Thursday, April 23, 2009

Rules, Damned Rules, and Policy

My daughter has this thing about wanting pets. Because we aren't well situated to play host family to them (the gerbils were a disaster on our first attempt), I try various ruses to change the subject. When she was younger I latched onto the idea of using a laser pointer as a dog substitute (named Spot, inevitably, although Red was a contender). We took it for a lot of walks, always after dark, and watched proudly as it visited all the trees on the block.

Yesterday it was plants. Pet plants need minimal care, I figure. So we went to Home Despot to look. I particularly wanted rosemary, to replace the nice bush we had at the old house. We bought some 'pet' vegetables, but there was no rosemary, so we walked down to Kmort to look. Their outdoor section looked much like a concentration camp, and I'm sure if I spoke plant-ese I'd have been moved to tears by their pleas. My daughter wanted to ask the salespeople if she was allowed to water the plants, but there was no one to ask.

None of this has anything to do with rules, in case you're wondering. That connection came next, when I noticed a gaming store next to Kmort. In graduate school I co-authored a board game of sorts with a friend, so I wanted to peek in and wallow in the ambiance for a bit. My almost-teen daughter was properly horrified, which added to the attraction.

The place was filled with gamers at tables piled with miniatures from a dizzy variety of genres. There were sci-fi tableaux, with someone asking about how far pulse rifles could shoot, fantasy sorts of things I couldn't recognize, and historical battles with box-like formations of hand-painted troops. Around the walls were stocked the complicated rules books I remembered.

You've probably figured out by this point that I played a lot of geeky games as a teen, with rule books that resemble the 1040 tax instruction booklet. The rules got increasingly more complex as time went on, until half the games seemed to consist of searching for the right sub-section with the table on the chance of successfully napkin-folding or whatever. For me, there reached a point where I didn't find it enjoyable anymore. That's when I started coding up rules in Applesoft, to use the computer to keep track of the complicated bits, and truly descended into full-fledged geekdom, from which I never really emerged.

This all by way of introduction to "rules and the academy". (I hope this one worked better than sock muffins did.) There are places where rules are absolutely essential. You can identify them by the lack of thinking that's required by the tasked staffer. Storing backup tapes somewhere safe, following procedure with regard to transcripts, keeping track of financial accounts properly, and so on, are good examples. The lower the complexity, the more suitable for rules-making a process is. At the other end of the spectrum lies general responsibilities like "being president," which is too fuzzy to be described in a President's Operating Manual, or something.

If you like rules, stop by human resources. Here, as in other areas like IT, rules can be used to simply block things that staff don't want to do and generally accumulate power and influence. I read a (possibly apocryphal, but plausible) account of a man interviewing for a job, who was asked by the HR interviewer for the phone number of his previous employer, so as to verify the information on his resume. I can't find the original now, but it went something like this:
"I need to call your previous employer, Mr. Snark."
"Well, I was self-employed, so that would be me."
"Fine. What's the phone number?"
Mr. Snark, bemused, gives the number and watches the numbers being dialed. He pulls out his cell phone and answers on the first ring.
"Mr. Snark?"
"Yes, that's me."
"I need to verify some information about a previous employee."
In this Kafka-esque drama, the interview plays out in full, after which Mr. Snark is given the explanation that rules, after all, must be followed.

It's debated whether or not evolution produces more complexity in living things. I think it's probably true that complexity is more valuable in some situations than others. Like a string in a drawer, systems seem to bow to entropy almost immediately and become more complicated without much effort. Straightening them out is hard. As Machiavelli put it:
It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things; for the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order; this lukewarmness arising partly from the incredulity of mankind who does not truly believe in anything new until they actually have experience of it.
Whereas complexity naturally emerges in the form of additional rules, in order to properly simplify the resultant mess, the reformer has to overcome the natural resistance of those who benefit from the complications. Think of the US tax code.

So, like biological bodies renewing themselves through reproduction after entropy has corrupted them, it's a healthy process to change administrations and shake things up once in a while. It is perhaps the case that the most insidious rules are not affected by this, however. They may be invisible.

At least too-complex rules can be seen. There are many quasi-rules that are merely implied. Dress codes often are, and are enforced through social conventions, although explicit ones aren't uncommon. More dangerous, I think, to the mission of the academy are the implied rules that pertain to learning. Here are a few. You can add to the list.
  • Teaching only takes place in formal sessions
  • Learning is not as important as ratings like grades
  • Education proceeds by check marks on a sheet
  • Education is a service one pays for, just like having your car washed
  • Learning experiences can be made uniform, like an assembly line
  • Student collaboration, unless explicitly allowed, is cheating
The bureaucracy of higher education is necessary to organizing the massive endeavor, no doubt. But leaving unexamined the implications of these practices blinds us to some pernicious effects. Do we really have a right to complain if students see courses as milestones to be passed on a linear journey--points of momentary interest that can be forgotten? Doesn't the very structure of the process from advising through transcripts encourage that point of view?

In order to gain perspective, a complete rethink is in order. I was impressed recently with an idea by Gary Brown at Washington State University about a way to redefine the hoary old idea of a gradebook. No, I don't mean moving it to Excel. You can read more about this "harvesting gradebook" idea on the blog Center for Teaching, Learning & Technology. The authors of this project seem to be questioning what exactly grading is--a review of the associated implicit rules, as it were. It will be interesting to see where it leads. This is an example of the creative disruption that is called for in order to reach more than a superficial review of the stew of formal and informal complexity that comprise the academy.

Update: In the pursuit of sensible database policies this morning, I found myself wandering through the wilds of the FERPA rules, and discovered this gem [pdf].

Under FERPA a school may not disclose a student’s grades to another student without the prior written consent of the parent or eligible student. “Peer-grading” is a common educational practice in which teachers require students to exchange homework assignments, tests, and other papers, grade one another’s work, and then either call out the grade or turn in the work to the teacher for recordation. Even though peer-grading results in students finding out each other’s grades, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 issued a narrow holding in Owasso that this practice does not violate FERPA because grades on students’ papers are not “maintained” under the definition of “education records” and, therefore, would not be covered under FERPA at least until the teacher has collected and recorded them in the teacher’s grade book, a decision consistent with the Department’s longstanding position on peer-grading. The Court rejected assertions that students were “parties acting for” an institution when they scored each other’s work and that the student papers were, at that stage, “maintained” within the meaning of FERPA. Among other considerations, the Court expressed doubt that Congress intended to intervene in such a drastic fashion with traditional State functions or that the “federal power would exercise minute control over specific teaching methods and instructional dynamics in classrooms throughout the country.” The final regulations create a new exception to the definition of education records” that excludes grades on peer-graded papers before they are collected and recorded by a teacher. This change clarifies that peer-grading does not violate FERPA.

Exceptions are the hallmark of complexity. If trivial exceptions can't be dealt with by simple common-sense methods, you're stuck with arguing trivialities at the highest, most formal level of adjudication. This is a recipe for entropy-induced "heat death," as it's called when one speaks of the end of time.

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