Thursday, April 09, 2009

co-optation or political savvy?

Today (among many other things) I participated in a system-wide curriculum meeting and taught Appalachian studies. In the curriculum committee, I represented the views of a group of faculty that opposes our system's move to modularize and "McDonaldize" college courses on-line. In Appalachian studies we continued our exploration of various Appalachian based opposition movements, with a look at the Black Lung Association, and the role of mountain music in building community and helping mobilize opposition in coal mining strikes and the anti-strip-mining movement.

One of the common themes that crossed tied these two experiences together today, was a question that often faces groups that oppose the prevailing power structure, which is when failure is likely should one maintain a position of opposition for the sake of principle and be frozen out of the decision-making, or capitulate and compromise in order to have some input into the path of the future.

The first consideration is whether or not failure is likely. The assessment of that is often based on which position a person is taking. Those who advocate supporting principle to the end, take the optomistic view, believing that failure is not likely, and that it is only capitulation and compromise that make it inevitable. Those supporting compromise for the sake of having some stake in the decision-making tend towards pessimism, viewing the cause as lost already.

At the beginning of 2008, I would have said that the modularization of sociology was inevitable, and that the prudent course was to compromise in order to have some say in how that modularization took place. But the majority of the people on the committee I chaired took the other position to stand on principle. Five months later, I was surprised, and pleased to discover, that at least for the forseable future those that argued for standing put were correct. Faced with nearly unanimous opposition by faculty in the discipline, the system's plan to modularize sociology was abandoned.

Instead, the system mandated modularization program found an individual in another discipline (psychology) willing to provide what was desired (a modularized social science course), and a college willing to sponsor the proposal providing a way around the system committee I chair. So the overall project goes forward, but without sociology. But in the process, my committee and the system psychology faculty it represents have loss some of their ability to influence the development of this alternative modularized course. The committee I chair will get to review and "endorse" or "not endorse" the project, but unlike the sociology case, the committee will not be able to reject the proposal, and it will go on to become fact. We may have won the battle over sociology, but lost the war over the principle of modularization, and lost influence in shaping curriculum in the process.

The view of the pessimists is that some input is better than no input, while the view of the pessimists is that if they are going down, they sure as hell aren't going to dig their own graves by compromise.

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