For both good and ill, my recent post about the limits of listening to wonks touched a nerve about who a wonk is, what a wonk does, and how wonks may differ from other people working on policy issues inside of education (or any other complex system).
The discussion alerted me to fact that over the years I’ve constructed a rather detailed (personal and idiosyncratic) taxonomy of different people and different roles who work in the system. Mostly this has been for fun, but it has also proved useful for me to understand where someone else is coming from when I interact with them, and why and where there are gaps between how they and I view a particular problem
As you’ll see from my descriptions, there are clearly categories I personally think of more highly than others, but with a couple of exceptions, I think anyone who fits into a role on this list is working in good faith to improve the system. Where there are differences, I think they’re primarily rooted in different ways of seeing the system and how it should work and who it should work for.
And of course, individuals are not defined by their type, so consider this a guide to understanding some of the different species within the ecosystem, rather than a definitive description of all individuals who may share some of the traits.
A Higher Education Taxonomy
Manager: A manager is someone who understands the flaws and faults of the system, and does their best to mitigate the damage without necessarily attacking the root of those problems, usually because they lack institutional power and influence to do so. Good Chairs and Deans are likely to be managers, caught as they are between the demands of those below and the superior administrative power of those above. I have great respect for effective managers, and you could not pay me enough to take on that role because the manager courts frustration from everyone, even as they’re doing their best or worse because they’re doing their best.
Functionary: A functionary is a manager who does not actually care about mitigating the damage of the system. They are a passthrough of the crap, and their chief gesture when confronted with a problem is a shrug.
Workhorse: The people who keep the wheels churning on the work of the institution. They are both invaluable when it comes to mitigating the harm of a dysfunctional system, and because of their extreme dedication, a force that allows the dysfunctional system to continue to operate. They live a Catch-22. They prevent much suffering while also perpetuating a system that creates more suffering. The workhorse is often the person most damaged by this dynamic as they are at great personal risk for burnout and demoralization.
Tinkerer: A tinkerer is dissatisfied with the status quo and seeks change, but lacks the security or position to export their tinkering beyond their immediate sphere. When I was a full-time contingent instructor, I was a relentless tinkerer, A tinkerer can be very happy provided they achieve enough security and can avoid scrutiny. The latter I achieved, the former not so much, which is why I don’t teach full-time anymore.
Visionary: To be a visionary, you both must have the desire and resources (either power or money or both) to disrupt the status quo. Visionaries are often hailed as positive forces, but this is not necessarily the case. The Great MOOC Caper was a product of visionaries. Bill Gates has had an unfortunate effect (IMO) on education as a visionary. Michael Crow at ASU is a visionary, as is Mitch Daniels at Purdue in a somewhat lowkey way, and depending on where you’re coming from, they are either brilliant innovators or something more troubling. I also consider folks like Russell Lowery-Hart of Amarillo College, Michael Sorrell of Paul Quinn College, and Patricia McGuire of Trinity in D.C. visionaries in the most positive sense of the word.
Consultant: Often resembling wonks in that they have similar knowledge and skillsets, but unlike wonks who tend to work for independent third-party entities, consultants are usually proximate to visionaries and tasked with figuring out how to realize a particular vision. Being a consultant is much more lucrative than being a wonk. Consultant itself is an entirely neutral description, and how one feels about a particular consultant and their work of consulting is very much tied to whose vision they are pursuing.
Remora: Named after the fish that attaches itself to other larger fish and feeds on its scraps or parasites, a remora is a consultant who doesn’t ever achieve anything, but manages to pry compensation loose from the institution anyway. Unlike the fish, education remoras don’t serve any obvious benefit. Remoras thrive on big splashy reports that cost a lot, but whose implementation was doomed from the get go. A remora is not outright bad, necessary, so much a symbol of a collective mentality that privileges “solutionist” thinking. Whatever waste remoras generate is usually to be blamed on whoever hired them in the first place.
Grifter: A remora without principles. #NotAllEdTech, but most commonly found in this space.
Scholar: Someone who produces scholarship on a particular systemic problem, but does not extend that scholarship into personal activism.
Activist: A person focused on a specific problem within the system (e.g., student debt), who advocates through all possible means for policy change. Often relies on scholars to provide the fodder that spurs their activism.
Scholar/Activist: Combination of the previous two roles. Sara Goldrick-Rab is a good example of a scholar/activist, as someone who is producing original research, and then using that research to pursue a specific policy agenda. This would be my preferred role except that I lack the skills, knowledge, training, and opportunity to pursue such a position.
Gadfly: When I’m at my best, I see this as my role, a quasi-insider, but mostly outsider who means well and is willing to say things that may cause those with institutional power and influence to take notice. The gadfly is the most fun, and least useful role of those who seek change to the status quo.
Eeyore: This is me at my worst, the cataloger of complaints and blamer of others without offering hope or a pathway to solutions. Many people will recognize the Eeyore in their own departments. I try to mitigate against my inner Eeyore, but I occasionally fail. I can see my Eeyore poking his head up and asking to be noticed in my post about the limits of wonks.
Pollyanna: The inverse of the Eeyore. Sometimes vital to keeping an impossible situation from descending into hopelessness, other times an annoyance for a refusal to recognize reality.
Bomb thrower: The positive version is a gadfly who is unconcerned about how they are perceived by others, and someone I lack the fortitude to be. The negative version is a visionary who does not care who is harmed in pursuit of their vision and decamps to their next opportunity while others are stuck picking up the rubble.
Who’d I miss?