Monday, November 09, 2009

Narratives of "Deserving" and Morale

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.


Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

Yep -- this goes into the same category as colleagues complaining about schedules I'd love to have. In particular, folks who have a 3/3 (because their classes are 5 credits while mine are 3.. and I know darned well there isn't that much more work necessary for 3 credits vs. 5) -- or who complain about their "large" classes -- all of which are smaller than the smallest classes in my discipline... or someone in my own discipline who thinks they take on an equal share of the load when they teach an occasional 4:00 class (which they consider evening.. we have a lot of 6:00-8:50 classes)etc.

It's hard not to internalize this kind of negative stuff.

BrightStar (B*) said...

I get what you're saying about "deserving," I think. And I, too, have problems with attitudes of entitlement.

However, I think that reduced morale isn't always connected with deserving. My morale doesn't dip low very often, but when it does, I think it's about reduced hope and changes such that the place isn't what I expected it to be.

It's not that I feel entitled to particular resources, but when they were once there and when they're taken away (e.g., funding for faculty travel or doctoral students' travel), I don't feel entitled to them, but I feel disappointed. I don't feel like I deserve resources, but I feel like I'm expected to do more with less. I feel disappointed that situations change. I feel discouraged and less hopeful. I address the problem by paying for more work expenses myself, and that makes me sad. But do I feel entitled? I wouldn't say that. Do I feel disappointed? Yes.

I don't think it's appropriate to rant in a disappointed manner. I don't do that. I think it's important to be a force of positive change -- so faculty can donate to a fund to support doctoral student travel if there is no money for them, for instance, and faculty can apply for more grants.

For me, my lower moral is not about feeling entitled or deserving.

I do agree that mentioning low moral can shut down the conversation and move away from actual problem solving. I think it's ultimately productive to talk about why people feel low morale, because those issues can be addressed, so I think I agree with the larger points of this post, even though I don't necessarily think that morale is tied up with deserving all of the time.

PhysioProf said...

"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.

Not only is it foolish for faculty to approach their own sense of satisfaction using the narrative of getting what they "deserve", but it is absolutely delusional and completely counterproductive for faculty to employ this narrative when engaging administrators with the purpose of getting what they want. This is because good administrators know that the "deserve" narrative is absolutely the worst possible one within which to make administrative decisions for the overall benefit of the organizational entity being administered. Thus, good administrators are wholly indifferent to arguments framed in the "deserve" narrative, and can only be influenced by arguments grounded in benefits to the organizational entity that will inure to the professional benefit of the administrator.

Bavardess said...

I see this a lot in the corporate world, where managers & executives have a tendency to blame employees' 'low morale' for poor company performance, instead of looking at specific issues (which often means confronting ugly truths about how they're running the business). The management then believes they can throw a fairly cheap and ill-thought-out solution at the 'morale' problem ('Let's give them a free company t-shirt and buy them Friday night drinks!') rather than having to acknowledge the fundamental problems (let alone take practical steps to address them).

Dr. Crazy said...

IPP - I just had to deal with colleagues from another discipline today who assumed that because course caps are lower in my discipline (though while the colleague has more students, they grade no or little writing) that my discipline could easily strap on a (totally non-discipline-essential) learning outcome for a particular set of requirements. I thought of your comment as I explained why this recommendation was INSANE.

B* - I see where you're coming from. Here's the thing: your comment characterizes low morale as the *result* of problems, not as the problem itself. I think what I was trying to get at in my post (though maybe I didn't do so effectively) is that when people characterize "morale" in itself as the problem, this links directly to "deserving" and entitlement. I don't mean to suggest that low morale doesn't exist or that it isn't problematic. Just that it is the *result* of real, institutional, pragmatic problems - not the problem in and of itself. In my experience, when people talk about morale itself as a problem (and this may just be my experience) it *does* connect to deserving and entitlement. I'm all in favor of disappointment, anger, disenchantment, pissed-off-ness, sadness, etc. in relation to institutional problems. I just think that the minute we use the word "morale" we stop talking about those very real emotional responses that institutional fucked-up-ness produces.

Physioprof: yes. I feel as if you are my soul-mate and comrade in arms.

Bavardess: You get at the issue from the other side perfectly. The issue isn't only with people in the trenches crying "low morale" - it's with people in power using the label of "low morale" to mask actual problems that might be (and need to be) fixed. I don't have "low morale" because I didn't get a course release that I "deserved." I am *angry* because my workload has about doubled. The issue is workload - not my morale.

Ann said...

Dr. Crazy: I think what you're coming up against is the fact that most people have a kind of in-born set point to their personalities. There are in fact people who are miserable who really, truly prefer to be miserable. It's who they are, and the effort required to be happy or content would erase a lot of their own personal narratives about themselves that explain their lives to them.

I used to work with a bunch of people who were for the most part miserable, and who were (unfortunately) dedicated to making others equally miserable. People with naturally happier or more optimistic outlooks (like me) were I think viewed as real threats to the comforts of their misery.

Bottom line: look after yourself, not them. You have correctly guessed that there's nothing you or anyone else can do to make them not-miserable. (And, don't tell any administrators this, but there are some people who will be happy even with a 4-4 teaching load and lots of service, and some of those people will like you remain active scholars. There are others who will never be happy or productive scholars even if you give them 2-1 loads and no service. They'll still imagine that there was a better deal of which they were unjustly deprived, or that there are better jobs that they "deserve" out there.)