Friday, February 20, 2009

Process and Word Problems

Academic administrators aren't the only administrators on a campus. We routinely interact with the folks who run the business side (payroll, facilities, security), the IT side, fundraising, and the like.

I've had several conversations with administrative colleagues lately that have gone something like this:

Other Admin: I had the budget talk with my group. It was rough, but we got through it. How did yours go?

DD: We're getting there.

OA: Getting there?

DD: Yeah. First I had to get them past the denial stage. Then I had to endure the usual “let's just fire all the administrators” stuff. By the time I left, the group was starting to develop its own plans.

OA: Huh?

DD: They can't hear it from above. They have to figure it out for themselves. Once they do that, and see how far short their suggestions would actually fall, we'll be able to have a constructive conversation about next steps. We have a followup meeting next week, and we'll probably have a few others after that.

OA: (eyes roll back in head)

It seems to be an academic thing. Many faculty simply will not trust information presented to them, even if it's impeccably sourced and mathematically airtight. They have to figure it out for themselves. Once they do, then they can start to deal.

I've had to figure this out over time.

In my early days of deaning, I used to fall into the trap of believing that good information, presented clearly and openly, would get the job done. The flaw in this approach is that it addresses what's said, rather than what's heard. What they hear is what counts. Some people can only hear themselves, so the only effective way to get the information across is to put them in a position where they find themselves saying it.

It's the difference between watching a teacher solve an equation and solving it yourself. Watching is fine, but it doesn't sink in until you do it yourself.

I haven't quite resorted to actual word problems yet – a budget leaves Washington at 60 miles per hour, heading North – but the idea is similar.

As with good teaching, it's important to leave open the possibility that someone might devise a better solution than the one you had in mind. That happens, and it's exhilarating when it does. Sometimes when they're in the problem-solving stage, someone will connect some dots that I didn't, and come up with something altogether nifty. I love it when that happens, since it results in both a better solution and incontrovertible evidence that I was actually listening.

Of course, sometimes that doesn't happen. They'll come back with something half-baked, or with nothing at all except a frazzled expression and a sincere desire that someone make the problem go away. But even then, we're in a better spot than if I had just solved the problem on the board. Now, the denial phase is pretty much history, and we can actually talk reality. It's not ideal, but it's progress.

This may all sound sinister and manipulative, but the impulse behind it is getting people past the blinders that inhibit them from helping to shape the solution. The point is to enable a constructive kind of academic citizenship, rather than the usual dichotomy of either apathy or total war. Once they grasp the contours of what we're up against, they're in a position to craft actual solutions, and to defend their own interests more effectively. I want that to happen, since I can't help but think that we're smarter together than separately.

It's just hard to explain that to the parts of the college that can settle the question in a single 45 minute meeting.