Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Lesson for My Colleagues

As longtime readers could probably guess, my taste in movies tends to run towards comedies.  I can do different styles of comedy -- dark satire (Brain Candy, Heathers), classic physical (Chaplin, Buster Keaton), or contemporary stupid (Will Ferrell).  Recently, in a discussion with a colleague about Leslie Nielsen’s oeuvre, I was asked whether I prefered the Naked Gun movies or the Airplane movies.

To a comedy nerd, that’s sort of like asking which child you like better.  The pre-credit sequence in Naked Gun 2 ½ is close to perfection.  But for sentimental reasons, I have to go with Airplane II, which I saw in a theater with my Dad when it came out.  At one point in the movie, Robert Hays approaches a door labeled “Danger: Vacuum.”  With ominous music building up, he opens the door, only to be attacked by the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner. My Dad laughed harder than I had ever heard him laugh.  So for strictly personal reasons, I have to go with Airplane II.

I was reminded of “Danger: Vacuum” in reading Lee Skallerup Bessette’s thoughtful piece about the dangers of unorthodox teaching styles.  The key moment:

I was told by a supportive friend not to let any of the senior faculty know what I was doing in my classroom because they would have put a stop to it.”

She believed her colleague, and suffered a chilling effect.  Whether her colleague was correct or not -- and she may well have been -- the assertion of knowledge of a truth was enough.

Information vacuums are dangerous.  People will fill them with their own fears.

That’s part of the reason that personnel decisions usually cause the most anxiety.  Personnel issues are confidential, so sometimes decisions happen for reasons that can’t be shared.  Some people will know, or be able to figure out, the reasons, but most won’t.  Administrative respect for confidentiality will come off to some as stonewalling, which they’ll take as confirmation that something sinister is going on.  Into the vacuum will rush all sorts of explanations.  I’ve seen this myself a few times over the years, and it’s always awful.  For instance, I had a professor once with a serious medical condition that he didn’t want to be common knowledge, but that required some scheduling accommodations.  After a couple of semesters, word started to spread on the grapevine that his accommodations were the result of something sinister.  I had to ask some people whose trust I had earned over the years to take my word that if they knew what I knew, they’d make the same decision.  But I couldn’t tell them what I knew.

Outside of personnel decisions, though, it’s often possible to fill -- or at least reduce the scope of -- the vacuum.  Give people context for what you’re doing, share data when you can, and let them know what you’re trying to do.  (Blogging five days a week may be overkill, but it works for me.....)  Some will resort to knee-jerk cynicism, but if the walk and the talk match over time, most folks will be glad to keep the conversation at a constructive level.  At that point, it’s possible to harness the incredible resource that a collection of very smart people can be.  If you’re secure enough in your own ego to take constructive criticism productively -- admittedly, not always a given -- you can engage smart people in making your plans better.  

I don’t know whether Prof. Bessette’s colleague was correct in her estimation of how a non-traditional teaching style would be received.  Maybe she was, but maybe she wasn’t.  I fault the leadership for not making its expectations clear.  For those of us in administration, it’s worth noticing that failing to provide context meant that the most sinister and destructive explanation won, leading ultimately to the loss of a good professor.  That could have been prevented.  Vacuums suck, and so do their effects.  Better to provide context, and to keep the evil vacuum trapped in its closet.