We’re reaching the point at which we have to make decisions about classes for the fall semester. Alert readers will notice that it’s February, which isn’t especially autumnal in the Northern Hemisphere. But with fall registration opening in March for continuing students, and many high school seniors making decisions in April, we have to get to it.
This year it’s more difficult than in the past, for obvious reasons. With a fuzzy crystal ball, it’s tempting to want to wait until we have more clarity. But certainty will come much too late. So we need to pretend to at least some certainty if we’re going to get anything done. It’s a bit like Pascal’s wager: if we’re wrong, we’re no worse off than we are now, but if we’re right, good things happen. So we take a shot.
My preferred method for dealing with issues like these is to rely on a sort of in-house federalism. The job of the senior leadership is to set parameters but not to decide specific cases. The parameters should be broadly fair, with an asterisk for cases in which robotic application of a rule would lead to ridiculous outcomes. But the concept of “parameters” doesn’t always translate: some take them as heavy-handed dictates, others as meaningless abstractions.
When pressed, I sometimes refer to them as heuristics. That’s even worse.
This week a colleague suggested a better term: big details.
I like that a lot. It’s a bit of an oxymoron, although we don’t usually refer to “little details” as a redundancy. Big details are practical and specific, but they apply differently in different cases. A big detail might be “the majority of classes will be in person.” That doesn’t say anything about any particular class, but it’s specific enough to be a useful guide to action. It provides a sense of overall direction while leaving considerable flexibility in individual cases.
Big details are where I spend most of my time. Sweeping rhetoric is typically the domain of presidents and faculty (albeit in different ways). I keep my rhetorical chops in shape by writing, but that’s a personal choice rather than a job requirement. Big details are those complicated questions in which you have to draw on a lot of contextual knowledge, some sense of human behavior and an awareness of multiple audiences with separate agendas. “Why wouldn’t you let faculty teach their entire loads asynchronously?” Because some enterprising reporter would find out about some professor who took weeks out of the semester to go someplace lurid and would publish a story that would hurt the college for years. “Why did you choose to start developing competency-based coursework in the context of dual enrollment?” Because dual enrollment isn’t eligible for financial aid anyway. “What do you have against programs like Cengage Unlimited? They save students money!” I endured Comcast long enough to know how for-profit monopolies behave, given the chance. No, thanks. Besides, I can imagine how I would have reacted as a professor if I had been told I could only use one publisher.
If sweeping rhetoric is pure science, then big details are engineering. In a given year, you lose 10 faculty to retirement or other departure, and you can afford to hire four. How do you choose? Saying “the needs of the students” only gets you so far; students need all sorts of professors. Typically, at least eight of the 10 positions have good arguments for hiring, as do another half dozen other positions held over from previous years; which good arguments do you turn down? And how do you explain your choices to legitimately frustrated colleagues?
Big details often have to be written in pencil. That’s because circumstances change, and the choices made rely at least partially on circumstance. That’s a feature, not a bug, but some people will only notice the shift in direction and not see the change in context. They will infer other reasons. It comes with the gig.
So, down with parameters and heuristics. It’s time for big details.