Sunday, August 23, 2020

Questions as Old as Machiavelli

 Here's a snapshot of my life right now:  last week, I looked up my schedule for my online classes and went to work adding the dates and updating the course shells for the classes that started on Friday.  I finished a day early, so I was surprised to get a call from the department on Friday asking me to update my empty course shell immediately.

Long story short:  I updated the wrong course shell.  I wrote an apology e-mail to my dean, updated the course shell, wrote to my students, and tried to stop beating myself up for this mistake.  As mistakes go, it's not a huge crisis.  Students who wanted to get to work still had plenty of content that they could read, and discussion posts that they could create.

My dean wrote back to me, and it was the most grace-filled, kind, and understanding professional e-mail I've gotten in awhile.  In a week of political conventions, tweets from the president, and the swirl of news of schools opening and closing right back up again, it led me to think about how we're managing.

I use that phrase in so many ways.  On the one hand, I use it to mean the way we're all coping with our current situation.  I think I'm coping fairly well--OKish is the term I use when anyone asks me how I'm doing.  And then I copy all the details into the wrong course shell after I've checked not once but several times.  Harmless accident or some sort of outlier incident?

I also think about the way we manage in HR terms.  I think about an essay I had students write after reading a chunk of Machiavelli, an essay that answers the question, "Is it better to be loved or feared?'  My dean was operating out of a space of love.  I've had more bosses who have operated from a space of trying to inspire fear.

We see these competing narratives across all sorts of platforms, and in this upcoming political season, I predict we'll see them both prominently utilized.  The fear narrative tries to make us believe that there's not enough of anything, that we're not enough.  In HR terms, I'm intrigued by which people in charge believe that we're all doing the best that we can in any given moment, while so many managers seem to believe we're all just eating bon bons and goofing off if someone isn't there to yell at us all the time.

Long time readers of this blog will know that I prefer the love narrative--we have enough, we are enough, we can expand the circle, we can include everyone.  As I was preparing my course shells, I went back to the ones I used during the spring, as the pandemic was overturning all sorts of plans.  I was struck by the tone of my announcements.  I gave everyone blanket amnesty--if you needed more time, no need to write and let me know, just do the best you can.

I haven't done any analytics, but it wouldn't surprise me if my students did better than students do when I'm a strict deadlines kind of teacher.  Of course, if we're being honest, I'm never the strict deadlines kind of teacher that others are.  As spring progressed, I took off no points for lateness--now I take off some.  I have colleagues who don't accept late work at all.  That's always seemed a bit draconian to me.

I hope that we all remember to continue to be gentle with each other.  Back in April, it was clear to me that we faced a crisis.  We still do, but I think that a lot of us have forgotten how much stress remains.  In some ways, it seems more stressful now, now that we're not all in agreement about the nature of that stress.

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