Monday, July 22, 2013

"Shimer College: ________ ________ ______ ______"

Isabella recently posted a very interesting suggestion on the Shimer redesign blog:
We took this discussion about "Dangerously Optimistic" back to the drawing board and thought, Why not rotate the "Dangerously" every once in a while with other adverbs? Someone floated "Daringly." Modifiers could also reflect featured Shimer, seasonal, or cultural events.

I doubt if that suggestion will mollify the opponents of the "Dangerously Optimistic" slogan, but I think it's a great idea on its own merits. A "Mad Libs" school motto seems like a perfectly Shimerian answer to the whole problem.  Pick one adverb, adjective, and prepositional phrase for one month; then go with another set for the next month (or some other unit of time), and just keep switching things around, at least until some generally acceptable equilibrium is reached.  "Shimer College: Hilariously Obscure Since 1853." You couldn't do with this with printed materials, but the Internet is another story.

I like this approach in part because it spotlights the ludic aspect of Shimer, playing with the idea of a school slogan in much the same spirit as Shimer's classroom names play with that other convention of paint-by-numbers higher education.  But drawing on some of my own post-Shimer experiences, I think there's a more fundamental reason to like it.

Like most Shimerfolk of the Waukegan and Chicago years, Shimer was my first real experience with the pros and cons of a consensus-based community.  Drifting about after leaving Shimer, I was drawn to the open content movement, particularly the Open Directory Project (yes, that actually used to be a thing) and later Wikipedia and its sister projects, where I've logged about 50,000 edits in total so far, enough to get a very general sense of things.  The ODP and the Wikimedia projects are all more or less consensus-based dialogical communities.

Looking back at my experiences with those communities, and at Shimer, one lesson that comes through clearly is that consensus-based communities tend to handle zero-sum conflicts very poorly.  In good-faith conflicts over article content at Wikipedia, for example, the solution is often to improve the article in such a way that the subject is represented in a more nuanced way that captures both of the conflicting perspectives.  But when there's a problem that admits only of winners and losers (such as a conflict over naming conventions), inevitably some significant part of the community will find themselves on the losing side. The community is thus faced with a situation where a decision must be made, but true consensus is impossible.  At best, this creates hard feelings. 

An imperfect analogy from recent Shimer experience is the mission statement fight of 2010 (which, of course, was symptomatic of a much more serious problem, but let's set that fact aside for a moment).  Whenever a new thing like a motto or mission statement is presented as a fait accompli, the details already decided, it forces a split: you can only be for the change or against it, a winner or a loser.

A tagline is of course a less serious matter than a mission statement.  But then again, it admits of even less possibility of compromise. Even if the Assembly were to designate an Ad Hoc Sloganeering Committee (gods preserve us), there's very little wordsmithing that could be done on a four-word tagline.  And it's highly unlikely that any single tagline could ever gain anything close to a consensus from Shimer's delightfully fractious community anyway.   (We could demonstrate this with a mongrel version of Euclid's theorem:  if a slogan has the support of a large number of Shimerians, then either it will be opposed by some other group on the merits, or it will have become so generalized and watered-down that it will be opposed on that basis alone.)

Yet in these challenging times, it is essential for Shimer to have an outward-facing identity that has the backing of the whole community (as far as such a thing is possible).  Why not, then, sidestep the zero-sum aspect of the problem entirely, and take this issue to a higher and more playful level?

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