Friday, March 07, 2008

The Fantasy of Clarity

My cc is dealing with a statewide initiative that may or may not succeed at its intended goals. It's fairly high-stakes, it's mandated by legislation that says 'what' but not 'how,' and it would involve – if it succeeds – upending some longstanding local political compromises.

I'm in the enviable position of being my campus's rep to the statewide committee working on this. Which means that I'm also the translator, updating my college on the project as it unfolds.

The project has moved quickly thus far, and is starting to encounter the first serious pushback. I assume that the pushback will grow more intense, compromises will be made, deadlines will be amended, compliance will be hit-and-miss for a while, and the whole thing may or may not collapse.

That's not intended as a criticism; any real statewide change should be expected to raise serious concerns. That's how these things are done, in the absence of a dictator. And yes, I support the absence of a dictator.

But some of the feedback I've encountered locally has surprised me. In retrospect, it shouldn't have, but it has.

In trying to respond to some of the proposed changes, some of my faculty have insisted loudly and vigorously that they're owed a clear timeline, flowchart, and list of different outcomes and their attendant consequences. They want several months of open meetings locally to formulate the first response, which they imagine would occasional several more months or even years of statewide debate. When all is said and done, which would require years, anything unwelcome or ambiguous should be gone.

Uh, nope.

The legislation says it must be in place by this Fall. Decisions are happening on the fly, by necessity. Nobody knows how it will come out, what the consequences might be, or if the whole thing is an exercise in windmill-tilting. And by the time several years of discussion could have passed, the political climate will be meaningfully different in unforeseeable ways.

In this case, the kind of step-by-step clarity they're looking for is simply a fantasy. That's not how politics works, and it's not how statewide groups of self-interested local actors work when laboring under an ambiguous mandate.

But some of them are utterly flummoxed by the prospect of ambiguity. It's striking to see.

It's sort of like the difference between “the scientific method” as control-freak K-12 educators teach it, and the way scientists actually work. Yes, timelines and flowcharts and “hypothesis-procedure-findings-conclusions” can be useful heuristics. But that's all they are. They're sometimes helpful as ways to simplify a complicated and messy reality. They aren't reality themselves.

One of the mental adjustments I had to make when I moved into administration from faculty was adjusting my burden of proof. As faculty, in my own discipline, I had been trained to spot flaws in arguments, and to try to construct ever-tighter cases. In administration, that's a recipe for failure. Since much administrative work involves acting for possible futures rather than explaining slices of past, waiting for a publishable level of clarity usually requires missing the moment. You have to make decisions with incomplete and imperfect information, and act on them. That's not to say you don't try to get the best information you can, obviously, or that some folks don't just give up and shoot from the hip. But when moments of possibility come along, you can't wait until you're absolutely, positively certain. You have to take a deep breath and take your shot, even if you don't know quite how it will play out. You need to trust your intuition, even knowing that it will sometimes fail.

Some of the faculty have never made that shift, at least in this setting, and don't seem to get it. Standing on what they understand as principle, they're asking for the kinds of proof they would ask for of academic arguments in their own disciplines. But by the time that level of evidence will be available, whatever will happen will have happened, and the local input the evidence was supposed to inform will have become irrelevant.

Although some local critics don't seem to see it, there's a level of proof lower than 'publishable' but higher than 'guessing.' That's the zone in which a great many decisions get made, simply by necessity.

If you want to participate in the decision-making – which is a good thing to do – you have to let go of the fantasy of clarity, and of the paralyzing fear of getting something wrong. After the fact, some of the decisions will look stupid in retrospect, and those involved will get criticized, both fairly and not. That's the cost of participation.

You can insist on absolute rightness, or you can get involved. Not both. I'm just a little surprised at how many want both.