Making people mean what they say

[Long and rambling; beware]

Well, I suppose it’s impossible to *make* people mean anything; that would require changing people’s psychological states, which I wouldn’t want to do even if I could (not very democratic, is it?).

What I’m thinking about this morning is ways of making people responsible for their own declarations and positions.  It’s easy to say one thing and do something else.  But once somebody has articulated a position, how can somebody else work to make sure they actually enact that position?

Let me be more concrete.  The summer before I started my Masters program, I worked for the Florida Public Interest Research Group (FPIRG).  Our director at the time, Tom, gave a talk in which he argued that corporate attempts at greenwashing (which was an embryonic cottage industry at the time, nothing like the slick professional operations we see 15 years later) showed that corporations had already lost the fight.  Once they adopt green rhetoric, Tom said, they’ve lost the battle even while they believe they’re using it to their own advantage.

In retrospect (as I’ve spent more time as a leader in activist/organizing settings), I realize that most of the payoff from that talk was motivational.  He knew that we were getting more and more frustrated, as a canvas office, with our public’s beliefs that corporate America was getting more responsible (and therefore didn’t warrant attention from groups like ours).  So he was reminding us that greenwashers were actually helping us by reinforcing our message.  And that greenwashers were establishing a high bar for themselves to meet.  Once polluters announce their greenness, that is, it becomes much easier to pound them for doing bad things.
OK, so it wasn’t all that simple.  If I’d heard of post-Fordism at the time, I would have argued with Tom that what we were saying was the appropriation of environtalist discourse into capitalism, the marketing of green without actual green practices.  Tom, I imagine, would have replied that the greenwashers were enabling our demands; by making green a marketing issue, we could know put pressure on them to live up to their own pronouncements by organizing customers for or against various companies.
While that approach has had mixed results (I tend to take a very long view about environmental activism, much more so than other kinds), the principle is important.  People say stuff all the time; what would happen in a world where they had to live up to what they said?
The current health care debate has provided some juicy examples to think about.  If you read this blog, you’ve probably heard already about the guy at a townhall meeting (and Prez Obama says he’s received a bunch of letters along similar line) who insisted that we can’t have government run health care, and followed up by saying, “Keep your hands off my Medicare.”  In the world I’m imagining, he would have instantly lost his Medicare (not permanently; I’m not a sadist) at least for long enough to learn that Medicare is, in fact, a government program.  That is, if he’d meant what he said and had to live with it, he would give up his Medicare.  I would kick Libertarians off sidewalks.
My current project has me thinking about this again, in a different setting.  I’m writing a conference paper in which I argue that our faculty union needs to do more with the concept of shared governance.  Although our Board of Governers doesn’t use the term in any official document, neither do they contest it when we do.  My sense is that they’re more than happy to let us believe that we’re sharing both power and responsibility for running the system, at the same time they pretty much do whatever they want–at least as much as our Collective Bargaining Agreement will allow.  They also use this concept to divide faculty, by putting intractable decisions in our hands and leaving us to reach conclusions that nobody is happy with.  But since we reached them, they’re our fault if we don’t like them (I’ve been talking about this problem for a couple of years now in various conference presentations, and apparently haven’t reached any useful conclusions since I’m still talking about it now).
So what would it look like if shared governance were actually practiced in a meaningful way?  Let me start with what it wouldn’t mean.  As long as the interests of faculty and management are at odds, which they currently are, I’m not seeing a huge, sudden shift into consensus-building lovefest.  That is, while shared sounds like a kind of starry-eyed romantic term, it doesn’t have to be.  But neither can it be the kind division of labor Christopher Carter describes/critiques in Rhetoric and Resistance in the Corporate University.  Carter argues that the origins of shared governance–as a hegenomic device–were in the move to leave financial decisions to management while faculty focused on teaching and research.  As soon as faculty left financial decisions to management, the marketing and framing of higher education went with it.
I’m hardly the first person to think about how we get that back; every academic group I’ve ever been part of wants to talk about how we reframe public perceptions of higher education, faculty work, our own disciplines in relation to the “real world” (a phrase I utterly despise), and so on.
My current line of thinking is to wonder how important that PR war actually is, especially given that we’re not in position to fight it very well.  Instead, it seems like we might be able, in an aikido kind of way, to use their own energies to our benefit.  How?  By jumping up and down in celebration every time we do something their discourse says it values.  And by stomping and booing every time their actions prevent us from doing something they say they value (I hadn’t really thought about it that way until Shelley, a friend/colleague, put it that way in a listserv discussion).
Celebrating our successes seems obvious enough.  We know when we’ve done good work.  Our students do well, graduate on time, get into successful programs, jobs, etc.  We get grants, publish articles, present at conferences.  It’s not about measurability, when we talk about it (it is when management talks about it, and that’s part of my point).  And it’s not about puffing up accomplishments disproportionately, which would be a serious strategeric (!) error.  It’s simply a matter of chronicling our successes regularly and publicly.  As they accumulate, so the theory goes, they’ll gain power exponentially, providing us grounds from which to argue the importance of our work.  Moreover, and I wish this were as much of a “duh” as it feels like it ought to be, we’ll have a much easier time acting collectively if we know each others’ work better.
I’m going to jump a couple of steps in my thinking so I can get somewhere I haven’t been before.  What I want to think about now is some strategies for enforcing shared governance that I’ve seen work elsewhere, or that have provoked me to consider some possibilities at least.
1.  Organizing outside the union: our union has certainly worked on affiliations of various kinds over the years–with other teacher/faculty unions, with other labor unions, and so on.  The situation at the College of Dupage earlier this year, which I blogged about, suggests a different (in the sense of additional) approach.  When CoD was struggling to fight against an Academic Bill of Rights campaign running through (if not by) their Board of Governers, the faculty union at CoD went to community-based actvist groups for help.  Of course, they had an obvious reason to do so–their BoG is elected from the local community, so it makes obvious sense that community organizations would have a stake in their elections.  In our case, membership on the BoG is by appointment, so the direct effects of community organizations isn’t as obvious.  I would argue, though, that in addition to help with strike-related activities, coordinating with other activist groups would help to: (a) embed us in the local community in ways that we can’t do through PR; (b) make for more efficient, if less far-reaching, networking; (c) tap into already mobilized groups; (d) invigorate our own membership as we established collaborations in which our members actually wanted to participate.
I know it’s bad form to number a #1 and not keep numbering, but I’m going to stop here.  Should be writing the paper instead :).

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