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Levers and dashboards and other monstrous mechanistic metaphors (#1029)

Topics/tags: Academia

The other day, I attended a Q&A period with Stanford’s president. At some point, possibly when discussing alcohol use, he said something like, We’ve pulled a lot of levers, but it hasn’t made a difference. I thought to myself, Mike spent a lot of time talking about levers. Why do administrators like that metaphor?

About a week ago, we received the agenda for last Monday’s Faculty Meeting. In it was a section on the metrics that the Trustee Academic Affairs Committee received [1]. At one time, we would have called that a Dashboard. My brain even suggested that’s how it appeared in the agenda; however, when I went back to the agenda, I discovered that my brain was incorrect.

It may not surprise you to hear that I dislike both metaphors, particularly levers, especially when it is applied to ways in which we attempt to encourage students to behave differently. Perhaps it’s just me, but I find the mechanistic approach troubling. People are not machines and you should neither treat them as such or of about them as such. I worry that these metaphors, like the bean counting I often decry, makes us sound like what one of my colleagues once referred to as a sausage-making machine. That metaphor came from the time in which NCA/HLC asked us to talk about our inputs and outputs and, implicitly, what we did to transform inputs [2]; it seems to be the same thought process.

But we’re talking about people, not machines. Amazingly, people do not behave like machines [4]. Pulling the same lever on two different people will likely have different effects. Consider, for example, sarcasm, one of my personality traits that too often leaks into my teaching. For some students, my painful sarcasm is one of the reasons they love taking classes from me. For a few, it’s terrifying, a reason to consider avoiding CS. In recent years, I’ve worked hard to restrain my sarcasm in class, but have not always been successful.

Whoops. Time to return from that detour. In any case, thinking about my sarcasm as a lever I can use to increase or decrease the number of CS majors seems wrong. Given that the ratio of like to dislike for that trait seems to be high, dialing it up [5] might increase the number of folks who take more classes in CS or take my classes or some such. But it will lose me some people who I would likely appreciate having in my classes and in the major. If we just think about it as a lever, we won’t think about who they are. And we won’t consider them as individuals.

Particularly since Grinnell promotes the individually advised curriculum and individually advised education [6], using a metaphor and approach that treat folks as a group, rather than individuals, is inappropriate. It would be so even if we did not emphasize these things.

I do, of course, realize that most folks on campus understand that a mechanistic approach is problematic. At least I hope that most folks on campus understand. Most of our recent student studies involve a significant qualitative component [7]. Even when folks were talking about dashboards, they did note that the dashboard was not intended to provide complete information; rather, it was to guide folks toward areas that seemed to need further exploration. I must also admit that I also find these kinds of data useful to initiate a series of questions: Why is this happening? What else can we find out about it? How do we address underlying or related issues?

But language has power. Metaphors shape the way we think. If we use metaphors like lever and dashboard, we subtly encourage ourselves and others to move away from a humanistic understanding toward a much more mechanistic model. So let’s stop using these mediocre metaphors.

I’m glad the Trustees are using metrics. I’m glad that I have not yet heard the term lever from Dean Harris. Her fondness for Towers of Babel and rhizomes strikes me as much more promising, as does her recent comment at a faculty meeting that We need to understand the individual stories.

[1] Someone probably should have warned AIR that this was being released, since people like me often send out questions when they see data.

[2] If I recall correctly, it was something like You certainly graduate talented students. However, you also accept talented students, so that’s not surprising. How can you demonstrate that you have done something for [3] them during their time at Grinnell? And, like many HLC/NCA questions, it seemed to call for quantitative answers, rather than a careful description of how we see students grow.

[3] to?

[4] Machines also do not behave like people.

[5] How’s that for mixing metaphors.

[6] The sign at the Des Moines airport says A guided, individualized experience for the intellectually engaged.

[7] Thanks to the awesome folks in AIR for that, particularly the one most often tasked with handling interviews.

Version 1.0 of 2020-03-08.