Keywords for the Age of Austerity 3: Nimble

The crisis at the University of Southern Maine, where large-scale faculty layoffs have begun, has thrown up several new candidates for Keywords of the Age of Austerity. From the New Apps blog:

Words like “metropolitan,” “innovative,” and “nimble” passed from the president of the university and the chancellor of the system to the members of the board of trustees, all from banking, corporate law, and the business sector, constituting a dismal display of the current corporate common sense…The recasting of the university as corporation that must “adapt or die” was coupled with disparaging remarks about shared governance, union contracts, and public debates over the fate of a public university.

Constructing mass layoffs as “nimble” and “innovative” reflects one important aspect of our austere moment: as John Summers pointed out in his Baffler essay on the cult of “innovation” in Cambridge, Mass., it is not enough for the private sector to embrace its market-worshipping mantras. Instead, he writes, “the whole community must conform,” in the form of tax breaks for tech companies, the demise of rent control, and so on. The debacle at Southern Maine is one example: a university, which is explicitly not a corporation, must artificially assume for itself the mission and risks of a corporation—“or die.”

The layoffs of faculty, especially in the humanities, will mark a more “nimble” university, say the trustees and administrators mentioned in New Apps. What does this strange word mean? Like so many of the keywords of the age of austerity, on the one hand, the answer is simple: “nothing.” On the other…

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Google ngram reveals that “nimble” has remained steadily popular for the last two centuries, unlike once-obscure, re-purposed words like “stakeholder” or”innovation.” A quick search shows that in the 19th century, it was especially popular in children’s books and songs, most famously in the Mother Goose rhyme “Jack Be Nimble.” This reflects the word’s literal meanings, which are applicable to instructive and vigorous play, as well as little brains and hands: “Quick at grasping, comprehending, or learning” and “Quick and light in movement or action; agile; active.” The word, then, refers to intellectual quickness or physical dexterity in an individual person, although its literal usage seems to tend towards the latter, as in Jack’s leap over the candlestick.  

Even in the 1980s, it appeared in the New York Times most often in the sports section or, less often, to refer to a politician’s skillful deflection of scandal. An early, rare business usage appeared in a 1981 headline, “Nimble Commodities Broker,” above an article about the merger of two Wall Street commodities trading firms. The author of that article: a young reporter named Thomas L. Friedman.

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Although one occasionally still sees it applied to agile athletes, nimble is used most commonly now in a business context, as a metaphorical synonym for “efficient.” We can’t definitively blame Friedman for it, though, since his usage is rather dated. It is more often downsizing, rather than expanding, that commands the honor of being called nimble.” (But since these words often mean so little by themselves, no one said they needed to be consistent.) See, for example, its popularity in media coverage of the General Motors and Chrysler bankruptcies of 2009. The layoffs of tens of thousands of white-collar and especially factory employees were reforms necessary to make more nimble” companies. Here, the word was plainly euphemistic, depicting the firm as a overweight body that needed to slim down and get in shape, rarely stating the human consequences of “nimbleness” outright. GM was “bloated” and a “behemoth,” economic analysts were quoted as saying, causing it, wrote a Times reporter, to “lose a step to more nimble competitors,” especially Japanese automakers.

The literal meanings of “nimble” endure in some of its metaphorical economic uses, however. Take, for example, this NPR report on layoffs in the downsizing journalism industry, in which “nimble” refers to the willingness of an employee to assume the additional labor and learn the additional skills once provided by another paid staffer. A TV correspondent who doesn’t do their own editing and writing will not last in the industry, says a reporter. “They’re going to have to be more nimble both journalistically and technically in terms of the production of their pieces,” doing the additional work of filming, writing, and editing in the field. Describing the new director of the cash-strapped Colorado Symphony Orchestra, a Denver Post reporter wrote, “It’s Sobczak’s job to sell the CSO’s new image as a nimble set of talented musicians who can play anything well, and anywhere, including schools, office events, rock venues, rehab centers.”

In the Detroit Free Press, the founder of ePrize—“the largest interactive promotion agency in the world,” in case you were wondering—confesses that he once imposed too many quality controls at his firm. “Quality increased, but speed and nimbleness took a nosedive,” a rare appearance of the somewhat clumsy-sounding noun form. The C.E.O.’s usage has the effect of treating this metaphorical value concept—the physical dexterity of a bureaucracy—as if it is a measurable, meaningful metric.

The adjective “nimble” has long been quite popular in mainstream cultural criticism as well, where it regularly pops up as a generic term of praise for a writer’s prose style or a filmmaker’s storytelling chops. “Bondurant is a nimble writer,” writes Louisa Thomas in the New York Times of novelist Matt Bondurant, praising what she later calls his prose’s “liveliness,” “especially when it comes to depicting gore and guts.”

The reference to gore and guts is appropriate, since like its corporate close cousins, “lean” and “agile,” “nimble” is a bodily metaphor (as is “corporation,” derived from the Latin corporare, “to embody”). A lean or nimble business (or orchestra, or university) maximizes productivity while minimizing labor costs. While “lean” calls to mind emaciation or, worse, prime cuts of meat, “nimble” is more affirmative. It is athletic, vigorous, youthful, and gymnastic, like the boy who jumps clean over the candlestick. When your firm is described as “nimble,” your overworked, underpaid, and increasingly exploited charges sound more like Kerri Strug or Plastic Man.

Like “innovation,” it constructs any success, but also any failure, as personal, rather than systemic. “Nimble” also frames the self-interest of the corporate manager as a self-evident obligation, like eating right or watching your cholesterol. Why are you being laid off? Sorry, the firm just wasn’t nimble enough with you around. No matter that “nimbleness” is so often a vaporous concept. Much of the current language of austerity imagines corporate businesses as bodies in virtually every way except as a group of overworked or underpaid ones.

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Keywords for the Age of Austerity 2.5: Learning Outcomes

A short, digestable, and easily implementable keywords definition for your weekend, because some of these words practically write themselves.

For more on learning outcomes, let’s take a listen to the Dean of Students at Brigham Young University, who has put together a helpful site to explain a concept ubiquitous in higher education.

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Says the BYU page:

The most commonly used and perhaps parsimonious [that means “stingy or frugal,” take note—ed] “definition of ‘learning outcomes’ proposes that they are ‘what a student is expected to be able to DO as a result of a learning activity.’

“Parsimonious” is a key term here: because even though syllabus statements on “learning outcomes” are formally directed to students, their real audience is administrators. It is academic administrators who require them, after all, because such ostensibly empirical measurements help assess the “value,” and hence the budget, of academic programs.

But to return to the definition: what, you might not be asking, does “DO” mean? Let BYU first tell you first what it doesn’t mean: it does not mean “know,”  “understand,” “comprehend,” or, God forbid, “learn.” “There must be a doing in the do of a learning outcome,” says the dean’s office, so verbs like “know” and “learn” are  too abstract for the kind of knowledge  learning activities outcomes need to describe. A list of preferable verbs includes “define,” “compute,” and “implement.”

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COMPUTE THIS

In the “learning outcomes” definition above—“what a student is expected to be able to DO”—“expected,” we learn, refers only to “learning activities” conducted intentionally, not those that happen accidentally or serendipitously. Those are inefficient and cannot be implemented, computed, or defined. (Don’t tell these guys serendipity can’t be implemented.)

Like the other words in this series—innovation and stakeholderlearning outcomes is a superficial concept that crumbles under even slight scrutiny. But its empirically verifiable meaninglessness conceals the zeal for empirical measurability that it demonstrates. And in the education world, these kind of measurements are only ever about cutting back.

Keywords for the Age of Austerity 2: Stakeholder

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“Keywords for the Age of Austerity” is an occasional series on the  vocabulary of inequality. Certain words, as Raymond Williams wrote in his classic Keywords, bind together ways of seeing culture and society. These shared meanings change over time, shaping and reflecting the society in which they are made. Some of the words I will consider here are old, seemingly innocent terms that have acquired a particular fashion or developed a particular new meaning in recent years; others are recent coinages. All of them relate to to an affinity for hierarchy and a celebration of the virtues of the marketplace, of competition, and of the virtual technologies of our time. This series will explore the historical meanings embedded in these words as well as the new meanings that our age has given them.

Care to suggest a word? Do do via the link at left, or tweet at me.

Stakeholder (n.)

Writing teachers know that one of the laziest writing errors is what we might call the “paleontological fallacy.” Unsure of how to begin, writers will frame an argument in the broadest terms possible, by opening with some timeless generalization: e.g., “in all of human history,” “ever since ancient times,” or “ever since dinosaurs roamed the earth.”

Here is an example from the management textbook Basics of International Business (2009), which introduces aspiring executives to the concept of “stakeholder theory” (italics added):

From the earliest of times, safeguarding shareholders’ and/or owners’ interests has been the paramount goal of corporate executives; taking responsibility for the concerns of and interests of stakeholders, on the other hand, is a relatively new concept, probably less than a hundred years old.

The problem with such paleontological fallacies is not just their imprecision, although “earliest of times” is so grammatically strange a construction as to become almost metaphysical: when can we say that time really begins, anyway? Is there a point, the earliest point, even earlier than that? And were there any stockbrokers then?

The real problem with these generalizations is their indifference to historical change, such that whatever specific subject one is discussing—marriage in “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” for example, or the meaning of democracy under Reconstruction—is hollowed out. The shareholder corporation becomes a natural part of human social life, something we have always known, ever since dinosaurs walked the Earth. It seems natural, practically legible in the  fossil record. This naturalization becomes relevant to the keyword of the stakeholder because it is a term with a historically, and for most of that time exclusively, financial meaning that is often overlooked in its popular usage, where it has come to refer to non-profit and even democratic activities. Like so many such terms—innovation is another—this transition from a specifically financial to a broadly social meaning is rarely remarked upon.

The primary meaning of stakeholder in the Oxford English Dictionary identifies it as “an independent person or organization with whom money is deposited, esp. when a number of people make a bet or other financial transaction.” It is thus financial, even speculative—notice the particular link to gambling, one of the most common 19th-century uses of the word. A “stakeholder” is the person or group with whom others’ money is deposited, often a third party or trustee. More recently, it has become commonly used by non-profit voluntary organizations, in education, community development, and other sectors. Here, a “stakeholder” is anyone with an interest (a metaphorical “stake”) in the success of an organization.

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Here is a non-metaphorical stakeholder (thanks Nick)

The concept of the “stakeholder” in business management is often credited to the Harvard Law School professor E. Merrick Dodd, who did not use the word itself (that honor appears to belong to a later management theorist, R. Edward Freeman) but outlined its meaning in a 1932 Harvard Law Review article. In the midst of the Depression, Dodd argued for more responsible corporate practices, recognizing that “public opinion” had turned against the view that a corporation’s only obligation was to its shareholders. Without specifying how they should do so, but believing that “enlightened” managers should do so voluntarily—that is, without inconvenient legal compulsion from the state—Dodd argued that corporations were obliged to serve not only their shareholders, but all of their stakeholders, which also included employees, customers, and the general public. It is from this “stakeholder” concept that the notion of the “socially responsible” corporation derives.

As a term of organizational ethics, stakeholder theory makes a pretty simple claim. Managers of a firm have an obligation to  those who have a “stake” in it, whatever that stake be fiduciary or circumstantial. The concept is vague, as some other management scholars have pointed out. One can read the invocation to take others’ stakes into consideration as ill-defined at best, given the competing interests of stockholders and employees. More ungenerous critics can read read it as little more than a plea that business leaders not act like sociopaths.

In British political rhetoric, the notion of the “stakeholder economy” was popularized by Tony Blair’s New Labour government as an ideal of upward mobility that foregrounds individual initiative while evading talk of social conflicts or obstacles. The stakeholder economy is “not about giving power to corporations or unions or interest groups,” he said. Rather, “It is about giving power to you the individual. It is about giving you the changes that help you get on. “ As in Dodd’s concept, “stakeholder” only approaches clarity about the bad things that it isn’t. (Although since Blair declared the British Tories to be partisans of the “no-stake economy,” maybe it didn’t approach too closely).

In American political discourse, “stakeholder” has been embraced by New York governor Andrew Cuomo in much the same way as Blair. It has also appeared recently as a term of gentle critique, to chide a disruptive major power like China. China is urged to be a “responsible stakeholder in the global system,” with the clear implication that it isn’t.

“Stakeholder” will likely prove persistent. While other synonyms exist for those who facilitate bets and investments, “stakeholder” seems increasingly essential in its recent organizational context, where few synonyms come to mind (at least to me). Individual organizations have such terms, of course. Labor unions have members, for example, but is there a  term to refer in common to the workers in a factory, the employees of the restaurant down the street from the factory, the teachers at their children’s school, and so on? In this usage, “stake” may simply have been divested (to use another unavoidable financial metaphor) of its profit-seeking meaning and become something different.

As a term of political and business rhetoric, though, stakeholder belongs to our age of heightening inequality. Like other phrases derived from gambling and finance that have migrated into democratic politics—the appropriately gruesome phrase “skin in the game” comes to mind—stakeholder conflates access with rights, obscuring hierarchies of power under the veneer of cooperation.

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Holding a steak in Rosemary’s Baby