Wednesday, April 06, 2016


Ask the Administrator: The Panopticon is Frequently Stupid

A longtime reader writes:

Our university has recently had a slight decline in enrollments, and the administration thinks the sky is falling. (A few years ago, we were supposed to curb our enrollments: the sky was falling over that, too.) We've all been given marching orders to boost enrollments, complete with the barely veiled threat "we must to choose whether to grow or to shrink". So, my department has recently gone through a lengthy process to devise new sexier first year courses. Since all of our first-year courses are team-taught, and additionally have to be theoretically capable of being team taught by more than one team, the negotiations are protracted and delicate. We've also been told to offer a summer course. So, fine, we've been through this process.

When our Head of Programme went to submit the paperwork to actually get the new courses approved, however, she was told we can't add a new upper-division course without deleting an existing course. The summer course was to have been an upper-division course - but we don't have any courses to delete. We've had some new hires, the new hires understandably want their own permanent upper division courses. We're supposed to teach more without introducing new courses - in an institutional setting where "different sections of the same course" doesn't exist. From the faculty point of view, it's nonsensical: teach more, but don't teach more.

The really interesting thing, though, and the thing that I'm really writing to ask about, is the "you can't add a new course without deleting an existing course" rule. Nobody seems to know why that rule exists. In today's staff meeting, our head of programme reported that she's asked three different administrators for an explanation of that rule, and has been told "I don't know what that rule is for," "I don't know what that rule is for," and "ah, it's because having lots of courses on the books gives the impression that the university costs are higher, but since that impression is mistaken, the rule is actually very stupid." So, even though the sky is falling over low enrollments, the administration is preventing my department from implementing the changes the administration itself demanded, because of a rule whose rationale no administrator cannot explain.

Do you have (1) any speculations on what that rule is for, but more importantly (2) any explanation for the dogged and persistent defence of a rule that nobody can justify?  I mean, is there perhaps a secret reason nobody will tell us? or ... well, any possible insight you can offer?  

The institutional setting is different from my own, but I recognize the habit of mind.  A few thoughts, before I ask my wise and worldly readers to suggest what I’ve missed.

Some rules live well beyond their purpose due to risk aversion or fear of forceful (difficult) personalities.  If Otto in the registrar’s office is a real bear, and he has some weirdly powerful attachment to this rule, then it may live for years because nobody wants to challenge Otto.  Sometimes rules like that survive even after Otto retires, because with time, it has acquired the status of local legend.  

From the outside, those rules can look silly.  From the inside, they can be incredibly difficult to change.

I’ve seen some variations on that in different settings.  In one, a local myth had developed to the effect that the state had a “health and wellness” gen ed requirement.  It didn’t, but the department that taught the course (and used the FTE’s to justify its budget) liked to claim that it did.  I discovered the bluff by accident, earning the enduring enmity of the chair.  At another, a rule about running courses on an experimental basis (i.e. before formal approval by curriculum committee) was written based on publishing deadlines for the (paper) catalog.  When the catalog moved entirely online, people continued to follow the old rule, even though it led to some bizarre outcomes.  A rule that made sense in one setting outlived that setting before anyone noticed.

In this case, though, I’d guess it’s a matter of “optics.”  That’s the management word for “appearances.”  Having too many courses on the books can look, to the casual observer, like the college isn’t serious about cost control.  If it’s facing economic pressures anyway -- and most are -- then a savvy manager will try to avoid painting a target on herself.  People on the outside will pass confident and loud judgments based on single-glance impressions.  Their judgments may be factually wrong, but they’re often consequential.  Get burned that way a few times, and you develop a sense of the kinds of signals that are likely to be destructively misconstrued.  

For example, I’ve endured discussions at a couple of colleges around having “too many programs.”  Many of the programs in question were simply different combinations of existing courses; closing them would have made literally zero difference to the budget.  But if you’re predisposed to hear an explanation like that as an “excuse,” mere facts won’t stop you.  A rule like the one you cite is a way to avoid attracting destructive, if confident, judgments.

Back in my grad school days, we were taught about the panopticon as a model of the exercise of power.  Foucault used the panopticon -- a guard tower in the center of a prison with one-way mirrors all around -- to illustrate the point that if you don’t know when you’re being watched, you start to watch yourself.  Power enlists the self as a subject of discipline, in both senses of both words.

But what we didn’t cover back then is that the panopticon is frequently stupid.  Just because you’re being watched doesn’t mean the watchers are getting it right, or know what they’re seeing.  Surveillance is as susceptible to illusion as anything else.  And as with optical illusions, those misunderstandings aren’t random.  They tend to follow patterns.  If you know that, and you know that certain signals tend to set off false alarms among the watchers, it may be worth avoiding those signals.  

So for what it’s worth, my guess is that your administration is trying to shield your university from unhelpful critique by managing the optics.  To those who know the actual details of the operation, that can seem silly, and in some ways, it is.  But if you think of it as a sort of political etiquette, it can pay off in other ways.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there another, better explanation?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

When I was hired, I was told that new courses need to replace old ones, but have since found that this appears untrue. The principle is that the university does not want a catalog filled with courses that are never taught, which could lead to angry students who expected them. What you actually have to do is show via a course rotation grid how the course will fit into faculty teaching loads - which could, if teaching numbers and course frequency were held constant, mean taking a course off the books.
I'm with you on the "optics" argument, but what I wonder is whether this is an actual rule or not. That is, is this policy set by the Board that can only be changed by the Board. If so, you can't do much about it without a great deal more politics, perhaps by arguing that stodgy old policies like that are what is driving down enrollment by hindering innovation that students demand. But if not, the same argument might apply.

New courses are important, and you certainly don't want to eliminate a reasonably popular course just so you can test out one that might be just as popular, but with a different subset of students.

A better policy might require that the catalog say which semesters that courses will be offered and that courses be aged out if they aren't taught as listed for N years, whether because they don't "make" or the faculty lose interest. Predictable variation is better than serving the same thing every day of every year. We have some courses that do well when taught only in one semester. The kids who see it and like it know exactly when it will be offered.
I've never heard of this rule before, but I've seen the struggles of universities that don't have this rule. Deleting courses is, in my observation, a politically expensive process, often prohibitively so. One faculty member I worked with during my PhD recalled an instance of an elective course that hadn't been taught in 7 years because the original instructor left and no one else wanted to pick it up. Even after 7 years, they couldn't muster the votes they needed to kill the course. An add-one/kill-one rule could have been introduced to overcome this issue.
Our university makes a distinction between courses that have been approved and are on a master list, which can grow as much as it needs, and the published course catalogue (once in print, now online), which lists only courses that have been taught in recent years. The justification for not listing every course is the one that Brian Ulrich mentions: if a student sees that "Seventeenth-Century Europe" is available as a course, s/he might be unhappy to learn that the faculty member who developed it retired in 1987 and it has not been taught since. So we don't list it in the published catalogue. However, since the course is still on the approved master list, if I decide to revive it, I can do so without the tedious process of preparing a new course proposal and jumping through the department, college, and Faculty Senate hoops.
I'll admit to some sympathy for the "too many courses" issue. Where I used to teach, the history department was notorious for introducing a whole set of new courses every time (which wasn't all that often, to be fair) they hired a new faculty member--to correspond to that person's interests. But they did not eliminate courses that had been taught--and could only have been taught--by someone who had retired or left. Also, they introduced new courses, just because why not? And then only offered those courses every third or fourth year. I had no real difficulty with the courses themselves, I had an issue with the proliferation of course titles. I tried to talk them into variable content "topics" courses...for example "Topics in American history"--that could be repeated with different subject matter (i.t., a student could take "Topics in American History: Subject Matter A" and "Topics in American History: Subject Matter B," but they were stubborn. (I got involved because I was on the campus curriculum committee. The problem was actually worse than this--they would offer courses with the same title, and virtually the same content, but with different numbers--225, 325, 425--cross-listed--all of the versions met together--that could be repeated for credit, under the (implicit) understanding that students taking the 300 level and 400 level would hve different assignments and different reading assignments...Another reason I'm not sorry to be retired.)
Yes, I have seen something like this back in my days working closely with the registrar. The motivation behind it was to reduce the number of small sections that didn't run. Let's say, for example, that we have four different poli sci classes that all fulfill the same requirement, and students get a choice between them. It's hard enough to get the number of sections just right each semester that we'll have enough seats in each course to meet the demand, but also that almost all those seats will fill.

If we added two more courses to choose from, things get way more difficult. Especially if courses A and B were wildly popular, courses C and D were just popular enough to justify a section or two, and courses E and F are competing with each other for the same students. The more singletons you add (registrar speak for courses that only have one section), the harder they are to schedule since several students who want to take singleton history course X also want to take singleton English course Y, which both meet at the same time. Some of these singletons will need to be offered at 8:00 a.m. or 3:30 p.m. and might not fill because of the unpopular time slot when they would have been more popular at other times.

Admins get fewer headaches offering 10 sections of ENG101 than they get offering 3 sections of ENG111, 2 sections of ENG112, 2 sections of ENG113, and 1 section each of ENG114, ENG115, and ENG116.
I can think of all sorts of abuses that can take place if there are too many “ghost courses” in the catalog. For one, students may be attracted to the university or college by the presence of certain courses in the catalog, only to find out that these courses are never actually offered when they finally do attend. The reasons for the presence of ghost courses in the catalog are probably numerous. Perhaps the course was originated by a faculty member who is no longer at the school, and there is now no one on the faculty who is competent to teach it. Maybe the course stays there just in case enough students express an interest and some faculty member steps up to try and bring it back from the dead.. Maybe the administration wants to pad the catalog with a lot of courses for advertising purposes. Or else maybe simple inertia is to blame, and it is just too much of a hassle to try and remove these ghost courses.

When I was a graduate student at Ivy League University, there was a course in the catalog that was in the research specialty of the department chairman. It hadn’t been taught for many years, and may indeed never have been taught. But it remained there semester after semester, perhaps because no one wanted to offend the department chairman by trying to have it removed. I wonder if it is still there.

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