Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Rage against "the powers that be"

Remember my rant about empty buzzwords, from a couple weeks back? Let me introduce you to Unsuck It, a web based translation service to turn corporate jargon into normal language. (Props to The New Yorker for blogging about this.)You input the term ("low hanging fruit," say), click UNSUCK IT, and out pops the translation ("easy goal"). If the term isn't in there, you can crowdsource a definition (twitter link: "Hey, Lazyweb. Help me define silo #unsuckit"). If you find your obnoxious term, you can "Email the douchebag who used it."

(Sidebar: is "douchebag" a sexist metaphor?)

There are not enough terms in the Unsuck It dictionary yet (hey, lazyweb: ditch "enhance" #beforeilosemymind). What was particularly disappointing to me today is that there is no entry for "the powers that be." Because if I could excise any particular phrase from the academic lexicon, that would be the one.

My first objection is that "the powers that be" is vague. Consider its 73 synonyms from the Moby Thesaurus:
John Bull, Rasputin, Svengali, Uncle Sam, VIP, Washington,
   Whitehall, access, bad influence, big wheel, bureaucracy, court,
   directorate, eminence grise, five-percenter, friend at court,
   good influence, gray eminence, heavyweight, hidden hand, hierarchy,
   higher echelons, higher-ups, holdover, incumbent, influence,
   influence peddler, influencer, ingroup, ins, jack-in-office, key,
   kingmaker, lame duck, lobby, lobbyist, lords of creation,
   man of influence, management, manipulator, ministry, new broom,
   office-bearer, officeholder, officialdom, open sesame, prelacy,
   president-elect, pressure group, public official, public servant,
   ruling class, ruling classes, sinister influence,
   special interests, special-interest group, the Crown,
   the Establishment, the administration, the authorities,
   the government, the ingroup, the interests, the people upstairs,
   the power elite, the power structure, the top, them, they,
   top brass, very important person, wheeler-dealer, wire-puller

Whenever you're blaming Whitehall and the wheeler-dealer, you know you've lost your rhetorical way.

But my real objection is that "the powers that be," in a university context, eviscerates an entire tradition of collegial governance. It's a lazy shortcut, an abdication of intellectual and political responsibility that lets you bitch about - whatever - without making even the slightest effort to understand where the objectionable policy / procedure / rule / requirement comes from. I've worked at a university for a long time and I have yet to see any curriculum, spending, research, outreach, teaching, administrative, intellectual, or financial decision conveyed in an email from Jesus@HeavenlyKingdom. It may feel like "the administration" is ruining ___ [insert fail] ___, but the complaint at the heart of the usage can almost always be traced to specific decisions made by actual people in an institutional context at a particular historical moment. That doesn't mean the decisions are good, but they are historical and therefore subject to change.

Our tradition of academic self-governance is precious. Canadian public universities are not corporate structures, but there are some worrying trends in that direction, and they are often conveyed through objectionable policies, procedures, rules and requirements. Object to them - please: do it for yourself, do it for your students, do it for the ideas you care about and for the common good. But please also do it as smartly as you can.

3 comments:

  1. YES, douchebag IS a sexist label!

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  2. On a more serious note (though I do want to say that historical sensibilities should appreciate that douchebag is a sexist label), I completely agree that using terms like "powers that be" is an abnegation of collegial and professional responsibility. But I also have to point out that it is getting more difficult to influence decision-making at the university. I have just finished proof-reading Louise Forsyth's article (forthcoming in our co-edited collection, Not Drowning But Waving -- plug plug) on the human rights complaint she and several other women brought forward with regard to the CRC program. Their complaint addressed the paucity of women CRCs, but also the lack of transparency in the ways that most Canadian universities appointed CRCs, with complete disregard of normal hiring practices. Well ... those now look like the good old days. More and more strategically important decisions -- decisions that determine the flow of resources to classrooms and research and our paycheques, not to mention tenure-stream appointments at the normal assistant professor level -- are being taken behind closed doors. And, for the youngest generation of academics, this is normal. It's all they've seen. That is especially worrying.

    This is not an argument for passivity or quiescence. It is an observation that the stakes are higher -- money that used to go to teaching and research and positions is now going to fund massive projects requiring no collegial oversight or approval. It is also an observation that intervening is more difficult. But also more necessary.

    At the very, very least we should all be attending our council meetings and asking informed and pointed questions of the "powers that be."

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  3. @Jo-Ann: Exactly. More difficult, more important. Do you know that SSHRC is withholding some competition results until after the election??

    Two things I would have worked out in this morning's post if I'd had more time and less migraine: 1) Although it's also probably true that we need beefier unions or faculty associations, I don't want those to take on work that is properly academic either; 2) There is a conservative side to this DIY philosophy which I'm also trying to skirt. Yesterday the UofA president held a town hall (another odious concept, IMO), and the answers to our questions amounted to "You can do it!" For instance, Q: What are you going to do about low morale? A: You have to celebrate each other's accomplishments.

    I also think it can be hard these days to speak up. I'll use the presidential town hall (seriously, what kind of town has a president?) again, which felt very chilly - both in the event itself and in the instantaneous spin. Staffers were tweeting the event (w/o announcing the hashtag publicly, message being this is OUR show not yours) in a way that felt positively Orwellian. An undergrad from China said "I could have gone anywhere in Canada, but I came here. I love the UofA, but I'm wondering what exactly you see this university as offering international students that other Canadian universities don't?" The UofA tweet: "An international student from China says that the #ualberta is one of the best universities in Canada." The less official UofA tweet: "University is to help students discover their passion."

    Anyway, one day I'm going to turn all of this into a writing exercise but that's probably enough on this for now. Also worth noting: I could have put all of this into a blog post, but those are far more searchable than the comments. So - thanks for the opportunity to share down here.

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