Sunday, April 24, 2011


I recently had dinner with a colleague. We’re actually friends as well, but we hadn’t been able to connect much in the recent past so there was quite a bit of catching up to do. We went to a restaurant I’d never been to before and had decent enough food in a pleasant enough atmosphere for which he paid. I should have come home thinking ‘what a wonderful evening that was’ and I did not. I came home irritated, frustrated, aggravated and, if truth be told, probably a little hurt. I’ve been stewing about it since.

As I mentioned, in addition to being colleagues we have been friends for years – about 20 or so. We came to the college around the same time and were housed in the same office suite for the first couple of years. From that beginning grew a nice friendship – lunches, dinners, invitations to each other’s parties, traveling together. There was even a summer when he was between buying and selling houses and he spent 3 months in my guest room in exchange for help with a few household projects. It’s been a good friendship.

I say all that to set the stage – and because it is part of the reason for all the emotions I have been feeling these past few days. After catching up on our personal lives our conversation, as might be expected, turned to grousing and gossiping about work related matters and people. We discussed a couple of current projects that my friend is involved in, the joys and irritations of our students and their choices, the state of relations between our current administration and faculty on campus as well as the overall atmosphere/morale of the place. As they say, I should have known better.

My friend and I often differ in the way in which we interpret and respond to campus events. That, I think, is a positive thing. It is easy to get caught up in your own point of view on something and forget to consider (or flat-out ignore) other perspectives. I will often deliberately seek out his perspective on an issue because of that. In many cases, he has information that I don’t or an opinion that I hadn’t considered. Sometimes that information will temper my opinion and sometimes it will change my mind completely. While I try to approach events somewhat positively and hopefully, often his perspective is pretty cynical which keeps my Pollyanna tendency in check.

This particular time, though, was different. We were discussing an issue which we have discussed before and on which we have markedly differing positions. We have argued about this issue on more than one occasion and we both think we are right in our perspectives. While I still will consider his view (I actually wish his view was the correct one) I’m afraid that on this issue my view is probably a little more realistic. In this particular case, I’m the cynic and he’s the one trying to spin this to the positive.

So what does this have to do with aggravation and hurt? On this particular issue, he is dogmatic. He insists that he is right and I am wrong. When I attempted to argue my point, he kept insisting on his view. Finally, he demanded – ‘give me an example.’ When I was silent, he crowed at me ‘See you can’t. Because there isn’t one. It never happens.’ My response was, ‘You’re right, I can’t.’

And, I couldn’t. NOT, however, because there wasn’t an example. I couldn’t give the example because I am prohibited from giving it.
It’s not my personal example, and the people who have shared it with me have done so under the caveat that I keep it quiet. Privacy. So, after a few more moments of him pushing my ‘wrongness’ at me, I finally said that we needed to change the subject and we moved on. But clearly, I haven’t moved on. I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated by the arrogance of his position. ‘You can’t give me an example of this so it doesn’t exist. You are wrong.’

Obviously, he’s an intelligent man and should know better than to rely on this fallacious ‘burden of proof’ argument. It’s one of the first things we discuss when teaching persuasion and debate. Just because you have no hard evidence against an argument, does not mean that the argument does not exist. Yet, it is the position we want to take when the argument threatens us in some way – our beliefs, our self-image, our perspective. I’m not saying that my friend is not intelligent. He is. In this particular case, though, he is also wrong.

Some people would say to me that it is enough to know you are right about something – others don’t have to acknowledge it. I believe, many times, that is true. I think in this case my aggravation and hurt come not from his position, but from his refusal to even consider the possibility that he might not have all the facts – that there might be information out there to which he is not privy. That refusal, by extension, seems to be saying that I could not possibly have any information that he does not. Therefore, it seems to argue that I am stupid, ignorant, emotional, irrational, and wrong. It feels disrespectful. It feels arrogant.

We all think we’re right about things. If we thought we were wrong, we would change how we think. That’s only logical. And it is understandable that we want to believe in our own sense of reason. However, the lesson to me this time is the need to temper my own tendency to believe in my own ‘rightness’, and to remember that it is entirely possible that I may not have all the facts before I jump to judgment. Because that judgment, no matter how justified it may seem to me, might be wrong.


Sunday, April 10, 2011


Several years ago I did a short stint in corporate America. Specifically, I spent almost a year in the Human Resources area of a large corporation. I did a variety of tasks during that time – from writing curriculum for the manager of Training and Development to updating job descriptions to answering phones. The “job description” element of that work was an eye opener for me.

At the time, I was quite young – basically at the beginning of my professional career. I had taught for a few years at the college level by that time. The job descriptions that I was familiar with were general – “ability to teach Public Speaking, Interpersonal Communication, Oral Interpretation of Literature and a minimum 2 years experience coaching college level Forensics.” Once hired, those were the basic duties. We were all expected to simply know the details of what was required to do these tasks effectively, and do them. And, the majority of the people I worked with seemed to know and do them.

However, there were a number of other duties that weren’t outlined in the job description. We were expected to serve on college committees, to advise students, to do department work involving curriculum offerings, to participate in the new educational initiatives that came along every 5 to 7 years. We did those things as well, just without it ever being written down as part of our job and, quite frankly, without ever being compensated for the work. It was just part of working in the academy.

Corporate job descriptions, though, were quite different. They contained a laundry list of specific tasks that an individual applying for a specific position was expected to do. They also contained an articulation of what constituted meeting those expectations – as well as what was considered falling short. Some of these descriptions were literally pages long. After working for a while in this environment I chose to go back to higher education and took my current job. The “job description” was what I had experienced in previous academic environments. And, for quite a long while, the majority of us adequately did our jobs with this minimal amount of written instruction.

As with all things, this process morphed over time. We still don’t have a corporate-type job description. However, we now have a “Professional Development Plan” – a document that we create in conjunction with our supervisor that has a 3 year shelf life. We outline in general terms what we intend to do to “develop” our professional skills over a 3 year period, and at the end of that time we submit a report that details how we accomplished this. In the past, this also formed the basis for our performance review. The process was designed to enable success. The 3 year plan was discussed at the outset with the supervising dean. It allows for growth and recognized that developing a skill set is a process. But it still is based upon the idea that everyone ‘knows’ the job description. In my opinion, it is effective and appropriate in an academic environment.

I suspect that part of the reason I am comfortable with this style is that it is what I ‘grew up’ with. When I was a college student, assignments in classes often read something like this: Prepare and deliver an 8-10 minute persuasive speech, 7 sources required, on a pertinent social issue. That was it. The entire instruction. And, we prepared and delivered the speech.

Today things have changed. The assessment movement in American education has pushed (not wrongly) the importance of articulating clear expectations and clear standards of evaluation. In essence, education has become ‘corporatized’ in this area, as well as in so many others. (Many a time we hear administrators refer to students as our ‘customers’.) So our writing of assignments has changed. They now resemble a job description. I now give my students a 14 point checklist of items required for their speeches. I clearly articulate the types of supporting material they are required to use, the pattern of arrangement for their main points, the required elements of delivery. I also articulate for them exactly how the points for the assignment will be assigned. With all these detailed instructions are students giving significantly better speeches that they did when I was a student? Quite frankly, no.

So I don’t think that this change has affected the quality of student work in any significant way for the better. What it has affected is the ability of students to work without a great deal of instruction. Unless you outline every expectation, students are often paralyzed about how to proceed. I suspect that this has worked its way into the workforce as well. It seems that many people have no idea what constitutes professionalism and courtesy, for example, or what constitutes quality work. Without clear and excessively detailed instructions, many people have no idea how to really function in a professional environment. They seem to lack the confidence and initiative to step out and take charge of a task and when they do, they often fall short.

It appears that this new and continued emphasis on the ‘corporate’ way of doing things may appease school boards, assessment officers and maybe even legislators. And maybe it’s simply the way things are so there’s no use in fighting it. But, in that corporate spirit, it might be a good idea for someone to engage in a cost-benefit analysis. For all the cost of changing to this corporate model, have the benefits to students and their skills really been worth it?

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