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Feb 27, 2009

Candy in the box

Two full days: that is how long it took me to do evaluations this year. It is a tense time of the year, because of the spring fatigue and the evaluations. I am called to judge my friends and colleagues, with whom I work every day. No one likes to be judged, because no one else knows better how hard one worked and how much one has accomplished. The easy way for me would be to rubber-stump the results of peer evaluations and be done with that. It is a temptation, of course, but it does not work. The reason for several levels of review is exactly to ensure that sometimes I can disagree with faculty, and the Dean can disagree with either or both of previous evaluations. This is because we have different information, and develop different view on things, so our assessments average into something fairer than one person is capable of producing.

One thing I noticed this year is that faculty members do not always know the extent and the nature of work that a program coordinator performs. Much of this work is unglamorous; it does not attract much attention, and does not place one in the spotlight. I know more about these things, just because much of it interacts with me and the School office. So, I have an idea of how much time, effort, and creativity it takes, for example, to figure out a schedule, to hire a new part time faculty, or respond to one of many student crises. But we rarely have time to talk about this at our meetings, so people who do not talk a lot about what they do may not be recognized enough. Note for self: create more opportunities and spaces for faculty to talk about their work to each other. Highlight people's accomplishments and achievements more often, even though they are not as sexy as a new book or a new grant.

The general rule is this: no one can know everything; our information access is always limited. Because of this, there is a grown-up version of what psychologists call egocentrism. I quote from the Wikipedia article linked here: "if a child sees that there is candy in a box, he assumes that someone else walking into the room also knows that there is candy in that box. He implicitly reasons that "since I know it, you should too"." We supposedly grow out of it in adulthood, but not completely. It is hard to remember that the work I did with person A or person B maybe completely unknown to the rest of the faculty. This applies, by the way, both accomplishments and shortcomings. So, you find yourself wondering: why on Earth would they make that judgment? The more often than not answer is: they don't know what you know, and they know what you don't know. Another version of the same explanation is: they don't have the same objectives as you may have, so they think differently.

Of course, in the peer evaluation process, people put together their dossiers, and present what they accomplished. But here, again, the same adult egocentrism works in its subtle ways. The way most people present their work includes many assumptions about others' knowledge that are often false. And this also goes in both directions: you may simply mention something, assuming everyone will immediately recognize what an accomplishment it is, and they may have little idea about it. Or, you hype your accomplishments too much, or go into too much detail, or embellish them just a little, and your readers lose confidence in what they see. As a result, they underestimate your real achievements. And of course, we don't know what is real. If the outcomes of scholarship and teaching are more or less measurable in principle, service is entirely different. The number of committees one serves on is not a good criterion. Keeping track of one's hours seems embarrassing. Some people tend to seek high-profile service commitments, while others do low-profile things that just needed to be done. Some people create enormous value to the group through informal channels, without ever forming a committee. Others do a lot of good, just not for this School. How do you measure and compare any of it? And almost everyone believes that their service is the hardest, the most needed, and the most important. That's because every one of you have the most abundant, excessive knowledge of only one person – yourself.

It gets more interesting when people discover that faculty, or the director, or the Dean disagree with them on their self-assessment. If you forget about the information asymmetry, the only possible explanation is value-laden – those people are mean to me, don't like me, or not too smart. But if you think about it, this is not too far from the child's "since I know it, you should too." And if you start entertaining the emotional explanations, then your own lenses as an evaluator also get skewed, so a little vicious game of retaliation may creep in, unnoticed.

We're not in danger of corrupting the process; far from it. Most people do a lot of good work, and most people approach each other's records very fairly. We improved the whole process enormously, thanks to the faculty of this School. We have a lot of trust and respect for each other. Just to make sure we keep it that way, and make it better, I would like to remind everyone about the egocentrism and information asymmetry. If you see that candy in the box, it does not mean others see it. Nor does it mean that if you tell them about your candy in your box they will necessarily imagine it the same way.

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