Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Tales We Tell Ourselves

When deep stories collide, the scene isn’t pretty.

I’ve been reading Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, which is her account of the insights she gleaned on red-state political attitudes by moving to rural Louisiana and living there for five years.  As always with Hochschild, the book is brilliant, and well worth the read.  But I haven’t been able to shake her idea of the “deep story,” and bump into it daily.

Hochschild spends years living among people who see the world very differently than she does.  Over time, she constructs a narrative that she thinks -- and her new neighbors confirm -- captures the way her new neighbors see the world.  She describes it as a “feels-as-if” story, similar to Colbert’s truthiness but without the irony. (p. 135)  In the deep story of her new neighbors, they’re waiting in a long line for the American Dream.  They’re waiting patiently, doing what they’re supposed to do.  But then other people -- defined mostly by race and nationality -- cut in line in front of them, and there’s President Obama, happily waving the line-cutters in.  When they complain, they’re called racist and looked down upon.  So they feel cheated.

The deep story isn’t meant to be literally true -- there’s no actual line -- and it’s certainly open to alternate interpretations, as in, why were you in front of the alleged line cutters in the first place?  But those caveats, true as they are, are beside the point; the deep story is the default structure within which people organize new experiences or information.  When people with very different deep stories interpret the same information, they can use it to confirm very different points of view.  Is Trump’s victory a story of revanchist racism, deference to the alpha male, media complicity, superior tactics, Clinton’s flaws as a campaigner, or the electoral college?  Depending on your deep story, you could take it as any or all of the above, or as something else entirely.

People with differing deep stories can talk right past each other, because the frames of reference they’re using to interpret the same thing are so different.  Those conversations -- we’ve all had them -- can be incredibly frustrating because both sides feel, to the people holding them, like they’re right.  “Why does management insist on concessions on health insurance?  Don’t they know we’re struggling already?”  “Why does the union fail to recognize that health insurance is killing the budget?  Do they want the place to go broke?”  Within a particular deep story, one of those viewpoints is sensible to the point of obvious, and the other clearly wrong.  Each feels right to the person holding it.  To the person holding one, the other seems vapid, if not offensive.  

In the community college world, we have several deep stories floating around and crashing into each other.  But we don’t always take the time to figure that out.

Some hold the “Prospecting for Gold” story.  In this story, the college or professor is a prospector with a sieve.  Students flow through the sieve.  Every so often, the sieve catches a shiny and valuable nugget.  Those nuggets -- excellent students -- are highly valued.  Everything else just flows past.  In this story, access is highly valued; you can’t pan for gold without a stream.  But a focus on student success seems beside the point.  Either a student is gold, or she is not.  Partisans of this deep story are fond of phrases like “weed them out” and “the right to fail.”  The book Community Colleges and the Access Effect offers a variation on the prospecting story, though it locates the sieve in high school.

I’ve known some people who held the “Savior” story.  To them, the role of the professor (or, less commonly, the college as a whole) is to rescue poor, helpless victims from a predatory world.  Partisans of the Savior story mean well, even as they do incredible damage by not distinguishing between helping and trapping.  When the Savior story crosses racial lines, which it often does, it can get especially icky.

The “Harvard on the Hill” story -- I’ve heard several community colleges refer to themselves that way; sometimes it’s “Harvard on the Highway,” depending on local geography -- imagines that the faculty and the college are guardians of an ancient tradition, and that their job is to resist any sort of change.  I think of them as Platonists who never read to the end.  Curmudgeons tend to be particularly fond of this one.

We all know the “13th grade” story, also formerly known as the “high school with ashtrays” story.  (Non-smoking campuses have relegated that to the ashtray of history.)  That has evolved, over time, to the “all remediation, all the time” story, in which community colleges are excoriated for the failures of other educational sectors.  The folks who like this story tend to use phrases like “dropout factories” a lot.  

Lately, the “Personnel Office for the Economy” story has become popular.  In this one, the college is a factory for turning out workers.  This one caught fire politically when the Great Recession hit, and is sustained by concerns about student loans.  In this version, faculty are moving parts that can/need to be swapped in and out depending on the shifting vagaries of local employers.  The holders of this story talk a lot about “accountability” and “performance funding,” though usually only in punitive ways.  They can often be spotted trashing “soft” disciplines like art history.

The stories clash on the ground.  Should a college spend money on more full-time faculty in humanities, or instead on more academic advisors?  To the Harvard on the Hill folk, the answer is obviously faculty; to the Personnel Office folk, money spent on humanities is money wasted.  Are high fail rates a sign of institutional failure, unconscious reproduction of social class, or the cream rising to the top?  Pick your story, and your answer will follow.

There’s no escaping deep stories; everyone has to make sense of the world somehow.  But being a little more conscious of where they lead, and what they imply, may make it easier to make sense of what otherwise seems like a fountain of nonsense spewing from the person in front of you.  The task of leadership, especially now, is finding a deep story that works, and telling it over and over and over again, from the beginning.  Because if we don’t provide stories, others will.