“…and almost nothing is the best.” While Garrison Keillor was describing organists in this clip from a wonderful edition of A Prairie Home Companion (February 3, 2001)[1. Since I'm still probably 15 years too young to listen to PHC — so 23 years too young in 2001 — let me explain myself. I used to have a Sunday routine that involved attending Memorial Church, followed by brunch at Lowell House and then racing up to my room to catch the 2PM rebroadcast of PHC on our local Boston-area NPR affiliate. This routine, which I entered into during my junior year of college, lasted at least a few weeks if I recall correctly. PHC is a beautiful show but part of me feels comfortable waiting until I get older to listen to it regularly.], the idea of making the best from less is applicable outside of church music.

Indeed, Suzanna and I spent a good part of last night talking about the strange idea of a profession best suited to someone who does not enjoy one of its principal components. Of course that seems strange. Usually our ideal candidates for any job are those who are both capable and excited about doing it! Where would we want to make an exception to this usual standard?

The job we were discussing is any one, particularly at the academy, where a component of the job description involves disciplining students. During the summer we’ve been employed as co-Assistant Deans of the Harvard Summer School. While there are non-disciplinary components of the job — holding study breaks; managing a staff of proctors, Harvard undergraduates who handle most of the student interaction; coordinating move-in and move-out — a portion of it involves ensuring that students have safe and productive summers and handling students that might behave in ways that would threaten these goals. We have a set of rules and expectations in place which we attempt to communicate clearly to students, but of course there are those that violate them, either negligently or willfully, and need to receive some sort of censure for their actions.

Here’s the thing though: both my wife and I positively hate handing out punishments. Don’t get me wrong: we are definitely capable of doing so. But in our former and future role as Resident Tutors at Eliot House we have occasionally played Rock-Paper-Scissors to decide who was going to go and quiet a loud or unregistered party, with the loser headed out the door. Neither of us is particularly withdrawing, so shyness isn’t an issue. If I wanted to put it in the best light I would say that we are hurt when our students disappoint us, given that normally find many of them to be upstanding, honest, etc., all of the qualities that we all seem all to willing to surrender when caught in a tough spot.

Far from interfering with our duties as tutors, a distaste for punishment tends to force us to try and reduce the degree to which discipline is needed. I usually tell my students when I meet them for our first “rules and expectations” meeting in the fall: “You know that there are corners you can back me into where I have no choice but to fight my way out by becoming authoritarian not-nice disciplinary man. But I don’t want to be that person, and you don’t want me to be either, so let’s find a way to avoid finding ourselves in those straights.” And I find that this has, so far, proved strangely effective. And when deterrence doesn’t work, my evident distaste at having to “go all tutor on them” sometimes proves as a future deterrent after students cross the line the first time. I’m pretty sure that the most traumatic thing about having me break up your party is how embarrassed I’m going to be, as I hold open the door and your guests file out into the night. In addition, I believe that not wanting to discipline students encourages authority figures to work in others way to try and create positive environments, since those are less likely to produce disciplinary problems.

Given how unpleasant discipline seems to me, I was sort of surprised to find that some of our colleagues this summer really seem to relish it[2. You'd think that they'd all be working for the CIA by now. OK, bad joke.]. To make things stranger, discipline at the Summer School is really pretty small potatoes in terms of what sort of measures are taken. Usually it’s just students (usually high-school age students) doing dumb and dangerous things that typically don’t really produce many victims. So when we kick out the idiot who got caught with booze in one of the dorms nobody feels “good” about it — I mean, it’s not like we’re locking up Tony Soprano here, guys.

After observing our discipline-happy colleagues we’ve observed that enjoying the process of meting out discipline seems to produce a set of problems:

  • Your colleagues, assuming they are decent people, will find the pleasure you take in the displeasure of others strange and distasteful.
  • When you enjoy the “big stick”, you’re probably more likely to reach for it when it’s not needed, or when something else would work better.
  • Worse still, when you really enjoy the “big stick” you even start to maybe steer kids in that direction:
    • You enforce rules designed to protect the community even when a particular instance of behavior violating them doesn’t meet that standard.
    • You extrapolate wildly from the smallest of infractions. “Hey, we caught them leaving the dorm after hours, but they were probably on their way to do drugs or kill someone!” “The student wasn’t just smoking in their room, they were willfully trying to burn down the dorm and kill everyone inside!”
    • When you do catch a student, you try and push them into lying when they’re already in trouble[3. To me this seems to border on entrapment.]. The lying, if they do it, you take extremely personally, meaning that you can escalate the whole situation, declare the student a “pathological liar” and reach for the “big stick”. (This can also work nicely with the extrapolation strategy. Once you have a “lying liar” on your hands, then they must be lying about everything! “I asked the student if they had ever done stolen a car, and they said no, but because they’re a pathological lying liar and can’t be trusted they probably mean that they’re out driving around town in one right now.”)
  • Lastly, you become extremely insensitive to any changes that might actually occur in the student after they are caught. Call it crocodile tears, call it an attempt to get out of the punishment, call it feeling sorry for themselves, whatever. Just don’t ever identify it as an authentic process of reckoning with their behavior that might prevent future rule-breaking, because this might prevent you from pulling out the “big stick”. The enjoyment of discipline and the desire to empathize and recognize change in others don’t seem particularly compatible.

Given these issues, it seems clear that the best way to hire a person to oversee discipline is to find someone who doesn’t like it. Of course, this produces the problem that if the person actually ends up having to do too much disciplining they are either going to hate their job or learn to enjoy it, at which point we’re back to our problem. It seems like a reasonable solution is to ensure that jobs that have an inherent disciplinary component — whether they be teaching, tutoring, Deaning, etc. — contain a heavy dose of more constructive aspects. This would seem to both help reduce the impact of disciplining that is necessary on the totality of the job while at the same time hopefully providing tools so that the holders can further reduce the amount of discipline they have to do.

All of this said, Suzanna and I were proud to come to our bi-weekly disciplinary meetings with little to nothing to say each week. At first we thought that certain colleagues were just jealous, but now we know that at least some of them felt sorry for us for missing all of the “fun”. Those people need help. Seriously.