Friday, November 6, 2009

Have you got a rule for that?

Over the last couple of days our campus has hosted a minor kerfluffle of the sort common to complex organizations. About 18 months ago the library got rid of the "no cell phones" signs that once hung by the door and around the stacks. Instead, we now have a main floor where conversations, face-to-face and otherwise, take place all the time. We have even worked to support these conversations by setting up group work tables, computer stations with several chairs, and a coffee machine in the corner.

The library is certainly a more lively place than before--a good thing to be sure. But a couple of days ago a loud person talking on a cell phone in the library interrupted a faculty member working on a research project with a student. The faculty member then sent a note to the entire faculty, describing the incident and requesting a return of the "no cell phones" rule. Several other faculty and the director of the library weighed in. And the library director and I exchanged some messages about how the library might respond (one of my areas of responsibility is the library). We agreed that the library should look at the issue, and perhaps clarify its policy on phones, but that the library needs to be a place where people can talk to learn. Hence, a return to the silences of old makes little sense, esp. since there are other, silent places in the library.

I've been thinking about the situation since, and I'm worried about my default reaction to it. My first impulse was to think that we needed a policy clarification--some sort of more clearly understood and accepted rule about noise in the library. But the more I think about it, the more certain I am that a rule probably wouldn't help. In fact, the creation of a new rule (whatever it is) may in fact get in the way of the simplest solution to these sorts of problems--an informal conversation between the parties involved to try to work out the problem.

So I've been musing on this situation, and the broader question about the role of rules in organizations, especially those committed to learning. For it seems that many rules exist largely to give quick solutions to situations where slower solutions might lead to learning.

Take plagiarism, for example. What does a rule saying "any instance of plagiarism may result in no credit for the assignment or the course" do? It gives faculty ground to stand on, to be sure. And it defends a deeply held standard in academe. What does it do for learning, though, and especially that sort of learning that takes place between faculty and students? (I'm thinking of an instance in a class I'm teaching now, by the way.)

I'm becoming less comfortable with a rules regime. There are a couple of major influences on this change. The first the shift from "teaching to learning.' Most rules are teaching things--they tell someone what to do. We are ever less certain that telling someone math helps them learn math. Does telling someone how to behave help them learn to behave?

The second is a talk by psychologist Barry Schwartz in which he argues that wisdom is in decline in America? Why? Because we are becoming a regime of rules and incentives. Systems of rules crowd out moral skill--the ability to work to a solution of a complex problem in a moral but flexible way. And systems of incentives crowd out moral will--the willingness to work out that solution without external compulsion.

The third is my renewed interest in the writings of Ivan Illich and Paul Goodman on education and society. (OK, yes, this is evidence that I am an anarcho-conservative at heart. What can I say?) They both suggest that institutions swallow up the key parts of being human by encasing those things in a system of rules.

So how should rules get made if the goal of our organization is learning? Are there rules that lead to learning? It seems like there might be a few, very old ones: "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift." And at the heart of those rules is probably a simple message--face the problem face-to-face.

1 comment:

Ben said...

Great article! Your description of the rules reminded me of my recent trip to Shanghai. The way people drive there is absolutely crazy. I was in fear getting into an accident every time I got into a taxi. Everybody just kind of goes, red lights are more of a suggestion, and everybody and nobody has the right of way. After several days I didn't see any accidents and became more accustomed to the craziness. Perhaps the rules that I've assumed all my life aren't as important as I once thought? The same thing applies to rules in education, we are so use to the rules that we never question them. It isn't until we allow the rules to be broken that we can see how another approach is equally successful.