Belief and Lazy Consensus: Focusing on Governance

Soccer field--OttawaA crucial word in the world of soccer commentary is belief. Related to confidence, belief names the sense a team or player has that they can impose their shape or will on a game.

Belief is somewhat like momentum, in that it’s difficult to quantify but clearly visible. A solid goalie lets in an uncharacteristically bad goal, and a team will deflate for ten minutes; likewise, a series of big saves can help an overmatched team find the creativity to steal some goals of their own. (I’ve always liked Alan Jacobs’s post on penalty kicks as an illustration of belief.)

I think there’s a metaphor here that’s related to faculty governance.

The simultaneous erosion of tenure-track positions over the past three decades and the systematic abuse of contingent appointments has, as Debra Lee Scott has recently observed, left professors discombobulated: “We have been deprofessionalized. And by de-professionalizing us, the administration has gained control and silenced the faculty” (via Jonathan Rees).

The quietism of some faculty stems from many sources: the desire not to seem like a crank; misconceiving of the work of the university as “service” rather than governance; deciding to focus on your disciplinary colleagues elsewhere (or online) instead of your institution; a healthy human hatred of meetings–all of these add up to a sort of despair that the faculty can make a difference.

They amount, in short, to a crisis in belief.

Faculty are outstanding grumblers, so it may be surprising to talk about quietism–but there’s a difference between complaining and working to address a problem. Each ought to have its day, but too often the stress remains on the former, and those complaints end up failing to drive change.

I will always be an admirer of those who try to support faculty governance and independent judgment, and those who speak up for the institutionally silenced. I’m even unreasonably fond of Bethany Nowviskie’s avowedly reckless proposal, in “lazy consensus,” to adopt an “extreme bias towards action” in academic governance, by deciding “the default answer is always yes.”

It’s reckless because, as she admits repeatedly insists that “In order to give you this advice in good conscience, I need to paste warning stickers all over it. And this is what they say: “You must only use lazy consensus to do what you know is right.” From my point of view, “doing what you know is right” often leads to some pretty shocking abuses.

But Nowviskie is trying to find local ways to grapple with the crisis in belief:

Now, my point with these examples has not been to push any one agenda at you, but to suggest that lazy consensus has already been working against us in every case where we don’t engage. You can easily see its negative side in the wider political arena. But on the very local level, it kicks in and becomes a factor in any set of decisions where we developers and systems folks and middle management get so busy that we go completely heads-down and become oblivious to larger trends and directions. When that happens, we end up not having a voice. We end up being the people who don’t speak up even though we’re nominally represented, and no matter what we may really think, we are therefore assumed to be a +1.

Finding our way out of that oblivion strikes me as absolutely critical. (My preferred strategies tend to involve identifying key people to run for offices, and then working to help their election.)

(Plus, the guiding spirit of Nowviskie’s talk is “drive it like you stole it,” which gives me an opportunity to rejoin, “she drove it fast, and with a multitude of casualties.”)

Photo “Soccer Field–Ottawa” by Flickr user Kasia/flickr / Creative Commons licensed BY-ND-2.0

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