What I’ve Learned About Crises, or How My Vaguest Shadow of a Doubt Died Today…

It’s been snowing heavily the last couple of days in my area. The thing about snowstorms–like other crises–is that they reveal a lot. It’s difficult to gauge the stability of a system in normal times, though of course you can guess. But a crisis, that lays bare a lot.

Now, when I say it’s been snowing “heavily” allow me to adjust that comment: I don’t know what’s fallen so far, but the prediction for was 10cm, which just barely qualifies as heavy. (And today’s snow certainly was not heavy, though it was constant.)

So… why did one of my colleagues (wisely) rush home instead of meeting up with me as planned? Why did I stand outside for 30 minutes waiting for a campus shuttlebus that was supposed to come, that was supposed to post a Facebook notice if it wasn’t coming, but which simply didn’t show up? (With no sign posted on the bus stop, even?) Why did the subway shut down periodically yesterday?

Why, when we walked through our neighborhood to get home, did we see people slipping and sliding all over the sidewalk, and struggle ourselves to keep our footing, even though I have decades of experience dealing with slippery, icy terrain every winter?

Crises are good because they reveal fundamental instability; in fact, the crisis is not the phenomenon that triggers it, but it is the manifestation of a system’s inability to deal with a phenomenon. A mere “heavy snow” is not a crisis when you have snow tires, or a city government with the memory to remember recent snowstorms and prepare for future ones.

So, no: the snow is not the reason why the trains and bus shut down; nor is it the reason why everyone was unable to walk straight through the snow to get home.

The train system was not built to handle “heavy snow” — not even a single instance of heavy snow — though of course it could have been, and could still be upgraded to that quality. There is a system in place for the campus shuttle bus to announce service cancellation, but it was not used by the employee who decided to call it a night. The streets (and especially walking spaces) were slippery because overly smooth bricks, being cheaper and more aesthetically pleasing to the eye for some type of moron, were selected for paving areas that are bordered by incredibly smooth concrete curbing, which is even more incredibly slippery — and not only in snow, but also in rain.

(And to be fair, this is true of crises everywhere. Hurricane Katrina didn’t cause the crisis in New Orleans: dumbassed unpreparedness, racism, and governmental dysfunction caused that. The crises what happens when occasional phenomena — predictable or otherwise — interface with a system’s inherent problems. I encounter crises more often in Korea, unsurprisingly: the attitude towards systemic problems here tends much more often to be, “Well, it turned out okay, so it’s not really a problem.” But this is true of crises everywhere.)

Crises. They’ve been all exploding all around me, today.

It’s not the crazed, power-tripping Korean-American down the hall who apparently is trying to get me evicted who is the problem; a sensible, non-bigoted system for processing complaints would reveal her craziness, through an arbitration meeting or something. Instead, I’m being issued a “final” warning for things that nobody complained about, for not following notices I never received, for problems that were sorted out as soon as I was notified (and one of which had nothing to do with me, in fact).

It’s not the special, foreigner-specific aspects of the tenure review process paperwork that are the problem, for these only reveal the fundamental disorganization and bias of the Kafkaesque bureaucracy issuing them. Instead, an insane amount of paperwork was sent to me, then discarded, and re-requested, including apparently foreigner-specific paperwork that Korean profs never have to fill out, and which nobody in the building the day it was requested (ASAP!) could explain to me, because even the admins didn’t know what it entailed.

Well, okay, maybe my crazed neighbor and the bizarre repeating mound of paperwork are problems, bbut they’re not the fundamental ones. I’m finding it more useful to recognize that they are more importantly the trigger for the manifestation of crisis, the crisis more deeply rooted in the system. The system is run by bigoted morons who have no systems to mitigate their bigotry; and it is disorganized, or rather organized like a make-work project for bureaucrats. The former is the real reason why my crazed neighbor is being taken at her word, and the latter is the real reason why the renewal process is so ridiculously extra-convoluted for people who look like me.  (That’s not a boo-hoo sob story about racism; it’s a simple recognition of fact. Were I pulling down six figures, I might be able to insulate myself from the reality, but things being as they are, I can’t, and recognizing that is realistic.)

The other positive thing about crises is that when they manifest, they make it impossible to ignore the systemic problems of which they are in fact manifestations. Human beings are prone to ignoring problems for a while, for a little longer, until a little bit longer becomes way too long; inertia, the fear of the unknown, the easiness of putting up and shutting up — all of these things are much harder to give in to when crisis comes. All these crises have killed every shadow of a doubt left inside me regarding the need for 2012 to be a year of big changes.

As I suppose that’s enough of an answer to a question I was asked here not so long ago. I’ll have more to say about that later, of course. But for now, I’ll just say: there’s a lot to look forward to. Primarily this works in contrast to what there’s a lot of right now.

4 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned About Crises, or How My Vaguest Shadow of a Doubt Died Today…

  1. Try this one for size. I was the point man for hiring a foreign faculty member for the economics department in 2004. (I believe our department was the first non-language department to hire a foreign foriegn professor). I had to go through an amazing amount of BS because the university administration tried to force-fit everything to the existing regulations. The most ridiculous thing I remember is having to send out forms for the foreign applicants to fill out, but all the forms (not necessarily translated into English) were in .hwp format, which is only used in Korea. If we tried to send the blank form by fax, we couldn’t use the department fax, because these were restricted to domestic use only.
    Some of my professional work involves dealing with regulations, so I worked with people from Ministry of Knowledge Industry, Ministry of Finance and Planning, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Public Procurement Service, the Customs Service – the usual suspects for idiotic bureaucracy. Actually, they were well aware of the possible problems with bad or inefficient bureaucracy, and they can be amazingly helpful.
    Our university administration is worse than any of the government bureaucrats in the organizations listed above. I suspect that they intentionally make it this hard so 1) cover their ass (naturally) and 2) they want to encourage people not to fill out paperwork, so that they don’t have to work or take responsibility since they have the perfect excuse – it’s the professor’s fault. (To be fair, I’ve also heard that a lot of these silly things are required by Ministry of Human Resources (Education)).
    (Which is not to say that all government workers are uniformly helpful. The ones with bad reputations are – Ministry of Human Resources (Education. It figures, right?), Ministry of Gender Affairs (which in Korean is translated “Ministry of Women”), Ministry of Environment, Small and Medium Enterprise Administration, and National Assemblymen (Congressmen – unless, of course, they get a side payment)).
    My own conclusion for the last 3-4 years is that my blood pressure doesn’t need the hassle. Let the system break down. Any efforts to assist them maintain this system by being helpful (by filling out silly, unnecessary paperwork, or attend idiotic meetings) only raises my blood pressure and keeps this idiotic system in place.

    1. Junsok,

      Ah, so much of this sounds familiar.

      I learned about the paperwork stupidity in my first semester, having to submit the same documents multiple times because I was “too complete” in the information I provided. All for leaving on the Friday of exam week, can you imagine? “How many classes will you be missing?” “None.” Ha! I should have taken the hint and escaped at the end of that contract…

      So, yes, I know from experience how really, really inefficient our uni’s admins are. But they’re also really, really vindictive at times; I know they’re like that toward Koreans, but with foreigners it seems to go exponential. When we meet, I’ll tell you about my dealings with the Housing Office of late, including their forthcoming “Final Warning” for me on the basis of what a deluded woman down the hall has been telling them (including blaming me for things *other* people have done, and which they haven’t even investigated or called an arbitration session for).

      Which is the problem for me, in the end: I’m not paid sufficiently to both save money and have my own flat. If I want to have any savings at all, I need to live on campus. So those vindictive, useless, unhelpful admins aren’t just doofuses I have to deal with at work: they’re also my landlords, except they’re also (or claim to be) exempt from the law governing landlord-tenant relations because on-campus housing is classified as “dormitories”… so they can barge into my place anytime they want, even when I’m not home. (And they do so on occasion, and have done, a couple of times, without even knocking first!)

      Worse, my personal life is apparently forever going to be their business. When I split up with my ex-fiancee (who lived with me on campus), they were eager to try move me out of this apartment, and finally (a year later) tried to stick me in, hands-down, the crappiest apartment on campus, a place so horrifying the last occupant insisted on being moved to another place within a semester of moving in. It was at the beginning of my 3rd year on tenure track, and what a welcome: Thanks for signing your new 2-year contract, by the way, here’s a moldy, dingy tiny basement one-room with a horrid bathroom for you to move into for the next two years. I refused, got almost no backing from my department, refused some more and told them I was invoking seniority and someone else should be moved in there (as I’d been around whole years longer than most of the other newer tenure-track profs who all had one-bedroom apartments), and finally when I told them I was engaged to Miss Jiwaku and we were going to stay in our place, they shut up and backed off. (Aside from some clerical grumbling, which I ignored.) This was after 2 years in my then-current place, and after 4 years working here… and yet people who’d just started had apartments comparable to the one I was then living in!

      Frankly, if they gave a housing stipend big enough for me to live in a non-garbage neighborhood, or, hell, paid me a wage comparable to a newly-hired Korean in the same position (taking into account different qualifications, sure, but also seniority) I might feel differently. But I’ve essentially been assured neither will happen… I was told, in fact, that my best bet for housing independence is to sell a bestselling novel. (Which is akin to winning the lottery, really.)

      So, yeah, they don’t pay me enough for all the trouble. But hey, we should meet up again before I really do take my leave of this place… :)

  2. I find that when you start cheering against korean teams out of spite it’s time for a holiday

    as for the slick brick problem, if I’m not mistaken we sit on a granite shelf which projects into the pacific

    the drive toward domestic materials means that all of our interiors, exteriors and sidewalks are covered in frictionless mall food-court granite tiling

    and when polished granite gets wet or snowy it strongly encourages pedestrians to bodycheck the ground

    especially if they are wearing insulated crocs

    it’s all the granite’s fault, I tell you

    the granite

    1. Joey,

      Ha, I know, man. I know. though I’m at the point where holidays don’t cut it anymore… it’s time to go, and has been for a while, but it wasn’t possible for reasons I won’t get into now, except to say they’re largely like the reasons anyone stays at a place they no longer want to be.

      As for the slick bricks… well, the fact of the matter is that the tiling doesn’t *NEED* to be polished in that way. The tiles could be manufactured in such a way as to minimize such problems instead of exacerbating them, if only someone, anyone, cared more about function than appearance.

      (And you know, installing gratings at the entrances of big buildings, so what people track in has somewhere to drain to, would help. Not so much for the snow–which Korea doesn’t get a lot of–so much as for the rain… because Korea gets a lot of rain.)

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