If You Would Like to Reach a Real Human Being, Hang Up and Look Elsewhere

December 29, 2009

Several things converge: I was at the mall this weekend with nothing particular to do except look for a few bargains and watch long lines of people returning things they don’t want and hope to replace with more stuff they don’t need. I couldn’t help overhearing several no-box-no-receipt-but-I-know-they-bought-it-here pleas that were met with blank stares from salesclerks who’d clearly heard all this before and were probably instructed to make the return process as difficult as possible. This is just my suspicion based on previous experience, but with sales in the toilet, what merchandiser would want to take anything back? Human-to-human interactions within systems can be just as frustrating as encounters with machines, perhaps more so because it seems as though a real person might hear and care and understand and be able to do something about another real person’s problem.

I was also finishing up a syllabook for winter quarter this weekend. (Note: syllabook is a neologism I created for a long syllabus that includes assignments, scoring guides, samples, and other materials). As I work on the calendar and due dates, I am aware that there is no way that anything I create will be ideal for everyone concerned. In a quarter system, it’s likely that everything will converge for students toward the end of the quarter. I’d like to figure out how to make a final project due early in the quarter, so that it won’t conflict with other coursework and I’ll have lots of time to assess the work, but final projects are, after all, final, and students’ work needs to demonstrate effort and involvement and thought over time, so making something due right after it’s been assigned isn’t realistic.

I’d like to be humane. I try to be humane. Yet I realize that there is always someone who’s likely to think there’s little humanity in my requirements. If I leave too much wiggle room for students, I know from experience that I may just be tempting them to procrastinate and put off the inevitable. I must also balance the realities of time required for the assessment process with students’ need for time to complete the work. I care about my students, but I also care about my ability to sustain my enthusiasm and energy for my work over time. The quarter will be over and students will be finished with the course, but I will have to do this again. And yes, students will have more courses to take, but they will eventually graduate while I will still be there, still grappling with balancing their needs with my own little systemic realities.

And finally, I needed to talk with someone so that I could get a copy of materials from another institution of higher education that will remain nameless because I can sympathize with their systemic realities even as I am frustrated by them. I reached a message I could not keep up with. As I tried to write down all the “if you’s” with the appropriate numbers to punch because I am really lousy at remembering what number goes with which option so that I can choose appropriately from among the offerings once I’ve heard them all, I realized that there was nothing that addressed the reason I was calling. I stayed on the line awaiting contact with a real person through ten minutes of bad Muzak and “your message is important to us” variations and finally gave up. I wrote a letter requesting the materials since my previous emails have gone unanswered. We shall see what happens. And then I wrote a poem:

Phone Tag
Wilkins-O’Riley Zinn

You have reached student services at TechNo State College.
My name is Ma Chine and I’m delighted you called.

For information about our services, press 1.
To share your distress, press 2.
If you have an insoluble problem, press 3.
If you are stressed beyond your capacity to bear, press 4.
If the pressure is building up and you just need to scream, press 5.
If you don’t think you can stand it another minute, press 6.
If you’re about to explode, press 7.
If life is unbearable, press 8.
If there is no one who loves or understands you, press 9.

If you would like to reach a real human being who will
or provide information,
hang up
and look elsewhere.

I don’t think that dealing with any kind of system is likely to get easier, whether you’re a student or just some poor schmuck hoping to return a leopard-print Snuggie so you can get those argyle socks you’ve been longing for. Everywhere you go, there are fewer people trying to do more—we are living in times of work intensification–and budget cuts are affecting personal interactions in all kinds of unintended ways. But here’s a hint: patience and pleasant persistence in the face of systemic realities sometimes help. What doesn’t help is getting angry, blaming, accusing, and otherwise venting. Whether you need information or want extra time for an assignment or need to return that Snuggie, asking nicely may work.

When’s the last time you got frustrated by a system? How did you handle your frustration?

Is the system going to flatten you out and deny your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system to the attainment of human purposes?
• Joseph Campbell


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