Sunday, August 1, 2010

Are we good at discussing but bad at deciding?

Two things about professors seem to be universally believed--that we are good at leading discussions in the classroom and bad at making decisions in the faculty meeting.  I do not know why this is--one would think that people whose professions use discussion to lead to learning would excel at using discussion to lead to decisions. And I am not sure that the beliefs are true--good institutions make lots of good decisions, and bad discussions take place everywhere.  But it is worth considering why discussion and decision are so segregated in our thinking about higher education.

Why is this  the case?  Perhaps it is because professors are, before they are faculty, people. As people they share assumptions and practices about decision-making (and -makers) with the general public, a group characterized by ever-stronger ties with like-minded people and ever more hostile relations with people who disagree.  If this is the case, then the classroom is the location of like-mindedness and meetings the location (at least potentially) for confrontations with those who disagree.  And so discussion is comfortable because it takes place in an atmosphere of consensus, while decisions are difficult because disagreement is the central context.

Or it could be that classroom discussions and university decision-making come from entirely different traditions, so that while they are neighbors on campus they are culturally and intellectually strangers.  There is certainly some truth to this theory. Faculty governance emerged after a long period of conflict with administrators in the late-19th and early-20th centuries,  (for an excellent history of this period read George Marsden's The Soul of the American University) and when it did it adopted a set of practices codified in two earlier periods of conflict--the years of the early republic (when American parliamentary procedure first emerged) and the years of the civil war and reconstruction, when Robert's Rules of Order came to rule public meetings.  The history of learning through discussion is much older, dating to at least to Socrates in the Western tradition, and seems to have flourished independently of institutions of higher learning.

Or perhaps it is the case that there are discussion people and decision people in higher education.  This is certainly the case in the self-image of some faculty.  It is not at all uncommon for a faculty member, in explaining her/his disengagement from contentious governance issues, to say "I'm here because I love to teach,"  or "it is the students who really matter to me,"  implying that while governance is important, it is peripheral to the real work--learning--of the institution.  And it is also the case that administrators, department chairs, and presidents of the faculty senate will sometimes wonder out loud why their colleagues won't join the hard work of joint decision-making, favoring instead the safe harbor of the classroom.

Or maybe there is a distinction in beliefs about what is at stake in classroom discussions and decision-making meetings.  The classroom carries high potential (a person's life may be transformed forever) but low stakes at any one gathering (after all, one dull discussion of Walden does not guarantee that students will forever lead lives of quiet desperation).  Conversely, decision gatherings are often low potential (insert here your favorite story about months spent debating campus policy on the use of chalk to advertise events on campus sidewalks), but high stakes--once a decision is made, the die is set.

Whatever the explanation, higher education needs to focus here, both because the work of most campuses is diminished by poor discussions and poor decision-making; and because the same malady afflicts our public lives.  If you believe in democracy, or politics, or the possibility of people making decisions that shape their lives, then you have to hope that people learn to discuss difficult issues, and then make decent determinations about those issues.  And if you believe that learning can take place in the space between the ideas held by individuals, then you have to hope that we figure out how to take fuller advantage of discussion's reputation.

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