Against Misery

Often most upsetting is the yawning divide separating their vision from ours. We use the same words but with different meanings. Action verbs signal progress and movement for us, for them hurdles and obstacles. At heart are basic ideological and philosophical differences. Scanning their presentation slides is often like reading a language beamed in from another planet.

Talking it through with C__ the other day we realized the utter futility of our actions. D__ insists we are winning, will win, and there’s a refreshing humor in his bold refusal to take seriously their diurnal attempts to throw another wrench into our design initiatives, which on the surface at least they have accepted, but even that’s another word whose meaning is up for grabs.

But even if we do ‘win,’ where will that leave us? To win with this regime may be just another form of losing. To survive is to harvest yet another day on a path that leads nowhere. Everything has changed, very basically, as the result of a fundamental shift in purpose. We ride along and do our best to fight the good fight, but now we’re starting to see the fight itself is just another symptom of a disease out of control.

So we settle on our own preferred metaphors — the dark lord, the undead, the plague, the Borg — because we want to isolate an external, archetypal, primeval cause against an otherwise banal landscape of business-as-usual. But the dreaded illness is not out there or down there (downtown) but everywhere, and we in our concerted efforts are also carriers. In short, we want to pretend we can stop change that has already happened. The sun has set and yet here we are trying desperately to spoon the Night back into the void.

Therein lies our miserable condition. But obviously we’re against that. We have different plans and those plans are like the party favors of our foolish, undying optimism. If nothing else we’re putting a lot of TIME (on their dime) into squaring a curricular future for the oblong holes of their whacked out reinvention. Our version of all this may not fit, in the end, but our design choices and practiced maneuverings up against the stultifying crap they’re proffering will at least leave something for the next group to chew on. Hence the ultimate importance of, if nothing else, getting all this on record.

Slip & Slide

We feel the need to get things done, and quickly. Time may not be the enemy, but it is of the essence, and we’re running out.

And yet our working meetings, always launched with the best intentions, keep morphing into strategy sessions required  to fend off the latest volley from downtown. Their goal, as always, is to stave off even the smallest accomplishment, so our work gets swallowed up, disappearing down the maw of institutional inertia.

I guess operational momentum requires that kind of constant slippage — the slow slide (drain) from one day into the next, never really getting anywhere, but always giving the appearance of making enormous strides.

Hence the need on their end to coordinate lots of EVENTS, RETREATS, DISCUSSIONS, and of course never-ending MEETINGS to keep the slide nice and slippery.

And I can’t help but return always to the language. To an emerging glossary of the critically undead, let’s add:

  • educational coherence
  • streamlined requirements (and program streams)
  • reduced redundancy
  • predictable schedules
  • smart offerings

Words in bold are the fuel cells for their off-world battlestar.

There’s nothing like a rhetoric of smart coherence to mask the incoherent short-sightedness of a broad-based dumbing down — because ultimately that’s the goal, to make life easier by reducing and narrowing choices, meanwhile marketing the whole thing as a shift toward ever-greater abundance, as a streamlined path to getting exactly what you want, when you want it.

The Walmartification of higher ed, wherein “Save money. Live better” translates to “Save time. Learn better.”

Slip sliding away.

Uncertainty is a Social Justice Issue

Credit K__ for reminding us that behind the big push for institutional efficiency is an even deeper emphasis on intellectual and experiential certainty. The academic pathway is inherently linear, in theory at least, with prescribed points of entry, predefined opportunities for (minimal) lateral movement, and an anticipated exit point (outcome) that is, basically, the grand anticipated EFFECT driving all this programmatic cause.

In short, they are burying options (K’s word) while reducing choice to a limited set of offerings. A menu is always clear about what you can’t eat. Even on the website a train of visually hierarchized click points guides the user into predetermined academic tunnels. Pathway certainty is rewarded with a smooth ride and a clearly defined outcome (schedule, course plan, instructions for how to show up on day one). The most certain among us may even have a JOB waiting for us at the end of the tracks.

What we have here is a frontal assault on the right to uncertainty (indecision, wandering, taking one’s time, deferral, waiting, patience, error, misstep, reconsideration). The emphasis on knowing where you’re going, from the start, ignores the very real possibility that a great many of us (most?) haven’t a clue what we want to do. Entire populations of otherwise enthusiastic travelers get thrown of course, arguably, when the decision to venture out is met with a limited set of trails to follow. What fun is that when the goal, for many, is just finding out what’s out there.

So what do we do with the indecisive, the wanderers, the hopelessly uncertain? How do we manage them? Their answer is to remove uncertainty as an option, to coax certainty by funneling all into prescribed channels. Promoted as free choice, the selection process is nothing more than a self-limiting exercise in intellectual and experiential foreclosure. You are made into what you (should/must?) want to be through an unwitting forfeiture of the right to pursue possibility and uncertainty.

Our answer, of course, is to recognize uncertainty and possibility (real option, the right to explore) as a social justice issue. Here in the city, where individual certainty is often the byproduct of privileged access to the codes and conduits of economic stability and upward mobility, uncertainty is often the defining characteristic of those we’ve been hired (by mission) to serve. Removing the option of an open path discriminates against those who benefit most from open access.

So our struggle in part, beyond curricular battles, is to defend the uncertain and the very principle of uncertainty. We are, in effect, the new traditionalists unwilling to let an old idea (the right to not know) die a very new kind of death.


What’s the Plan?

I want to believe that somewhere within all this operational momentum is a latent explosive force that will, once activated, bring the whole thing down, collapsing into itself. There is a sickness and it’s spreading. We have entered the age of Plague, and yet the illness is not new. One of the difficulties I face in recording all this is finding new language to describe an old problem.

One danger we face, in our effort to stem the tide of operational momentum (a very real kind of oppression), is that we will reach a point of limited movement or forced inactivity. Those familiar with the Plague and its ravages will recognize that pervasive feeling of exile, of standing still, frozen before the void. The first casualty, we know, is the collapse of courage, willpower, endurance. We cease looking to the future, and memory (institutional memory in particular) no longer serves a purpose. There’s a sense of being abandoned. Some light fires hoping to purge the infection but are then left homeless, staring at the ruins. And of course these radical arsonists will face heavy penalties for their actions, which helps no one. One could say there are people (even within our team) acting on crazy impulse as they wander the lifeless streets with darkness in their hearts.

But something must be done. We are losing the profession (our occupations) to political necessity and economic expediency. A response is required. This Plague is everyone’s concern, and while the mood is gloomy and we may feel an overwhelming sense of deprivation (for which many of us were not prepared), we need a plan, an action plan.

This journal is itself a hatched plan for communicating with the outside world but it’s not enough. The larger plan requires some version of the following:

  1. mapping the whole environment; defining our position relative to the lethal center
  2. clarifying our coordinates viz. other avenues of approach
  3. defining the pieces, arranging pieces for better understanding
  4. recognizing key players; keeping track of their movements

We’re not talking here about a wave of revolutionary violence but a coordinated action plan designed to make it clear that we are the answer to all their problems.

We have to start somewhere. All our recent work with productive modeling is just the beginning. Battles won on the design front are very satisfying but mean nothing in the end. The structural problems run much deeper, so while we defend the home front we must remember, too, that the plague’s reach is much wider than our own local institution.

We start at the center, then, and work our way outward.

Cynicism is the new Action?

We find it mysterious and telling that they have given us unfettered access to their online development sandbox. Suddenly we’re privy to inter-office memos and minutes from meetings we weren’t allowed to attend. Was this intentional or accidental? Bureaucratic snafu or just part of the master plan? Either way we now know things they either don’t care that we know or want us desperately to know but are afraid or unwilling to tell us. It’s a strange position and one that complicates our rhetorical standpoint as readers.

From a quick scan of the material we learn certain things about ourselves — we “have concerns,” we “seek clarification,” we “are coming up with our own plan,” and so on. This is the stuff of vague paternalism. Their minutes report on our actions like Pavlov recording his dogs’ daily drool. In scouring the universe for obstacles they have spotted the biggest one of all in us. We get in the way of their plan, although some among us are starting to wonder if “plan” is really too strong a word. They have momentum, clearly, but it’s obvious they really don’t know what they’re doing, which makes way (on brighter days) for opportunity.

Meanwhile and anyway, we now have a window into their world, and what we see when we dig through their sandbox (besides dismissive comments about us) is not too surprising — a rabid push for efficiencies, a drive to compress all time and content, a deep fixation on predictive data analytics as the new alchemical elixir by which all things base and bumbling (the people we are, the people we serve) turn magically, upon implementation and application, into gold.

We’ve decided to take all this with a grain of salt. S_ argues that we ignore it — this is all background noise, and we don’t have to listen. We can and should push forward, defining our own social and occupational realities, our own peda/androgogies, our own priorities rooted in guiding principles informed by research, experience, awareness, compassion and a baseline commitment to do our jobs well.

But some of us wonder if we’re just wasting our time. Yes, we should move forward, but with that insatiable monster fuming in the cave, is our own organizational momentum itself a risky move?

H_ says we need a design push. D_ wants to form some kind of coalition of no and storm the meetings to which we’re not invited armed with everything we know they don’t know we know about them. In short, we’re at a standstill, swallowing our own inertia.

Meanwhile the SPIDER CHARTS posted to their share-space look sick and scary.

Operational Momentum

“We need you” was the message going in — “we” being them, “you” being us. They need us because by their own admission they understand workstreams, not content. They have a sense of how things move and at what speeds but not of the particular things/parts to be put in motion. That’s our job, evidently, to build the raft and people it so they can steer the whole party downriver before winter sets in. Cold, frightful weather at our backs. A warm budding spring downstream.

From the beginning it’s been a battle over concepts, framework and the ownership of ideas. They dropped a time bomb in the middle of the conference room and it was all we could do to pluck madly at the wires before the whole thing went kablooey. We rallied the troops and after a rushed 3-week in-house R&D workshop we had a working MODEL. That model went on the smart board yesterday, and I’m hear to report that everything (surprisingly) went well, but with a catch.

Consider the forces — neatly dualistic — at work here: We see ourselves as the new traditionalists working desperately to defend an old idea. We see the other side as rash, impetuous, short-sighted. Conversely, they position themselves as radical futurists on the cutting edge of institutional and programmatic progress. They see us as stale, stuck-in-the-mud obstructionists, afraid of change, mired in habit. Driving it all is an unchecked operational momentum — that vague force behind any reform movement that pushes people into ‘streams’ of action without anyone really truly understanding where they’re headed. This momentum is a kind of slow, persistent churn, a multifaceted gesturing toward structural reinvention. That anything actually changes in the end is kind of beside the point.

So they liked our model and said so. But, they noted toward the end of our presentation, there’s something missing. Missing? we asked. We want you to consider adding this piece. We considered adding that piece, we countered, and decided it was a bad idea. In fact, we can prove (from our research) that it’s a bad idea. But if you look at it this way, they said. And so on. We agreed to reconsider, and the cynical among us think we may have cooked our own goose in so doing.

Operational momentum is always about adding pieces to a puzzle with no clearly discernible shape or edge. When operational momentum is the driving force, any counter-pressure from without — any attempt to slow that momentum (with research, with reasoned debate, experimentation, program pilots and what not) — is dismissed as a threat to whatever oblique future they keep dreaming about.

We seem to be living in separate worlds governed by different laws of motion. For them nothing exists beyond operational momentum. Which is why ‘work’ is now a ‘stream’ and doing is a perpetual striving.


Re Treats

The first thing we notice are the food offerings. We’re confident the donuts and coffee have not been laced with truth serum or something else to coax a resigned complicity, but who knows.

No doubt this horseshoe arrangement in the meeting chamber, the assigned seating, all these individually-wrapped peppermint Life Savers gathered in clusters on tables–let’s just say someone has invested some serious thought into keeping us both separated and oriented in a particular way, breath perpetually fresh and other-directed. We’ve been instructed not to speak to ourselves, meaning a deliberate attempt to divide us now underwrites all subsequent interactions.

Getting started we talk initially about how to plan to get along today, once we begin. On the whiteboard to my left is the PARKING LOT reserved, we’re told, for really great ideas, should any alight. The ice breaker challenges us to reflect on our own pasts in the interest (we presume) of anticipating some radically new and potentially communal, streamlined futures. There’s talk of confidence vs. uncertainty, of cultural stigmas, of anxiety and expectation.

By now we’re waking to the notion that either they have no concrete plan for today or the plan is just that — to have no concrete plan. There’s an odd tumbling sensation that presents when you spend a little time in a room with people whose plan is to have no plan. Still there appears to be a driving force, an over-arching master will or uber-momentum. I sense this by 11:30am as a new pressure builds behind the eyeballs that could be caused, my neighbor from downtown proposes, by the bright neon lights overhead. I don’t think so.

For my own part I’ve decided that trying to second guess their intentions is a fool’s errand. We’re dealing here with a headless monster whose multiple arms flail uncontrollably. Which is not to say this monster attacks without purpose. We just don’t know enough yet to understand what that purpose is–beyond, of course, the slow churning force of institutional change whose justification, as always, is the need for institutional change. A big monster at that scale seems to move at a very slow pace. On the ground, though, the mood is acceleration, speed at any cost and the removal of all obstacles, impediments to speedy progress. The monster’s food is time-the-enemy, and we know if the monster had eyes it would see in us a bunch of plump tasty slowpokes.

Time, then, is the threshold, the edge along which we must wage our opposition. Time as constructive illusion, not the stuff of programmatic efficiency. We’ll see how it goes.

The Dawn of Design

They have made their first move. Shadowy forms (strangers to this hub) shuffle about with the awkward grace of the undead. We have questions about demographics, timing, justification, communication protocols and larger forces (of nature and beyond). They have questions about favorite snacks and preferred morning beverages. There’s a meeting on Monday whose first agenda item is to write an agenda for Friday’s meeting. For us it’s all about protecting what we love. For them it’s about subverting a despised status quo. The temperature outside is a lean zero jazzed by an occasional arctic blast.

The big concern shared by most everyone is how to wrap our heads around a circle with no center. I for one know I was born into a different world, and I can’t say I recognize the one now forming around me. Somewhere west-by-southwest of the Pleiades, Comet Lovejoy darts across the night sky at a predictable comet’s pace, but there’s been serious cloud cover for the last three nights so, once again: opportunities obscured.

With all probability we’re in for some big change mitigated by the trundling ineptitude of those pretending to be in charge. Such is the path a moribund star might follow. We want to imagine good results coming in the end. We baste our reticence, as it were, in a clarifying optimism. We’re content specialists, after all, so it’s hard not to get excited when the bosses approach with yet another solution to a problem no one knew ever existed. (An old conundrum.)

So only the most bludgeoned among us are too sore and bruised after repeated attacks to take any of this too seriously. The rest proceed with caution: Perhaps there’s something to this idea? If we own it… if we make it our own…?