Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Muppets Revisited

With Christmas approaching, we’ve been watching some of our favorite specials over the last few weeks -- Frosty, The Year Without a Santa Claus (featuring Heat Miser and Snow Miser), and, of course, Rudolph -- which reminded me of this post from a couple of years ago.



A few months ago, Dahlia Lithwick had a charming piece in Slate about two kinds of Muppets: Order Muppets and Chaos Muppets.  She suggested that most people fall into one of the two camps.  The Order Muppets -- Kermit, Bert, Scooter, Sam the Eagle -- are concerned with keeping the show running.  The Chaos Muppets -- Cookie Monster, Ernie, Gonzo, Animal -- are a bit more, well, demonstrative.  They bring energy, and entropy.

Lithwick’s point was that a functioning organization needs the right mix of Order and Chaos Muppets.  If you have nothing but Order Muppets, the organization will calcify and nothing creative will happen.  If you have nothing but Chaos Muppets, the theater will quickly collapse in a smoldering pile of rubble.  You don’t want Order Muppets cracking all the jokes, and you don’t want Chaos Muppets in charge of paying the electric bill.  The mix is the key.

It was a cute piece, and the Gen X’er in me got a kick out of it.  But it also stuck with me, because it says something about academic administration.  

I’d make a distinction between “soft” and “hard” variants of each type.  Soft Chaos Muppets, like Grover, Ernie, or Fozzie, are a little rough around the edges, but they aren’t threats to anyone.  They’re sweet, even if a little scattered.  Hard Chaos Muppets -- Animal, Gonzo, or that guy with the dynamite blaster -- have moments of brilliance, but need to be contained.  Left unchecked, they have a way of destroying everything.  Similarly, Hard Order Muppets -- Bert, Sam the Eagle -- are so organized that they actually become bitter.  Left to their own devices, they would suck the life out of everything, on the grounds that life is messy, and messy is bad.  Soft Order Muppets, like Kermit, maintain just enough order to give the Chaos Muppets a venue in which to shine.  Kermit understands that the show must go on, but he also understands that the show is better when Gonzo can be Gonzo.  Asking Gonzo to tone it down would defeat the point of Gonzo, and would result in a much worse show.

(I admit, I’m not sure what to do with Miss Piggy in this typology.  Maybe she’s a Chaos Muppet who thinks she’s an Order Muppet, even while quietly suspecting that she isn’t.)

In this typology, Kermit is a great model for academic administration.  He keeps the show running, but it’s clear that he actually enjoys the Chaos Muppets and wants them to be able to do what they do.  His work makes it possible for Gonzo to jump through the flaming hoop with a chicken under his arm while reciting Shakespeare, even though Kermit would never do that himself.

Kermit endures snark from Statler and Waldorf in the balcony; let’s just say I get that.  And the few times that Kermit freaks out have much more impact than when, say, Animal does, because a freaked-out Kermit threatens the working of the show.  Freaking out is just what Animal does.

Old-school viewers of Sesame Street -- before it was corrupted by the Unwatchable Elmo -- will recall that Kermit also worked as a journalist.  (My quasi-hipster take on Sesame Street: I liked their old stuff...)  He reported from the scene in his trenchcoat and fedora, trying to make a silly scene legible.  Let’s just say I get that, too.

Administrators can fail if they’re too Chaos-y themselves, obviously, but they can also fail if they’re too much like Bert or Sam.  Successful administration involves genuinely appreciating the Chaos folks for the energy and breakthroughs they bring, even while keeping them from blowing the place up.  

It’s not easy being dean.  But it helps having a little green role model.