Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Speaking Like a Hedgehog, Hearing Like a Fox

If you haven't yet seen Tenured Radical's wonderful post on how to think like an administrator, check it out. Most of it seems like common sense, but for some reason, it isn't.

(I'm especially taken with her friend's memoir, entitled I Am Outraged That!. It's probably possible to come up with a less productive posture than moral indignation, but it would take work.)

Much of her piece is devoted to the idea that faculty should educate their administrators, rather than just attacking them. I'll add that it goes both ways.

In the old story of the hedgehog and the fox, the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one thing really, really well. By the hedgehog's standards, the fox is a dilettante. By the fox's standards, the hedgehog is hopelessly provincial. In a way, they're both right. Substitute 'faculty' for 'hedgehog' and 'administrator' for 'fox' and you've pretty much got it. If hedgehogs want foxes to understand them, getting mad at them for not being hedgehogs is unlikely to help.

(This is also probably why good academic admins are relatively rare, and why wonderful professors often crash and burn in the dean's office. The skills of the hedgehog and of the fox are different in some fairly basic ways. Some people are good at both, but fewer than we'd hope.)

For example: a professor makes a request for an expense on behalf of her program. She's convinced, based on years of experience in the trenches, that the purchase would make a real difference for her students. The administrator in question sees the request as setting a problematic precedent for other programs, so he says no. What should be her next step?

1.Sullen carping, secret drinking, depression, etc.
2.Indignant pouting, and/or impassioned yelling, taking the position that The Administration doesn't care about Excellence or Virtue or Beauty or Truth and that it's all of a piece with corporatization you suits are all the same and blah blah blah.
3.Petitions, whispering campaigns, 'mobilizations,' etc.
4.“Really? Why not?”

It should be easy, but far too many fail this question. Answer one renders you irrelevant. Answer two gets you typecast as yet another overentitled narcissist, to be humored occasionally but not to be taken seriously. (Astute readers will notice here that one form of typecasting begets another.) Answer three starts a war of attrition. (Notice, too, that one, two, and three all fail to address the concern about precedent.) Answer four actually provides the possibility of conversation. Better, answer four allows for each person to teach the other.

I've been lucky enough to have had several variations on four recently. In each case, real conversation helped us distinguish between “no way” and “not this way,” and to find other ways to address the actual underlying concern. After some back-and-forth – usually several times over a week or two – a new solution emerged that still addressed the original animating concern, but without the red flags. Although some would call that 'compromise' – and sometimes that's accurate – at its best, it's closer to something like 'refinement.' The resulting idea is measurably better than the original, because it won't trip over itself in ways that the fox would see and the hedgehog likely wouldn't. It takes time, and a certain self-awareness (“why do I want this in the first place?”), and mutual good faith, but it can result in solutions that can actually hold up over time.

The great thing about the 'refinement' option is that it plays to the faculty's signature strength. These are blisteringly intelligent people; when they have all the relevant information, they can come up with amazing solutions. The catch is that, in the course of their jobs, they rarely have occasion to get all the relevant information. Given what the fox can see, and some time, and a sense of being taken seriously, all that intelligence can work wonders. But that can only happen if both the fox and the hedgehog are willing to actually listen to each other.

Thanks, TR, for getting this discussion going. As a hedgehog-turned-fox, I have a soft spot for visions of the two actually working together.