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Monday, April 16, 2018

A MINATORY TALE

I have mentioned that next Fall, I shall be flying up to New York every Tuesday to co-teach a course with Todd Gitlin in the Sociology Department of Columbia University.  The course is an undergraduate seminar entitled "The Mystifications of Social Reality."  Today begins enrollment for the Fall ["rising seniors" today, in the jargon of the modern Academy.]  Out of obsessive curiosity, I went on line to check the course and see how many seniors had signed up.  To my distress, I could not find the course in the list of offerings, so I called the Department secretary.  She knew from nothing, so I called the office of the Chair, Shamus Kahn and left a message.  Todd emailed me to say that he had heard from Kahn who knew nothing about it.  Todd and I talked, and agreed that he would get onto the department [where he is a professor] and have someone correct the list of offerings and send a message to students about a "new course."

Now, one could speculate that  this is an act of political suppression, but that is clearly untrue.  This is by no means the edgiest course being offered in Sociology next semester.  No, alas, it is just good old fashioned incompetence, of a sort with which I am too, too familiar in the Academy.

Fortunately, Todd says, students keep signing up all Spring.  But it is a good thing I am so obsessive, or we would have had no students at all.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

What's "minatory" about this?

Écrasez L'infâme said...

Someone made a mistake, sure, they fell short of perfection, but I’m at a loss to see how you get from an individual’s momentary lack of concentration to the “incompetence” of an entire professional class. Still, supposing you’re right, and all the back offices in academia are staffed by the walking dead, people so unable to do their job they need to ring ICT to tell them how to tie their shoelaces. Now, aren’t we socialists?Those people still have to earn a living. Everyone, even the walking dead, has to put food on the table for their kids. Isn’t that more important than your course? None of these people will be paid much - bureaucrats never are - and in an unjust system, their job - which probably they do do as best as they can, as is the wont of bureaucrats - keeps the wolf from the door for a bit longer. Prof, I love your blog and your courses, but aren’t people more important? Isn’t that your whole message?

But that isn’t even what happened. In your case your course would have had to jump through several hoops before being listed, and one of those failed through simple human error - maybe theirs, maybe some completely different organisation’s, maybe even some tickbox you or your colleague neglected (yup, it might have been your error - no one would have told you, since modern bureaucrats are trained to absorb blame). Likely enough, someone in the back office would have already spotted that and it would have already been in the pipeline to be fixed even if you hadn’t checked yourself. And no, they wouldn’t have told you that either, because it would be being picked up by someone other than the officer you spoke to (and it won’t be being fixed any quicker for already being noticed, of course, because modern systems are designed to make mistakes rare, so there are seldom procedures for correcting them when they do happen). But the bottom line is no one missed your course off deliberately, they would have had a thousand other things to do at the same time, and - most importantly - they are conscientiously trying to do a good job and, in their tiny way, make the world a better place. Yup, we really think like that, us tribe of pen-pushers.

Well, it’s your blog, you can write what you want, and I know it’s fashionable in academia particularly to regard the people who oil the wheels as unnecessary meddling parasites. The really important people (meaning academics themselves) keep the show running despite these incompetents, not because of them. It’s your blog, but it is disappointing to see the same lazy prejudices here.

Postscript: perhaps the really interesting questions are why are modern bureaucratic systems are so complicated and so vulnerable to these types of errors - and why errors are so hard to fix when they do happen. I think that would open up a new critique of capitalism in its current phase - the kind of thing David Graeber and John Seddon are doing, in their different ways.

Matt said...

While agreeing with the general claim that the screw-up does not _necessarily_ indicate incompetence (though of course it may), I want to pick on this bit:

perhaps the really interesting questions are why are modern bureaucratic systems are so complicated and so vulnerable to these types of errors - and why errors are so hard to fix when they do happen.

I might rather say, what we should wonder is, given how large the world is and how many people live in it, and the complicated machinery needed to provide food, shelter, and safety to them (as inadequately as this is done for many, of course), we should be surprised that things go wrong as rarely as they do, and that they are so easily fixed (as they were in this case) so often. We don't have to be Panglossian, I think, to appreciate these factors and not under-sell them.