Monday, August 13, 2018


Subtraction is a nasty trick.  This week I did the math and realized that, a few weeks ago, I passed my ten-year anniversary as a chief academic officer at a community college: seven years at the first, three and counting at the second.  Add five years as a dean at another community college before that, and it has been a while.

After all that time in tenured, unionized, and badly underfunded environments, I’ve noticed a few things.  For today’s post, I’ll focus on venue and conflict.

The same issue can play out in very different ways, depending on the venue.

One-on-one conversations tend to lend themselves to nuance, since they make it easy to hear tone and see body language.  However, they’re often hard to arrange, and can easily run over their allotted times and/or purposes. That’s often a good thing -- I learn a lot from the asides in conversations -- but with only so many hours in the day, there are limits.  It’s also easy to convey the same message differently to different people without even realizing that you’re doing it, which can lead to heartache later.

Small group meetings offer the best environments, generally, for hashing out solutions to complicated issues.  You want enough -- and diverse enough -- people at the table to see the issue from enough angles, but also few enough that everyone can have a meaningful say and you can have constructive crosstalk.  “Standing” groups -- that is, the same membership over an extended period -- can fall into ruts if there isn’t enough renewal or turnover. I’m a fan of ad hoc groups, though the politics of assembling them are not to be underestimated.

Big, theatrical meetings don’t lend themselves to nuance or real discussion.  That’s especially true when the group doesn’t change much over time. Combine widespread risk aversion with widespread stage fright, and you have a recipe for immediate, widespread retreat when confronted with anything new or charged.  (Nina Eliasoph’s classic “Avoiding Politics” is excellent on this.) Add a few devotees of Outrage Theater to the mix -- they’re always there -- and actual conversation is sacrificed to troop-rallying or attempts at “gotcha.” These meetings are best used instead for affirming and uplifting, rather than challenging.

Anyone who objects that New England town meetings are glorious exercises in democracy is reminded that they often last into the wee hours.  I’m talking here about meetings with predetermined ending times.

Email can work well for disseminating information, but can be tricky for nuanced discussion.  If you’re ever brought in on an escalating email chain, going back to the beginning and reading through it is like watching a game of “telephone” played by adults.  When the game of “telephone” is a series of cordial misunderstandings, sometimes the actual telephone is the way to go. It’s not unusual to discover that two people are using the same word to mean two different things; each is correct in its own way, but they wind up writing past each other.  Stopping to clarify definitions and terms can go a long way.

Once in a while, someone will fire off a nastygram late at night, cc’ing all and sundry.  With those, avoid the temptation to respond either in kind or point-by-point. It amounts to feeding a troll.  Instead, take a deep breath and don’t respond at all for a while. Then, reread it and consider your options coolly.  You can take the high road, you can respond minimally, or you can invite the aggrieved to an in-person meeting. It’s harder to demonize someone who’s looking right at you, especially without a crowd to play to.

Keep in mind that emails can be forwarded to whomever, kept forever, and even subpoenaed.  If that happens, you can’t assume that a reader down the line will have any sense of context.  (Or, worse, will have an agenda.) Delete that clever, cutting line. You know the one. Write as if an imaginary third party will read it six months from now.

At some point, if you value shared governance, you have to decide whether you value deliberation, or would just rather defer to first instincts.  If it’s the former, then venue selection matters tremendously. If it’s the latter, well, I hear Kahoot works pretty well.