Saturday, April 21, 2012

Anthropological Notes

Most of my blogging is devoted to observing a culture that I did not know existed until I jumped a class or two and wound up as a Law Professor. It is as strange to me as it is to anyone observing a society that he or she did not know existed. Some things are small like why everyone is on a first name basis but sometimes in faculty meetings they shift to "professor" this and that. Why is there laughter at the dumbest wise cracks. Why to people say  things "are not personal" when ten minutes earlier they were referring to the same person as someone not to be trusted.

There are more serious practices that also seem odd. Why do they value facial collegiality so much when privately they complain about each other. In fact, the most uncollegial thing one can do at times is to tell the truth.  And, it is far more important and acceptable to create history as opposed to saying "Yes, I may have screwed up."

In a field study a few days ago I think I observed the "not technically a lie" norm used again. It evidently is so ingrained in the culture that it not viewed as a negative. For example, a committee comes to the faculty for approval to hire one of 4 candidates on a slate. The committee does not reveal that there is one person of the  4 who is related to a faculty member and will be the choice if the 4 are approved. That one is made an offer and when it is suggested the committee (which in theory works for the faculty) should have indicated what the vote was really about the answer is "we said there was a slate of 4 candidates and there were 4 on the slate." How odd that this is acceptable.   But this is a very simple example of the norm which is pervasive -- not a lie but avoidance of transparency.

But this only leads to the second oddity. It seems like for a majority of those in this culture, allowing line cutting is fine. They would not like it if it happened in a line for movie tickets (a small matter) but when it comes to a friend or relative looking for a job, it's evidently understood that line jumping is normal behavior. So, for example, you might search for someone to fill a position and actually interview or consider 80 people and almost invariable the the "best candidate" is someone you already know or are related to.

Another odd characteristic of this tribe, as I have written before, is the desire to never appear to want anything too much. For example, people are forever volunteering to do what they want to do as opposed to "getting" what they wany. That is, they want to appear that they were asked and are only doing whatever because they were talked into it. They volunteer to be on committees they want to be on, to take trips they want to take and to be the director of departments or "centers" that they want manage. The idea, as best I can tell is a view that all of life is a negotiation and to appear to want something just reduces bargaining power.

There is also an unusual division between management and workers when it comes to committees. Committees are made up of faculty who, in theory, represent and report to the faculty on matters ranging from hiring to what courses will be offered. The committees are, however, appointed by management. Plus, some individuals really want to be on specific committees -- it makes them feel important. So, rather than represent workers (faculty --  and, yes, I use the term loosely) they do what they are told by management. And, if this is questioned, they are appointed to examine themselves to determine if they are doing everything right. In short, there is no accountability to those they purportedly serve.

More reports to come.

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