Wednesday, January 18, 2017


The Future is Slippery

This week I had another variation on a conversation I have at least once a month.  It goes like this:

Me: What if we try x?

Interlocutor: So you’re saying we’ll do x forever?

Me: No, but what if we try it for a while?

Int: How long?

Me: Long enough to know if it works.  And if it does, then we could do 2x.

Int: So we’re doing 2x in two years?  Three years?

Me: We’ll have to see.  Waddaya think?

Int: What about ripple effects one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven?  Could you write up a comprehensive proposal that we could share with five different committees?  And we’ll have to get some statistics.  And of course (Person Y) will hate the idea; I’d hate to deal with that.  It could be a real hairball.  Maybe you shouldn’t.


Some of that is simple prudence; any question that starts with “what if” invites a certain amount of “what about.”  But it’s easy for defeatism or paralytic fear to pass as conscientiousness.  The form I’ve run into the most frequently -- or that bothers me the most, I’m not sure -- is the demand for false precision projecting years into the future.  That kind of request is supposed to reflect rigor, but it really rewards confident guessing; if I were to postulate the exact number of students in a given program five years from now, I’d be bluffing.  There are just too many variables for that.  In October I honestly thought Hillary Clinton would win the election.  Predictions are hard.

At the base of that kind of need for immediate and unshakable certainty, I think, is fear.  It’s an attempt to nail down every variable right away, to convey a sense of control.  But any honest account has to admit that the future is slippery.  It defeats control.  That’s especially true for projects that are about people, rather than things.  

In grad school, I was trained to spot flaws in very detailed and sophisticated arguments.  In my teaching days, I graded papers in a similar spirit, at least at first.  (It took some time to adjust.)  My colleagues and I got to be pretty good at spotting leaps in arguments, shaky evidence, or unexamined premises.  That last one is still one of my favorite moves.

In administration, though, if you want to get anything done, you have to make peace with the idea of making decisions with partial and ambiguous information.  If you wait for publication-quality evidence, you will wait until the point is moot.  Part of that is because future data is inaccessible, by definition; anyone who remembers their David Hume can tell you that basing future decisions on past data is inductive reasoning and therefore uncertain.  Sometimes trendlines change direction.  If I knew for certain which way the stock market would go, I’d invest accordingly.  Some changes are obvious, but their effects are unknowable.  Next week at this time the country will have a new President, and next year at this time my state will have a new governor.  I don’t know what the combined effects will be, though I assume there will be some.

I can’t project out every ripple effect of a proposal for five years.  Nobody can.  The hard part is acknowledging that and acting anyway.

The context is a bit too vague to be useful. Are you proposing a change in the classroom or in administrative procedures? Is the Interlocutor a teacher, someone you should fire, or a co-equal admin who would have to implement your idea?

What I see is a lack of metrics, right from the start. Interlocutor should be asking "Why? What problem will that fix?".

I look at this from a dozen? year process I recall where w was not working, so why not try x? Then x did not work (in a vague sense, because no data trends were shown) so why not try y? Then it was why not z ... followed by let's try w! Yes, a dozen years (and two VPs) later and we are back where we started. I should add that at least one of those solutions was never actually used except in some pilot study because it waasn't ready for prime time, and another was ditched before we had results from a full year of use.

I recall another where a classroom was renovated specifically to the needs of a particular class, but that faculty member changed his mind by the time the project was complete. A new learning idea had come along in the meantime.

And I am living with a campus initiative to improve student skills with t, but no one thought it necessary to collect statistics on their skills with t before a faculty committee adopted the project. College wide.
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