• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

The Piranha Feed

A concise metaphor for a common problem.

January 24, 2022
 
 

Lisa Duggan has a terrific piece up about what she calls the “piranha feed.” Anyone who went to grad school will recognize what she’s talking about:

“When I teach graduate seminars, I outlaw the ‘piranha feed’ process whereby the student with the most critical take on the assigned book wins, and anyone who praises it is dismissed as simple. I require the students to engage the books on their own terms first, outlining the authors’ aspirations and achievements before anyone is allowed to offer a critique. This approach has limited success. The socialization/‘professionalization’ of grad students exceeds the impact of any seminar. But the point is this—students who are trained to be sharply critical first and foremost have trouble finishing their own projects. They are paralyzed by the vision of their own work on the table for the piranha feed.”

Yes, yes, yes. And the piranha feed goes well beyond graduate seminars.

In some ways, I see the dynamic of the piranha feed as being at the root of some friction between faculty and administration. In administration, some decisions need to be made quickly, often with partial information. The decisions have ripple effects beyond what anyone could reasonably be expected to foresee. But the decisions have to be made anyway. To pick an obvious case, take the return to in-person classes as Omicron peaked. I’m firmly convinced that there’s no perfect answer. Staying remote indefinitely does untold harm to many students and programs and may put a drag on overall enrollment. We know that enrollment losses have been greater among low-income students and students of color, especially among Black men; that’s not something we can just shrug and accept. Eventually, enrollment declines mean budget declines, some of which may come at the expense of the people who advocated the loudest to stay remote.

But return brings palpable risks of its own. Some people are immunocompromised or live with people who are. Some have children too young to vaccinate. And issues like anxiety can cut both ways: isolation can make anxiety worse, but some experience the prospect of exposure as a trigger.

In a situation like that, some people will take issue with whatever decision you make. But you have to make one anyway. That means braving the subsequent piranha feed.

The epistemological basis of administration is different from that of most scholarship. In scholarly research, acting on partial information could often be considered a sign of incompetence, malpractice or bias. In administration, a willingness to act on partial information while the situation is still unfolding is the price of admission. Inevitably, some educated guesses won’t pan out; that’s to be expected. Will the new program we’re developing bring new enrollments, will it shift enrollments internally or will it fold for lack of enrollment? There are reasonable bases for projections but no guarantees. Maybe a major local employer moves away, or the state reallocates resources, or a pandemic hits; you can’t know those things in advance. You have to make the best judgments you can and accept that some folks will pass judgment later on the false assumption that the future was transparent at the time.

I’d love to see that culture shift, at least partially. Duggan’s point about the most bloodthirsty critics never getting their own work done, precisely because they’re afraid of being on the receiving end of what they dish out, is exactly right. Fear of criticism can be paralyzing. And I’d hate to lose valuable insights and perspectives because folks were afraid that if something didn’t work out, they’d be blamed. “Nah” is a safe answer in the short term, but over time, it’s deadly. Thoughtful, strategic risk taking requires, well, taking risks. If we’d all acknowledge that up-front, and maybe call off some of the piranhas, we’d all benefit.

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