Schlimmbesserung

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The music writer Sasha Frere-Jones wrote on his blog a couple of months ago that there’s a German word schlimmbesserung which means “a supposed improvement that makes things worse.”

And maybe it’s just that I’m old now and reminisce about how much fun it used to be to watch the three channels we could get on the old black-and-white Sylvania… but I really do think that we’ve moved well into schlimmbesserung in a lot of areas of our lives.

Higher education has a lot of it. Let’s take our current infatuation with High Impact Practices, which as a friend says were probably brought down from Sinai on stone tablets by George Kuh and presented to Carol Geary Schneider. All of the HIPs (god save us from another acronym), from undergraduate research to service learning to first-year seminars, were native to some landscape somewhere. A professor who tried it out in her classroom, a department that wanted to take an interest in its surrounding community. But like bamboo or kudzu or the giant hogweed, they were imported all over the place, regardless of the merit of the native species in the other mature landscapes, and spawned offices and programs and vice provosts that crowded out the reproduction of the faculty.

Every discipline has its own content knowledge, which is shared across its members by journals and conferences, passed down from one generation to the next through mentorship and coursework. And although we don’t often think of it that way, academic administration is its own discipline and its own content, with its own journals and its own conferences, passed down from one generation to the next through mentorship and professional development. And the administrative discipline has been the source of some of the most hypercompetitive of the invasive species.

“There’s nothing more dangerous than a dean just back from a conference,” it’s said, and a lot of the danger is the intellectual spores that travel along with her, infesting the new soil and changing the ecosystem in ways that can’t be predicted for years. All faculty in all disciplines go to conferences and get new ideas all the time. The difference is that, upon return home, most of those new ideas are quarantined for a long time inside one person’s scholarship, one person’s classrooms. With administrators, because they have such promiscuous partnering across the campus, those ideas spread from patient zero to pandemic much more quickly.

This is not to say that any of the HIPs are bad things; when done well, and for the right reasons, they’re remarkable. But the degree to which they’re presumed good, without consideration of unintended consequences, has brought about a blindness to the ways that we spend our money, the ways that we don’t, and the values that ought to underlie those decisions.