Monday, February 15, 2010

In the Olympic tradition, reducing our lives to a code of points: The Likertization of modern times

"It was a great run, but if you look there at the seventh mogul you'll see... right here in slow motion... right there... that's it... right there you'll see where his knees came apart just a bit. We'll see deductions for that... No question... twenty-five percent of the final score is form... the judges won't miss that..."

I thoroughly enjoy the Winter Olympics but the "judged" events remind me too much of other parts of modern life I'm growing to dislike.

You watch what you think is a great skate. It had passion. The skater captured the music perfectly. The salchow looked magnificent, the skater soared above the boards like a human corkscrew, the footwork was delicate and precise.

Then a problem with an edge is discovered and a slight under rotation, and did you miss the skate traveling on the ice just a wee bit during the sit spin? The degree of difficult was off a bit. If only the triple-triple had been in the second half of the long program where it would have meant double points.

Suddenly you discover the skate you thought inspirational just didn't stand up to the code of points.

Code of points. I love the phrase. Love it because it so perfectly describes why I hate it.

Well, not particularly in figure skating. I'm not that passionate about figure skating, though I do enjoy watching the performances. I understand why it was instituted in the wake of judging scandals. But I also understand the argument many fans make that the code of points has stolen the art from the sport.

And, I might add, "judging" has stolen some of the joy of watching other Olympic sports as they are sometimes robbed of their emotional and artistic content. Judging is particularly damaging to passion and art when it entails deconstructing the performance to elements so cold and fine they have nothing to do with the outcome of the particular jump or skate or run. The whole, and its authentic value, are lost to calculus of the parts.

Judging, it seems to me, is an artifact of our times. In an effort, as in figure skating, to take the potential for human error -- or bias -- out of the equation, we have ceded more and more of our daily lives to numbers. Codes of points. The arts in our lives have suffered greatly for this bit of faux certainty.

We hire in committees hamstrung by codes of points and make decisions on who to retain governed by Likert Scales. Then we fire based on codes of points, or employ codes of points to fire those we disagree with. We suffer from the Likertization of our lives. Codes of points govern our self-worth and the worth granted to us by others.

Art has been stolen from the teaching profession by codes of points, for example. As teachers, our careers have devolved into three choices -- exceeds expectations, meets expectations, doesn't meet expectations -- reducing our value as teachers to a silly trilogy of points. Not any brilliant analogy we improvised on our feet in the classroom to bring home a difficult point to students who were so confused they were ready to give up. Not the artful way we pulled together ideas from several disciplines to design a new course. Not the outreach work we assigned ourselves just because we like giving something we know to those who can make use of it. Just, exceeds-meets-doesn't. The Trinity of modern administration.

For teachers in higher education, the code of points doesn't stop there. You get a certain number of points if you attend a conference, more if you participate in a roundtable, more if you make a presentation. Doesn't matter in the least WHAT you presented. The worst drivel gets the same points. Oh, what does matter is if you were invited to present. That's how the code of points is designed to separate the drivel from the gems, I suppose. If somebody asked or somebody chose, we know what you presented must be "better." How many did they reject? the coy administrator asks at evaluation time.

Of course, your uninvited presentation might have been risky. Might have broken calcified ground. Might have been the inspiration for a dozen teachers to go back to their classrooms and redesign their courses. "You left the ice on the wrong edge, mister, and you under-rotated that triple." Code of points will get you every time.

If this rant sounds bitter, it isn't because the academic code of points has bitten me in the ass. Not so far, anyway. But I've watched it take bites out of others and I've watched how single-minded devotion to it has squeezed the art from a once passionate, risk-loving, profession.

As Olympic fans, let's just hope that doesn't happen in the snowboarder's cathedral, the half pipe. Let's hope those kids continue to thumb their red noses at the code of points. Their response so far has been inspirational to an aging rebel with too many causes. "Oh, you've got points, eh?" snowboarders say with a wink. "Well, count this." And off the pipe they soar, turning once, twice, ducking under, turning again, landing ... or not ... And in the end, they seem only interested in the risks they took and the risks the others took, in the art of the tricks, the passion. They love to win, but they also seem to genuinely love to see another competitor break the code, sail off into something completely new, even if that something new can't be landed. Yet.

Here's a little secret I probably shouldn't say too loud. I'd do what I do if the code of points in academia never existed. And I know a lot of my colleagues who would do the same. They do what they do because they love it and because it is good for others. If they win points, fine, if they don't, fine. Can you imagine Shaun White never riding a half pipe again if they stopped naming winners? Neither can I.

-- Lofflin

Shaun White image by Bob Martin, Sports Illustrated

1 comment:

  1. Great post, John. I've been wondering to myself why I love nearly every Winter Olympics sport except for figure skating, and maybe it's because of the "judged" aspect - the other sports just seem more pure, more enjoyable. If a luger or a skier has a bad technique, it doesn't matter: the only thing that counts is how long it takes him or her to make it from the top of the course to the bottom. There's something comforting in that.