Tuesday, October 23, 2012


“That’s an Implementation Issue”

Back in my feminist theory days -- yes, I had feminist theory days -- I remember learning that strict body/mind distinctions were suspect.  In the halcyon days of postmodernism, we learned that clear fact/value distinctions were mystifications, that public/private splits were far more problematic than usually supposed, and that subject/object distinctions were almost entirely perspectival.  

I was reminded of that this week in a discussion about a proposed program.  When I raised a series of questions about the practicality of it, I was hit with the concept/implementation distinction.  And I realized that from the perspective of someone responsible for budgeting and staffing, the distinction is false.  A concept that can’t be implemented is a flawed concept.

That cuts against the grain of a certain kind of idealism.  (Postmodernism did the same thing.)  It suggests that the popular move of attacking from a position of presumed perfection is inherently suspect.  The “critique from imagined perfection” erases the embodied reality of an institution and wishes away the messy realities of resource constraints, other perspectives, and hard-won laws and habits.  At base, the critique from perfection is narcissistic; it presumes that the perspective of the critic is the only one free of contingency, or messy particulars.  Or, what amounts to the same thing, that other people’s needs just don’t count.

That’s a difficult point to convey to the idealist, who thinks he’s being selfless.  He thinks that the shining truth of the idea transcends any individual perspective, and that he’s just being clearsighted about it.  The lefty version of that perspective assumes that justice involves approaching the ideal asymptotically; the conservative version assumes a falling away from it, and only hopes to slow the decline.  But either way, the truth of the idea is presumed to exist independent of the people holding it.  

But the presumption of an entitlement to bulldoze messy reality to fit a personally held idea is nothing if not selfish.  Ideas are embodied, and bodies exist in contingent networks of power, resource, flaw, and need.  Nobody is above that.

As anyone who spent time in the weeds of postmodernism knows, it’s possible to get lost and paralyzed in an infinite regression of what’s already implicated in what.  But that, too, strikes me as a form of selfishness.  It takes for granted the work of social construction, and attacks those constructs parasitically.  

And here’s where I fled postmodernism for its American cousin, pragmatism.  At some point, you have to make a decision if you actually want to get anything done.  That doesn’t mean either denying contingencies or surrendering to them; it means accepting the reality of them and owning the decision to move anyway.  It means rejecting both the “critique from perfection” and fatalism, and, not incidentally, noticing that the former is often just a dressed-up version of the latter.  

From this perspective, the way to attack an existing practice or idea is to propose -- or, preferably, to develop -- a better one.  An idea that relies on people to be superhuman is bound to fail, and therefore of little interest; I’d much rather hear about something that could actually work.  That means doing the hard work of tending to the details.  Do we really have that many classrooms available at 3:00?  Would that class actually transfer?  What are the financial aid implications?  What about staffing?  How would we sustain it when the grant runs out?   How does this fit with students’ plans?  Who would run it?  How would it fit in the curriculum?  What would we have to displace to make room for it?

Those aren’t technicalities to be waved away by the heroic leader.  They’re the guts of the organization, each with its own history and reasons, and they matter.  The folks who win my respect are the ones who come to grips with those issues and continue to move forward anyway.  I’ve seen it done.  Done well, it makes a tremendous difference.  It’s harder than just opining from on high and passing dismissive judgment on mere mortals, but it carries the prospect of real, sustainable, positive results.  

Pure, unadulterated certainty can be intoxicating and addictive.  In small doses, in the right moments, it can provide some motivation.  But the high comes at a cost, and the addict is every bit as selfish as any other addict.  The feminist theorists had a great point when they noted that we’re all embodied, and flawed, and, in some sense, blinkered.  The lesson I drew from that was a need for humility in the face of complicated, messy realities.  But the humility isn’t in the service of fatalism or a flight to innocence and virtue.  It’s in the service of making changes that aren’t doomed from the outset.  The “beautiful loser” may be romantic, but I prefer wins we can actually implement.

A concept that can’t be implemented is a flawed concept.

Are you sure that you aren't an engineering professor? Or a theoretical physicist or computer scientist interested in proving the existence of fundamental limits? I'm a theoretical physicist who writes papers on whether it is possible to construct a process that accomplishes X in a physical system, so I have some sympathy for this.
I was just having this conversation with my boss. At our school, faculty have mucked with the core requirements. Now that it is being implemented, it is showing its weaknesses. We reflected that they should have had an administrator in the room, someone who asked the practical questions and talked about sustainability, impact on transfer students, and how the more complex structure meets the state goals for improving completion. There is nothing worse than implementing a big change and finding out it actually brings more problems than solutions.
Aha, there is a Zeno's paradox of Administration and you have destroyed it by saying to heck with the infinite regression implications, "At some point, you have to make a decision if you actually want to get anything done." Awesome!

Also applies to grading decisions.

"The folks who win my respect are the ones who come to grips with those issues and continue to move forward anyway."

That was one of the points made about the successful Men Who Made America that debuted on The History Channel tonight, although I suspect some failures also continued to move forward and went bankrupt. The point was that someone else going bankrupt did not stop Carnegie et al.
“All great enterprises are about logistics. Not genius or inspiration or flights of imagination, skill or cunning, but logistics.”
― Tom McCarthy, Remainder
Not necessarily about what you asked, but an illustration (I think) of your point):


(John Holbo's blog post, to which I just linked, also ignores the fact that most of higher education is not frill-dominated. As witness the institution at which I just retired from after 25 years, Indiana University Northwest. No luxurious dorms (actually, no dorms at all), no fancy dining options (just barely is there "food" available on campus), no fancy gyms or other recreation options...)
Perfect is the enemy of good enough.

The academy is an environment where that precept can be buried in multiple paragraphs of long words.
My Dean-- The President wants us to offer a Bachelor's Degree in Silly Walking.

Aghast-- But Competitor U just canceled their Silly Major for lack of demand.

My Dean-- Exactly, we want to capitalize on that by attracting their currently enrolled students.

"sigh. Sigh. We shall attract all those FIVE students".

My Dean-- Plus, it can be done very cheaply because they have a cadre of adjuncts with PHDS that can now teach for us.

Aghast-- Where are we going to find students to major in Silly Walking, that involves Physics and Chemistry and our pool of students is mostly in Dev Math.

My Dean-- The Ministry of Silly Walks says there are great demands for silly walkers, and two people called the Assistant Dean to ask if we offer the Major.

Aghast-- At the moment I cant engage in this proposal, I need to submit the Thumb Twiddling BA proposal and finish 2 grants, maybe in the summer...

My Dean-- We can't wait until the summer. They will be holding a press conference to announce this new major in 2 days.

For what it's worth, and this is from a person who still engages with theory and teaches it, trading one side of the binary (the mind, the abstract concept) for the other (the body, the concept that can be implemented) isn't a correction on the problematic of binary oppositions. Nor is the second half of the binary any less idealistic than the first. Pragmatism is not opposed to idealism, nor is it opposed to theory: the pragmatist just prioritizes different ideals than does the impractical visionary. And pragmatism and a focus on outcomes does not by definition indicate altruism or a lack of selfishness, nor does it necessarily indicate some immunity from intellectual paralysis.

What poststructuralist theory suggests (and, really, that's what you're talking about: for within feminist theory there are, in fact, many feminist theorists who are focused on action and refusing the allure of the "free play" upon which poststructuralists insist) is that pragmatism won't fix the problems that idealism causes. Indeed, what poststructuralist theory suggests is that we need to bring the ideal and the practical into conversation with each other, without privileging on over the other.

In other words: if there are practical impediments to a great idea, that doesn't mean it's a bad idea. Recently you wrote about the necessity to encourage innovation. How exactly can we innovate if we refuse to engage with ideas that seem impractical? Maybe it's our job to creatively engage with those seemingly "beautiful losers" that look impossible, and to come up with practical approaches for bringing them into being.

Or so says this very temperamentally practical person who also continues to find theory useful.
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