(submitted for doctoral study, Fall 2004)
On most days, if interviewed by the host of any morning news talk show, I am confident that I would present a coherent, articulate position and would be satisfied that I had not embarrassed my children, parents or hometown. There are, however, (thankfully rare) those days when I have difficulty pronouncing my own name, and “running with the big dogs” as one bumper sticker so aptly states. Recently, after one such day, I decided that when the day begins to shift in this direction, I should turn on my heel and go home. I realize that this is not practical, nor is it likely to become a part of my professional practice – perhaps an exploration of the genesis of this impulse will prove insightful.
Unlike many of my colleagues, I am relatively new to the role of professional educator. I have not previously studied Education, have taught (adjunct) in a major research university for only four years, and am in year three as an academic administrator in the community college setting. Another ‘neo-educator’ colleague of mine jokes that there are two types of tenure at our institution: two year and twenty year, which highlights the disparity in experience than can be felt by those of us on the short end of educational experience. Many institutions of higher education are eager to bring in ‘real world experts’ to shore up curricular applicability and balance ivory tower syndrome, especially in institutions with an emphasis on occupational training, as you find in a community college or proprietary school. As such, I have eased into my role more quickly than may have been achievable in previous years, and a majority of the time, my ‘two-year tenure’ is not an issue, however; on those days when my muses abandon me, I feel the yoke of my relative youth as an oppressive mantle. Thankfully, I do not suffer these droughts of intelligence often, and I have proven myself with a track record of solid intellect, hard work and common sense. I can only beg the gods that my colleagues sometimes suffer a similar fate, and can at least, empathize, if not have mercy on me.
The root of my fear is best described as an analytical boomerang. I habitually draw sharp and decisive conclusions about others’ behavior in meetings or discussions, and have bored my family to tears ranting about the lunacy of one person’s contribution, or the obvious agenda of another’s. It is the reflection of my own harsh critique that strikes fear to my heart when I realize that my mouth is open, heads are turned in my direction and the grand contribution that I had intended to bestow upon the discussion has deteriorated into a trite and somewhat irrelevant commentary on what I can only hope is a related topic. To date, no one has criticized me openly, and to my knowledge, my reputation remains intact, but the thought of being perceived as ‘stupid’, strikes terror to my heart.
Whether we admit to them or not, we all have fears, phobias, sensitivities – an Achilles’ heel –and mine is the fear of being perceived as ignorant, uninformed, or just plain ‘dumb’. An astute observer would deduce this when visiting my office, where I have ‘framed my legitimacy’ by hanging my Carnegie Mellon diploma in a prominent place, and surrounding it with other educational achievements and awards. The origins of this fear are likely multi-faceted, and deep-rooted, having developed over time, and true to human behavior, I have not only learned to recognize my feared shortcomings in others, but have developed tools to avoid others’ discovery of these shortcomings in me. My favorite tools have always been a sharp wit and sarcastic humor, and using these, I have honed my skills in assessing others to determine whether or not they are worthy of ‘owning’ what I fear. Right or wrong, I have no reticence in identifying those who exhibit behaviors, after observation, which I would attribute to ignorance, clueless-ness, or just plain stupidity.
In fairness, I do try to sort out the underlying cause of a person’s ignorant participation in a meeting, and believe that I am fairly accurate, most of the time. Additionally, I perform reconnaissance to confirm or correct my initial assumptions and ensure accuracy of the initial assessment. After years of observation, I have found that sheer ignorance is rarely the single cause for lame participation in meetings and other group interactions, and I have outlined the major categories (below) as I have identified them in pure anecdotal ‘research’:
This is perhaps the greatest contributor to lame group input. I have observed over time that people who are afraid that their job, status, or power base is in jeopardy will “contribute” by defending their right to exist within the organization – whether or not it is relevant to the discussion at hand. An example of this might be the foreman who, at the monthly management meetings, regularly finds a way to remind everyone that he developed the TQM activity log that has saved the company money every year,…for the past ten years.
Group participants without clear auditory faculties will often hear part of the discussion, and take off on a tangent related to what they heard, but that is overall, irrelevant to the topic under consideration. There is simply no easy way to say, “George, you need a hearing aid – every week at our curriculum meeting, you respond to the call to order by reminding the chair that Carl Two-Holder doesn’t work here anymore.”
Sheer lunacy cannot be discounted when evaluating inappropriate contributions to group discussions or meetings. Statistically, we should expect some level of lunacy in the workforce, since it is documented to occur in the general population with approximately a 1-in-10 frequency.
This group of folks simply needs every head to turn their way to help them accumulate their 15 minutes of fame for that day. Depending on the context, their contribution may or may not be relevant. These people are the most predictable…they cannot resist the urge for attention.
This group’s input is similar to the Hearing Impaired participants. They drift in and out of the moment and can become aroused by a single word or phrase, which elicits from them, some comment vaguely related to the topic at hand.
The Ax Grinder
Similar in content (if not in motivation) to the Fearful participant, this group contributor shows up regularly and beats the same dead horse. Their agenda is less about contributing to the current discussion and more about making certain that everyone feels their pain, over and over, and over…
Just Plain Stupidity
It’s not pretty, but we all have known someone at some point in our work lives where the caption under their company photo should be, “How Did This Happen?” Attribute this to being in the right place at the right time, nepotism, or knowing where all the bodies are buried – these folks just don’t “get” anything,… except a paycheck. They still feel compelled however, to attend meetings, and ‘contribute’.
Due to the fact that as an educator, meetings are a necessary evil, I expect that I will continue to feel the youth of my tenure for a while longer, but each day is a step toward becoming a legitimate expert without fear. For now, though, when my mouth opens and I realize that my muse has called off, I will quickly drop a key word for some unsuspecting person in one of the aforementioned categories to pick up and run with. I can only hope that other, more seasoned educators have not grown wise to my assessment strategy, and crafted the category, Dodger to describe the group member who undertakes evasive verbal maneuvers after their mouth opens and unintelligible noise is emitted in place of useful information.