Friday, September 10, 2021

A World Governed by Middle Management

 I have to do undergo a regular set of online trainings for my job -- currently the trainings are Title IX, ADA Awareness, Discrimination and Harassment, and Cybersecurity -- and one thing that has been very noticeable is that they have greatly deteriorated in quality over the past ten years. The reasons for the deterioration are quite easy to identify, since the trainings are both longer and much less informative than they used to be. There are two related reasons for this:

(1) We used to have trainings that were specifically for the college; they have been replaced by more polished but more schlocky pre-packaged "learning experiences" that were very obviously designed for corporate contexts. They are highly generic to begin with, and they also waste a lot of time with scenarios that have nothing whatsoever to do with being a professor, or for that matter, with being at a college even in an administrative role. The Title IX training is the least bad because it is at least designed for Generic University; but it's pretty obvious that they are always thinking of a big state school and not a community college. The Cybersecurity training the past several years has been almost hilarious because it is so generic that it never gets more specific than 'your organization', and outside the sections on email deals with situations that assume we are working in corporate offices in close proximity to trade secrets.

(2) The trainings used to be quite tedious, but they went into considerable detail about legal requirements, school policies, procedures to use in various situations. Now they are still tedious but barely talk about these things at all. Instead we get extended powerpoint-level discussion of buzzwords. Once we got a lot of discussion of what would legally count as sexual harassment and how to report it; now we get one inserted slide of that, but pages and pages (and videos and videos) of vague psychological advice about how to be in the right frame of mind for not being a mere bystander. They are like a bunch of PSAs punctuated by an immensely dull afterschool special. It's less about how to do something and much more psychological, and indeed a lot of it consists of poorly explained vocabulary discussions ultimately deriving from psychological and psychiatric contexts -- things like bystander effect and implicit bias and microaggressions and privilege. The implicit bias stuff was all completely outdated, and if you didn't already know what a microaggression was, you would never be able to figure it out from the vague, rambling discussion, and you certainly would never know what to do about it. Vague discussions of jargon-words like 'power' and 'privilege' do not actually help you address real discrimination and harassment problems; for that you need the boring stuff that used to be the bulk of the training, tedious as it was -- what are the policies, what are the procedures and when are you justified in using them, what are the legal requirements, what are your protections and rights. You don't empower people by giving them additional vocabulary; you empower people by giving them ways to do things. The ADA trainings were the least bad, and I think that this is largely because the current fashion in disability rights -- person-centered discourse and practice, i.e., treating the persons rather than the disability as what primarily matters -- is, despite its jargonish framing, a purely ethical idea that is highly defensible in its own right, rather than a therapeutic idea that is out of place or an idea from psychology that ignores all the recent evidence from the field. But that training still does have many of the same problems.

The overall effect is that of the college shirking its actual responsibilities -- all of the trainings are essentially about how it's really your responsibility to get yourself into the right mindset to handle discrimination, harassment, etc., and not the administration's responsibility to provide a framework that gives actual means for handling them. I suppose this fits with the middle-management style of them; they are created not to address any problems but so that a corporation can point to them and say, "Look, we did what we were supposed to do."

I think this is very much a metaphor for the state of the world today, a world governed by middle management, a world in which using the right buzzwords is treated as a proof of success. It is self-defeating and destructive, since it means problems never actually get addressed properly, people never actually get tools and procedures they can use, and systemic problems are treated as if they were really problems with someone's character. And it is poisonous, because institutions framing matters as if any failures were due to individuals and not to the limitations of institutional process is one of the situations that breeds ethical abuse.