One of my biggest frustrations in academic life is a tendency, whenever there is some sort of controversial issue or problem or difficulty of some kind, toward “gathering information” or “gathering opinions” As if this “gathering,” followed by “reporting” that is totally disconnected from meaningful recommendations toward a way forward, constitutes some kind of action all on its own. I know, this is not very “democratic” of me.
Don’t misunderstand me: I do believe that we need to have adequate information to make decisions and take action. But there as a point at which decisions need to be made and action needs to be taken, and in my experience and from my perspective, that point is usually three or four ad hoc committees ago. At least on the humanities/fine arts/social sciences side of my campus. (I’m trying to be clear here that what I experience might not be some sort of universal truth on every campus, and it is not true even on my own campus in some disciplines that are far removed from my own.)
So why is this so frustrating to me?
- Part of it is totally just my personality. More and more I realize that I care a whole lot about tangible, concrete results. Even if they aren’t perfect or if they don’t make everybody (or even me) happy – as they pretty much never can or do. I am happier with an imperfect or even crappy compromise than I am with never acting. I just want something to be done, which I recognize is not always the best thing, but it is how I operate. This is not very squishy and literature-professor-y of me, since I hear that we are supposed to be the idealists on campus, but there it is.
- Another part has to do with having been around for a decade at my current institution. I used to think that surveys and ad hoc committees and forums were a good thing, back in olden times before I’d seen that nothing typically happens as a result of those things. Now, I’m more likely to resent such things, because I have little faith that anything will ever come of them, based on past experience.
- Part of it, too, is that I feel like all of this gathering and reporting, especially in my department, tends to be initiated by people who refuse to do that unpalatable service that requires real heavy lifting. So people who don’t do committee work all year long, and who aren’t in their offices meeting with students, and who aren’t developing innovative courses and assignments, and who aren’t active in research, and who don’t really pay attention to what’s going on around campus wake up sometime around April 1 to some “issue” that they decide is of “urgent importance,” and then they demand that we need an ad hoc committee about it, which of course they would love to serve on, and then they generate a survey that requires a lengthy narrative response or they insist on additional meetings (when the rest of us are at the end of our rope trying to squeeze in capstone defenses and meetings with students about final papers and various student events and end-of-term activities) and all that comes of it is a lot of talk and no action.
Now, you might say, why don’t you just ignore this? I would. Except if you don’t participate then the only voices that get heard are the voices of the checked-out and disgruntled people, which is not ideal. So I find myself responding to the demands of a minority who seem to have a knack for taking over the conversation and the agenda.
I realize as I’m writing all of this that probably my real problem is one with the fact that people who should be leading don’t actually lead. Because, yes, leadership involves listening, but it also involves insisting on action after the listening has been accomplished. There should be an end point to emoting and thinking through an issue. And once that end point has been reached – say, after the first survey, after the first ad hoc committee – leaders need to act, or they need to delegate action to others. And when somebody calls for yet another committee and yet another survey, they need to say “no, we already did that.” What I have witnessed over the past 10 years is that those in leadership positions have been unwilling or unable, for whatever reason, to say, “no, we already did that.”
Here’s what I don’t get about that: it’s inefficient and ultimately a waste of time. We never get over whatever the issue is, and it just breeds further animosity and resentment.
And we don’t allow for this sort of thing in other areas of our academic jobs. Let’s take the example of a student who objects to a grade that he or she has been assigned. So you hand back the papers, and the student is like, “this is a travesty of justice!” The first thing that you do is to tell the student to schedule an appointment with you to discuss it. You need to gather the facts, to review the situation, to get the necessary information to address the issue that has arisen. Totally. But let’s say you look at the student’s paper again, and you stand by the grade. And the student is still unhappy. Fair enough. You don’t keep having meetings with the student. You don’t keep meeting with the student over weeks and months and years until the student gets the answer that she or he wants. Either the student accepts your verdict, or the student has to move on to some other avenue for the complaint – first the department chair, then the associate dean, etc. All of this is clearly outlined in the university policies. There is no ambiguity about it. And at some point, relatively quickly actually, it comes to an end. The student doesn’t have the option of continually bringing the issue up for years until the student gets the answer that he or she wants. And if the student tries to do that, we say, “no, we already did that.”
It’s not that I don’t believe that there is room for questioning or for dissent. Or that there is no room for the gathering of viewpoints or the issuing of reports. But I do think that there is a point at which we should say, “no, we already did that.”
So let me give a general example, which, to be clear, has nothing to do with my current frustrations:
Let’s say that a small group of faculty are worried about salary compression and its effect on faculty morale, which worry is basically generated from their own unhappiness with their own salaries. So they want to organize a committee and issue a survey about that. Good. You do that. You find out if this is a widespread feeling, and you find out if there are any ways in which faculty morale can be improved without a large infusion of cash (because seriously, regional state university). This committee then issues a report, and that committee’s report synthesizes the responses, most of which don’t appear to have the problem that this small group of people have, but then the report says, “the only way to solve this problem is to raise associate professors’ salaries by 10K next year,” which of course is impossible. So then nothing happens. The report is filed away. And two years later, the same small group of faculty says that they are worried about associate professors’ morale, and they want to form another ad hoc committee for another survey. That is the moment when I think somebody should say, “no, we already did that. Here is the old report. Perhaps you should look at the data that we already have and come up with recommendations that are doable without a large infusion of cash. If you come up with three recommendations, then issue another survey (for I’m even ok with a NEW survey! That builds on the old one!) to see which one people think we should implement. And then you can figure out strategies for implementing it.” If those people are insistent that they REALLY need a new committee, with no reference to the work of the committee from before, you then say, “No, we already did that. Maybe you should bring your concerns to the dean.” You don’t keep wasting other people’s time with the concerns of a few.
Am I on crack, here? Isn’t this just common sense? If you give people license to keep badgering, with the idea that if they do it long enough then they will get the answer that they want, isn’t that just dumb?
Obviously, I think it’s dumb. And yet. I appear to be in a feedback loop in which I must respond to the same dumb surveys over and over again that never lead to anything, and they never lead to anything because the people generating the surveys don’t appear to have any interest in doing anything and administrators never insist that they do anything. Or, alternatively, the views of the people generating the surveys never change because they are not actively engaged in the life of the department, college, or university, so they don’t understand that time keeps marching forward and things do change.
As the person who was the architect of the first true overhaul of our major since 1972, and as the person who is now the architect of our department’s first workable assessment plan ever (both of which processes did begin with fact-finding and opinion-gathering, but which continued beyond that initial phase to action), I have no remaining patience for these fucking endless surveys about my goddamned feelings and opinions. Which apparently when they don’t line up with the ad hoc committee members’ feelings and opinions are totally dismissed.
Survey says? No more fucking useless surveys. Please.