The Result of University Cost-Cutting Measures . . .

the Plausible Deniability Blog takes up where the PostModernVillage blog left off. While you'll see many of the same names here, PDB allows its writers and editors a space away from financial strum und drang that torpedoed the PMV blog.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Against Problem Solving and Goals

by Lael Ewy

Almost all of our self-help and management literature is infected with the co-occurring disorders of goal-setting and problem-solving. The problem I have with goals is that they're poor ways to live your life. We live a continuum, not from discrete moment to discrete moment.

Goals are preferred by power structures because they can be easily quantified, listed on a resume or in a quarterly report. But they're also defined by their completion, by the discrete nature of their own parameters. Once reached, they have an effect similar to certain drugs: momentary euphoria followed by a crash (another reason, no doubt, that those power structures prefer them). If the meaning of what you do is entirely goal-defined, you'll be at a loss about what to do and how to be after the goal is achieved. And if the goal is not achieved, you may be in danger of not knowing what the point of all your work in fact is.

Goals, then, while useful for marking work and organizing it, can also become traps, catching people in such a way that they define themselves in terms of what is or can be achievable or accomplished instead of as persons who are having experiences, learning, becoming.

Likewise, we fall into traps when we problem-solve. Almost all problem-solving techniques begin with defining the problem clearly; some even advocate defining the problem in a way that can be solved. This presupposes a certain kind of solution: one already implied in the way a problem presents.

This approach restricts the possible solutions and outcomes. It also often leads us to define problems in ways we're comfortable with instead of ways that address difficult truths. The “problem” of education in America, for example, is presented as a problem of achieving certain measurable outcomes, namely, student performance on standardized tests. This fails not only to address issues such as preparing students to apply what they know in the real world; it also fails to address the person as a learner, as someone who will have to keep on learning in an unpredictable (and unstructured) future environment.

Furthermore, we know that in the real world, problems are seldom defined in the abstract, prior to their being tackled. It's much more likely that real-world problems will be defined and redefined as they are being solved. Once we've (pre)defined what a problem is, brainstormed solutions, and selected a plan of action, there's little room for changing course. This is how we tend to get literally lost, how economies fail, how people get mired in “stuck” places. The problem has been so clearly defined from the outset that even firsthand observers sometimes fail to see what the problem really is.

We all know from experience, as well, that a structured problem-solving process, as good as it looks on paper and as easy as it is to teach, is seldom how problems actually get solved. Ideas often come to you while you're doing something other than actively thinking about them. But employers would probably not pay employees to creatively go do something else until a solution appears, as that's, also, nearly impossible to account for. So we continue to pretend our problem-solving techniques are the way things really work, content to have defined the actuality, safely, away.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Beyond Excellence

by Lael Ewy

We need to teach students not to meet benchmarks but to question the very premises upon which those benchmarks are based.

What is or isn't “excellent” is the wrong aim of education in a democracy. We should be able to create standards and critique them, not just to live up the standards those-who-would-have-us-think-they-are-our-betters set. We should be well-versed in making meaning, not just in coming up with answers.

All this dilly-dallying about with “performance” is actually selling education far short, and we, as a nation, should be ashamed of settling for it. Performance standards are, at best, a distraction from the potentials of education and, at worst, part of a concerted effort to reign in the more independent-minded, and therefore more subversive and revolutionary, aspects of being an educated person.

The fact that school systems find it difficult to meet (often arbitrary) performance criteria is not a measure of the “rigor” of those measures but rather an indication of their irrelevance. We are a culture full of people who find themselves falling behind economically, losing collective power, and constantly facing new struggles that our existing power structure, instead of helping us solve, helps to compound. None of these more salient problems are addressed by standardized tests, and we feel it, even if we haven't the language to express it.

One's self-discipline is a factor of one's motivation; it isn't “laziness” to not want to play a game that you know is rigged against you. Rather, it is common sense to opt out, screw off, half-ass it. It's a good deal more compelling when what you need to know is presented as a factor of what you need to do. Exploring ways to better yourself that you can see and touch makes much more sense than granulated, preprocessed abstractions and idealizations of “knowledge.” Paulo Friere understood this, and his “problem-posing” education was thus attacked as being “theoretical,” the antithesis of what it actually is.

All we've done with “excellence” is increase the minimum allowable balance of our current “banking” style of education; we've done nothing to put that value to work for a people increasingly impoverished in both real and intellectual ways.

Crisis Fatigue and the Indifference of Ted Cruz

By TS DeHaviland

I am suffering from a great deal of crisis fatigue. I could get all uppity, as I'm wont to do, and remind everyone that crises are mostly the results of poor planning, but the ugly truth is that most crises are problems that we create for ourselves for the sake of proving to others that our concerns are real. We feel the need to continually prove this because the world is largely indifferent to our actual complaints.

And while a few of us still give lip-service to compassion—and some of us are even authentic about it—there's nothing cooler to your average American than simply not giving a fuck.

Th real reason Ted Cruz's stand against Obamacare didn't really hurt him or the Tea Party in the long run is that it established his image of cold indifference. It was petty and selfish and procedurally pointless, but to a lot of Americans, it made him look like a badass. His faux filibuster was a declaration of “I so thoroughly don't give a shit about anyone else's suffering that I will shut down the whole government to get what I want.”

And if that sounds like assholery, it precisely well is.

But the fact that it made Ted Cruz, for one horrible historical moment, the most powerful man on Earth is not lost on any American male, and a whole lot of American males admire him for it.

You see, the same American males are all too aware that their power is in decline. But instead of looking around and blaming the Ted Cruzes in their own lives—their bosses, mainly—for it, they look at those people and ask “If they've got all the power and all the cash, how can I be like them and get some of that power and money too?”

The litany of ways they try to do it is also a laundry list of liberal complaints against conservatives: bigger guns and more of them; control over women's bodies; indifference to the downtrodden and the poor (even though many of them are poor themselves); alignment with a vengeful, Old Testament God.

What fatigues people like me, people who have been raised to take care of things and not wantonly break them, people who spend time solving problems instead of blaming others, is that the more Ted Cruzes we have blasting their indifference all over the walls of our schools and the halls of our Congress, the more energy people like me have to waste cleaning up tragic and unnecessary messes.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Towards a Dialectics of Organizational Tongues

by Lael Ewy

A lot of the trouble we end up having in the workplace stems from our preconceived notions of how the workplace ought to run, our expectations of what we ought to be getting out of it, and what different communications at the workplace signify.

The ability to adapt to a new work environment—to a new workplace culture—is essential to our survival and comfort on the job. This could be said about any organization, schools, even families as well.

Part of that success is in reading the contextual cues of the environment and the organizational culture, of the communications of the “natives.”

A couple of tools spring to mind to help deal with the problem of not adapting well to an organizational culture, and one prominently: Reader Response, a theory of literary critique. Reader Response postulates, among other things, that texts contain the means of their own interpretation, that each work gives the reader cues and clues as to what's going on within it. Often, readers are unaware of how a text is “teaching” you to read it, but exploring these indicators formally helps us to see what we might have missed, explain things that confuse us, and help us gain insight into the internal codes the author has used. An organization's culture can be analyzed in much the same way: an awareness of its “tells” can give us insights into what is really going on.

If done well, a person can can not merely adapt to an organization but also gain a certain amount of agency, if not power, within it. This can help address the unspoken power differences that often create barriers between organizational equals.

The in-group language of those in charge, however, can still be used to to create and maintain hierarchies and reinforce institutional structures of power. In the same way that a ruling social class has its own set of terms and cultural cues, so too do the powerful within an organization: methods of dress and address, jargon specific to a certain theory of or school of management, or idiomatic fixations become, very quickly, the means to express in order to impress. Mastery over these may not guarantee success at an organization, but they no doubt increase or improve it. In turn, lack of mastery of these is used to create and reinforce subservience. As Bakhtin might have put it, those at the top speak the language of organizational epic. A way to push back against this reification of power would be through some form of polyglossia, of the novelization of intraorganizational discourse.

As with other forms of colonization, when those in charge try to “improve” the staff by teaching them the “master's” tongue, the result is nearly inevitable failure: outside the context of the boardroom, the language of the power structure holds little relevance and therefore little power to create positive change. Its lack of effective magic in these circumstances reinforces the idea in the minds of the managers that those lower on the org chart deserve their place, that those already in charge are fit to lead; their mastery of the magic tongue makes it so. This also reinforces among those lower in the organization that they deserve their place: if only they could make the incantations work, all would be well. That they cannot simply proves that they are not fit to lead.

Both sides forget a few important things: those of lower organizational status forget that the language of the managers is ill-suited to the work that they are doing, the appropriate language being that created by the nature of the work itself. And the managers forget that the miraculous effects of their words—the ability to create almost instant compliance, for example—comes not from the words but from the fact of organizational power.

Thus the language of power is really about the organization and its structure, not about the work the organization ostensibly exists to do.

For power to be challenged, then, and for the good not necessarily of the organization but its stated aims, actual dialog must take place, without assumption and on neutral ground.

True empowerment is dialogic, a product of shared magic.

A Bit on Brands

by EW Wilder

Brands have long lives but thin skins.

Branding is an essentially defensive move, as shown by its origins in tracking the ownership of cattle. The brand attempts to avoid attack by approximating ubiquity. For as much as the factual history of a brand may be written, it projects ahistoricity; the brand's job is to convince you that it has always existed. In this way, branding is much like religious iconography and tries to perform the same function.

Frequently, it succeeds.