Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Stress & skillful means

Welcome to the sandbox.

It's not in my division, unit, or even college...but in an institution not too far away from here, I'm having to deal with some people who, for me, define "stress" in two classic fashions:

(1) "that feeling you experience when you are constrained from choking the living shit out of some asshole who desperately deserves it"; e.g., some "colleagues" who do not know how to behave "collegially"--expecting a level of sycophantic knocking-head (kow-tow) simply because they have been able to finagle the title "Dean", and calling into questions one's own competence when their *own* is manifestly lacking (as one of the embarrassed subordinates said, after one such session, "I could not believe that he questioned your credentials...I mean, all he'd have to do is google you!" to which I replied "yeah...and what do you think a search on his name would reveal?" to which the subordinate said "I know, I know...we're really embarrassed on your behalf", to which I refrained from saying "then why the fuck don't you speak up to this asshole?", and the big one:

(2) they jack with students. And, far beyond the reaction eliciting when you jack with me, if I see you jack with students, you're toast. If it takes years, I will never forget what you did to that kid.

As Twain said, "the reason that the battles in the Ivory Tower are so ferocious is because the stakes are so small." And, mostly, he was right--because entirely too many academics behave entirely too self-righteously about entirely too trivial issues of entitlement or power.

But some of the stakes are not small--sometimes, they are life-or-death. Sometimes it is worth going to the mattresses on behalf of a student, or a program, or an event which is being fundamentally compromised and exploited.

One such, involving this not-too-far-distant unit, was a couple of years back, when the chief officer of the unit decided he wanted to read the thesis of a student in his unit which was being supervised, at the student's request, by me. It's my suspicion that this Chief Officer knew that his department's productivity (e.g., successful student recruitment and graduation) was down and that he was seeking outside factors upon which to shift the blame.

At any rate, after having received less than no coherent or consistent information regarding that department's expectations, timetable, and/or requirements for a senior thesis, the CO decided it was necessary to call me on the carpet for the "problems" with the thesis for which he and his department had been a total absentee landlord. I entered the situation with the clear internal intention that, regardless of whatever candy-assed bullshit went down, I was going to keep the student's own long-term best interests at heart.

And it's a damned good thing I did, because the CO (good-hair, trademark starched white shirts with the sleeves rolled up to demonstrate that he was a "regular guy", telltale drinker's high color and red nose) began the meeting by saying "what is the basis for your qualifications to supervise this thesis?" And it was all downhill from there. I had to tell him--because he obviously had not taken the trouble even to read the faculty bio, much less run the above-mentioned google search--about the range of my own scholarly research and publication activity, while his subordinates, both junior and senior, ducked their heads in embarrassment.

Finally, I observed "we are not here to interrogate my qualifications. Your department requested that I take on the additional, unremunerated duty of supervising this thesis, to which I assented because I wished the best for this student. Can we now please talk about that topic? What would be best for this student?"

Of course he immediately backpedaled, insisting that he "wouldn't think of questioning" my credentials--when in fact that is precisely what he had been doing--and I managed to direct the conversation back to the thesis and what could best enhance the writing. It became apparent--obvious I think to the embarrassed subordinates who'd felt unable to speak up to contradict their "boss"--that there had been massive, systemic failure, of design and of execution, in his own department's procedures for vetting, supervising, and confirming the thesis work. Within 5 minutes of conversation, the CO was saying "well, what sorts of things would you do differently in contrast to the existing procedures?"

So I let the bastard have it, and detailed over a dozen different tweaks, adaptations, re-sequencings, and additional stages which I thought could help close the loopholes in his division's ill-conceived existing procedures. He sat there, nodding sagely yet visibly disinterested, while his subordinates scribbled frantically, taking notes on my suggestions.

Six months later, the two subordinates are gone. Every one of my (uncredited) suggestions has been incorporated into their vetting procedure. And the CO is still there, good hair and starched shirts in place, while his division continues to hemorrhage students, faculty, and quality.

I don't give a shit about the credit--I get way more than my share as it is--but I could wish that crap didn't so entirely too often to the top of the university pond.

It ain't right.

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