Don't Tell Me What I Said. I Know What I Meant

Talking and barriers to communication are not new topics for deans. We receive lots of opportunities for help with this aspect of our administrative role. All of them recognize, implicitly or explicitly, the central role of communication between deans and others. I receive notices for workshops and offers from consultants on “dealing with difficult employees,” on “how to deal with angry faculty members” (perhaps offer them coffee and/or jawbreakers to calm/slow them down….).

December 5, 2006

Talking and barriers to communication are not new topics for deans. We receive lots of opportunities for help with this aspect of our administrative role. All of them recognize, implicitly or explicitly, the central role of communication between deans and others. I receive notices for workshops and offers from consultants on “dealing with difficult employees,” on “how to deal with angry faculty members” (perhaps offer them coffee and/or jawbreakers to calm/slow them down….). There is a cottage industry of providers of higher education management advice regarding faculty-administrative relations.

I am in my 12th year as a dean at an independent residential liberal arts college, with approximately 1,300 students and over 100 full-time faculty members. My college places a high value on “community” as an institutional value and the significant faculty investment in the college. Similarly, while in principle, faculty know they can do their work anywhere, an institutional commitment (or institutional loyalty) vigorously competes with the disciplinary orientation of faculty. Faculty very quickly become embedded in courses, programs and friendships that link them with other faculty, often outside their department, and integrate them more strongly into the institution.

The small scale of my type of institution cannot be overemphasized. We are face-to-face everyday, whether in classrooms, in offices, in the snack bar or the gym. I work in a multiuse building, with some (not all) administrative offices on the main floor, but faculty and classrooms on the floors above. There are always students, faculty, and staff in the corridors. This small scale means that I am but a phone call or e-mail or shout across the lawn from most faculty, and that I am very much "their" dean. That is to say, responsible for anything on faculty minds. Beyond the formal responsibilities of personnel issues, reviews, curriculum, and so on, my perceived responsibilities and authority can include virtually anything relevant to faculty (objections to the ban on dogs on campus, disputes over the use of the whirlpool in fieldhouse, furor over certain trees being trimmed, the sense of insult created when the art department is not consulted on selecting the color of woodwork for a new building, etc.).

What are the day-to-day experiences like in a setting with the above characteristics?

Two fundamental principles of sociocultural anthropology play a role in the day-to-day experiences I have as dean.

The first can be found in the introductory chapters to most classic textbooks in sociocultural anthropology. Once referred to as the psychic unity of humankind, the more contemporary argument is, perhaps, along the following lines: Human beings are everywhere rational; yet particular rationalities are defined through and embedded in particular cultures. One of our principal goals as anthropologists is to discover the sense of some particular rationality, often one other than our own -- the sense that peoples’ lives make to them. That is to say, I make the assumption that faculty behavior makes sense, although at times I have to work to discover the sense that it makes -- and, of course, vice versa!

The second principle is not quite as old, but well-embedded in our field none-the-less. For me, as a sociolinguist, the version I’m most comfortable with comes from the work of the early ethnomethodologists in their studies of conversational structure and conversational interaction.

Harold Garfinkel, for example, writes in his now classic 1964 article, “Studies of the Routine Grounds for Everyday Activities” to bring our attention to the taken-for-granted scenes of “everyday” social life. He focuses on “common understandings” about the silent -- unstated -- common background understandings that give everyday life its “sense” and comprehensibility. He writes that: “…common understanding … consists … in the enforceable character of actions in compliance with the expectancies of everyday life as a morality.  Common sense knowledge of the facts of social life for the members of the society is institutionalized knowledge of the real world."

For example:

    Bill: Are you going to John’s party tonight?
    Al: I can’t face Karen.  (former girlfriend, now with John)
    Bill: You can come late.  (Karen will leave early to go to work, avoiding awkward contact)
Unstated common background information is the source of the coherence that link these statements logically to each other and give the event, the conversation, its coherence. And, importantly, the participants assume a coherence in the interaction; they expect each other to behave in sensible ways. It is this latter assumption of coherence that sends interlocutors “searching” for the sense that talk makes.

Both principles -- the psychic unity of humankind and the role of shared background information as a source of the coherence and efficacy of social interaction -- can be help us understand when interactions don’t work -- when there are breaches as well as when they do. Simply put, failing to take the other’s perspective can distort one’s understanding of their behavior, and create misperceptions of the motivations behind that behavior. Similarly conversations and interactions can have an illusory, and even misleading, coherence. The assumption of common background information can mask actual differences in those assumptions, including different objectives for the interaction itself, leading to several different realities experienced simultaneously and without recognition. Subsequent recognition of these differences often becomes exacerbated by the perception of the earlier “good” meeting; if it was a good meeting, and now something has happened inconsistent with that meeting, then someone can’t be trusted!

So can faculty members and administrators communicate? Can these (sub)cultures be bridged? Are we forever limited by our respective positions within the institution to experience a different, unique “reality”? 

I am guided in my response to this question by a lecture I recently attended by Zali Gurevitch, a visiting anthropologist, discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In his analysis, he referred to the difference between thick borders, where multiple cultures can be dealt with only by oppositions, or a multiculture which can be constructed by thin borders: neither X nor Y alone, but each is part of both, or something larger. I was inspired to think about differences within the college and the potential to integrate them into a larger coherent whole -- if persons would understand the points of view of others.

Here are two examples:

The tyranny of the techies. In an institutional planning committee meeting, participants were discussing the priority for a technology initiative. This led to expressions of frustration by faculty regarding available technology and frustration from the computer center staff about the lack of interest of many faculty in further technological innovations.

The technician complained that faculty don’t use the full potential of existing software. He argued that digital technology “is most powerful” in that it “changes (positively) the way we do things,” and complained that too many faculty simply wanted technology to do things in existing ways. For him, difficulties arise when a person is incompetent in the use of technology.

The faculty member argued that software and hardware often break down, keeping them for doing what they intend. “It’s not reliable. We want it to work.”

In these two comments, we can see very different approaches to computer technology. For the computer technician, faculty are forever disappointing the technology by not engaging with its potential. For the faculty member, technology is something we use and problems arise when the technology “breaks down.”

It wasn’t hard to get them on a different track by helping them understand each other’s point of view. And it was now possible to continue the conversation, enlightened by each other’s point of view and assumptions.

Why are we here? Staff are often ignored in those higher education discussions of (faculty vs. administrative) “cultures,” particularly middle-management, mid-level staff. It’s assumed that for most, it’s just a job, 8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., with stipulated holidays, sick days, etc. In contrast, many faculty may continue to look at their work as a “calling” and a “way of life,” although this might be dismissed as nonsense by some. However, the small scale of the institution leads to nearly everyone’s direct and intensive contact with the primary constituency on our campus -- the students -- whose conversations, aspirations, and relations with staff often help those staff at least understand, if not embrace, the sense of community and common purpose to which we strive. The result is that a good proportion of the staff develops as much of a sense of “calling” as do some faculty -- although this may surprise those faculty.

A particularly dramatic piece of testimony came to me from a staff person who was reflecting on work at the college:

”Being here has lead to a great deal of personal growth, and it is truly the first place I've worked where I feel that I've been able to be a whole person with a well balanced life. [The college] has improved me and really given me the opportunity to change peoples lives... including my own. Everyone, at some point in their life, should spend a decade or more at a place like this. It's hard to pinpoint what "it" is that makes this place unique (and at times uniquely frustrating). Perhaps it's because we're trying to live up to an ideal ... rather than just run a business.  We're measuring ourselves beyond and aspiring to things that can't be reflected totally on a balance sheet. That's unique.”

All this suggests that although some of the subcultural differences may be real, they are not necessarily unbridgeable.  With some understanding that people inside the institution have perspectives, aspirations and perhaps even values that are shaped to an extent by the positions they occupy within the structure, it at least becomes possible to integrate those different perspectives into a larger whole and for each constituency to become informed by the perspectives of the others.

Don't Tell Me What I Said. I Know What I Meant

Misunderstandings that follow from seemingly coherent meetings, memos, and other events are bountiful in my world. One recent researcher on conversational misunderstandings has written:

“Whatever the trigger of a misunderstanding or the extent of our misunderstanding, misunderstandings constitute an ordinary feature of human communication. This amounts to relying on a model of communication in which understanding is not granted … communication is not a matter of replication or duplication of thoughts but rather, it entails a model of transformation and interpretation…”

I have never allowed myself to be surprised by the level of creativity, transformation and interpretation of events in which I have played a part and which I thought I understood. And what I rediscover time and time again is the need to find the shared assumptions that underlie conversation in my office.

Here are some examples:

1. Professors are not private investigators. The science division faculty provided the campus safety office with a list of students allowed after-hours entry to the building to work on laboratory projects. One day a student whose name was on that list complained to their biology advisor that a campus safety officer forced them to leave the building after-hours. The next day, the biology professor sent an e-mail to the campus safety director complaining about this -- a reasonable complaint. The campus safety director responded with an e-mail asking the professor to provide him with information on the time of the incident, where it occurred, and exactly what was said. In turn, the professor responded, with a very angry e-mail, stating that he was insulted with this request, that it was not his job to do investigations, that this was not “a productive use of [his] time”, and that the campus safety officer should simply do what he needed to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

[This example is, of course, exacerbated by the use of e-mail -- although the fact that it was all copied to me, piece by piece, raises a topic for some other paper on academic culture which one day I will write: that is, the need for an “audience” in person-to-person e-mails.]

I intervened, concerned at the vitriolic tone of the professor’s e-mail. I spoke with the director of security. There was no question that he wanted to correct his officer’s mistake but he needed more information. Based on his experience that students were sometimes reluctant to respond to his direct inquiries, and based on his understanding of the close faculty/student relationships, he thought the easiest and fastest way to get the information -- and get the problem solved -- would be for the faculty member to get the information from the student.

The director was not wrong-headed in his assumptions. He did not consider, however, that his request could be interpreted in other ways, namely, as asking someone else to do what should be his own work. The misunderstanding could have been avoided by the director asking for the information OR suggesting that the professor to put the student in contact with the campus safety officer.

2. Advising? Oh, that’s different. For several years, the college has been trying to improve the quality of advising. Here, as at most small schools, all advising is done by continuing faculty members. Upon enrollment, students are assigned an initial advisor based on area of academic interest; upon declaring a major (usually toward the end of the sophomore year, majors switch advisors to someone requested from their major department.

The director of academic advising is an associate dean of the college who hears regularly from students who are dissatisfied with their pre-major advising experience. “Too bureaucratic,” “not really interested in me,” and/or “not easy to talk with” represent the kinds of expression of student dissatisfaction often heard. In the many workshops, public admonishments and pleas, the associate dean (and the dean) have asked the faculty to take this type of advising more seriously and to care about the full scope of a student’s experience, in and out of the classroom, in residential life, etc. And in all these conversations, the deans (if not the faculty as well) have assumed that the principal term of the conversation, i.e., “advising” was defined the same by all parties. However, a recent conversation between the dean and a faculty member may suggest otherwise:

Professor: I don’t feel comfortable going into all that with advisees. I’m just not equipped to deal with the kinds of problems that’ll come forward.

Dean: But this undermines exactly one of the reasons that the small school experience is attractive to folks. No one’s asking you to be a professional counselor, but you’ve got to know how to refer students to a counselor if they’re needed. No one’s asking you to adopt anyone as a ward!

Professor: It just doesn’t make sense to me. I’m not equipped to do this. It makes me uncomfortable. I’ll help with course registration but I can’t do much more than that.

Dean: But we’re not simply in the business of signing off on course registrations and calling that good mentoring.

Professor: Oh, with mentoring it’s something different. I’m really comfortable with the students I mentor about talking about just about anything. I know about their lives, more than I should and I don’t mind giving advice. But my advisees … well, I just help them register for courses.

The remarks of this professor suggested something new -- that she viewed mentoring as something other than advising.  This caused the dean to make similar inquiries of other faculty and to discover that this was a widely held view.

I don’t mean to suggest that cognitive anthropology will be significantly enriched by the discovery of the structure of this segment of someone’s semantic domain; but it certainly holds the potential for re-orienting the discussion of advising in terms that all parties will understand.

3. But the Dean said….  On a more serious note, there is nothing more difficult than finding yourself in a situation where you are depicted, or you appear, to have reneged or withdrawn support after faculty have gone to great effort to work on a project. In these cases, what I have learned is that the key conversations in my office are often informed by background assumptions and definitions of the situation that are not shared; further I have learned that not making those different assumptions and definitions explicit leads -- guaranteed -- to misunderstanding and disaster.

Here again, what is involved is understanding the role that common implicit understandings have on the interaction itself. In a small, face-to-face, and traditionally governed campus such as ours, faculty culture includes a strong notion about the dean’s “approval” of a project. The academy is a world of ideas, many of them wonderful. Faculty come to me with ideas -- for special projects, initiatives, department programs, new emphases. In many cases, they want my response before proceeding. I have learned through examples too painful to describe here that I must take great care to distinguish my view that a project is “interesting” from what can be taken as a formal approval, to make clear what is worth talking about more and what has a “green light” to proceed.

My focus has not been the great achievements and goals on which decanal leadership, if not reputation, is often based. It’s not that I don’t have these goals (or actually realized some of them). But at least at a small college, or my little village, to be precise, much of what I do involves talking, listening, facilitating, intervening, coordinating -- all processes that require constant attention to both the multiple perspectives of different constituencies and the different, often tacit, assumptions they bring to their work and, especially, their interaction with each other. The ethnographic life is clearly not limited to field sites.

To be honest, it is easier to reflect upon all this than it is to live it.

On some days, I’ll confess it’s not clear whether I am part of the problem or part of the solution. On those days, I try to spend as much time as possible stapling and collating -- and stay out of harms’ way.



Lawrence B. Breitborde is dean of the college and professor of anthropology at Knox College. This essay is adapted from a talk he gave at the 2006 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. The examples in this essay are composites, reflecting a range of experiences at his campus and elsewhere, and are designed to shield the identities of those involved.


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