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May 25, 2007

The cost of fairness

It’s Friday before the Memorial Day weekend. Absolutely no one will read this, I hope. People should be enjoying the summer weather, resting, reading trashy novels, taking trips; not working.

I have been thinking a lot of the world of work, and its opposition to the world of leisure. This has to do with my theoretical understanding of learning as a form of labor. But as an administrator, I have to deal with work every day: how do I make people’s work more productive?

Human civilization is, in fact, a complicated device for making people work – to work more, or to work more efficiently, or both. It is also a way of enhancing the world of leisure, although if you take a look at it, we are much more sophisticated in work than in leisure. Our pleasures are still very similar to those of animals, and they revolve around the body pleasures and entertainment. But we have invented a lot of ways making each other work. Why? The further away we are from naturally entertaining hunting and gathering, the more boring most of the work becomes. The division of labor especially made us more efficient at very narrow operations, but the operations themselves become less and less entertaining.

For example, this week I needed some data to be entered – from paper into a database. It’s very boring, but we have our wonderful work study students. Labor relations are very simple with them – they will do it because we pay them an hourly wage; they are free to quit at any time, we are more or less free to fire them at any time. Things get a bit more complicated when we need to do something more complicated, but perhaps just as boring, say, writing various reports. The labor relationships between universities and faculty are immensely complicated, and for a good reason. Faculty are not laborers; they have a great degree of independence and power. This is, of course, what makes it so interesting to work with them, but this is what makes getting things done more difficult sometimes.

If you just ask people to do additional things on top of what they normally do, they may resist for obvious reasons. However, if you try to introduce a by-hour sort of compensation for specific small jobs, they will get offended, because you treat them like laborers. Many faculty work really hard, but most are under the impression that they work harder than the next person, thus the equity considerations. Most people feel strongly about their commitment to students and to our common goals, but they also do not want to be taken advantage of, and do not want someone else to slack off. Of course, those worries are warranted, because some people do work much more than others. But can we know exactly, who and how much more? Not without resorting to some minute hour-by-hour record keeping system. But such a system would be offensive to everyone because it reduces the faculty member status to that of a laborer for hire, mainly because it would rob a faculty member of independence. Such is the price of complete fairness.

This is what happened to K-12 teachers: in search for fairness, equity, and security, they, as traded independence and professional status off for fairness and equity. You cannot be a professional and have the end of school day specified at 3:34 in your contract). This is the dilemma for university faculty, especially in the age of accountability. We do not want faculty reduced to the level of a laborer, and yet we have a strong interest in equity and fairness.

I was thinking about these things as the College Directors were struggling to find a way of distributing summer stipends. I was one of those initially arguing for minute, detailed analysis of people’s work. Some of my more experienced colleagues were hesitant to do so, and they were right. At one point a faculty member told me that he does not want to get paid at all if the compensation is, let’s say, $5 for doing one specific little task. At that moment I began to realize that fairness comes at a price, and it can be humiliating. So, when I started to divide up whatever little money we have, my lenses have changed: I had to think about these sums to be a small, and how people would react to minute, detailed justifications for every dollar. So, some vagueness, and more egalitarian distribution would do better for the morale, even if it is less than fair to individuals. For example, a stipend of $1125 might be offensive, while $1000 might be OK. Getting paid $100 when someone else gets $2000 maybe fair but offensive, while a smaller gap would be more acceptable to both parties.

As universities become more and more business-like and start counting money like any other organization, they will benefit from paying close attention to their specific culture, with strong egalitarian tradition, and genuine concern with independence and respect. However, in order to survive, the universities must learn to be a lot more flexible, competitive, and enterprising. How do you reconcile these contradictory considerations?


  1. Dear Dr.Sidorkin
    I found your blog on boredom and work interesting. I respond to the same--yes, I am going off a little at a tangent--with one of my writeups 'Boredom and Education', penned in 1989.

    Boredom and Education
    If there is one word that students all over the world use most frequently it is ‘boring’. Surprisingly very few attempts have been made in the West to study boredom in the educational setting and virtually none in India. The contrast with the volume of research on the topic in the work-setting is striking.
    The earlier theories about boredom postulated monotony—the physical monotony of stimulation impinging on the individual—as the necessary and sufficient condition for the occurrence of boredom. Obviously these theories ignored individual differences in susceptibility to boredom which was presently hypothesized and confirmed by surveys among subjects engaged in monotonous work. In other words it was established that sensory monotony is not a sufficient condition for the occurrence of boredom. Anecdotal evidence and experimental research indicate that sensory monotony is not even a necessary condition for boredom: we have come across people who complain about boredom in what we would generally rate as exciting events; and, a researcher has found his subjects describing a task of challenging visual complexity as boring. That is, people express feelings of boredom even in the absence of sensory monotony.
    This confirmation of the hypothesis of sensory monotony-as-the-cause-of-boredom has tremendous implications for instructional theory and practice. Instructional theory has been increasingly harping upon a need for stimulus variation for retaining the learners’ interest and for achieving optimal teaching effectiveness. Though practice has seldom been as vigorous as formal subscription to theory would have us expect all sorts of teaching aids and audiovisual equipment increasingly occupy center-stage for, and practical examinations of, student teachers. Flourishing too many aids for the sake of stimulus variation—even if they be pertinent—may turn out to be instructionally dysfunctional, after all!
    Of course, infants are highly susceptible to the attraction of colourful moving and changing objects. They can be initiated into learning only through stimulus variation. As they grow older, however, they must be ‘weaned’ away from fixation at the sensory level. Piaget’s theory can be a fruitful source for deciding the proper mix of external stimulus variation and intrinsic motivations for achieving optimal learning at different stages of cognitive growth and development. This is a significant area for empirical research in the field of developmental psychology. Ultimately as the nomenclature of the final stage of ‘formal operational’ in Piaget’s schema indicates, the growing individual must learn to transcend the need for sensory “crutches” and carry on abstract learning and thinking.
    Recent studies indicate that subjectively perceived lack of meaning may be a more important determinant of boredom than monotony in objective sensory stimulation. In fact, experimental evidence is to the effect that a series of stimuli was perceived as homogeneous and monotonous when the subjects had no interest in the series, and the same was perceived as varied and fascinating by subjects who had evinced prior interest in the theme of the series. That is, boredom seems to be the cause and (perceived) monotony of sensory stimulus, the effect rather than the other way about.
    If stimulus variation is no guarantee against the occurrence of boredom in adolescents and adults, then what is the prophylaxis for this bane of human life in general and of the work setting and the classroom in particular?
    Boredom has been found to be strongly but inversely associated with an individual’s subjective motivations. Activities resulting in high level of frustration have been found boring, those ending in mild frustration were disliked and those offering motivational satisfaction were characterized as interesting. The motivation in question may be instrumental and extrinsic or immediate and intrinsic. If it is instrumental motivation that is to be harnessed to the task on hand, the relevance of the task to the instrumental link in the chain of motives leading to ultimate intrinsic satisfaction may have to be made explicit to the subject at the outset by rational demonstrations, and reinforced now and then by the same procedure if the level of motivation drops. And, of course, the curriculum must be continually redesigned and articulated with the individual’s changing patterns of maintenance and growth motivations.
    Thus the problem of boredom in education can and must be tackled not at the psychological sensory-surface level but at the deeper psychological level of motivation. Researches in this area increasingly confirm what we surmise through our common sense: that we cannot lure adolescents and adults too often into something irrelevant to their needs simply by flourishing before their eyes colourful visuals, and that the best way to eliminate boredom is by ensuring and clarifying the relevance of the curriculum to the needs of the learner.

  2. Your reflections on motivation for work led me to remember the last sentence in Herzberg's book on motivation to work. That sentence is in answer to the million dollar question:

    'What makes people work?'
    'Had I known that I would not have been writing this book'! and Herzberg,if I remember right, has been consultant to ILO!