty. (Every continuing contract -- aka "tenure" -- I've ever seen allows termination of faculty when a program is eliminated.) That is what your entrepreneur would do. Then come back a year later and start a similar program with a clever new name and new and innovative faculty.

On the other hand, how many companies has that young whippersnapper started? Could be enthusiastically walking into his first epic failure. I had a very good student drop out of engineering about 5 years ago to go into the house-buying business. Smart move!

Do you have the entire history of this program you are concerned about? Did past innovation make it worse? There is a reason older faculty are sometimes more conservative than they were when they started. You see that in business as well.

And what outcome measure are you using, passing rate or actyak success? There are nursing programs where they graduate 100% of the students (great!) and only 60% pass the boards, while there are others that graduate only 75% of their students (terrible!) and 99% pass the boards. Better to flunk out early with little debt than to have no job and lots of debt?
This is a really good post, mainly because it highlights the lack (and fear of) of innovation in academia, and provides a possible reason for it.

On the one hand, as previously stated, academics do self-select to an extent: career teachers tend to be creatures of habit, and only in academia can five years of experience be seen as light, as DD has said before (five years of experience in software development, on the other hand, makes you "senior"). This is naturally at odds with innovations, where people are constantly being motivated to change for the better.

Meanwhile, this young entrepeneur will probably do what it takes to create a successful company/project, including potentially dramatic changes. I think this is possibly the attitude that education needs, since it's very academic these days. If you have computer scientist profs who don't know how to use email, what that say about the overall education? Some qualities are timeless, yes, but this is 2011, not 1951, 1911, or 1611 for that matter.
I can't help but see these two cases as fundamentally different and therefore the comparison of them somewhat misleading.

I assume the long-time faculty member runs a program that used to be successful, even if it is not now. The entrepreneur has not yet run anything successfully. One is recalcitrant, the other enthusiastic.

Sure they are: one has a record of success but needs, perhaps, to be led respectfully to a new mode of instruction to get back to success. The other has no record of success and could simply be delusional.

Additionally, we're talking about two completely different systems here: academia and the free market. You don't want to suggest the two are the same, do you? It's hard to get the expertise you need to successfully guide an academic program and maintain the enthusiasm of someone who's never tried the thing in question. Should the entrepreneur lead the program? Surely not . . . .

I'm afraid I can't get around the weaknesses inherent in trying to compare these two different cases to your overall point, which is no doubt a good one: how to capture the enthusiasm of the novice and keep the knowledge and experience of the expert?
Very insightful. Good post to end the week before Labor Day. Status anxiety also pervades the worlds of business and government, in my experience. Typically, there's a very good reason for the anxiety.
I think it all comes down to what you reward. In academics, keeping your head down and staying off the radar is rewarded with tenure. Your young hot shot will never make it with that approach so he has to be innovative and seek new ways to do things. If he doesn't, his competition will. There's also a difference between people who invest a lot in themselves and the infrastructure around them and those who create disposable systems. A faculty member works in a resource poor environment and no amount of work on their part (with the exception of writing grants which at the end of the day may or may not pay for themselves) will bring more resources to the system. Greater efficiency is the only way your academic can get more resources (of time, materials etc.) so they're likely not to want to try an experiment that might fail - because that would decrease their effiency. Also, I would guess that there's no reward for failure - that "screwing up" comes with a price and so "that didn't work before so we're not trying it again" is a legit way of thinking about problems.

You have several options:

Reward experimentation with more resources - even if the experiments don't work the way you want them to.

Make the status quo more costly so that the faculty member voluntarily chooses to change.

Talk about how you believe in the program but that over time, the metrics for success are showing that it might not be as successful as it once was and that you are eager to support the program if it can continue to fulfill its function. Then, clearly define for the faculty member what you expect in terms of outcomes, give them a timeline upon which you expect results, offer them additional resources (time, people, materials) to help with any changes and then monitor periodically to see how they're doing. Either things will turn around or you'll have a really good case for getting rid of the program (see I even gave them more stuff/people/time and they weren't able to get the job done will CYA if other people ask about what happened.)
Or, your professor is just tired. She sees retirement on the horizon, but because of the beating her 403(b) just took, it's receding. Everything that comes up just seems to be more fresh hell and she doesn't want things to be hard anymore, she just wants to finish up.

I've seen this happen around me way too often, and while it's easy to sneer at it, I have some sympathy for people who see students in front of them who are orders of magnitude less capable than they were 30 years ago, who are not being given sufficient resources to cope (I had a deaf-blind student show up, unannounced, with three interpreter/notetakers and a dog for a lab science course that I teach, and I was expected to "work it out" for labs) and whose work is rarely recognized except to have it pointed out that the new standard is one more prep than you had before, and by the way, the entire curriculum has to be rewritten and we need the new course outlines in 8 weeks.

Don't discount the effects of fatigue and depression.
In order to change anyone's approach or attitude, you have t understand why they are where they are. YOU see the professor beating a dead horse, SHE sees herself defending something important to her. Until you understand why - you will not be able to get her cooperation. My guess is that she has had to fight for this program repeatedly - "every time the college gets a new sheriff, some know-nothing whippersnapper stomps in..." Why does this intelligent, experienced, committed person want to hang on to the status quo? Respect her, her work, her position and her opinions, and you will discover inroads to resolve the problems. Unfortunately, that takes time and attention - which are in short supply.

As for the entrepreneur, every dime he makes, scrounges or save is a dime in his pocket - and he is both young and hungry. Unlike the academic whose hard work profits her nothing and is subject to the whims of administration. It's a whole different animal.

Good discussion!!
Do you personally have a vision for higher ed, other than hoping that the budget cuts stop eventually? Because I think you're being a little uncharitable toward someone who shares your fundamental approach -- deeply wishing that good things not get thrown out for no good reason.

Even if they're wrong about how good the program is, surely some compassion is in order.
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