The “Primitive”

Posted by jlubans on November 29, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Woodcut, 1533, from Bartolommeo Cocles' 'Physiognomonia.'

Funny how things come together, how juxtapositions happen.
I recently finished the 1941 book “Kabloona” by Lewis Galantière and Gontran de Poncins which recounts de Poncins 15-month experience living in the Arctic among the Inuit people.
De Poncins, a European nobleman (1900 -1962), unhappy with “civilization” sought a simpler life; and hoped to find it among the primitive Eskimos (his term) in the far reaches of northern Canada.
As I read his fascinating stories of traveling hundreds of miles by dog sled across frozen seas, eating frozen raw meat and living in snow block igloos at -50F, I was reminded of a NYC business owner’s characterizing one of his workers as, “a primitive”.
While this sounded a bit feudal, it was not, I believe, meant as a derogatory term, but an allusion to the worker’s guilelessness, honesty and loyalty to the business.
He’d learned the business on the job and the owner was trusting him to maintain its high-quality customer service.
But is primitive really what we want in an employee? Perhaps there are other ways of looking at the primitive among us.
Maybe the worker’s boss is deluding himself and while he may not mean the term as an insult, that’s how it winds up being, a feudal stereotype of the “noble savage” instead of a unique individual.
Returning to de Poncins, our ice bound Frenchman, he is repulsed by what he sees at the first Eskimo encampment: eating rotten raw fish, the transactional practice of sleeping with each other’s wives, their ignoring (his) schedule, beating their quintessential sled dogs, and helping themselves to de Poncin’s possessions!
As de Poncins odyssey continues north, further and further from Western influences, he slowly comes to terms with himself and the Inuit’s primitive ways.
The far north Inuit differ significantly from the poorer Inuit in the south.
In the unblemished far north – with bountiful seal and fish harvests - there is less guile and cunning among the Inuit he meets. Promises are more often kept, intentions are clearer, less deceptive.
Yet hardly perfect, dogs get beaten, old people get left on the ice to drift away, some crimes go unpunished, wives are abused, etc.
It is in this harsh land that de Poncins begins to shed the ways of Kabloona, The White Man - an uncomprehending outsider – and become more of an “Inuk: a man, preeminently” self-reliant and with dignity among hardship, not driven by a schedule, and accepting his companions as they are. In other words, it is no longer paramount for him to be in charge. He becomes as “primitive” as they are.
Doing so, de Poncins confronts his own pettiness.
He’s no longer the fussy outsider, someone demanding his schedule be kept, someone digging in his heels when something unplanned come his way. Nor is he any longer willing to freeze rather than share his fuel for the igloo’s warming oil lamp.
Ultimately, he came to respect the largely guileless ways of a Stone Age people albeit 20,000 years “behind” in evolution.
Indeed, to survive in the Arctic they are each an Inuk: a man preeminently. Imagine, in a driving blizzard, the skill and courage required to build a windproof igloo shelter, one that will last as long as the storm or longer. You have but one tool: an Eskimo snow knife.
If de Poncins transformation is “primitive” then we need more of it.
How does that happen in the workplace?
First, leadership must model an unwillingness to gossip or take part in scheming.
Cliques and divisions are shunned.
Of the several places I worked only one was free of divisions; it was the only one without regular turf battles over who was to do what work.
Instead, we were on the same page, with no sniping or undercutting. I suppose we were primitive in our willingness to support each other.
Were we guileless? Probably.
Curiously, the state universities I worked in were more transparent that private schools and less likely to engage in “palace intrigue”.
It was mostly in private schools of a certain size where I got to experience first-hand the back-stabbing “perfumed dagger”.
Was this due to the nature of private institutions being less accountable to outsiders?
I’ve come to believe the more genuinely open an organization the better its health.
And, just like de Poncins transformation something like that transformation has to happen for each of us, so we become a supportive group of people wanting what’s best for the group and not just the individual.

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© Copyright all text John Lubans 2020

WIWDD #7 Sheriff Cliff

Posted by jlubans on November 20, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

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Libraries, regardless of size, have policies that at times put them at odds with clients.
Of what do I speak?
Well, there is - as illustrated - the “Shhhh Quiet” Policy. Libraries are said to be places for calm reflection and quietude needs to be enforced.
Then there are those pesky overdue fines. A nickel a day or more to punish the recalcitrant borrower who returns books late.
And, there is/was the no food and drink policy.
In my experience, our enforcement of no food and drink was one of our most problematic public relations fiascos.
While libraries are now more relaxed and forgiving about clients coming through the door with pizza boxes and super-size Slurpee’s, in my time we were far more prohibitive.
Many of us believed that allowing clients to bring in food and drink would lead to invasions of book-eating vermin, from silver fish to rats seeking out pizza crusts and left-over salami sandwiches and Oreo cookies.
And, we knew with righteous certitude that spilled Cokes on study tables would damage, irredeemably, pages of open books.
In my world of research libraries, we could, for many decades, count on clients being respectful of the printed word. They accommodated, maybe even understood the rationale for no food and drink.
Those students were taught at home and in grade school to respect books, to cherish them. There was a tacit agreement between librarians and clients; we were on the same side.
That changed starting in the 1970s onward.
Why? I have a theory which I will mention a bit further down.
In spite of a burgeoning resistance among the students, we were all the more adamant in enforcing the rules.
Our enforcement efforts were for naught. Food and drink were increasingly smuggled in.
Library staff responded with PR campaigns to convince clients of the importance of the policy. Preservation of library materials – civilization - was at stake!
The deviousness got worse.
One of my staff did a daily tour to confiscate drinks and food. This was our zealous Sheriff Cliff. He even wore a tin sheriff’s badge which he’d flash as he encountered violators in the stacks.
Usually at the end of his tour, he’d stop by my office to show me his harvest.
I wonder if he was shaming me since I was somehow derelict in my administrative duty. He would have been happy to make me a deputy in his posse.
With the exception of zealots like Sheriff Cliff, none of us wanted to be seen as a fussbudget. Many staff began to look the other way. They valued their helping image more than rule enforcer.
And there was more than a little illogical thinking in our behavior. When a client checked out a dozen books for home use did we really think they would not read the books while drinking and eating?
Worse, the library staff brought in food and drink for consumption at their desks. There they were, handling new books and preparing them for the shelves, while chowing down on a burger and fries.
One staffer sauntered daily into the building carrying a heaping breakfast plate from the student union. She’d parade through a study area to her office, wafting waffles and sausages.
WIWDD?
One thing I’d do differently, I’d confer with the policy evaders, our clients. Why were they doing this? What had changed? Did they really de-value books? I’d make library staff part of that conversation.
I imagine we’d discover that with incremental tuition increases, the clients were feeling entitled.
They and their parents were paying thousands of dollars to attend the university; yet, the library – a haven from noisy dorms for many students – refused to allow them the simple comfort of a cup of coffee and a candy bar while studying.
And, it was evident that university professors and even library staffers were no longer taking a pay cut to work on campus. With increased tuition and other sources of funding university staff were making decent wages, some very handsome ones.
Ye olde dedicated professors were fading away, replaced by academic entrepreneurs supported by an army of serfs - cheap labor teaching assistants.
Previously, when the clients thought we academics were making self-sacrifices to be on campus, we earned some intangible measure of respect. Once they realized this was no longer the case, they became less deferential.
So, the clients knew they were paying more, much more, and were damned if they would not get more for their money.
I suspect, incidentally, that student grade inflation occurred for the same reasons.
If we had spoken with clients earlier on, the coffee bars and cafeterias now prevalent in many research libraries would have happened much sooner.
Instead of fussers we’d be awesomes.
When well designed and managed coffee bars are a big plus in the overall library “experience”.
One last thing, I’d take away Sheriff Cliff’s badge.


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© Copyright all text John Lubans 2020

“The Menace of Monday”*

Posted by jlubans on November 16, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

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Back in 1919 Edgar Wallace, the prolific and popular writer (173 books and 17 plays plus movies), included the following screed in one of his usual “the fiend in the coal bin” thrillers, The Green Rust:
“There is a menace about Monday morning which few have escaped.
It is a menace which in one guise or another clouds hundreds of millions of pillows, gives to the golden sunlight which filters through a billion panes the very hues and character of jaundice.
It is the menace of factory and workshop, harsh prisons which shut men and women from the green fields and the pleasant by-ways; the menace of new responsibilities to be faced and new difficulties to be overcome.
Into the space of Monday morning drain the dregs of last week's commitments to gather into stagnant pools upon the desks and benches of toiling and scheming humanity.
It is the end of the holiday, the foot of the new hill whose crest is Saturday night and whose most pleasant outlook is the Sunday to come.
Men go to their work reluctant and resentful and reach out for the support which the lunch-hour brings.”
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This sounds more like Karl Marx than Edgar Wallace. Of course, Karl never had a sense of humor, so he would raise his fist and exclaim, “Right on, Bro!” or it’s Socialistic equivalent.
No wonder given the worker's "reach(ing) out for the support which the lunch-hour brings", British pubs opened from Noon to 2.30PM.
Blimey, mate, make that a double!
Wallace was a hard worker, often writing (actually dictating!) several books at the same time. Not a syndicate with a stable of writers, he was a one man show with dozens of dictation takers, typists and clerks.
His books were in such demand in the UK and the USA that they often skipped proofreading, hence plots changed midstream, characters changed names or went missing, and typos abounded.
I’ve been reading Edgar Wallace since finding him in my family’s Maine summer cottage, back in the 1960s. Those books are still there.
Anyway, I think this bit of purple prose may sum up for many their feelings about yet another workweek even though most now get Saturdays off.

*Source: The Green Rust by Edgar Wallace. Get it at Gutenberg.

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© Copyright all text John Lubans 2020

Krylov’s THE LANDLORD AND THE MICE*

Posted by jlubans on November 11, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Ellie Oryan – “Ivan Krylov Krylov's Fables Vodka Portrait
”, collage, no date. Perhaps produced under the influence of vodka Ellie Oryan (Ellie O’Ryan?) borrows Goya’s celebrated oil painting of Aesop in the Prado and renames it Krylov!

A CERTAIN Merchant built a magazine (warehouse), in which he stored away his stock of edibles; and, in order that the mice should not damage them, he instituted a police of cats.
And now the Merchant lives in peace. His stores are patrolled day and night, and all goes well. Unfortunately, an unexpected contingency occurs.
One of the guardians proves himself a thief. Among cats, as with us (who knows it not?), the police are not faultless.
But then, instead of detecting and punishing the thief, and sparing the honest servant, our landlord orders all his cats to be whipped.
As soon as they hear this ingenious sentence, honest and guilty alike, they all run out of the house as quickly as possible: our landlord remains catless.
This is just what the mice have been hoping and longing for.
They enter the stores as soon as the cats have left, and in two or three weeks they contrive to
eat up the whole of their contents.

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The proverb – which I just made up – “Blame Everyone, Blame Yourself” seems to fit. The merchant punishes all the cats, not just the perp and loses his “stock of edibles”. He has only himself to blame.
According to the translator, Krylov’s fable, dated 1811, may allude to the cashiering of all of the officials of Russia’s Commissariat and Victualling Departments during a war with France.
“They were disgraced in a body, and their uniforms taken from them.
The result was that numbers of them retired from the service rather than put up with such a slight.”
Even if you are “sending a message” – to other goof-offs - dismissing a whole unit is foolhardy. Who knows how to do the work? Who knows much of anything about the unit?
While it might gratify the landlord to sweep away the old regime, doing so results in far more of a loss than that from one bad cat.
On the other side, if you truly want to start over, then a whole sale “firing” is one way to do it. Just be prepared to re-design and staff-up for a brand-new way of working. Otherwise, you’ll earn the enmity of all the clients of that now dissolved unit.
In Latvia, once independent in 1991, not all the old communist bureaucrats were dismissed. The place had to keep running and they were the only ones who knew how to do it. However, they brought with them all the old Soviet habits. Yes, bureaucrats are bureaucrats regardless but communist bureaucrats are among the worst – red tape experts extraordinaire.

*Source: Krilof and his fables, by Krylov, Ivan Andreevich, 1768-1844; Ralston, William Ralston Shedden, 1828-1889. Tr. London, 1869

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© Copyright all text John Lubans 2020

WIWDD #6: Fake Self Esteem

Posted by jlubans on November 07, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

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This is the latest in my series on What I Would Do Differently, what I would change if I could.
Have you ever been given an award for “Participation”? These are all the rage in junior sports leagues. Win or lose, you get an award. Whether a starter or water boy or girl, everyone gets a first-place blue ribbon or a gold star.
The “experts” assure us this is the sine qua non for developing a child’s self-esteem.
Not really.
Let me relate how it went for me.
For several years I wrote a column for my professional association’s magazine. I enjoyed doing it and writing on fresh topics benefited my work and my teaching.
Reader comments were consistently positive. The occasional reader survey pointed out that my column was the first thing looked at in the magazine.
I thrived on the feedback and polished each essay.
So, when the editor nominated me for an award, I was flattered and said, Sure!
Well, as the annual convention approached, I learned that the magazine’s three other columnists were to be recognized as well.
Of course, I immediately saw what this was; someone thought my being singled out for an award would somehow diminish the other columnists. Therefore, to avoid the anticipated ruffled feathers, ALL of us would get an award.
I went along.
But, what had a been positive recognition of my writing’s consistency and quality had now become a participation award. Everybody is a Winner!
My writing was no longer deemed outstanding.
What would I do differently?
I’d ask the editor Why? Why the change from recognizing my achievements to celebrating all the columnists? Based on the readership surveys, we were not all producing the same quality work.
If he told me something along the lines of, Well, we (I’d like to know who the We were) thought this would be a great time to recognize everyone for their participation.
Or, that the organization did not want to pick favorites. You know, if Sleepy gets new pajamas at Christmas, so do Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy, Happy, Bashful and Doc.
In either case, I’d now skip the ceremony at the annual members meeting.
I see this keeping-the-peace-at-all-costs behavior in my perennial bête noire, Performance Appraisal or PA.
PA suffers annually from several errors and a couple of those blunders apply in this instance. There’s the Leniency Error. In other words, grade inflation, a boss’ tendency to give very generous ratings. It’s the bell curve with one horn.
By giving high scores, the boss skips the hard mental work of individual assessment, and avoids confrontation and the difficult task of explaining to someone why and how he or she needs to improve.
And, there’s the Self-serving Bias Error. Inflated ratings make the rater look good. His or her employees are all above average, obviously due to careful and wise leadership.
Anyway, this distribution of pseudo esteem rankles still. In short, if you want to give positive reinforcement go ahead; just don’t do it at my expense.
If I truly have done a good job, I want to be recognized for the accomplishment. I do not want my deserved accomplishment to be grouped with undeserving work. And, it’s not just my hurt feelings; this type of pseudo award diminishes the organization.
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© Copyright all text John Lubans 2020

WIWDD #5: Penelope

Posted by jlubans on November 03, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Nothing to celebrate
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This the fifth installment in my "What I Would Do Differently" series.
Penelope was a clerical worker in a three-person unit in my division. Besides Penelope, there was Joan, the unit manager, and Naomi, Penelope’s immediate supervisor along with numerous part time staff.
She was a proud person and reluctant to be directed. Her face revealed strength, suffering and dignity.
She had some physical disabilities but they did not interfere with her work.
But, she also possessed a sharp tongue and used it on occasion toward clients and her coworkers.
Naomi, as I recall, had some of the “mean girl” temperament. The more Penelope resisted Naomi’s guidance; the more Naomi persisted.
Joan, the unit head, deferred to Naomi.
Ultimately, Naomi and Joan came to me wanting to fire Penelope because of repeated insubordination. They had the documentation.
I met with Penelope to hear her side of things; but in the end I approved the termination.
Penelope went to labor court.
I believe the judge was going to reinstate her, but when she refused to sign a court document, he upheld the termination; her pride defeated her
A few days later Joan and Naomi came to my office with a bottle of champagne to “celebrate” the “victory”.
I believe this was orchestrated by Naomi. Before we had opened the bottle, my boss tapped on the door and called me out. He told me, in a few terse words, we should not be doing any celebrating, right or wrong.
What would I do differently?
Since the unit head was deferring to Naomi, I would have met with Penelope early on and explained to her what was happening and what had to happen to avoid termination.
Would this have made any difference? Probably not but it would have been fair.
Also, I would have tried to better understand Naomi’s motives. Was the discipline a pretense to get rid of a “problem employee” or a sincere attempt to help Penelope?
Finally, I’d not allow even a hint of celebration about this firing. It was an organizational failure.
Instead of celebrating, I’d ask Joan and Naomi to join me in a review of the outcome and how we could have done better. What went well and what did not?

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Copyright all text by John Lubans 2020