Thursday, May 11, 2006


I have a couple of departments that form a sort of conveyor belt of students; the first remediates, and the second offers credit courses in the same discipline. Tensions between the two departments have been simmering for some time, and they recently boiled over when the remediation group submitted an outcomes assessment plan that was lacking in a few key areas. The chorus of “I told you so” on the one side, and “back off and leave us alone” on the other, was hard to miss.

I met with the remediation department to discuss its outcomes assessment plan, and how to fix it. They were tolerant, but obviously unenthusiastic, until I stumbled upon the right motivator: if they got good enough data, and the data supported what they thought it would, they could show the second department that the second department was actually the problem. When they started envisioning some “in your face!” scenarios, their motivation level picked up dramatically, and they left cackling and scheming to develop a really rich outcomes assessment project.

In a perfect world, appeals to improved student learning and fulfilling our educational mission would have been enough. We live in an imperfect world.

Voting follows the same principle. It would be nice to say that the people I vote for are all public-minded, wise, honorable devotees to the common weal, and that disinterested attention to the public good is the only motive I (or they) need. But no. In fact, the most emotionally-satisfying moment in voting comes when I mutter under my breath “take that, you bastard!” while voting against someone I dislike. My vote for Kerry wasn’t so much a vote for Kerry as a vote against Bush. That wasn’t unusual for me; I have a long history of voting against people. It’s much more fun, and more honest, too.

I know it’s ethically suspect to do the right thing for the wrong reason, but sometimes the alternative is to leave the right thing altogether undone. Engineering scenarios wherein people will happen to do the right thing by deliberately doing the selfish thing is a delicate art.

At its best, the free market works that way. At its best, the tort system works that way. Both are prone to all manner of abuse, obviously, since both are founded, in the end, on base motives. But when everything is in balance, each is astonishingly productive (the first of goods, the second of safety).

As a teacher, I tried to use grades that way. I’d set up fairly elaborate grading schemes to create incentives to do the things that I suspected would lead to the most effective learning; students did the wholesome thing (learning) as a byproduct of doing the selfish thing (chasing the grade). Once I got it fine-tuned, it served both my interests and theirs.

Oddly, sometimes people feel guilty about public-spirited motives, and seem to need some sort of self-interested excuse to be public-spirited and not feel prissy or judgmental. Nina Eliasoph wrote a great book about that back in the 90's (Avoiding Politics), but I’m sure there’s much more to be done there. Someone who might have wanted to buy a hybrid car last year, but would have refrained for fear of seeming like the kind of person who buys hybrid cars, can now seize on high gas prices as an excuse. “It’s not that I’m some kind of environmentalist (horrors!), it’s just that three-dollar-a-gallon gas is killing me.” Okay, I guess. For some reason, feminism is especially prone to this kind of backhanded compliment. “I’m not a feminist, but...” is a surprisingly common phrase.

Parenting is a constant battle of intentions. Be good and Santa will bring you toys (as if that’s why you should be good). Come to church and we’ll pick up donuts on the way home (as if that’s why you should go to church). At least with parenting, there’s hope that the kid will mature, and will someday be able to toss away the ladder once he’s on a higher ethical rung.

For some reason, academics seem less comfortable with this paradox than most people. I don’t know if it’s because the profession weeds out the money-motivated by dint of low pay, or if it’s the Calvinist cultural overhang, or if it’s the idealism inherent in the assumption that everybody is capable of learning. Maybe it’s something else altogether. But it’s dramatic, and it puts us at odds with much of the rest of the culture. Outside of academia, it’s common sense that the reason to go to college is to get a good job and have a successful career. But if you want to see heebie-jeebies at work, just say that to humanities faculty. “What are you going to do with that?” is like fingernails on a chalkboard to a philosophy professor.

We need to get over this uneasiness, and start engineering the paradox to our advantage. We’re fairly smart folk, as a group; this shouldn’t be beyond us. The more literate culture that might result would be a fine thing. If we also happen to improve our salaries in the process, well, that’s okay too...