Friday, May 4, 2018

In the Spirit of Folly --A Primer for University Faculty Assessment

Academic faculty review-assessment season is once again upon us. This is the time of year when all of the pious recitations about shared governance and the like are bent to the economic (and sometimes strategic) agendas of the university and the unit head. It is a reminder that while governance is shared, power is not. And, of course, where substantial subjective administrative discretion is veiled within what appears to be standards and guidelines, academic reviews serve as a great point in the annual cycle to discipline threats, control conformity, and signal the outer bounds of acceptable behaviors. None of this is new--it is true that pieties around the process have metastasized as the scope of discretion has grown, and that the data driven assessment has made the subjective process appear more "neutral" by shifting the locus of discretion from data to the parameters around which data is gathered and assessed--but the hunger for strengthening the cloak of respectability does appear to have intensified over the last decade.

Academic review now suggests the spirit of folly in its architectural sense: "a building constructed primarily for decoration, but suggesting through its appearance some other purpose, or of such extravagant appearance that it transcends the range of garden ornaments usually associated with the class of buildings to which it belongs." (HERE).  And indeed, the architecture and rituals of review nicely evidence the folly of institutional architecture as it has been emerging recently.  It is in that spirit of folly, then, that I offer a manual for folly in academic review gathered over the years from a wide variety of sources and representing variations of folly from around the world.  These are drawn entirely from stories heard over the years and are fictional in character--any similarities to actual persons and events are wholly unintentional.

Here, then, In Praise of Folly ("An oration, of feigned matter, spoken by Folly in her own person. . . . Prepare therefore to be entertained with a panegyrick, yet not upon Hercules, Solon, or any other grandee, but on myself, that is, upon Folly."). Let the spirit of folly reign!

Folly: A Faculty Assessment Guide for the Perplexed Administrator

1.  Always start with a flank attack.
Faculty members may spend time prepared to explain or justify their work over the course of the last year.  That preparation is tedious, especially since you have come to your conclusions.  And, anyway, polished exchanges do not do anyone any good.  So it always good to start with a misdirection.  Something unpredictable and unanticipated usually works best, especially one that suggests that the faculty member has failed to comply with rules or expectations. That sets a nice negative tone that the administrator can control.  For example, where instructions require the submission of a short narrative, it may be useful to start by lamenting that the faculty member failed to include copies of work referenced in the narrative because (1) other faculty have done so and (2) it would have been useful in helping the administrator keep up with faculty work. That immediately sets the tine--defensive and confused, that can be exploited  thereafter to good effect. This technique is especially useful as an opening gambit against senior faculty who rarely see this coming. Not worth wasting on junior faculty; there are better techniques available. See below.

2. Sweat the details.
Nothing is ever perfect.  And this applies with equal measure to the written self assessments of faculty. Spending time of typos is always useful.  It opens to an even more important technique--elevating the small to the large.  A typo is, after all, not a typo, but a window onto the soul of the writer. Substance can give one a migraine; but the simple rules provide a powerful analytical tool.  It can be used, at your option, to provide a basis for a suggestion of their carelessness, and from there building on that insight can produce marvelous results. Carelessness, for example, may signal their disrespect for the process of assessment, or perhaps signal more serious problems that might now require closer examination. Even better, faculty have themselves been trained to give extraordinary weight to  the forms of scholarship as well as its content. This technique should be used freely to strategic effect. 

3. Praise is an expensive commodity; use it sparingly and strategically. 
An administrator with a reputation for lavishing praise dissipates authority without value gained. Praise is especially useful to those who have been useful in return; and that connection of mutually beneficial interaction ought to be made clear and clearly conveyed throughout the unit. Thus the review is merely the time at which those mutually beneficial utilities are recognized personally. This technique is best used in conjunction with a general technique of specific public praise for particularly useful work by faculty on the administrator's behalf. Thus the technique is less useful if it does not also serve to signal the schedule of reward to the unit.

4. Invest in Truthiness 
This is a subset of the rule of praise. Assume no faculty member can exceeded basic requirements.  No need to fill random academic heads with pride.  Instead, one can merely state the truth: "you have met our requirements." The statement is not false, but it signals the possibility of a false truth that can be used to advantage. This puts the administrator in the position of always being able to suggest improvement. And of course everyone can always improve.  Note to self: do not use this against one's allies. 

5.  Perfection is an illusion; Make that clear.  
Even the most stellar annual performance is not without its fault.  And it is the wise administrator that ought to spend the bulk of the time in assessment precisely on these worthy imperfections. But this technique ought to be used strategically.  High performing faculty who have been useful and are to be rewarded can be spared a searing search for perfection and an emphasis on the chasm between perfection and the realities of even a great performance. That is necessary to justify the exercise of administrative discretion in their value for "limited" resources. As for the others, this is the most important method of both rewarding allies and punishing those who stand in the way of administrator political and institutional aspirations. And it is brilliant because it is almost always impossible to challenge. Thus, for example, a faculty member who has just published a monograph in a university press can be counseled about (1) the relatively lower  rank of that press in relation to others; (2) the relation of the subject of the monograph with the primary field for which she was hired; (3) a typo; (4) failure to publish a sufficient number of articles; (5) lower rank placement of journal articles during year in which monograph was being written. One who has just come back from a sabbatical can be queried about teaching and teaching methodologies, as well as about the value of the time (mis)spent. The possibilities are endless.  Be creative! But do not use on allies.
6. The "How can I help you" strategy.
 Over the years this one has been my favorite and I have collected many many variations on this theme. For this strategy to work well the administrator must cultivate the ability to suggest concern and empathy, especially when the opposite may be true. It usually is framed this way: "thank you for you openness to my suggestions and guidance; but please tell me, how can this unit better support you; please be candid." The faculty member then usually responds, almost invariably along the lines of funds--for research or travel, and other things; it doesn't matter.  For the purpose of this strategy is to gather intelligence--about the vulnerabilities of the faculty (e.g., the list of requests) that can then be used strategically to discipline, pressure or if the administrator is sophisticated, to reward when the faculty member gives the administrator what they want. And thus the response: "Oh, so sorry, but I am unable to meet any of these requests.  What I am able to help you with is encouragement to seek help elsewhere!" There is a somewhat naughty Chinese expression for this--around the idea of the meaningless act of appearing helpful with no intention of helping at all.

7. Strategic Storytelling
The ultimate aim of faculty reviews is to signal without appearing to pressure in ways that violate academic freedom. Yet that is precisely what may be intended by the suitably aggressive administrator. The best way to do this is to engage in strategic storytelling--the art of speaking about things generally to convey a message but always emphasizing that the story has nothing to do with the circumstances of the faculty member being reviewed. For example, speak about the difficulties of scheduling events and the difficulties of creating an administrator order, but emphasizing that problem is really centered on a set of recent events involving others. Signalling through storytelling a useful especially because it does not appear to directly demand but if done right can get a message across.  

8.  Make it personal.
There is nothing more fun than to throw the following bomb at the faculty member being reviewed: (you betrayed my trust; you called me _____ (usually something unkind and orally best when there is no record to confirm); etc. The faculty member is now in the classic bind.  To counter is to appear defensive.  To concede might be worse. To question suggests a bad attitude or worse that the administrator is a liar. This is a useful tone setting device and works really well with Rules 1-2. Here is a great place to attack on collegiality grounds.  The 21st century appears to be teaching even the manners obsessed 19th century a trick or two.  
9.  Rehash Old Arguments
This one is a refinement of Rules 7 and 8 but always effective, especially with respect to disagreements generally falling within issues of shared governance. Use of the assessment review to re argue issues about which the administrator and the faculty member have not agreed, especially if the faculty member's position threatens to be successful, is particularly useful. It provides a venue for stressing respect for shared governance but also signalling the consequences of disagreement (especially if this immediately precedes No. 6). What better way to signal displeasure and to threaten without the bother of making it easy to prove.  One gets the message--these sorts of irritations may well weigh during the everyday course of exercising discretion (now against) the irritating faculty member with respect to those many decisions about which it is easy to hide personal agendas.

And there you have it, In Praise of Folly

1 comment:

  1. This is wonderful. Thank you for this rumination on one of my favorite books.