No More Grouchos

Faculty resistance to fresh approaches can lose for us the very qualities that have made American higher education successful, argues Robert Weisbuch, who encourages colleagues to more often "Just say yes."

July 16, 2019
 
 
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Julius 'Groucho' Marx, one of the Marx brothers comic group

“Big ideas are so hard to recognize, so fragile, so easy to kill. Don’t forget that, all of you who don’t have them.”
-- John “Jock” Elliott, former chair of Ogilvy and Mather

In the 1932 film Horse Feathers, the Board of Trustees at Huxley College appoints Quincy Adams Wagstaff, played by Groucho Marx, as its president and begins to offer him some advice on governance -- which he famously rebuffs in song:

I don’t know what they have to say
It makes no difference anyway
Whatever it is, I’m against it

No matter what it is or who commenced it
I’m against it

Today, 87 years later, in an era of unprecedented financial strain and public disapprobation for colleges and universities, Groucho’s contemporary counterparts, the presidents, often tend to be “for it” -- for whatever innovation is proposed to garner students, strengthen finances and demonstrate public value. Meanwhile, it is the faculty that too often adopts President Wagstaff’s all-purpose negativity.

Faculty recalcitrance, which has its virtues, tends at present to be a discordant fiddling while institutions burn. Part of the problem resides in the fact that we faculty are, rumors to the contrary, human. All of us are creatures of habit -- a phrase popularized by Edgar Rice Burroughs in The Beasts of Tarzan and, tellingly, an offshoot of the 17th century’s “creatures of comfort.”

Yet we faculty members can often seem to exceed the norm, as reflected by Groucho. We become slaves -- and warriors -- of habit as it affects our local lives. Before we can fix anything else, we need to address this reactionary mindlessness of “Whatever it is, I’m against it.”

I want to suggest three reasons for this tic and a remedy for each. And I begin with a faculty member I know intimately -- me -- and a memory from three decades ago.

After half an hour, my dear friend Bill finally exploded: “OK, Bob, you think it’s a lousy idea. Just say so rather than haranguing me.”

Bill was and is William Holinger, who now heads the Secondary School Program for students at Harvard University but was then directing Intro Comp during my chairing of the English department at the University of Michigan. Bill had brought me a proposal to pilot a nongrading experiment in the course. I was grilling him as I expected the college curriculum committee would grill me, bringing up every possible objection.

In truth, I loved the idea. Of course, I had forgotten to mention that to Bill. Instead, I was just being an academic -- which is to say, also in truth, that I was enjoying bringing up objections. We academics are not just expert critical readers but also very critical readers. We are like cars whose unbalanced tires head toward the curb marked Negative. We so fear crashing that we permanently stall at that curb, revving loudly, going nowhere.

When I am reading any opinion piece or proposal, I find myself looking for shortcomings, rehearsing objections or, at the least, making qualifications. If I unloose this powerful tendency from any self-awareness, I now recognize, nothing will ever happen. This tendency would have prevented the invention of the wheel or fire or even (gulp!) the internet. Children and the activity that brings them about? What complications! What bothers! (In fact, as Groucho/Wagstaff concludes in his song, “For months before my son was born/I used to yell from night till morn/ ‘Whatever it is, I’m against it.’”) No wonder the stale joke of latter-day college presidents: “How many faculty members does it take to change a lightbulb?” Answer, grumpily: “That lightbulb doesn’t need changing.”

Sometimes, in fact, it doesn’t. Upholders of academic traditions often remind us that universities are one of the very few institutions that have persisted for centuries. This matters: the deepest values of the arts and sciences, rooted in the foundations of thought and revivified in the Enlightenment, deserve to be considered an eternal light and sheltered accordingly. But in a changeful world, their various applications don’t. Those formulations and practices are candles in the wind.

Resistance to fresh looks and innovative programs do great harm to higher education and lose for us the very qualities that have made American higher education successful. Those qualities include seizing an opportunity, ad-libbing in the face of necessity and pioneering in ways that, as David F. Labaree argues in A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendency of American Education, shot us ahead of European systems burdened by the heavy backpack of the past.

Our professional habit of skepticism easily can become an excess, gullible only in its acceptance of the way things are now. This defensive crouch persists even when coupled with a melancholy conviction of decline. This combination produces all too frequently the faculty non sequitur that “The ship is sinking, but don’t rock the boat.”

Three Reasons for Recalcitrance

As for a remedy, I hope I am demonstrating a start to one here. We begin to undermine this undermining by becoming self-aware of our tendency. There always appear to be more reasons not to do something than to do it, yet wise innovations beat these odds every time. Further, one success typically proves worth several failures.

At certain times, in fact -- and this is one of them, as public disapprobation of higher education intensifies, and the values of facticity and evidence are under unprecedented attack -- the dangers of most innovations that appear scary or imperfect are far less threatening than staying put. A determination never to oppose without proposing an alternative is the medicine we need to take -- adding creativity and entrepreneurship to make our skepticism dynamic rather than deathly.

A second reason for the professorial resistance to the new has a more compelling justification. We don’t know how to end things in academe. Each of us is aware of any number of programs that are now moribund but wobble on, supported by a few dedicated and extreme advocates. I know of many examples where most faculty members believed it was time to pull the plug but didn’t because of the feelings of valued colleagues. (The students and their interests, our raison d’être, get utterly lost in such circumstances.)

Once we begin something in higher ed, it usually becomes permanent well past the sell-by date. The cure is the institutional equivalent of a prenup: to establish a stop or sustain or spread assessment before the concept is launched, with rigorous periodic goals and evaluations baked into the proposal itself. We acknowledge the risk. We confess that we cannot foresee all problems or guarantee results. We define assessment as before and during rather than after. We adjust along the way. But that way has a price-check moment agreed upon by all -- and any renewal requires yet another such review.

A final reason for recalcitrance is more daunting because it involves a rethinking of shared governance. I’ve written elsewhere that shared governance easily becomes snared governance as each constituency subjects the others to the highest degree of opposition, often based on the narrowest forms of disciplinary and departmental self-interest. Stoppage is not even the worst result here -- unholy compromises are. How many exciting ideas become diluted into the moribund by such give-and-takes? The prime example here, as you well might already be thinking, is in those deliberations that go toward forming a program of general education: the student’s introduction to our liberal arts ideal reduced to a dreary dance card of requirements forged out of each department’s selfish fears.

There’s another way, and again I am using gen ed merely as an example. Let’s imagine that some colleagues push for a relatively traditional Great Books version while another group proposes a program that emphasizes experiential learning, learning and doing in the community. Rather than ending up in a muddled middle without the virtues -- or the faculty enthusiasm -- of either, what if we said yes to each other? We might end up with two or three gen-ed programs taught passionately by believers among the faculty rather than the usual dull compromise that cheats all students. And then, speaking of the experiential, we can learn by experience rather than bloviating what works well and what doesn’t.

The Negative Results of Nay-Saying

In this as in all, we faculty members need to learn to say yes to each other and learn by experience rather than speculating -- and usually nay-saying -- by prejudgment. Any new program, course or practice will entail making some mistakes, but the errors can be fixed. Nothing, however, can remediate the airlessness of stasis.

The negativity I have been scourging here relates finally to the relations between faculty members and administrators, relations that have become so difficult that many presidencies have a lifespan barely longer than a fruit fly’s. Shared governance is not only a fine ideal but a best practice -- when it is practiced.

This is where a different negativity comes in handy. No, you may not vote unless you have become decently knowledgeable concerning the issue: aware of what other institutions are doing, conscious of the place of your institution in the academic landscape and comprehending and appreciative of the earned expertise that has gone into the proposal. And if your vote is still to vote down, you must be ready with a few alternatives that might work still better.

Shared governance should not be automatic, any more than gun ownership should be. The faculty has its homework, too. And if, as sometimes happens, I as a faculty person haven’t had the time to look into something with sufficient gravity and independence of thought -- if my only information is scuttlebutt and a generalized suspicion -- then I should act responsibly by not participating in the decision or trust that my colleagues on the committee have taken the requisite time. It’s 4 p.m. Do you know where your wisdom is?

Finally, while I’ve been speaking as and to faculty, “Just say yes” should be the mantra for all college and university leaders. The best question a new president can ask each faculty member is, “What have you wanted to do but haven’t had the opportunity?” And because habit tends to limit imagination, that first query should be followed up by, “No, really, if you could do anything here.” And the chief job of the leader is to help make every truly exciting idea somehow doable, whether it concerns curriculum, faculty and staff promotion, academic programs, student life, or whatever -- and despite resources that, at first glance, are never adequate.

The plot of Horse Feathers culminates in the all-important football game between Groucho’s Huxley College and its archrival, a contest besmirched by unethical student admissions fostered by athletic departments (surely an outdated corruption?). Somehow, Groucho’s brothers are mistakenly recruited. Harpo, Zeppo, Chico and even the hidebound Groucho/Wagstaff win the game by performing the hidden ball trick and then riding into the end zone in a crazy horse-drawn garbage wagon, which Harpo rides like a chariot.

In other words and in spite of Groucho’s negativity, the Marx brothers didn’t win by playing defense. They won by risk and innovation, by thinking outside the, um, garbage wagon of habit.

I thought of my friend and colleague Bill the other night while watching another film, a rerun of Jim Carrey’s Yes Man about an always-negative cynic who is made to live in the affirmative. He eventually takes his yeses too far. But what a good problem! For, as William Blake writes, “You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.” And I’ll take Blake, Jim Carrey and Molly Bloom over the dry curmudgeon in each of us every single time.

Bio

Robert Weisbuch leads Robert Weisbuch and Associates, an academic consultancy. He is emeritus professor at the University of Michigan and previously led the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and Drew University.

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