Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Compromise, or, Home Rule, or, the Service: It Crushes Me

So here's the thing that strikes me today about the committee which will henceforth be known as the Committee That Threatens to Crush Crazy into a Fine Powdery Dust (CTTCCFPD). The thing that becomes most clear to me as I attempt to move things along is the way in which people frame their desire to tell other people what to do (and to get what they want) as Important Philosophical Disagreement on Which No Compromise Is Possible.

I suppose I should admit that I think compromise is possible on nearly every issue in the world, with the exception of things like, I don't know, genocide. Surely most would agree that genocide is probably never ok, and we should probably never compromise on that. But there are lots of things that do not fall into the "genocide" category. I mean, ok, we all have an ethical, philosophical, moral compass that guides us, and that we see as important. Ok, yes. And I can see that we don't like the idea of compromising on those things that we, personally, see as important. But not liking the idea of compromising doesn't mean that compromise is impossible. Painful? Sure. Irritating? Almost always. But impossible? Not so much.

Now, I know there are some gray areas. Take for example an issue like abortion, or capital punishment, or war. Some people believe that each of these things is a "no compromise" issue (whether they are for or against). And I can even get on board with that, as each of these issues involve freedom, democracy, what it means to be human and whatever. There's a range, I guess is what I'm saying, and I'd put genocide at one end, and these other things someplace in the middle (closer or further from the genocide depending on one's level of moral flexibility, and let me note for the record that I'm not saying moral flexibility is either positive or negative as I lay this out). But let's, for the sake of argument, say all of these are "no compromise" issues. Fair enough.

But let's say that you're in a department of Underwater. In this department, you have a major in Underwater that includes three options, one of which is Analysis of Underwater Basketweaving (where you have the most faculty, and a decent amount of students, but by no means the vast majority of the major), one of which is Underwater Studies (a more career-oriented option with lots of student interest and enrollment but not enough faculty) and a third which is Doing Underwater Basketweaving (a creative option, also with a lot of student interest and enrollment, and also without a lot of faculty). And let's say that the Analysis of Underwater Basketweaving faculty attempt to dictate what the Underwater Studies option will include, claiming, just for example, that it's impossible to take Underwater Basketmaking for the Workplace without a core knowledge of Underwater Basketweaving in the 16th Century. Your colleagues in Underwater Studies say that this wouldn't be terribly useful for the students in the Underwater Studies option, and they offer an alternative in which students would choose between the 16th century course and another course that would be more useful for students in their specialization. You, however, in field of Analysis of Underwater Basketweaving are deeply committed to the crucial field of Underwater Basketweaving in the 16th Century. Indeed, it is the turning point in the analysis of Underwater Basketweaving. But is this a "no compromise" issue? On par with genocide? Or even with abortion or capital punishment or war? Really? I think not.

Perhaps this is evidence of a weakness in me? Some sort of lack of a moral or intellectual compass? Am I just failing to understand the crucial issues in my field generally, and even in my field of specialization? I find that hard to believe.

No, what I think is that those Other options should have some autonomy, some say in what is best for the students who want to focus their course of study in their areas of specialization. I think that as a colleague of people who specialize in those areas, within the broader discipline, that I should support their sense of what students who specialize in their area of expertise need. And I don't think it will hurt me to give a little in this area. Because seriously, who made me the boss of them? Uh, nobody. They deserve Home Rule; they deserve not to be colonized by us silly Analysis of Underwater Basketweaving folks. The fact is, they can't just offer a major of their own because they don't have the money for the faculty lines to support it. If they could, all of this debate would be unnecessary. As it is, they are compromising already by including some course offerings from the Analysis of Underwater Basketweaving side of the discipline. This isn't because it's their preference or because they think it's important: it's a practical necessity. Further down the road, these majors won't need to be under one heading, the Major in Underwater. The Underwater Department will likely house them all, but someday, us Analysis of Underwater Basketweaving people won't have a thing in the world to say about what those Other areas of the discipline require of students. Which is where I hope we're heading.

And this is just one (incredibly irritating, because of the tortured fake name for the discipline and courses as much as anything else) example. There are things like this even going on within the Analysis of Underwater Basketweaving faculty, for there is a powerful block (whose courses are all currently required) who want to maintain a status quo that keeps us stuck in 1970, that golden age in which their subspecialties were of utmost importance. And yet, here I am, an Analysis of Underwater Basketweaving person, yet not one of the Privileged Few, attempting to advocate for a good 80% of the faculty in my department, not to mention students (in all three options) who hate the shape of our current major. (Let's just note for the record that the reason that I know students hate it is because I actually do a ton of student advising, unlike some people, harrumpf.)

There's the old cliche in academe that the battles are so fierce because the stakes are so low. I've never really internalized that cliche until this moment, where I'm spending hours of my time creating rhetorically persuasive documents, leading tense (and yet productive! because I am grand!) meetings, chatting people up in their offices to allay their "fears" about something that ultimately doesn't fucking matter all that much. I mean, it matters. I would really like for students to have electives. Like that are actually electives, where they just get to pick courses they want, rather than using them up before they realize that they've done so. I would really like for every course in my department to count for something, something beyond elective credit, within the major as a whole (though not necessarily within each option). I want these things because I don't actually understand a major that has courses on the books, within its department, that don't count for a single stinking thing, other than that mysterious "elective" credit. How exactly is one supposed to get students to enroll in a Feminist Theory course if it counts for absolutely nothing, and if students have used up their electives unknowingly? And how exactly are students supposed to graduate in four years, without begging for the chair to give them substitutions that will count for a requirement, if they changed majors, or if they unwittingly took the wrong courses while already declared (because of shitty advising, harrumpf)? So yes, some things in this whole debate matter for me when it comes to thinking about students' progress to degree and students' experience of the major.

But I trust that my colleagues aren't idiots when they say that I need to compromise on something. I trust that even if I compromise, that I will be able to generate interest in my area of specialization. What I do not trust in this process is the argument that Important Philosophical Issues exist on Which No Compromise Is Possible. I think that a position like that, in a situation like this, is stupid and anti-intellectual. It violates the spirit of free inquiry, and it violates the politics of inclusiveness that many of my colleagues (who take these "stands" that ultimately mean absolutely no risk for them) claim to espouse.

So yeah. I want fields within my discipline to have Home Rule. And I want for the people who don't want to participate actively and to engage in productive compromise to shut the fuck up. Because it's just not about them, and I'm sick of people who would, in the words of a colleague of mine, rather destroy than build. You know what? No, none of us will be entirely "happy" with the outcome of this process. But I'm certain that we'll all be happier if this process succeeds than we will if it fails, and I'm certain that change is the opportunity for growth. No, it's not a guarantee of growth, but it most certainly is the opportunity for it. If people would shut up for long enough to recognize it and to make good on the opportunity.


Unknown said...

Funny, I'm on this committee too!

Dr. Crazy said...

Anne, I am so not surprised that we're both on this committee! It is the same reason why you're hosting a conference in the near future and why I've agreed to host one in 2011. In other words, there are those who are joiners and doers, and those people clearly end up on the Major of Underwater committee :)

jennyfields said...

This post is full of epic lulz. So...funny... Gives whole new meaning to the metaphor of underwater basket weaving. Bravo.

Nik said...

Yes. Welcome to my basket.

Unknown said...

Yep. I think I convened the Department of Underwater curricular review and coordination committee on my campus last year.

Good luck with all that. I'm reading along, laughing and nodding in agreement...

Susan said...

You know, I spent yesterday afternoon in a meeting where we were discussing how to get multi-disciplinary underwater basket weaving out of the hydrology department. The Hydrology dept does not *like* multi-disciplinary UBW (and therefore have no ladder faculty in it) but wants it to become hydrological basket weaving.

And you are right, it's about fear here, and ego.