Thursday, March 16, 2006

How To Be Lied To

There’s a cute piece in IHE about how professors learn to respond to the inevitable dead grandmothers around exam time. It got me thinking about how learning how to be lied to is one of the prerequisite skills for administration.

I get lied to several times per day, with a certain wax-and-wane depending on the rhythm of the semester. Immediately after the deadline for dropping classes without ‘extenuating circumstances,’ student liars crawl out of the woodwork. In my sixth year of deaning, I shouldn’t still be surprised by what some students consider extenuating, but it still happens. (Best Excuse Ever: “I’m in love.” My response: “How nice for you.”) Since there’s no penalty for the student for a frivolous appeal, a student who knows he’s failing has every incentive to take a shot at a mercy withdrawal. After all, the worst that can happen is what was going to happen anyway. Since ‘extenuating’ is in the eye of the beholder, students line up to try their luck at competitive whining. What they learn from this, I’m afraid to know.

Still, student lies are much less disturbing to me than faculty lies. Having spent years as a full-time professor, I’m acquainted with student lies. They’re usually fairly benign, the goals are short-term and obvious, and even the most unpleasant students eventually go away.

Faculty lies are much more demoralizing.

They’re worse for several reasons: faculty stick around much longer, the tenured ones can lie with impunity and know it, a certain gamesmanship surrounds faculty/administration interactions, and the difference in available information to the parties in the conversation means that statements that I might consider too stupid even to rebut will be taken as gospel by the faculty union rep. Worse, sometimes the facts that would discredit a lie are confidential. So the lie stands uncontradicted, leading the ignorant to find it credible. Very annoying.

To preserve my self-respect, I’ve come up with a few strategies to avoid lying myself. Changing the subject is a classic, but I get more mileage out of a simple, truthful “I can’t talk about that,” or “there’s more to it than that.” They’re both true, as far as they go, but they both allow me to imply doubt where necessary without actually revealing anything.

What’s harder is maintaining my self-respect when the tenured so-and-so in front of me is feeding me crap, knows he’s feeding me crap, is enjoying feeding me crap, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

In all but the rarest of cases, simply calling bullshit on them is out of the question. As soon as you do that, the initial lie becomes irrelevant, and the conversation shifts to process: how do you know it’s bullshit? Have you had a formal hearing? I didn’t know I needed my union rep with me! You’ll be hearing from my lawyer!


Since my personality doesn’t allow me to try to engage in competitive lying, and my position in the org chart doesn’t allow me to penalize lying, I instead go out of my way to make lying irrelevant. It may still be low-risk, but if it’s also low-reward, it may become less attractive.

That means maintaining a poker face, responding slowly, mastering the noncommittal grunt, putting things in writing, and always looking for the positive. To a professor who has the luxury of “thinking critically” all the time, it probably looks vapid. But I don’t have the luxury of being able to make myself look smart; I have to keep the organization running. If that involves me looking smart, great; if not, not. (Honestly, sometimes the blog is an outlet for the critical-thinking side I don’t get to show on the job.) The smarter faculty figure out pretty quickly that they get much more from me by being truthful, so they shift to truth as a strategic move. But some just can’t accept the idea that an administrator cares about truth, or are so wrapped up in their own little political obsessions that they just can’t escape. I drive those folks nuts. They just can’t figure me out.

I endure being lied to by trying to place it in the big picture. At the end of the day, if telling me tall tales makes Professor X feel better so that he can actually focus on his job, then my patient endurance has improved the college. If listening through the twisted paranoid fantasies of Professor Y gives me some insight as to what makes him tick, I have a better chance of getting what I need from him later. I have to have faith that I can see the outlines of a pony beneath all that horseshit. I don’t reward emotional manipulators by taking the bait. I keep enough distance to avoid getting sucked into other people's psychodrama.

And I curse like a sailor on the drive home.