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Grading Jail

8 October, 2009

Grading Jail and Institutional Wisdom

OK … I’m sick and in grading jail. Not so much fun there. And I’m procrastinating a little, as do many of us when we are staring at mounds of papers and exams. The papers so far are pretty good — upper-division papers, that is. The exams? I anticipate some dreadful ones, but also some good ones. If I could just stay home and mark for the next few days, I’d be happy, but for some reason I have to teach, too. Feh.

In the meantime, I’m sort of marveling at something. It’s institutional wisdom that isn’t. Most of the places I’ve taught, there were ridiculously long contracts and handbooks, and orientations that told us what we can do and what we can’t. That’s also been true for non-academic workplaces, as well. The only places I’ve worked where that was not true were start-ups and SLAC. I have a feeling that this is not just my SLAC, but maybe something that is related to the breed, the suddenly growing SLAC. Maybe you all can tell me if that’s true.

Institutional wisdom can be a slippery thing. In a lot of places, there are one or two people, often admin assistants, who know everything about a place. They know where the skeletons are buried, they know people’s direct extensions and have them memorized. They also know who to call to get things done, even when someone else says they can’t be. These are the people I like to know. Hell, I used to be one of those people. In some ways, I still am. I like to know stuff, and I really like it when someone mentions how nice it is to see someone doing things right. Yes, I admit it… I am a Do-Bee. And since I hate to have paperwork handed back to me, or lose out on money, or any number of things that can happen when things aren’t done correctly, or when you annoy the staff people who handle our paperwork, I really think it’s important to learn and follow procedures. Yeah … I’m also kind of rule-oriented when it has to do with a procedure that makes sense to me, or that is set up to make things easier for everybody. It is in some ways a bad quality: it can stress me out way too much and it can also make me a pain in the ass.

But here’s the thing for me: this stuff is not so hard to find out. And yet … I’m sometimes amazed at how many times I hear that X is the way we do things, X is always the way we do things, X is the way we have always done things … despite the fact that Y is what is written down in several places, and if one does X where X is something connected to the people who handle money, one is likely to have one’s paperwork sent back with a note to please do Y!

I would understand if this sort of thing were restricted to my more senior colleagues, the ones who have been doing X for donkey’s years and just refused to see any reason to change to Y, even if Y were a change that made things much more sensible and simpler for many people. But it always confuses me a little when I hear similar things from my more junior colleagues, some of them junior faculty. It’s especially weird when you hear from them that Z is the norm. Because, you know? the handbook still says Y. And my mind is breaking from the idea that so many people don’t bother to look, and then pass on misinformation to others.

Is it me, or does this happen elsewhere, too?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 October, 2009 11:36 pm

    I wonder if it's a thing such as I too frequently see in Cambridge, where the official procedure for a thing is often not as effective as finding the person who actually has to do the stuff and sweet-talking them. And then that effectively becomes procedure. If it's not more effective to circumvent procedure, you must have some good office people, but I don't understand why people wouldn't adapt to the successful method…

  2. 11 October, 2009 2:15 am

    Ah — here's where real institutional wisdom comes in. For example, if there's a problem that facilities needs to take care of, a work order can take several days. It's faster and easier to ask one of the guys in person to take care of it, and some of them will, but then they end up trying to explain why they took so long doing the things they are officially supposed to be doing. BUT, if you tell them you have an emergency, and THEN put in the work order, it will often get put at the head of the queue anyway. So following procedure + the personal touch is best.On the other hand, if it's filling out reimbursent forms? Just follow the rules, because the business office will send them back — EXCEPT … if you are a person who tries very hard to follow the rules, makes sure everything is in order, and still misses something out, the business office will email for the one thing they need, rather than rejecting everything. I can understand that sometimes the more efficient way FOR ME is to call someone and ask for them to solve my problem. But that may not be the most efficient way for everybody –one person's inability to install Skype so they can chat with their spouse because they lack the appropriate permissions is hardly as important as another colleague's blue screen of death, but you'd hardly think that to listen to some of my colleagues. So I'm willing to go for uniform processes rather than just calling a person.Not that this is one of the things I'm talking about. What spurred this particular rant was hearing one brand-new colleague talking about how easy it was to simply cancel classes if we needed a day off. The newbie had heard this from another junior person. And yes, it is…sort of. We are supposed to clear class cancellations with our deans and let our chairs know ahead of time — and to provide some sort of alternate assignment that will take as much time as a lecture. All that part got lost in the translation. And that sort of thing happens all the time.

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