Tuesday, January 14, 2014


The Congress Paradox

In my poli sci days, one of my favorite observations was the wild disparity between Americans’ opinion of Congress in general, and their opinions of their own Representatives.  It boiled down to “they’re all bums, except for my guy.”  And that was true even before redistricting got completely out of hand.  Americans are perfectly capable of re-electing over 90 percent of the members of a body with a 10 percent approval rating.  In the case of Congress, we can’t even blame the electoral college.

I’ve seen something similar with academic administrators.

When the Great Recession was red in tooth and claw, we shed some administrative positions in order to maintain the faculty and staff ranks.  The idea was to protect students, even if it meant generating some headaches for those of us behind the scenes.  We got through the worst of it without laying off any faculty, which I considered a major victory.  A few years later, we have some experience with the new arrangements, and some basis for reflecting on them.

And the same dynamic holds.  Some of the same people who are quick to criticize “the administration” in general -- speaking of it as if it were the Borg, from Star Trek -- are equally quick to lay claim to their own dean.

In the case of Congress, I suspect that ideological, economic, and racial clustering are behind the paradox.  People who live in districts that vote 90 percent for one party, come hell or high water, may have a hard time taking seriously the need to compromise with the other party.  When everyone you know personally is on the same side, it’s easy to demonize, caricature, or write off the other side.  “Congress” becomes a sort of synecdoche for the diversity of the larger country.  Congress contains people who proudly proclaim opinions that nobody you know would be caught dead saying.  Therefore, it stands to a sort of emotional reason, it’s a bunch of idiots.

“The administration” functions in the same way.  The differences tend to be less about ideology in a grand sense and more about operational realities, but the emotional impact is the same.  When someone with a nifty concept opens with “why can’t we just…?” and gets in response an answer that comes off as detail-y, confusing, and negative, it’s easy to assume that the answer is really a symptom of something else.  That “something” might be personal animus, or laziness, or some sort of nefarious hidden agenda.  It might even be “bullshit,” which is a placeholder for “I don’t like it, and if I had a concrete reason, it would go here.”  But since the answer doesn’t match the questioner’s daily reality, it’s hard to give credence.

When you add the usual mix of human failings, mistakes, and, yes, personal issues to the mix, real conflicts can serve to amplify the impact of unnecessary ones.

I really don’t know what to do about Congress.  But I’m thinking that the campus issue lends itself to some level of fix, at least at a small or medium sized place.  

The key is in making other people’s realities visible and legible.  It’s easier to take seriously someone whose constraints and imperatives are clear, even if you believe -- perhaps correctly -- that you would navigate them differently.  

This week I had a wonderful discussion with a few groups on campus that were trying to come up with a different approach to a common issue.  It didn’t entirely “work,” if you define “work” as coming up with a brilliant new idea around which everyone rallied.  But it did “work” in the sense that as we talked through the various constraints and options, we came to a fuller appreciation of the complexity of the issue, and of why others hold the views they do.  People may still disagree, but it’s harder now to write off disagreement as a sign of stupidity or evil.  There’s a common basis for discussion now, which means that it’s easier for the discussions to be civil, in the best sense of the word.  

Once different perspectives become explicable -- not accepted, necessarily, but at least explicable -- then I’m hoping there will be less need for the demonized synecdoche.  We may not all vote the same way, but we’ll at least see some legitimacy in the larger picture.  In the America of 2014, I’d take that.

Ugh. Another "both sides do it" false equivalence.

Ok, for the record:
Please name the last Democratic Presidential run that included a comment from the top of the ticket using a piece of the US as a pejorative. Take your time. I'll wait.

Now please name the last Republican one that didn't.

The thing you think both sides do . . . only one side does. As long as we pretend the problem is something it isn't, we can't address it.

@PM, so perhaps the analogy isn't perfect. The point seem to me to be about moving forward college-wide discussions, not solving national political paralysis.

Today's post seems relevant to me locally concerning discussions about program assessment. The analogy by DD seems to describe vividly the perspectives of upper admin and departments toward the other's views and proposals.
The word you are looking for is "communication". As you note, it works best in a small group with people who know each other.

The reason for the dichotomy, from a faculty perspective, is that we send all sorts of reports up the chain and thus expect the "administration" to be aware of our individual working conditions and issues. (Yes, I know most of those reports are not read, and ones that are will only be seen by one VP or ze's junior teetotum, but the information does flow up the chain of command.) However, even then a Dean may not know who gives multiple choice philosophy exams and who gives exams that require grading hundreds of pages, and other load-related facts.

It does not flow very freely, or at all, the other way. Some of this is because the issue concerns "personnel". Some of it is because Deans sometimes write memos as badly as faculty do, or never put budget or staffing numbers or decision-making criteria in writing.

And some of it is because faculty don't often talk across discipline boundaries about what they do on a daily basis or how specific weaknesses in one subject area (assessed or not) impact those teaching in another area.
As a person who teaches about Congress and does some college administration, I'd say your comparison is though-provoking and helpful.

The most incisive thing you wrote: "The key is in making other people’s realities visible and legible. It’s easier to take seriously someone whose constraints and imperatives are clear, even if you believe -- perhaps correctly -- that you would navigate them differently."

This is as true for citizens, voters, and Congresscreatures as it is for denizens of the academy. When we encounter "other"s as actual living, breathing people, it's a little easier to want what's best for them. Even when they don't share our experiences, interests or values. They still have moms and dogs and hangnails and stuff.
Dudes who captained slave ships had moms and dogs and hangnails and stuff.

Doesn't mean that they weren't engaging in horrifying evil.

You're talking to the wrong crowd.

All of the books on domestic abuse say the same thing -- the counseling that allows people who care about one another to resolve differences and live together in some kind of harmony actually just empowers domestic abusers. This is because the abusers are doing exactly what they want to do and see their victim exactly as they want to see them -- a human being, under their control. So all the counseling does is shift whatever truth the abused party is dealing with (this person is doing awful things to me) into a false, damaging thing (it is partially my fault that this person is doing awful things to me).

I know a lot of Conservatives. I've dealt with them as individuals, and yes, they totally have moms and hangnails. But they also hate me, consider me subhuman, and want me to die. Both of these are possible. If your problem is that good (or even mediocre) people aren't talking well, then yeah, great, let's fix that problem.

If the problem is that one side is willing to re-engage in the greatest act of treason in US history for the precise same reason of racial hatred . . . then it's not a communication issue.

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