Against the Overwhelming Vagueness

After writing the last post (on Appiah’s essay on condescension), I started thinking about a peculiarity of (U.S.) American economic and social life: many decisions and judgments get made behind the scenes, with no public disclosure of the discussion and reasoning behind them. People get rejected from colleges, turned down for jobs or publication, or even excluded from parties without ever learning why. The rejection letter (or equivalent) epitomizes the vague: “Thank you for your interest in the position. We received an unforeseen number of exceptional applications and ultimately chose finalists whose qualifications most closely matched our criteria. We have therefore decided not to consider your application further. We wish you the best in your job search,” etc.

In such situations (which abound), the only way a person learns of the specific reasons is through a personal connection. That is part of the reason for the American emphasis on “networking”; without it, you may be consigned to the realm of the perplexed.

In some countries (not all), the situation is more clear-cut, though not better. Either you are not considered at all (because of your class, educational background, demographic group, or some other known factor), or you fail to meet explicit criteria (such as a test score). The drawback in such cultures is that some people never get considered in the first place. The advantage is that they often know the reasons.

Vague rejections are such a part of American life that people don’t question them outright. They might suspect and contest a particular rationale for a rejection (for instance, in the case of Asian-American applicants to Harvard and other colleges) but take for granted that they will receive a vague letter, if any at all.

Even peer groups and individuals exclude others without telling them why. People are bombarded with advice to cut “toxic” people from their lives or distance themselves from “negative” people, but sometimes these individuals never learn that anyone considered them toxic in the first place. Instead, they just see their peers drifting away, evading invitations, having parties and conversations without them. They are left to guess what’s going on. Even if they aren’t deemed toxic, they may be ostracized without explanation. It could be because of their habits, the company they keep, their background, something they said, or or something that has been said about them.

Carina Chocano’s terrific piece on the word “inappropriate” appears in The New York Times Magazine’s First Words column (like Appiah’s). “The word’s vagueness has always been a handy way to remind people of their relatively low status,” she writes; If they can’t already tell what’s wrong about their behavior, perhaps they are beyond help.” By calling others “inappropriate,” people excuse themselves from dealing with them. The vagueness is an exit ticket for the elite.

But there is a benevolent, humble side to this American tendency. People genuinely don’t want others to feel bad or to take their judgments as the final word. If they stick to vague verbiage, perhaps the rejected one will stay hopeful. Timothy might not be a “good fit” for Harvard, but who knows about Swarthmore or Vanderbilt? The New Yorker rejected my poem “despite its evident merit”; maybe it will get snatched up by the next witting editor. Karla doesn’t want to go out with Jamal, but he can still believe that he’s a wonderful person and that someone will appreciate him for what he has to offer.

The problem is that the vagueness can leave a person in worse doubt than clarity would–because the words themselves lose meaning. Does “inappropriate” mean “really bad” or just “mildly out of place”? Why did Harvard turn Timothy down? Did Jamal do anything that put Karla off? Does my poem pass muster?

I recognize the bureaucratic mess that specific, reason-filled acceptances and rejections could cause. They would be inordinately time-consuming, error-prone, subject to lawsuits, sometimes misleading, maybe algorithm-driven, open to interpretation, and possibly more trouble than they are worth. But at the other extreme, the vagueness has become a way of life, a way of making judgments while pretending not to judge.

There are ways to break through some of the vagueness, individually or together.  We* can strive for clarity (without cruelty) in thought, action, and word. We can work to lift taboos surrounding criticism. We can protect an institution’s decisions (provided they are lawful) while laying bare the reasons. But first and foremost, we can recognize that the vagueness does not have to be accepted as is; even if we cannot change it entirely, we can question it, look at what it does, and seek out other ways.

*”We” in this context is as far-reaching as it wants to be. It can involve a few individuals or more.

I took the photo yesterday afternoon outside my school here in Szolnok (after a day of faculty meetings). That’s my bike parked on the right.

I made some edits to this piece after posting it. Also, I am considering “American vagueness” as the topic for my next book. There is much more to say on this subject.

The Folly of Followership

no followerIn a New York Times article from yesterday, Susan Cain argues that college admissions offices are overemphasizing “leadership” and should give more attention to “followership.” (She also gives a nod to teamwork and independent thought.) In the comments, people spoke up against this concept of “followership”; to many, including me, it poses as the next bad Big Idea. Instead of seeking “leaders,” “followers,” “team players,” or “solo thinkers,” colleges should seek young people with intellectual accomplishment, promise, and interest. The challenge is to identify them properly; the concept of “followership” will not help.

To begin with, Cain frames the problem incorrectly. It isn’t that admissions offices have come to emphasize leadership above all else. Rather, when looking over thousands of applications, they seek qualities that stand out. Leadership is one of them; knowing this, students emphasize their leadership roles, often to excess. But leadership takes many forms; when writing college recommendations, I have sometimes emphasized a student’s intellectual leadership in the classroom or outside. Some students lead through their work; to write an outstanding essay (that goes beyond any “rubric” into the subject itself) is to exercise leadership.

One problem is that students face pressure to stand out in some way. They have no guarantee that their desired colleges will single them out. Even outstanding grades and test scores are no guarantee; many students are now entering college with two years of calculus, or with experience in a biomedical lab, or something else beyond the usual school curriculum. Some worry about whether they will have a chance if, say, they choose to play in a youth orchestra instead of enrolling in the intensive calculus course that their peers are taking.

As a result of such pressure (as Cain duly notes), students begin shaping their resumes for the sake of being seen. This is nothing new; I remember such a tendency in graduate school. I was often told that I should attend this or that conference because it would look good on the resume; that was one of the reasons that I decided not to go into academia. But it is especially painful to see teenagers under such pressure. A possible solution would be to limit the number of applications per student and to limit the Common App itself. Also, colleges could send clearer messages to students about what they seek.

But “followership”–even understood subtly–is misleading and potentially harmful. Cain quotes Robert Kelley, who in 1988 listed some qualities of good followers, including dedication to “a purpose, principle or person outside themselves” and being “courageous, honest and credible.” But as you read on, you see that what he describes is not so much “followership” as “a life of integrity outside of leadership.” “Paradoxically,” he writes, “the key to being an effective follower is the ability to think for oneself—to exercise control and independence and to work without close supervision.” (It’s paradoxical because “follower” is the wrong word and concept. He’s really talking about people who, in the workplace, occupy positions other than those at the top–but who contribute thoughtfully, independently, and honorably to the larger endeavor.)

Many commenters on Cain’s article brought up problems with the leader-follower dichotomy. It can be limiting and patronizing; it casts even solo thinkers as “followers” (just because they aren’t “leaders” on paper), and it does nothing to solve the problem at hand. I would add that it’s geared toward a kind of workplace (often but not always corporate) that practices social engineering. Many firms try to engineer success by combining personalities effectively: by identifying employees as “types” (leaders, followers, introverts, extraverts, and whatever it might be) and then adjusting the staff proportions. This trend is neither necessary nor universal. There are other ways to work and lead one’s life.

Are professional orchestra musicians “followers”? Not quite. True, they follow the directions of the conductor. But for music to occur, each musician must have excellence, soul, and a musical life. It isn’t just a matter of coming to rehearsal and doing what the conductor says and shows. Each member of the orchestra is dedicated to music; this includes hours of solo practice, chamber music, teaching, and much more. All of this contributes to the orchestra’s work and performance. Without each member’s independent musicianship, the orchestra would turn mediocre.

Is a professor (other than department chair) a “follower”? No–even those who teach the standard courses bring their own thoughts, research, and questions into the classroom. On their own, they conduct research in areas of interest. As they advance, they may teach more courses of their choosing or branch into new areas. Many professors I know perceive “leadership” positions as an encumbrance; they would not want to be department chairs, even less administrators. There is plenty of leadership in what they do.

Even in corporate settings, the “leader/follower”opposition fails to characterize the situation at hand. Many outspoken editors, software engineers, and others help shape the company’s work and direction, even though they are not formally “leaders.” Sometimes it is those in lower positions who exercise the intellectual leadership of a company.

Most of us, in our everyday lives and work, combine leading, following, participation, and independent action. We may tend toward one or the other; different projects may bring different qualities out of us. As Helen Vendler notes in a memorable essay (which Cain cites but misinterprets), a young poet or artist may have less-than-stellar grades; her talent and excellence may show not through all-around achievement, but through a special brilliance and intensity. So instead of crudely categorizing ourselves and others, we can instead look at what we do, say, choose, think, and desire, and how this changes over time.

Back to college admissions: I doubt that many admissions officers swoon over hollow tokens of leadership. Still, there are ways to strengthen and dignify the application process. Typecasting is not one.

Image credit: I took this photo in Gill, Massachusetts.

Note: I made a few changes to the sixth and ninth paragraphs after posting this piece.