We Project Our Work Worldviews Onto Others Without Realizing It

A good friend of mine spent decades as a sales manager. Now he manages managers. His compensation has always been based in part on commissions; as a result, he thinks employees are almost entirely motivated by money. Not just his employees, all employees. He’s grown so accustomed to the cutthroat competition of his workplace, he thinks free-market capitalism is the answer to whatever the question is. There’s no public sector, tenure, or labor unions in his work world, so they are economic problems, not solutions.

He’s a conservative. Another good friend, a liberal, is a transportation engineer for the Feds. Since he’s in charge of Washington State’s highways, I like love to complain to him about my daily commute. As an engineer, he believes any problem can be solved if we’re just rational enough. One form that rationality takes is letter writing. He thinks everyone should write letters, like he does, to people in leadership positions because they still influence policy even in this information saturated, digital world in which we live. And he’s absolutely right, the world would be a better place if everyone followed his lead.

But his engineer friends and him don’t seem to appreciate how differently other people think. People like me. I confess that I don’t feel much sense of efficacy at all. If I’m honest, I feel like my worsening commute is done to me, I feel totally defenseless. As evidence of that, I don’t even vote in a lot of local elections. I’m an educated writer, so if I feel that way, how many others are likely to pick up paper, pencil, envelope, and stamp despite our engineer friends’ very well intended rationality.

That sorry state of affairs didn’t stop my friend from sending me an email yesterday titled “Public comments wanted on the draft Washington Transportation Plan”. With this little addendum, “No comments made then no whining allowed.” The bold is him raising his voice which he only does when a local high school football ref makes an iffy call. One more detail to note in the email. “Washington State Department of Transportation seeking input on 20-year plan by Nov. 6.” 20-YEAR PLAN. That’s hilarious.

I’m glad our state’s traffic engineers are thinking in 20 year terms, however, it’s cray cray for them to think non-engineers like yours truly think similarly. In twenty years I want to be napping in my back seat as my car drives me to the Home Course for a quick 18. When I think of transportation infrastructure, hell, when I think of life, the short-term is 1-2 years, the medium-term is 5 years, and the longest term is 10 years.

Note to engineers. Non-engineers think differently. If you want to enlist their help in data gathering and problem-solving, you have to be a lot more savvy in reaching out to them. You’re probably better off delegating it to people rooted in the social sciences and humanities.

This subconscious tendency to generalize from one’s work and then to project one’s work worldview onto others is probably inevitable. As are the associated conflicts and frustrations when others don’t conform to expectations.

I’m sure I generalize from my work and project my work worldview onto others too, I just need to think more about the ways I do that. I will report back in 20 years.

What College Professors and Adminstrators Get Wrong

In the age of social media and smartphones, what expectations—if any—should professors have for privacy for lectures and communications intended for students? That’s Colleen Flaherty’s question in Inside Higher Education. The larger question is what expectations should any of us have for privacy?

Flaherty tells the story of Rachel Slocum, assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, who was. . . 

stunned earlier this month when what she thought was an innocuous. . . email to students about why they couldn’t access Census data to complete an important course assignment became national news.

Her email. . . blamed the “Republican/Tea Party controlled House of Representatives” for the shutdown and consequent U.S. Census Bureau website blackout. Then it appeared on Fox News, the Daily Caller, and in her local paper, after a student posted a screen shot on Twitter. It also caused uproar on campus, prompting numerous calls and emails to Chancellor Joe Gow, who sent an email to students, faculty, and staff distancing the university from Slocum’s ‘highly partisan’ comments.

Slocum said she probably wrote the email too quickly upon hearing her students couldn’t access the site, without sufficient explanation of her political reference. But the chain reaction was hard to believe, given that she never intended—or thought—that her email would be seen by anyone outside of her geography course.

Stunned, really? Michael Phelps can’t smoke a joint inside a dark fraternity house without smartphone pictures of it appearing in major newspapers. Why was it “hard to believe” your email was tweeted? It could’ve just as easily been forwarded, uploaded to Facebook, and blown up and pasted on the side of La Crosse’s busses.

Another tenured professor of creative writing at Michigan State University had his teaching duties reassigned after he embarked on “. . . what’s been described as an anti-Republican ‘rant on the first day of class in August.”

And Facebook helped Santiago Piñón, assistant professor of religion at Texas Christian University, make headlines last month, when a student he invited via email to a study session for “students of color only” posted the message on her page. Almost instantly, the invitation, which many said discriminated against other students, went viral.

Timeout while I replay in my peabrain what I said in class yesterday afternoon. Yikes! When discussing education reform I took shots at Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Tom Friedman, and 44. When those deets are made public my university’s administration will probably throw me under the bus of public outrage too. If this blog goes dark sometime soon, don’t be surprised. Know that I cherished you dear reader.

Slocum said she saw close monitoring of professor’s words by watchdog groups as potentially chilling to free speech, and as a means of waging the nation’s current political battles on a new front, to the detriment of higher education overall.

Fear is the lifeblood of watchdog groups. And spineless administrators. That’s why tenure is so important. Slocum shouldn’t retract what she wrote, instead she should explain it to any upset students. Granted, they probably won’t agree with her reasoning, but their only concern should be whether Slocum’s politics prevent her from fairly assessing their work.

Gow, Slocum’s chancellor, said that. . . he would have responded “exactly the same way” if Slocum’s email had blamed Democrats or any other group for the shutdown. Both he—a longtime communications scholar—and La Crosse value free speech and academic freedom, he said, but now more than ever the actions of faculty and staff can influence public support for higher education.

Ultimately, Gow said, the Internet has “greatly blurred” the line between what’s public and what’s private, “and we do need to remember that what we’re saying to students may be shared more broadly.”

Come on Gow, “greatly blurred,” really? Try erased. “Blurred” might make more sense if Gow had actually come to Slocum’s defense. Read Gow’s words again. He’s saying maintaining public support trumps free speech and academic freedom.

Gow said that ideally, a student who was offended by a professor’s speech would try to settle the matter internally, first through a conversation with that professor, then through more formal complaint mechanisms as needed. La Crosse also takes student evaluations seriously in personnel decisions, he said.

Could Gow be any more out-of-touch with college students? This generation doesn’t do direct interpersonal conflict. For shitssake, they break up with one another via text messaging. Then there’s Gow’s mind numbing student evaluation hammer. All these years I thought student evaluations focused on whether students learned anything of value in their courses, but I guess they’re at least partly designed to determine whether students are ever made uncomfortable by a professor’s politics. Note to Assistant Professors at Wisconsin La Crosse—wait until you get tenure to express anything that could be deemed the least bit political.

Slocum expressed similar views, saying that taking complaints to the Internet before the institution “seems a breach of trust” and removes them from their context.

Of course that would be preferable, but it’s naive to expect it. Wisconsin La Crosse can update their student honor code, and implore students not to take their complaints to the Internet, but some still will. This generation lives on-line. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

At La Crosse and other institutions . . . Gow suggested that professors make up their own rules and include them on course syllabuses—as some faculty at various institutions. . . already do. But, the chancellor said, enforcing those policies could be another complicated matter. “That’s kind of uncharted territory there, isn’t it?”

Now I’m starting to feel sorry for Gow. And this excerpt heightens my sympathy for Slocum:

This had never happened to me before so it was a new, unexpected and unpleasant experience, Slocum said in an email. And I didn’t expect it because my emails to students are the boring stuff of ‘Why didn’t you turn in that’ or ‘Here are some important points to remember,’ rather than anything that might cause fury on the Internet.

Here’s some unsolicited advice to my syllabi writing brethren whether Packer fans or otherwise: Do not expect the Internet Generation to come to your office to discuss their concern with your politics. And don’t be surprised if they take surreptitious screen shots of you* and your communication. Or tweet something you’ve said or done. Or post about something you’ve said or done to Facebook. Express partisan political views at your own risk.

* I was a recent victim of surreptitious screen shoting while Skyping with the college senior. Told her about a fun Saturday night out where her mother and I watched Flamenco dancing at a downtown Olympia pizza joint. To give her a little flavor flav of the evening, I demonstrated my pretty astounding flamenco skills. Unbeknownst to me, she took a screen shot midway through the demo. Within a few minutes some of her friends on Facebook were eating it up. The worst part of that whole infringement of my privacy? You need video to fully appreciate my mad flamenco skillz.

Teacher Merit Pay 1

First things first, what’s the problem we’re trying to fix? Arne Duncan, as a high-profile representative of conventional wisdom, would probably answer this way. “The problem is motivating teachers to work harder so that we can close the achievement gap between more and less wealthy students, improve graduation rates, and hold off our traditional economic rivals, Japan and Germany, and our emerging ones, India and China.”

So here are the assumptions: 1) teachers don’t work hard; 2) because teachers don’t work hard, we have a pernicious achievement gap; 3) schools exist to help us maintain our relative advantage in the global economic race.

Conventional wisdom suggests teachers don’t work hard because their pay is predetermined based upon their educational credentials and years of service. That combined with tenure translates into educational malaise. This is a deeply held view by many Americans who view business model principles as immutable.

Business model peeps reason schools are like car dealerships and fast food restaurants. There’s no point being sentimental about shuttered dealerships and restaurants because they are a natural byproduct of intense free market competition. Keep your consumer eyes on the prize, a wide choice of affordable, high quality cars/food.

If unfettered competition is the economic magic bullet, no reason it can’t be the educational one too. Schools in a given locale don’t fear one another enough nor do teachers within individual schools. The proliferation of student test scores enable us to keep score between schools and teachers within individual schools.

Before I proceed, is that the problem merit-based teacher pay is supposed to fix?