Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Building for Non-Compliance

On my campus, we're discussing a change that's generating some feedback along the lines of "well, if everyone just did what they were supposed to do, that wouldn't be necessary."

Back in my younger days, arguments like that sometimes persuaded me. They appeal to my visceral distaste for rules that say one thing and mean another. Speed limits are an example. Most highways have posted limits that are more like opening bids. Most of the time, you can safely go about 10 mph over the limit; the unofficial limit is somewhat higher than the official one, though you're entirely sure by exactly how much. In my perfect world, I'd much prefer that the signs say what they mean and mean what they say. Instead of posting 55 when we mean 65, post 65 and enforce it. Take the guesswork out of it, and make one rulebook for everybody.

That would be great. But it's just not the reality of how people live and work. And systems that rely on perfect behavior are doomed to fail.

(For a close-to-home example, of course, take the 21 drinking age. The idea was that an age of 18 allowed high schoolers to buy beer, so raising it to 21 would get it out of the high schools. It was never really about colleges, although it applies to them. If you ever want to see prominent people fidget, ask a collection of residential college presidents what they do about underaged drinking on their campuses.)

Rules or expedients made for the masses generally undershoot what really conscientious people do on their own. Any experienced driver can tell you that speeds that may be perfectly reasonable on dry, sunny days may be irresponsibly excessive on dark and stormy nights. (It was a dark and stormy night...) So in practice, many limits seem to be set for dark and stormy nights, with an informal understanding that they'll stretch a bit on nice days. It's annoying when you guess wrong, but we haven't come up with a better system.

One alternative would be to do away with speed limits altogether. If there are no rules, then you don't have to guess what the rules are. But most of us suspect that some people would overestimate their own capacities quite badly, with deadly consequences for others. So we put imperfect rules in place on the theory that their admitted imperfection is less bad than relying on the good graces and judgment of everybody on the road.

That's basically what's happening here. We're discussing ways of communicating with students in the event of class cancellations for instructor absence. (The H1N1 scare was the prompt, but it would apply to absences for any reason.) A few folks have opined that if all affected professors just contacted their own students, no college-wide policy or practice would be necessary.

Well, yeah, but they won't. They haven't yet, and I don't see that changing. So we need a backup plan.

That's not to deny for a moment that some professors go above and beyond. In fact, I'd guess that the majority do all that could reasonably be expected. But there's a non-trivial number who do only what they're compelled to. When the costs of that attitude fall on the students, and they aren't trivial, it becomes fair to ask what else should be done.

I'm increasingly convinced that 'ideal' ideas are a dime a dozen. The ideas with real value are the ones that can survive heterogeneous behavior and compliance over time. Those ideas almost always fall short of the best behavior, but they have the unique virtue of being useful. The best individual performers may find the rules a bit underwhelming, and I salute them for that. They're right. But asking everyone to be perfect (or civic-minded, or virtuous, or altruistic, or...) just doesn't work.

Seeing beauty in the sustainable, mediocre idea is the administrative aesthetic. There's something a little bit sad in that, but there it is.