Higher Ed Hot Takes #22 - Higher Ed Needs More Chaos Muppets
A Self-Proclaimed Chaos Muppet Writes a Chaotic Hot Take About Procedural Fetishism
Have you heard of the Muppet Theory:
A little-known, poorly understood philosophy that holds that every living human can be classified according to one simple metric: We’re either a Chaos Muppet or an Order Muppet.
It’s a goofy and surprisingly insightful take on the human condition by Dahlia Lithwick, first featured at Slate.com, and then covered at The Atlantic.
Here’s a quick summary from the source:
Chaos Muppets are out-of-control, emotional, volatile. They tend toward the blue and fuzzy. They make their way through life in a swirling maelstrom of food crumbs, small flaming objects, and the letter C. Cookie Monster, Ernie, Grover, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and—paradigmatically—Animal, are all Chaos Muppets. Zelda Fitzgerald was a Chaos Muppet…
Order Muppets—and I’m thinking about Bert, Scooter, Sam the Eagle, Kermit the Frog, and the blue guy who is perennially harassed by Grover at restaurants (the Order Muppet Everyman)—tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows. They sometimes resent the responsibility of the world weighing on their felt shoulders, but they secretly revel in the knowledge that they keep the show running. Your first grade teacher was probably an Order Muppet.
If you’re wondering which kind of muppet you might be, Here’s a test:
After reading that initial description:
Did you stay here with me the whole time? Have I had your full attention? You’re an Order Muppet.
Did you leave for a few seconds to watch a TikTok, check your email, get a crumbly snack, or change the song playing in the background… but then you just came right back? Welcome back, Chaos Muppet.
Did you leave for an hour or so to categorize your coworkers, read the linked article, or, you know, stay productive at your work until your next break? You’re an Order Muppet.
Did you leave for good? Hello… Is anyone out there? Nice to fleetingly meet you, my Prince of Chaos.
Did you leave for a good long while cause you didn’t find this hot take useful but then realized you’re antagonized by the over-simplicity of Muppet-style categorization and want to pick the rest of it apart? Nice to see you again, Order Muppet.
As silly as it sounds, I think the author’s intuition is probably isolating two of the Big five personality traits and pitting them against one another: conscientiousness vs. openness to new experiences. And, if you want to get technical, you could probably argue that she’s pairing agreeableness with openness, and neuroticism with conscientiousness. (But, if you want to tease that apart, you could say poor impulse control would probably be associated with neuroticism. And, chaos muppets are nothing if not servants to their impulses.)
Now that we’ve got muppets sorted out, here’s the first gear change of the take… in the slightly less whimsical direction.
Have you heard of the term “Procedure Fetish?” It’s a good one, isn’t it? A biting insult in the mouths of Chaos Muppets and a saucy compliment for the Order Muppets among us. “Procedure Fetish” is an evocative term coined by Michigan Law Professor, Nicholas Bagley, meant to describe the aftermath of a particular political tactic. You see, to slow down federal agencies, a political party will add on regulatory procedures. It’s not always done nefariously. There’s a delicate balance between accountability and legitimacy. However, when this tactic is overused, you end up with a bloated, convoluted, full-of-red-tape bureaucracy. And, you know who loves bloated and convoluted bureaucracy? Order Muppets.
Quick sidebar: This may be obvious to some of you, but - full disclosure - I am the Animal of Human Chaos Muppets - I epitomize the type. I need to be reined in at least once a day, usually once a meeting. My desk literally has cookie crumbs on it as I write this. Do you know the whole rules-in-form v. rules-in-use distinction? I hold white-hot disdain for rules-in-form. I hate political rules; I hate aesthetic rules; I’m not a big fan of safety rules; and, I hate rules that no one knows about like well-known city ordinances (That’s right: I’m looking at you, Allston, Massachusetts). For any Gretchen Rubin fans out there, I am a questioner through and through. I am the adult equivalent of the child who won’t stop asking, “why?”
I say all of this because higher education as a field has an Order Muppet problem.
For all of you Order Muppets out there, cool your jets. I am not coming for you. I am your friend. You are the peanut butter to my chocolate, the serotonin to my dopamine, the Paula Abdul to my MC Skat Kat. We complement each other, and we complete each other.
What I am saying is that Order Muppets have run the show now for too long. There’s a lot of overwhelming bureaucracy holding you back from meeting students where they are and surprising them so hard, they can’t help themselves but learn. I used to work in an academic resources unit where our business was to provide students with the tools for their business of being a student. In other words, our whole raison d’être was to help students navigate the administrata of their college experience.
Gear switch #2: I want to talk about this common refrain that we hear in higher ed. It’s this idea that there are huge problems in the model of higher education, and if we don’t act now, some boogeyman from the free market or big tech will come and fix our wagons. Here’s an example from conversations about this white paper two MIT Professors were circulating late last year.
“‘If you don’t come up with a different structure with different incentives, things won’t change,’ Sanjay Sarma, an MIT professor who led the creation of the white paper, told EdSurge in an interview. ‘If [higher education] is not fixed, someone else will fix it, and someone else will take the lead,’ he adds, noting that ‘someone else’ would likely be entities outside of higher education.”
We’ve heard this before. Remember? There was supposed to be a great unbundling. There were disruptors on the way. Clayton Christensen was leading the cavalry.
Why is the assumption always that someone else will come along and fix us? Doesn’t it seem like if someone were coming to fix the problem, it would have happened by now? This might be my cynicism talking, but aren’t we all seeing growing institutional financial concerns, changes in enrollment trends, the glib dismissal of expertise, and an uncomfortable antipathy towards higher education in the general population?
I mention this because I think the commonly held belief has been that higher education is kind of broken, but someone somewhere is about to shake things up any moment now. And, once that happens, institutions will have to adapt. There’s no incentive to change any sooner because there is no threat to business as usual.
EXCEPT THERE ARE HUGE THREATS.
It’s just that those threats are coming in increments as opposed to a tidal wave. So, the adaptations and adjustments are all in the spirit of defending institutional life as we know it.
It’s like we’re waiting to hit rock bottom before we change. The problem is, the bottom we’re imagining is one where Google offers the next wave of education, and we have to play catch up and fight for our relevance again.
The bottom I’m seeing is much scarier. It’s where education becomes smaller and smaller. Financially insolvent campuses merge or close. Our experts become less influential. Our breakthroughs are seen as quackery at best and elite schemes of control at worst. Our youth don’t ever engage civically because they’re never taught how. Our political landscape is made up of bread and circuses.
Okay. Back to Muppets. You’re reading this because you work in higher education marketing and communications (I think, anyway… If not, SUPER CHAOS MUPPET, what are you doing here, friend? Go make a mess somewhere.)
If you’re an Order Muppet: Please, use your talents in sense-making for good and glory. Set up your procedures for the things we are going to do anyway, except make it logical and easy to follow. Don’t make more red tape like insisting that website change requests come to you in a certain way, or stripping your content of any qualifying language to prevent arguments from students.
If you’re a Chaos Muppet, here is my request:
Insert your chaos into the spaces that will tolerate it for as long and as wildly as you can.
Catch your colleagues off guard with your plucky and weird brand of creativity.
Resist the forces of procedural fetishism!
It’s slowing us all down.
Life is full of edge cases that no one knows what to do with and people who struggle to get on board with certain routines. We can’t proceduralize away all the confusing, arbitrary, and unwitting problems that come our way. But, if we try to, we drag down our own pace.
- Kristin Van Dorn