January 12, 2008

The value of structure

I've finished most of the tables in the article I'm working on, so I'll indulge myself with one last blog entry tonight. Primarily, I want to dissent gently from Timothy Burke's concerns about strategic planning in this blog entry (which is not currently available: I receive a WordPress database error, which I hope is remedied quickly!).

I like what they're trying to get to, but I guess this is why strategic planning per se often leaves me cold: it tends to end up with a long description of a process that the planners want to unfold point by point that ultimately has a lot of whistling-past-the-graveyard, e.g., it makes the difficult business of tranformation sound like something methodical and ordinary, and advises changes in generic terms that are ultimately going to have to be adapted to the very specific character of some individuals, departments, long-term patterns of practice, and so on within an institution. Better to go with a broad declaration of principle and then roll up your sleeves and grope your way through the messy business of change. Strategic planning of this kind tries to make an academic community into the kind of "legible object" subject to bureaucratic management that James Scott has written about. And mostly, academic cultures of use and practice just aren't.

"Grop[ing] your way" through change may be possible in an institutional context such as Swarthmore's, but it invites disaster at large institutions that don't have a culture of productive messiness. (That culture has a certain structure, inevitably, though explaining that would require a bit of space.) And moreover, faculty at the larger institutions are highly distrustful of ad-hoc processes, viewing them as an invitation to favoritism and fads.

That fact doesn't mean that deliberately-structured processes have to be straightjackets. In one committee I chaired a few years ago, I was lucky to have a group of thoughtful colleagues. I had a process-oriented structure, but it was pretty simple: figure out the key interests we had to address, brainstorm possible ideas, and then narrow the list down to recommendations. The only intervention I really needed as a chair was saying occasionally in the first meeting, "Okay, so we're not going to agree on a recommendation in this area today. That's fine: we can come back next week and see if we can come to agreement." And the next week, we did agree on everything that was still on the table at the end of the prior (one-hour) meeting. That speed was in part because of a well-defined task (not my responsibility to define), and a great deal because of the easygoing collegiality of the committee members. I added a bit of structure, and the recommendations precipitated out of the solution. (Or maybe the solution precipitated... oh, heck. Can I skip the chemistry metaphors?)

I'm not doing as well this year in running short meetings every two weeks as the USF faculty-union head. Partly that's the result of having too many issues to talk about every time. Part is the need to let people have a certain amount of air time because of the dynamics on USF's campuses right now. And finally, it's because we don't usually have discrete tasks that lend themselves to a (flexible but clearly-defined) structure. But structure is still useful! Yes, I know: some time ago I promised to explain "brute-force brainstorming," and I still haven't gotten around to it. Maybe I'll do it tomorrow while driving up to my mother-in-law's. Or, rather, while my wonderful spouse is driving...

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Posted in The academic life on January 12, 2008 10:48 PM |