Tuesday, February 15, 2005

From Faculty to Administration

It’s been a relatively slow week, so I’ve had the chance to reflect on the most bracing change when I moved from faculty to administration. It’s the definition of ‘smart.’ On faculty, esp. coming out of the theory-drenched 90’s, the definition of smart was the ability to see hopeless complexity where others saw only the obvious. The obvious answer was, by definition, ‘complicit’ with some other set of assumptions that vitiated the good done by the obvious answer. Paying attention to what Foucault called the “capillaries of power” involved tracing ever-more-esoteric relationships between phenomena. Specifying a responsible party for just about anything was hopelessly reductionist; ‘agency’ as a concept was embedded in logocentrism, itself an imperialistic paradigm.

In administration, the exact opposite is true. After a problem is identified and a little group brainstorming has been done, the major task is to narrow down the possible courses of action. Reductionism is not a flaw; it’s a necessity. Pare down the possibilities to a few do-able “action items,” with responsible parties, measurable outcomes, and budgetary needs specified in advance. A good manager can move from problem to solution relatively quickly, and can summarize that solution clearly.

After years in pomo theory seminars, just getting used to the concept of ‘action items’ took some time. You mean we’re supposed to just pick something and do it? Now? Based largely on hunches? With crappy data? Or no data at all?

On this side of the desk, one of the real shocks has been to discover how many decisions are made on hunches. I don’t mean that as a criticism – an educated hunch is not entirely arbitrary – but just as a discovery. The tools of empirical social science, I’ve found, are useful almost exclusively after the fact, when they’re useful at all. As Hegel put it, the owl of Minerva spreads her wings at dusk.

In a way, the discovery is liberating. Decisions that some on the outside take to be indicators of sinister underlying motives are often completely unconnected. In fact, when confronted with accusations of sinister underlying motives, a manager’s response of ‘huh?’ is frequently both honest and accurate.

That’s not to deny larger political realities, but instead to suggest that actions may, in fact, be more intelligible than sometimes thought. To my mind, this is cause for optimism. Extrapolate this lesson to, say, the government: if we assume that (say) Bush has a few core convictions, a few empirical assumptions, and very little patience, we can explain a remarkable proportion of his actions. I’d argue that his core convictions and assumptions are largely wrong, but they’re intelligible. (That’s probably at the core of his popular appeal – people who don’t follow politics all that closely or understand it all that deeply can understand Bush. That wasn’t true of his opponent, sadly.)

This Fall we’re rolling out an entirely new program, based pretty much on a shared hunch that it might work. I know that I’ve settled in as a manager because I’m okay with that.