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Thursday, December 29, 2005

(Counter)forces of nature....

I am in the process of "constructing" my spring courses. "Constructing" is the right word, by the way -- having switched entirely to the Blackboard system, I now have to literally rebuild courses from the ground up. In the process I have come across some worthwhile links that might be of interest to folks -- especially those curious about the legacy of Katrina. The effort has also given me cause for concern about the rekindled bureaucracy bashing that the disaster has brought in its wake....

One of the courses I am assigned has the sweeping title of "Cases in Public Management," and it harkens back to the days when case studies were central to the teaching of public administration (see here for good short description). Despite its long and venerable status as a pedagogy, I have never really had success applying it effectively in class -- at least not in the traditional ways they do it at Harvard and other fine places. But since I am the instructor of record for this last iteration of the UNH course (we are changing the title and focus in the fall), I have jumped right into the task, and I must say that I am having some fun putting together the material.

One reason is that I've decided to shift the emphasis from using the case study method as a pedagogy to approaching case study analysis as a tool for students and practitioners who want to better understand their world (in Karl Weick's terms, as a tool for "sensemaking"; see here and here and here to make some sense of sensemaking).

With this approach, I am finding the "case" of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans enormously fertile ground. In addition to the numerous resources generated at the time of the disaster, there are all sorts of follow-up stories produced each month. Some of it good, some of it crap...

Among the good were the two PBS shows -- one on Frontline and the other on NOVA -- originally broadcast back-to-back on November 22, and both are still online in their entirety.... As is usually the case with both shows, there are lots of ancillary material on each site. There is also an amazing little segment (short of 12 minutes) first broadcast in January 2005 on "scienceNOW" (an offshoot of NOVA) that all but described the dangers of a hurricane hitting New Orleans directly. They called it right on the head....

There is another treasure recently put online as a result of Katrina. While I am no fan of using case studies in the classroom, I have long been a fan of one particular book by John McPhee that I think really got to the heart of what it means to be a "heroic" public servant (or as friend Norma Riccucci labelled them, "unsung heroes").

The book in question -- The Control of Nature -- is a classic as far as I am concerned, and I assign it whenever I can. It includes three studies previously published in the New Yorker (in 1987 and 1988) in which McPhee focused on how three individuals (and their colleagues) worked to do the impossible -- to control the natural flows of water (in the Missisissippi), mud (in the hills around LA), and lava (in Iceland). All three are great studies (written as only McPhee as the noted master of the non-fiction narrative can), but it is the opening study of the Army Corps of Engineers' continuous battle to stop the Mississippi from jumping its banks and joining the Atchafalaya that rises to true levels of brilliance as an insightful case.

Well, with Katrina at the top of the news, the folks at the New Yorker decided in their great wisdom that McPhee's "Atchafalaya" essay needed to be posted in all its original glory onoline. While it is not about the dangers of hurricanes in the Delta, it is easy to get the relevance of the piece for anyone interested in what they are confronting in that region.

Which brings me (finally) to the point of this blog. Listening to recent news segments on the post-Katrina recovery efforts, we seem to have entered a new phase of media-led bureaucracy bashing which once again proves how uninformed and unreasonable public (and especially so-called opinion leader) expectations are about what the public sector is capable of doing. I will use the next few posts to give examples, but for the moment I think it is necessary to stress that the very existence of urban life in New Orleans -- and for that matter, any kind of sustainable socioeconomic life in the Delta and Gulf Coast regions -- owes a geat deal to folks like those profiled by McPhee who spend their entire lives engaged in doing the impossible -- controlling natural forces on behalf of an ungrateful public.


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