I had a conversation with a colleague last week, the sort of conversation that often will happen around this time of the semester when everybody's feeling overwhelmed and stressed out and like the semester can't end quickly enough. It wasn't a significant conversation in itself, but it's had me thinking about two things that I've connected periodically over the last year throughout discussions about budget crises, curriculum, faculty workload, etc: questions of "deserving" and of "morale."
I'll take the second part first. Morale. There have been a lot of discussions over the past year or two at my institution about faculty and staff "morale" - or, rather, not really discussions. Really, the "discussion" amounts to, "Oh, morale is so low. I've never seen people with such low morale." And then that's pretty much the end of it. Sure, people might go on to cast aspersions on the administration, to bemoan the quality or behavior of students, to question policy decisions, or whatever. But the foundation of those comments is always this issue of "morale" as if it's some uniformly problematic thing and as if it is evidence that All Things are Wrong in the World.
Look, I'm not going to pretend that I'm always the most positive, shiny, happy employee - you'd all know that's not true. We all get disgruntled from time to time. What gets me about the turn toward talking about disgruntlement in terms of "morale" is that it's a way of flattening out the issues and of stopping conversation - and that's whether it's a term engaged by faculty and staff or whether it's a term engaged by administration. Instead of talking about specific, practical issues that we can address, we instead talk about how everybody's in a bad mood, as if all bad moods have the same root causes, and as if just solving the "morale" problem would make the practical problems go away.
Except "morale" is a large and unwieldy concept, and what may improve my morale may not improve everybody's. So the more we reduce our conversations to the narrative of "low morale," the more time we take away from actual problem-solving, or so it seems to me.
Because, here's the thing: "morale" seems to me to be bound to people's personal ideas about what they "deserve." When people don't believe they are "getting what they deserve," then morale is low. But, see, this is the weird thing about "deserving." "Deserving" implies entitlement. And the people I know with the lowest morale seem to characterize their complaints in terms of this sense of individual entitlement, and they don't seem to think about the big picture very much. I don't say this to dismiss individual concerns - and I don't say this to indicate that I myself haven't fallen prey to characterizing my own experience in exactly the same way. But. I question the utility of approaching one's working life from that perspective.
Does this mean that I think people don't "deserve" things? Well, not exactly. It's just, you know where we also see these narratives of deserving? On reality television. Pay attention the next time you're watching some ridiculous show. "I deserve to be here." "I didn't deserve to be eliminated." "I deserve to win this challenge." "I deserve that money." I deserve, I deserve, I deserve. And I know when I see Robin on Top Chef, for example, talking about how she "deserves" to remain in the competition, I think she's a total and complete idiot. It seems to me that when we enter the narrative of "deserving" that it's just not a terribly compelling narrative.
Or let's think about a closer-to-home example. A student who has earned a C on an assignment comes in to complain that he or she "deserves" an A. How much credence does that complaint have, 9 times out of 10? Does insisting that he or she "deserves" that A really make the argument more compelling? How often does the word "deserve" get used when what we really mean is "want"? And sure, none of us likes it when we don't get what we want, and sure, we may see not getting what we want as unjust. But just because we wanted something and we didn't get it, it doesn't mean that saying, "But I deserved x,y,z!" will make the outcome any different. Neither narratives of "deserving" nor narratives of "morale" seem rooted to reality and practical solutions. Both seem most frequently to be narratives of unfulfilled desire. How exactly can we practically address unfulfilled desire, whatever the objects of desire are?
I think my answer to that question is that we can't. When I think about my colleagues who sing the "bad morale" song, these are people who, even if their every desire was fulfilled, would still be dissatisfied. This isn't to dismiss legitimate concerns about workload or policy decisions, but rather to note that the people who talk to me most frequently about the "low morale" problem and about how faculty/staff aren't "getting what they deserve" also tend to be the people who opt out of the heavy lifting required for change. In fact, I think people often address their concerns about this stuff to me because I'm a heavy lifter by nature. I think they figure that if they complain to me that I'll get my hands dirty fighting their battles, while they get to sit back and complain about how I do so. (This isn't generous of me, but this is how it feels.) And the fact of the matter is, even if I did go to bat for all of these people, and even when I have on occasion done so, these people still aren't happy. So is the institution responsible for that? Trends in higher more generally?
Look, there are a good many things that I'd like to change at my institution. And let's note for the record that I've been very active in working to change a good number of things, particularly since receiving tenure both at the department and university levels. I'm not this stupid, foolish Happy Camper who doesn't see problems. I just don't see how it helps anything for me to be miserable and to spread my misery around to other people by bemoaning "low morale" or whining about how I "deserve" better. That's what I'd characterize as a waste of my already limited time and energy.
I guess the bottom line is that I want to change the conversation from one that centers on something I can't control - like morale - to one that I can do something about. And I'd like for the people who want to list their litany of complaints to me when they could be helping to make things better to stop doing that. I mean, seriously.
3 years ago