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.


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.