Ah, that’s better. I just crossed three things off of my to-do list. Much better. (See what I mean about stupid procrastination? How hard was that?) But so now that gives me time to write a post I’ve been thinking about for a while.
Since my return from sabbatical, I’ve been struggling with this issue of details. See, one of the things that I learned during my sabbatical is that I’m terrible with details. Well, I guess I knew that before, but that time to pause reminded me of this fact about myself. It’s not that I don’t do the detail-oriented parts of my job – I do! – but I don’t get much satisfaction from those things, and I don’t like doing them. I like it when they are done. In my perfect world, somebody else would do those for me. But I do not live in a perfect world.
Now, this in itself is just a normal job frustration, and doesn’t really matter all that much other than that I want to whine about it. The problem, as I see it, is that I don’t think certain people who matter really value what I am good at and what I do get satisfaction out of and like, which is Big Picture stuff. While it is true that Vision is not all, Vision is really, really important. Without Vision, details are just, well, busy-work. (And here you see my bias: that I think details are just what you do because otherwise you cannot realize your Grand Vision, whereas more detail-oriented folks would probably argue the opposite – that Grand Visions are all well and good but details are what matters most – the devil is in the details, and all that.)
Here are a couple of examples.
First, the schedule of classes. On the one hand, this is all about details. It’s about negotiating the competing demands of students (I need to fulfill this requirement and am only on campus two days a week! Why is this required class not offered on those days?!?!) and faculty (I need to teach my courses on x days at x times or the world will come to an end!). Fair enough. But it’s also about that pesky Big Picture thing also known as the curriculum. Yes, there are the competing demands of individuals (students and faculty) but the bigger picture is that we claim to offer a curriculum that is the reason for what we do, and the demands of individuals should be secondary to that. Except, apparently, all people care about is their own individual demands and the need to accommodate those individual demands with the least amount of conflict possible, the details. Now, obviously, I have individual, detailed needs of my own (I’m only human), but I can see the bigger picture and I get the need for me to serve it. I think it’s important for the person who organizes the schedule to put the curriculum and the Big Picture before my needs, even if it makes me irritable. Except, that’s not what’s happening. Those who are doing the schedule are focused on the details and not on the bigger picture. It’s a problem.
Second, a committee dealing with an issue that is Really Important. Currently, that committee is set up in such a way that it’s all about getting details in place for the important issue. This is work that must be done. I get that. Except. Ultimately, this issue is going to require faculty buy-in. And the way to get faculty buy-in is not to busily organize a bunch of details behind closed doors and then present it like it’s a done deal because, you know, the details are in place. People don’t work like that. People – and by people I mean the colleagues who together make up the biggest faction in our department – are going to resist that approach. They may seem not to care at all about it now – mainly because the details of this are excruciatingly boring – but the minute you try to impose something on them that is going to require their time and attention, they are going to have a problem with it. In order to get them on board, you need to present them with a Grand Vision that they believe in. You need to explain give them a Bigger Picture and you need to make them think that this is all their idea.
Ultimately, I suppose what I’m talking about is the politics of academia vs. its procedures. The procedures are important, but if you neglect the politics, you don’t get results. Nothing happens except you create a bunch of documents that never go anywhere. And let me tell you: nothing drives me crazier than not getting any results.
I understand that change is slow in an academic context, and I understand that we need to make sure to cross our t’s and dot our i’s and all that. I understand the need to be deliberate, and I understand that as much as it’s my tendency to want to plow through to a conclusion that slow and steady wins the race. But I hate feeling like the Big Picture is an afterthought, and that the details drive what we do more than our larger beliefs. I hate feeling like people and community matter less than procedures and individuals, and I hate feeling like the work that I do is dictated by random circumstances rather than ideals.
I do understand that my way of seeing things isn’t the one true way, but doesn’t there have to be a conversation between my way and the other way? Shouldn’t there be a way to use both approaches together to create something good? Shouldn’t the details serve a bigger picture?