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Feb 24, 2012

Professional culture and the coping organization

The class I teach now uses James Wilson’s classic 1989 text Bureaucracy. He writes about the “coping organizations,” whose operators cannot be effectively observed for compliance with input procedures, and the organization does not have easily measurable outcomes. Colleges and school are like that. Professors are free to do whatever they want in their classrooms; they can only be occasionally observed, or we can get student evaluations – both are highly imperfect measures. And even when someone is clearly found to be lacking basic teaching skills, consequences are hard to enforce. The outcomes are almost impossible to measure, despite all the talk about learning outcomes. Only scholarship can be measured somewhat, although fairly imperfectly. Wilson actually says that “in coping organization, effective management is almost impossible” (Page 175), a great news for all chairs, deans, and provosts out there.

What still works well for coping organizations is professional culture and peer expectations. In some departments where the community is stronger, peer expectations are better communicated; they include professional norms, which most members will do their best to uphold. Those boil down to “doing a good job” and “pulling one’s fair share.” In such departments, faculty members do not hesitate to seek and offer help, and they find ways of informally recognizing good work and sanctioning bad behavior.

The other kind of the spectrum is a department where people withdraw into their own personal or small group niches. It is generally known who is a good teacher and who is a terrible one, but very little social reward of sanction applied to those outliers. In other words, people tend to be equally friendly with each other; no one gets cold shoulder or extra respect. The only way to maintain this sort of peace is to avoid having professional conversations at all: how are we doing, what’s good teaching, what works and what does not. In such departments, most problems are attributed to “our students,” who are too immature, or prejudiced, or not smart enough. This is an equivalent of doctors complaining of just how sick their patients are, a sure sign of the weak professional culture. Another common complaint is that administration does not know what it is doing (which may or may not be true), and we are so underpaid and overworked. All faculty everywhere feel underpaid, overworked, and incompetently managed; the difference is that in the second kind of the department, those external things are used to show how doing a good job is impossible.

Professionals, according to Wilson, are people whose reference group is primarily within their own profession, not outside. It is an exclusive club that possesses special knowledge, and enforces its own norms of good work and ethical behavior. Professional culture is actually much more important than any kind of evaluation system, any sort of incentive structure, or any administrative attempts to improve work performance. So people like me are better off trying to influence the professional culture than directly influencing either inputs or outcomes. It is very difficult to do, because shifting cultural norms is hard from the outside the group. It is, however, not that difficult from the inside. It is a matter of leadership, of taking charge, of initiating an honest discussion. The departments with suppressed professional culture always include the majority of people who do know and share the professional ethos. For a variety of reasons, they simply lost the collective habit of making those explicit. All they need to do is start talking to each other about those things we all believe are important. They should not accord each other the same level of respect, but differentiate between those who are professionals and who forgot or never knew how to be one.

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