Monday, January 09, 2006

It Goes Without Saying

I’m beginning to think that much of the conflict I see at work (and in politics, for that matter) comes from different conceptions of what goes without saying.

For example: what constitutes ‘lateness’ for an assignment? As a teacher, I’d say that if a paper is due in class on Monday, it’s due at the beginning of class on Monday. Students will frequently interpret ‘due in class’ as ‘due by the end of class,’ so if they saunter in 45 minutes late they’re still okay.

As a rookie teacher, I didn’t even say ‘due in class.’ I just gave a due date. 11:59 p.m. submissions quickly cured me of that habit.

Within a few semesters, I learned to enumerate all kinds of things on syllabi that I had always assumed everybody already knew: plagiarism is forbidden, late work carries a defined penalty, x number of absences will hurt your grade by x amount, etc. I wasn’t the kind of student for whom these policies were relevant, so I didn’t give them much thought, initially, as a teacher.

From the dean’s office, I encourage faculty to make certain ground rules and assumptions explicit in their syllabi and/or assignment handouts, just to prevent students from claiming that they didn’t know. It works, to a point. But you can’t prevent every wacky interpretation or bizarre assumption, and it’s unrealistic to think that you could.

When the ‘goes without saying’ stuff gets challenged, people are often dumbstruck. It hasn’t occurred to them that challenges were realistically possible, so they haven’t bothered thinking through arguments. I think that much of the vitriol in our politics comes from different conceptions of what goes without saying. Take health care. To a conservative, it’s simply obvious that the ‘moral hazard’ of insurance raises costs, since it insulates consumers from the true cost of what they’re buying. Therefore, if you want to reduce health care costs, you have to make people more sensitive to those costs by making them pay more. Besides, it goes without saying that the government screws everything up, anyway. To a liberal, it’s obvious beyond argument that the American system covers fewer people (by percentage), at higher cost, than any other system in the world; any theory that fails to acknowledge that simple fact of life is not to be taken seriously. Besides, it goes without saying that the market is based on voluntary exchange, and nobody volunteers to get sick. Therefore, the market model is inapplicable, and anyone who says different is either heartless or a moron.

It’s possible to reconstruct rationality after running into the brick wall of goes-without-saying, but it takes good faith and patience on both sides. That’s asking a lot, especially when people can build lucrative careers out of short-circuiting rational argument.

At my college, due to low turnover over the years, there are some goes-without-saying’s that need to change. Since many who work here haven’t figured that out yet, they get upset beyond measure when I challenge one of them. As far as they’re concerned, I’m arguing that gravity doesn’t exist, or that oxygen is overrated. In fact, I’m arguing that the world has changed, whether they’ve noticed or not. They haven’t, so they aren’t terribly inclined to listen. Some folks find it easier just to fall back on ad hominem attacks; they’ve had a lot of practice, and it’s easier than thinking.


It goes without saying that the combination of tenure and ‘faculty governance’ creates a ‘moral hazard’ of the first order; senior faculty, who have the most power, have the least at stake in any decisions made. They’re insulated (bulletproof, really), since even sustained decline won’t cost them their jobs. The folks who would be the most hurt by our failure to grow – prospective hires – don’t even have a seat at the table. So there’s a built-in, structural bias against change, much more so than in other kinds of organizations. Some rational, far-sighted types are capable of seeing beyond their own immediate self-interest, but that will almost never be a majority.

I’m struggling with ways to reach the folks who are, in many ways, immune to the dangers I see the college facing. To them, it goes without saying that managers justify their paychecks with asinine, pointless projects, and that smart faculty avoid buying in. To me, it goes without saying that continued enrollment decline jeopardizes everything the college could otherwise achieve, and that doing more of the same pretty much guarantees more of the same.

Round and round we go. How hard can it possibly be...?