Last time, I was discussing the lessons that could be learned and applied from organizational problems at NASA and its contractors which led to the Challenger (and Columbia) disaster. This post builds off of some of those same lessons, but I want to talk about nuclear power and the ways organizational failures parallel those at NASA.
There have not been very many nuclear power plant disasters since nuclear power became possible in the post-WWII period, but the disasters which have occurred were pretty catastrophic. This is one argument against the use of nuclear power; despite its ability to provide “clean” burning power (unlike fossil fuels, for example), any accidents tend to be extremely bad, both for humans and the environment. In the very compelling book, Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters from the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima, James Mahaffey notes the relatively few deaths that have occurred as a result of a nuclear power accident in the United States. There have been deaths of Americans, some during the early nuclear reactor concept testing years and others in an accident in Idaho, but generally speaking, nuclear power has been fairly safe, especially when compared to the human costs of mining for coal or the environmental degradation of natural gas fracking. And yet, there have been several nuclear catastrophes that put the entire concept of nuclear power into question – but most of these catastrophes can be blamed on organizational failures.
For a few years, I’ve been interested in the formation, sustaining, and analysis of organizational culture. This refers to the ways in which organizations – be they corporations, universities, government agencies, charities, etc – operate. This operation necessarily includes both official guidelines and behaviors, such as training manuals, employee workspaces, emergency plans, as well as unofficial procedures, such as employee communication habits. Sometimes these phenomena are collectively referred to as “corporate culture,” a misleading name that nonetheless captures the significance of both the letter and spirit of the “law” in any organization. At best, a functioning culture can create a positive environment for workers and theoretically lead to better products/events/services. At worst, a non-functioning culture creates both a negative employee environment and can potentially result in disaster. There are two fields which have captured my attention in this regard: the space shuttle program at NASA and nuclear power plants. Both fields emphasize technical expertise and process as keys to the safety of their work, but both fields have also proven to be rife with the kinds of culture that can lead to real tragedy.
I became interested in this after reading Diane Vaughan’s 1996 book The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. It is a fascinating analysis of the problems within NASA’s organizational and technical processes that ultimately led to the tragedy that was the Challenger shuttle accident. Vaughan’s thesis is that the accident was the direct result of many smaller issues that caused the technicians at both NASA and the associated shuttle contractors, most notably Morton-Thiokol, to downplay the potential for errors in the preparation to launch. There are two aspects of her argument that I find particularly fascinating and which hold lessons for other organizations, including academic ones.
I’ve become fond of the All or Nothing series that airs on Amazon Prime each summer. For the first two years, it was an inside look, documentary-style of an NFL team, from the draft through the end of the football season. S1 covered the Arizona Cardinals and S2 covered the St. Louis-to-L.A. Rams. This year, the chosen NFL team was the Dallas Cowboys, which was not a team I cared to follow, plus professional football is not as much fun to watch right now as it used to be. Between the concussions, the crackdown on athlete protests, and the seeming lack of any ethics regarding labor practices, my household has backed way off on its NFL watching. So, I was a bit disappointed that I wouldn’t get a fun documentary to watch this summer. And then I saw that Amazon had produced a season of the program that was shorter, but covered the famed rugby team from New Zealand, the All Blacks.
The All Blacks perform their haka before a match in England.
Go Dawgs, even if you look like you’re melting in the Georgia heat. This guy can be found outside Memorial Hall at UGA.
We are at the tail end of July, and as usual, I haven’t completed nearly enough work over the summer break. The fact that I and so many other academics constantly worry about their productivity over what is ostensibly vacation is a topic for another day. Instead, I’d like to talk about the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute in Digital Technologies and Performance Studies, which I attended back in June. It was two weeks of heat and humidity, but also filled with interesting ideas and new colleagues. I feel quite fortunate to have been able to attend. Continue reading →
Hotel English and Army and Navy [Soldiers’ and Sailors’] Monument, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1904. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
1903 was a particularly difficult year for African Americans, as described in Douglas Blackmon’s book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. In that year alone, at least 85 African Americans were murdered by lynching. Several high profile cases of “peonage”–essentially, the continued enslavement of Black persons by private citizens and corporations in the post-Civil War Era–were being prosecuted throughout the South, with little effect.
Blackmon’s book is a fascinating and well-documented examination of the means white Americans developed to keep Black Americans in slavery, mainly (though not exclusively) in the South. One anecdote he relates stood out to me, and the story isn’t directly related to the book’s topic, but included in the narrative as context for the general social temperature of the country in 1903:
“A young white chambermaid at the English Hotel in Indianapolis, Indiana, named Louise Hadley, became a brief cause célèbre in May 1903, hailed in the North and the South, after she refused to make up a bed that had been occupied by Booker T. Washington” (238).
This cat looks wary of whatever they’re reading. Seems appropriate.
With the news that heretofore widely beloved author Sherman Alexie is apparently a real monster who has preyed on women–particularly Native women–and threatened to ruin the careers of anyone who reported his sexual harassment, I had to confront my own syllabi, which currently (and previously) feature texts by Alexie. There’s nothing wrong with having assigned him in the first place, and certainly appropriate to rethink his place on a syllabus now. But a tweet thread (which has now been marked private, probably due to Internet Jerkism) forced me to confront exactly what I was doing: looking for a way to replace the “Token Native American voice” on my syllabus. Continue reading →
First, let me say that it has been a real struggle this semester, and I have pushed blogging way down my “next actions” list. I should be committing to write here much more, and I intend to get back on the weekly schedule I maintained in the past, but the schedule for Spring 2018 has been a tough one.
Despite this, I have been considering the topic of today’s post for a while now, and with the ongoing news about how social media (mainly Facebook, also Twitter) played a large role in the nightmare that was the 2016 election, the time is right to unpack how this relates to the teaching of literature, writing, and the humanities more generally. Continue reading →
Happy New Year! We are officially in 2018. I find New Year’s Eve/Day to be a bit of a downer holiday. Celebrating the onward march of time can be a little depressing, but mainly as an academic, January is hardly a new year, or time for a fresh start. It’s just the beginning of the Spring semester. I tend to find renewal and fresh thinking as the academic year prepares to kick off, in the fall.
But to take a moment to look back at 2017, I’ve stolen the idea behind this post by Erik Loomis at the Lawyers, Guns & Money blog. My list is quite short compared to his, but the reasons for that are: 1) I am a painfully slow reader; 2) I teach a 4-4 plus 2 courses in the summer, so my work load does not provide nearly enough reading time; 3) these are books I read in their entirety, unlike Loomis’ list, which includes books he read only parts of in his research, or for class prep. So here they are, in no particular order: Continue reading →
Sometime earlier this year, William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is Just to Say” became something of a phenomenon on Twitter. The 1934 poem, simple in its Imagist style, is now a funny meme, getting remixed, reinterpreted, and set to music all over the social media platform. While it is now starting to irritate many users, I think the emergence of this meme is a delightfully postmodern love letter to the poem itself, and to poetry more broadly. First, here’s the original text: Continue reading →
I am teaching an upper level elective, American Drama, this semester. My students are about to embark on their final projects, which are “play recovery” projects. The students had to find a lesser-known play they thought could be placed into “the canon” of American drama, and produce several assignments based on this recovery. I’m excited to see what they come up with! If you want to check out some of their blog posts about their projects, you can read them at: American Drama Blog. Continue reading →