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Aug 19, 2010

The ethics of simplicity

Some years ago I was writing about complexity. It seemed to me mostly a question of efficiency. I now think it is also an ethical issue. When our programs are too complex, and our communications are too confusing, who is impacted? – The most vulnerable amongst our students. Those include the first generation in college, or unlucky enough to live in a wrong neighborhood and attend a wrong high school. Students who have not had enough exposure to official language and complicated procedures tend to be intimidated and less likely to pursue a teaching career or even stay in college.  
It is often attributed to Mark Twain (although it probably belongs to Blaise Pascal), - "If I Had More Time I Would Write a Shorter Letter." This is not a joke; effective communication requires substantial time. To edit handbooks, websites, and guides takes much time, which we do not usually have. What seems a trivial matter, - where should admission requirements to FSEHD be posted?, - actually takes much thought. But this goes beyond communications. Adding requirements, forms, checklists, assessments, and procedures is not always done with the organizational ecology in mind. In other words, people who make a decision to introduce one of these are not always the same people who get to implement it. Moreover, they do not know how the new thing interacts with all other requirements, forms, checklists, assessments, and procedures, and how a student can navigate all of those. And because procedures evolve over years, they tend to accumulate. And we tend to get used to the complexity we create as we learn to navigate through it.  However, our students are always new; this is something Hannah Arendt called the human condition of natality. If I am lost in the School’s website, imagine an 18 year old, with no knowledge of college systems, of teacher education conventions and no parent to call on for help.
And because we make things more complicated than necessary, and then fail to explain them clearly, we end up with an enormous burden of academic advising. Some administrators have a romantic notion of advising: deep conversations about meaning of student’s life and career, mentoring about life and professional choices. But most of us know that 99% of advising encounters consist of explaining the same thing over and over again, - simply because students failed to grasp the meaning of it through catalogs and websites, or did not understand how to complete a form. And then we get irritated at them for being so… young?
I am not being critical here; this is just a reflection on how things work, and how we can understand and resist the flow of complexity. This is just a plea to treat simplicity as a moral imperative. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this posting Sasha. We get used to the complexity, that's right, and our students are always new. If we take into consideration this audience we seek to affect,we probably won't take students and their new realities for granted.