For those of us in academic land, it’s the start of a new semester and what does that bring? Right, a week of stunningly boring orientation meetings which are the fault of no one; it’s written into the DNA of orientation to be both boring and stressful. There are things I love and loathe about higher education: I love teaching, I love working with students, I love talking about big ideas with colleagues and hoping to stumble upon a big idea of my own once or twice a year. My own personal idiosyncratic loathing usually centers around one thing: administrative bureaucracy. Let me be specific: department meetings.
Academics are good at things…that’s why we get all the letters at the end of our names. It’s just that our strengths lie in the largely esoteric realm: theorizing, writing long discursive sentences, correctly employing the semi-colon, raising anti-social behavior to both a science and an art. These are all true for me, although I’ve been raised with one foot in academia and the other in the exciting jungle of nonprofits in which my academic proclivities are tempered by the cultivation of a scrappy sense of survival. I can proudly claim that I’ve nearly successfully linked my outlook and gmail calendars (and if you’ve tried, you know this is a badge of honor); I can fully unjam, reload, replace the toner, and finish a copy job set to make booklets in color; I can create a meeting agenda in Word with stable margins and the ability to do bulleted lists under each item. Like an alley squirrel eating a fully intact bag of McDonald’s french fries, I’ve learned how to make it work, whatever it is even when it doesn’t survive my attempt, like the office computer I tried to de-frag. RIP Dell Inspiron.
With this in mind, then, you may understand that when academics are left to plan and implement effective strategies regarding anything that the rest of the world might see as “normal,” they appear joyfully unprepared to me. And they should, because we need academics to do bigger things: like think the things and make the world make sense (good luck in these times). Conversely, watching CEO’s try to think a big thought and watching their heads explode both at the reality that they can’t do it and also at the complex range of emotions stemming from their ultra-competitive nature to need to do it is equally entertaining. It’s really about knowing our roles and playing our parts.
So I had a funny cross-over moment not long ago when I was in this department meeting and worlds converged in a way that just made me laugh out loud. In my day job, I’ve come to one very clearly drawn conclusion about working in groups: if you want a project to die, you give it to a task force. Task forces are even worse than academic bureaucracy. The reason: they largely involve volunteers with little applicable skill to the problem and tender, entitled egos or voluntolds who aren’t getting paid extra to sit in another meeting with people who say things like, “In our community, we just need to support each other” or worse, “we should make a resource guide.”
In nonprofits, the actual work of a task force is usually done by one bedraggled staff person in 4 hours and then meted out to the Task Force for reporting, pats on the back, and proclamations of success. It’s how it goes. A task force is like a limousine in a parade: barely functional but impressive looking in that specific context. Any mayor worth their salt is gonna make up at least one totally inconsequential task force. This is exactly why I immediately started making fun of the Space Force; it’s not that I hate space (hardly…I LOVE space). It’s that they gave it a task force-y name. And we all know what follows next which it did: a ripped-off insignia on a flag and important-looking people walking around saying words that mean nothing. All show, no substance.
Anyhoo, back in my department meeting. I was basking in the glow of discussion around generalized assessments and enrollment statistics when, and I don’t know who said it, I heard someone from the dark corners of Zoom report, “That’s in task force phase.” Snapped to attention, I guffawed at the thought of academic bureaucracy ratcheted up another notch by nothing other than a task force represented as a phase. This is like layering sweaters for warmth or colors for depth, a task force as only a piece of something larger blew my mind–it’s almost like omnibus inefficiency as a concept now is real. I was at once floored and enamored: if there’s one thing academics do extremely well, it’s complicate the shit out of things just because we can. I almost felt a little proud of this smaller school in the grand scheme, realizing heights of organized, rationalized inefficiency that only four-year institutions and small but proud municipalities usually have the manpower to produce. It was magnificent.
I will say this of all of my time working in a community setting in the context of a nonprofit: the one thing I’ve learned is that any kind of movement toward the cause of social reflex–helping people, improving conditions or experience, “making things better”–is usually only brought to fruition when a small, streamlined, highly skilled and coordinated group with effectiveness and efficiency as the first goal plan, act, and review in a relatively short time frame. The slimmer the plan, the less chance for sticky wickets and squeaky wheels (and any other workplace metaphor that applies) to gum up the plan which was probably great to begin with and needed no editing. The best method proves time and time again to be a surgical strike as opposed to mapped out, strategized theater of lines of action working synchronously, requiring a hulking army of forces that need training and orders, whining about sleeping conditions and lack of snacks.
Or god forbid, a Space Force.