Friday, August 15, 2008

Process people

Every Thursday, the three members of the administrative team in the Honors College have lunch together and discuss ideas and plans. These lunches -- and other occasions when Rick, Phil and I brainstorm, vent, and get all excited about what we do -- have become my favorite thing about my job.

Yesterday I sat down with my boss for my long-delayed yearly evaluation, we got to talking about our felicitous collaboration. What makes the three of us such a compatible team, I realized, is that we're all builders. We love the process of imagining something new and breaking down what it would take to accomplish it. We get a charge out of spinning structures out of concepts, functions, and mission.

Not everybody is interested in that kind of stuff. Some people are process people, and some people are product people. Product people want to cut to the chase. Product people are sometimes suspicious of process people because they worry about losing sight of the process's motivations and aims. Process people are sometimes suspicious of product people because they believe that all the pieces of the machine have to work toward the aim, and that an inordinate interest in getting down to business leads to shoddy, unsustainable, isolated, and idiosyncratic practices.

A commenter on my review of the disappointing Dirk Wittenborn novel Pharmakon quoted a passage where I praise the book's grasp of fifties and sixties psychology, and noted snidely, "Maybe we should just watch Mad Men instead of reading this." I started to fire back a reply about how I watch and love Mad Men but there is room in the world for more than one representation of the time period, and then I gave it up in disgust. Now I realize what my response should have been: "Spoken like a true product person." And never the twain shall meet.

One reason I get such a charge out of teaching is that I love leading students through a process -- a process of gaining insight, a process of communication, a process of collaboration. When I read something that comes from someone who's obviously a deeply process person, I can lose myself in the twists and turns of the mind of a kindred soul. I started reading David Carr's The Night Of The Gun today, a book more about the process of a journalist trying to reconstruct his life as an addict than about any conclusions or truths that might thereby come to life. Only a few chapters in, I'm already delighted and absorbed by the way he undercuts the cliches of his own narrative with his process-related conviction that the cliches themselves prove his point.

A few days ago, I opened up Lynda Barry's oversized collage-comic book What It Is, intending to read it like a normal person. But I ended up examining the endpapers for several minutes, never actually turning a page to get to the text itself. Barry collects dozens of scraps of paper on which she's written notes, questions, and insights about the process of writing. As I nodded in recognition at her scrap heap of minutiae, all I could think about was giving these endpapers to a class and talking about the ideas Barry is clearly obsessed with.

The ultimate proof of my identity and my eternal fate -- to be a process person -- is this blog itself. Writing every day isn't about what I write. If it were, I would stop once I'd written it. No, its wheels-within-wheels, windmills-of-my-mind nature screams "process." There's nowhere to get to, no answer, no finish line. Just the next day and the next building block of what to a product person can only be a folly, an endlessly morphing Xanadu.

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