Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Ambivalence in Scholarship

[Update: Tim Vogus has responded to this post.]

As a writing coach, my job is to help people establish and maintain a process that reliably produces publishable prose, and the authors I work with are famously at risk of "perishing" professionally if they don't succeed. In that sense, I guess I'm helping them to manage a "high-reliability organization", namely, their own writing process, which is in an important sense an "existential" issue for them. I encourage them to face the problem resolutely and unsentimentally, to establish dependable, predictable routines, to reduce the complexity of the problem to a level that is manageable from day to day, and to ensure that they plan their tasks so that they complement each other. I have even been known to suggest that authors cultivate a kind of zen-like "mindfulness" about their writing.

I was therefore a bit disconcerted to read the recommendations of four sensemaking scholars—Vogus, Rothman, Sutcliffe and Weick (2014)—to the effect that mindfulness in high-reliability organizations depends on avoiding "routinization" and on "designing jobs in complex and contradictory ways" with the aim of fostering "emotional ambivalence". It seems like the opposite of what I recommend. So, either I am wrong about how to organize the writing process, or I am wrong to think of scholarship on the model of a high-reliablity organization, or they are wrong about the value of emotional ambivalence. I lean towards to the latter.

But in regard to the question of whether scholars can learn from hospital administrators or flight controllers or, say, wildland firefighters, it is important to note that this is not an analogy I've invented. In an influential paper from 1996, Karl Weick suggested that, since firefighters sometimes die because they "drop their tools" too late when running away from a fire, scholars should also unburden themselves of their rigor in order to remain agile in the face of a rapidly changing world. (I should note here that Weick sometimes reaches the opposite conclusion, saying how important it is to hang onto your tools in order to maintain a sense of purpose.) On the face of it, I also think universities should feel beholden to high standards of reliability, even if failure is less dramatic than in the case of a nuclear power plant or a taxiing 747.

Yesterday, I pointed out that many academics, consciously or not, justifiably or not, actually feel abused by their administrators, who might precisely be said to foster, or appear to foster, a high degree of emotional ambivalence in the faculty. I think Andrew Gelman put his finger on something important in the Whitaker plagiarism case at Arizona State University by emphasizing, in the ASU website's description of President Michael Crow, the conflict between "academic excellence" and "societal impact". (Andrew, however, didn't quite share my sense of the tension between these two values in general. See the comments.) In my view, we can openly acknowledge the trade-off, and this involves no ambivalence at all. What Vogus, Rothman, Sutcliffe and Weick might be suggesting in such cases is precisely what ASU is doing, namely, "equivocating" (another favored term in sensemaking scholarship). Instead of saying, "Yes, Whitaker's work is academically shoddy, but we're weighing this against his strong commitment to social issues," the administration's line seems to be that Whitaker, in some vague and unspecified sense, "combines the highest levels of academic excellence, inclusiveness to a broad demographic, and maximum societal impact."

On a practical, day-to-day level, Whitaker's own actions might have been motivated by his attempt to think, as Vogus et al. suggest, in a "prosocial" way in the context of a job that has been explicitly designed to be both "complex" and "contradictory". As a result, his work (like Weick's, not incidentally) has come to be marred by plagiarism. I really do hope that hospitals and fire departments don't swallow this message too uncritically, though I'm afraid there is some evidence that the value of ambivalence is touted in all kinds of contexts. If you ask me, this is not a very "mindful" way to do your writing. And there is, unfortunately, also evidence that the writing processes of sensemaking scholars are ambivalent in precisely this way, and that brings us back to the problem of "patchwriting", which I'll take up in the posts to come.

[Continues here with Tim Vogus' response]


Jonathan said...

There's the idea a messy desk fosters creativity. More generally, you want to have creative people have a more relaxed, less structured environment. On the other hand, if your work is already cognitively complex, then you might also want to cut out a cognitive overload. You want to be concentrated, but distractions can also liberate the imagination. It seems to me like this is not explicit in the management literature (as you describe it). Certain things are better routinized, because you don't want to have your travel reimbursement procedure to change every month. On the other hand, you can't routinize so much that people perform truly significant tasks mechanically.

Imagine a secret agent. Sh/e must have very rigid procedures for certain tasks, and never do certain compromising things. But also be able to improvise and think outside the procedures when necessary.

Academics sometimes overthink things that should be simple. Let's put our cognitive energy into places it's really needed, not maximize it in the environment around us.

Thomas said...

I think the important difference here is between having a messy desk and having your boss coming into your office once a week to mess up your desk.

Jonathan said...

Good point. I'm suspicious of management theory that says "keep your employees on their toes." It just seems so self-serving. Keep them off center so they'll be more docile and afraid.

Thomas said...

Yes. In this case, the language is a bit less brutish, but I worry that the effect is the same. "Keep them ambivalent emotionally so they will behave in a 'prosocial' manner." What was it E.E. Cummings said? "When Americans stop being themselves they start behaving each other."