Way, way down in the weeds

A colleague sent me a link to the coverage of a “senior US intelligence official” describing Osama bin Laden as a micromanager, a news story that’s probably clogging up inboxes all around global higher ed at the moment. This was the bit that caught my eye:

“He was down in the weeds as far as best operatives, best targets, best timing.”

“Down in the weeds” is a phrase we don’t hear much in Australia. Language Log has put together a lovely inventory of its uses (in the related form “deep in the weeds” and the short version “weeded”), from politics to management to short-order restaurants, where it’s the language of the entirely overwhelmed.

Back when I was still cooking, we had a favorite phrase, deeply treasured, to describe a guy (usually a young guy, usually on his first or second night working fryers or garde manger) who was so far down that he could no longer see beyond the next ticket. When he was flustered, when he’d lost the long view and had that white-eyed, glassy stare that signals the onset of total adrenaline burnout, he was “shitting dandelions,” as in, “Check out Bob. Motherfucker’s so deep in the weeds he’s shitting dandelions.”

We’ve all been there.  

It also evokes all those familiar committee scenarios where procedural thoroughness has slowed progress to a crawl. The meeting is snared, escape from the room is becoming more and more of a pipe dream, the wording on resolutions on the agenda are minutely finessed, generally good ideas are pulled down on technicalities because everyone’s so far down in the weeds that they can no longer remember the horizon. (That sound of scratching you can hear as the detail-obsessed go at it for the third time is a colleague trying to work a brick out of the masonry with a ballpoint pen.)

So not getting down in the weeds can be a move with both generous and disingenuous intent. It’s used both by people trying to wear their singular expertise lightly in order to keep a higher order process on track, and by people deploying complexity as a feint to stop others from getting hold of too much information.

But sometimes people get down in the weeds because they love the precision and particularity of what they’re doing. Detail matters, and care is rewarded with satisfaction.  Author David Abrams writes beautifully in defense of getting “down in the weeds with the sentences“:

An Army public affairs officer I worked with in Alaska was particularly fond of the phrase “down in the weeds” to describe nit-picking the details of the task at hand–as in, “This 853-page annual report really gets down in the weeds when it comes to counting the wrenches in the motor pool;” or, “Good God Almighty, that four-hour staff meeting would’ve been three-and-a-half hours shorter if G-3 Operations hadn’t got down in the weeds with that PowerPoint lecture on training schedules.”

He used “down in the weeds” like it was a bad thing.  But when it comes to writing, and especially the process of re-writing, spending some time hunkering low in the grass is a very good idea.

None of these uses of this anticipate the term cropping up in the context of micromanagement of others.  The US official who puts two and two together in this way has revealed something about that increasingly familiar practice of managerial over-involvement in the daily grind, that isn’t driven by solidarity or commitment, so much as by transferred anxiety about reporting obligations. When senior management are waist deep in the weeds with us, they’re sending a clear message that we can’t be trusted to have either the stamina or the expertise to navigate the swamp properly except under their close supervision, despite the fact that this is where we spend most of our time. We’re swamp experts.

Only now we’re not only having to get ourselves through the weeds, but we’re having to take people with us who aren’t recently familiar with the conditions, and who, despite their elaborate big picture view of the horizon we’re all aiming for, can’t seem to understand why we don’t just levitate out of the weeds on their advice, and fly in tight formation towards their vision of the future.

Why is this happening? Most academics I talk to suspect it has something to do with the quality assurance, a climate which is perceptibly heating up in higher education. But in my experience of the QA processes, there’s no reason for quality to be inimical to shared governance, particularly when the sharing is between those who have should have enough in common to respect each other’s intellectual judgment.

No, something else is intervening between the construction of policy by administrators and its implementation by academics working as managers, and it’s making everyone in the value hierarchy a bit jumpier than they need to be. The result is emails reminding us all that compliance with central policy is our highest goal (although ironically, this isn’t the highest goal of policy itself), and that everything we do will be forensically checked—as though attention to detail is some kind of novelty in our line of work.

Once this sets in, we really are all UDIWOF.

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