This Fall I’ll be teaching my normal four-course load, three sections of introductory world history plus an upper-division seminar in world history since 1945. As an overload I volunteered to teach a section in the newly-revamped freshman introductory course, which we’re trying to move away from elementary life skills and shocking v.d. videos to something more like a college class. I’m on the Tenure and Promotion committee, I’m the faculty athletic rep, and of course I now have a rigorous blogging schedule to maintain, including all the fabulous value-added I offer to other sites with my wise and perspicuous commentary. Busy-ish by academic standards. Hey, it beats driving truck.
Yet yesterday I also agreed to serve on a distance education task force that will apparently be humping to make up for years of lost time by generating a strategic plan for the university in one semester. Happy to do it, I said, because asking was my friend and admired colleague Jane. And in some larger sense of duty and camaraderie I am happy to do it. But in another larger sense of life management I notice that I must have let my strategic incompetence skills deplorably erode.
Strategic incompetence is the art of making yourself more trouble than you’re worth in some area of unwelcome effort. This can involve being a painfully slow learner, a bumbler, or an impediment. In each case the objective is to make it easier for someone else to step in and do the work than to leave it to you. Arguably a species of passive aggression, although shading off into mere passivity or genuine incompetence. A famous example is from studies of gender-typed tasks. It seems that men who have done their own laundry just fine as bachelors will become helpless and, if necessary, error-prone (the red sock in the whites load) once they’re married; women who figured out just fine how to change tires, get things from high shelves, and take out the garbage when they were single become damsels in distress when a man is about.
No one thinks they are personally strategically incompetent or passively aggressive, although most of us recognize it easily enough in others. Dynamically it comes from some blockage on just plainly saying ‘no’, which may in turn come from real or perceived power gradients, conflict aversion, cultural programming (habitus), norms of courtesy, role confusion, communication styles, chickenshit, or a combination of these and other factors.
My own best strategy is “loose cannon.” In actual work I take pride in and responsibility for competence, so the classic strategies of incompetence are closed to me. (In fact, for this reason I am myself vulnerable to the strategic incompetence of others.) Instead of sabotaging any task I use more casual interactions over time to cultivate a general reputation of edginess, unorthodoxy and unpredictability that seems to disqualify me from being asked to do ‘serious’ tasks in the first place. I also express irony about tasks and ask meta-questions about their presuppositions and consequences, which has nothing to do with competence but does make me a PITA to those whose orientation is more narrowly performative. I’ll call this para-incompetence and in a larger sense certainly passive-aggression. By the way, I do none of this as a conscious strategy. It’s in the first instance an emergent effect of my unconventional personality in relation to conventional environments, in the second instance therefore a necessity of which I make a virtue.
In the strategic incompetence link above, the example is organizing the company picnic. Like many tasks subject to strategic incompetence this is a thing worth doing that no one wants to do. Ideally we take turns with such tasks or reward them extravagantly with money or praise. In the alternative it’s important to consider when one can actually say no but would rather not. Saying yes when one could say no would seem to ethically preclude later deploying strategic incompetence. In most situations there’s a possible negotiation over terms of service that is only activated by not instantly saying yes. Costs (e.g. PITA reputation, cultural dissonance) have to be weighed against benefits (e.g. not doing the nasty task, not going to the top of the patsy-for-nasty-tasks list, getting real help for the nasty task). When you’re really stuck doing the nasty task, strategic incompetence becomes a weapon of the weak and may be romanticized as resistance. When you’re not really stuck doing the nasty task, trying to get resistance cred is especially lame.
Social esteem and status are at stake both in the doing and the not doing of nasty tasks, and this too can sometimes be strategized. In general one wants to leave the nasty tasks to others, to redescribe nasty tasks as special and essential (this is an example of stigma management), or at least to be in charge and delegate. As Douglas and Isherwood point out in The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption, a remarkable attempt to anthropologize economics and especially economic blind spots like ‘tastes and preferences’, nasty tasks are status-degrading when they are or resemble high-frequency service of low scope (‘chores’, e.g., housework): “Anyone with influence and status would be a fool to get encumbered with a high-frequency responsibility.” In fact, competence at any common task is potentially status-degrading, as so many of our faculty colleagues understand: “All goods to some extent emanate messages about rank…. The class of pure rank-markers could be the highest-quality versions that serve no other purpose, like the best porcelain, the family heirlooms, ancestral portraits.” Or professors in named chairs.
Clearly enough one ideally wants to teach as little as possible, badly, and then only grad students who will go on to be professors; do arcane research of no immediate applicability; and by all means stay away from any sort of campus service, committee or administrative assignment where things are actually done. I am so getting it wrong.