23/365 Diffusing the Diffusion of Responsibility

I sent an email last week. In one of our classrooms, the one in which most of my classes are held, there was a table with two wobbly legs. It was annoying.

It had been so annoying last semester, in fact, that the table had been pushed to the side of the room so as not to be accidentally used. Nevermind that this also meant removing two possible seats from the classroom, the legs were wobbly, and that was annoying.

Table = Banished.

I talked about the table in my email.

I also talked about an electrical outlet. Given the age of the building, it’s not surprising that there aren’t but two outlets in the room. One is at the front of the room, one is at the back. The former outlet doesn’t work. It hasn’t since I’ve been on campus, and I’d venture to guess it’s been out of commission for quite a while before that. The thing is, we, of the laptop and tablet era, need that outlet.

So, I wrote an email to Sara, the woman in charge of managing the facilities of the School of Education, letting her know about the table and the outlet. For the outlet, I said I couldn’t fix it, but that I’d come grab a socket wrench and fix the table if she had one.

A few days later, I got an email from Sara thanking me for the email, and confirming that letting her know was the right thing to do. Sara is on it.

What’s gotten me thinking in the intervening days is the fact that hundreds of people have likely noted both of those problems in the time since they first arrived on the scene. For the table, it meant pushing it aside, giving up classroom space, and making seating tighter. For the outlet, it meant not having the power needed.

They were simple problems with a clear means of fixing them, and no one had sent the email. They had done what I’d done for over a semester – lived with the problem. When either would come up in conversation, I’d also take a few moments to admire the problem.

It turns out, according to Bud (and wikipedia), there’s a name for this, “Diffusion of Responsibility.” Our inaction is contagious. We could all see the problems in front of us. In some cases, we literally had to adjust course to avoid them. Still, we’d done nothing about them.

The principle came up today when a professor used an example of a student who scores lower than his classmates on a reading examine. It’s likely this kid wasn’t failing for the first time on the test. He’d probably been practicing not knowing how to read for a good long time before picking up his #2 pencil.

What the professor pointed out, and what I’d rather not admit to being likely true, was the fact that the student’s teacher could probably have predicted his score sans test. The teacher, my professor suggested, had likely recognized the problem of our sample student not knowing how to read, but had most likely moved along throughout the school year because he didn’t know how to fix the problem. Lacking the necessary solution, he’d let the problem stand.

In the moment today, I wanted to disagree with the professor, to accuse him of making sweeping generalizations about teachers and argue that it was incredibly likely that every teacher had done all that was in their power to help our hypothetical student.

Then, I remembered we were sitting in a room with a broken table and defunct outlet that we’d noticed while ignoring for more than a semester, and I kept my mouth such.

2 thoughts on “23/365 Diffusing the Diffusion of Responsibility

  1. This reminds me very much of the S.E.P. field in The Hitchhiker’s Guide. For example, if there’s a stray dog running loose in the street near your house, and you close your door and face away from it, it is very easy to dismiss, because now it’s simply Someone Else’s Problem.

    Josie and I joke about this concept a fair bit.

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