Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Ned Ludd does technology

And he's wearing sabots!
We labored diligently, sometimes against unexpected obstacles (like the faculty member who volunteered for the committee for the specific purpose of trying to sabotage it), but ultimately successfully.
Jokermage likes to read parenthetical remarks: “I'd love to hear that story sometime.” This one's for you, Jokermage.

It's the story of a colleague to whom I'll refer as “Professor Ned Ludd,” for all the reasons you'd expect. Ned was one of the first faculty volunteers for the ad hoc committee put together to draft a technology policy for our college. It was not immediately apparent that Ned's sole purpose was to ensure that no consensus would ever be reached. He feared that an official technology policy would impose obligations and responsibilities on him that he would prefer to avoid. His concerns seemed odd, since he was a science instructor, a field that afforded him many opportunities to make good use of technology.

An administrator and I took turns chairing the committee meetings. One thing was certain: We weren't starting with a blank sheet of paper. Technology had increasingly infiltrated our campus during the benign neglect of the 1980s and early 1990s. We needed to take into account what was already going on, but we didn't really know what that was. This was Ned's first opportunity to swing into action, as he volunteered to join the subcommittee that would survey our colleagues concerning their current use of technology.

Ned was seemingly quite diligent when he insisted on adding new items to the survey instrument. It grew unwieldy and we became concerned that only a few people would be willing to respond to it. Ned was remarkably outspoken at the meeting of the whole committee when he described the survey form as a mess and suggested the entire thing be scrapped. The subcommittees members who had spent many hours with Ned were upset. It was bad enough that he was poor-mouthing their efforts. It was worse that he was effectively filibustering every item that came up for discussion. He suited his tactics to the situation, working overzealously on the survey instrument in the subcommittee, peppering colleagues with incessant questions and quibbles during meetings of the whole.

Unfortunately for Ned's plans, he had now broken cover and his efforts were entirely too overt to be concealed. Fortunately for my plans, it was possible to turn him into a reluctant foil for the committee agenda. While my school has a cherished tradition of trying to operate as much as possible on consensus, Ned made it particularly easy to gain the committee's consent to move items on quick voice votes. We seldom had unanimity, but we often had unanimity less one.

It also helped that Ned won me several new friends. After one contentious meeting, during which we had commended the survey subcommittee for the results of its information gathering and accepted its report, I approached a chemistry professor who had served on the subcommittee and offered her my thanks. She was a little surprised:

“Uh, thanks. But what did I do? The survey was a joint effort”

“Oh, I'm not talking about the survey.”

“Okay, you've got me then. What is it you're thanking me for?”

“Well, you were sitting across from Ned while he was spouting off and I couldn't help but notice the expression on your face. I just wanted to thank you for not lunging across the table and strangling him.”

She burst into laughter. She said, “You must be a mind reader!”

The committee was blessed with several key players on whom I could rely completely. Information was gathered, recommendations were drafted, and a strong consensus was forged. Ned continued to blather and we thanked him cheerfully for each remark and then ran roughshod over him. He was a thorn in our side, but he had ceased to prick us much. The committee had one other member who never engaged constructively in our efforts, but she never closed ranks with Ned. Her perspective was the opposite of his, and she was constantly disappointed that we were not drafting a manifesto calling for the demolition of classrooms and wholesale conversion to on-line instruction via the fancy new 28.8K modems. She eventually left the committee in dismay at our lack of revolutionary fervor. Ned, however, hung in there till the bitter end, his name appearing in our final report.

I think we may modestly claim to have been successful in our efforts to craft a rational technology policy for our college. We ended up with a training facility for faculty and staff, a dual-platform support policy for people using Windows or Macintosh computers, and a standing committee to evaluate and update our technology program. As new computers are installed in classrooms or offices, the older ones go into our “cascading” system for reassignment to applications not as sensitive to state-of-the-art issues. Many of our old Intel machines have been turned into Linux boxes that support our intranet and e-mail system.

Ned was probably relieved that we issued no edicts that required him to confront his technophobia too directly. He put in for retirement before one of those deadly computers turned up on his desk. His actions, however, made it clear that the digital siren song is not music to everyone's ears. Had he stuck around a little longer, perhaps he would have learned to like the new interconnectedness of the campus and the college's convenient on-line presence. But I wouldn't bet on it.

1 comment:

Jokermage said...

I was right. That story was worth reading. Thanks!

My own experience with writing a technology policy for an organization was much less complicated, for variety of reasons.

1) My organization was much smaller, so fewer people had to buy in to the policy.

2) Because I handled most of the tech support, I was already in the good graces of most of the staff.

3) I had knowledge, experience and initiative to write most of the policy on my own. Others who wanted a policy didn't have to worry about it taking up their time.

4) The tech policy I wrote is mostly likely a lot simpler than one written for a college.

Thanks for sharing the story.