Madame Bovary and Me (and you too)

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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14 Responses

  1. Damon says:

    I recently had a conversation with a soon to depart VP/GM of our company, in context of his clearance and future employment. (He was prohibited from sending his resume via certain channels without prior authorization from the clearing agency) wherein we discussed the company’s monitoring of employee pc/internet/email. EVERYTHING done on a company computer or attached to the network is monitored.

    And Rufus, I have to account for each 5 minute increment of my time each day. 🙂Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to Damon says:

      I have to account for each 5 minute increment of my time each day

      This is why I don’t work insurance defense anymore. Plaintiff’s side has many things going for it. No billable hours is high on the list.Report

  2. Doctor Jay says:

    Rufus, I love this piece. I hope you never stop posting here. Don’t take any point of disagreement below as rejection.

    This piece is a reminder of how different things are in the STEM branch of the academy. Grading was annoying, a job that does not particularly enrich one. Still, I would never call it a “nightmare”. In STEM, there are right and wrong answers, and the right ones are marked right, the wrong ones are wrong, and sometimes there is partial credit, which is a little squishy for us, but manageable. We have the comfort of not having to engage with any question greater than whether P equals NP.


    I have an interesting reaction to “the cold rationalist surgeon who looks into his wife’s dead body on the autopsy table and sees nothing”.

    There is a self-rating scale of the autism spectrum, running from 1 to about 40. The average for people is 19. I score a 21. Friends of mine have given themselves 40s. High functioning, to be sure. Being a creature of Silicon Valley, I have many friends who are spectrum, some merely aspie, but a few who are well past that.

    All of them experience emotion. Every last one. The neurosurgeon who removed my wife’s brain tumor also has feelings, that’s clear from our conversations. Now it’s true that for many of them emotions seem an inconvenience or a burden, something to be conquered. I have one friend that we like to describe as “he wants to be a robot”.

    The writer’s job is emotion. I’ve heard the process described as “fishing in the subconscious and dragging out bits to play with”. So it is odd, perhaps alienating, to be around people who’s ability to do work is impaired by emotion. Writing is enhanced by it, but programming is not. Neither is brain surgery.

    Three years ago, my wife had a brain tumor removed from her right frontal lobe. The operation and subsequent radio and chemo therapy were successful in putting the cancer (a form of astrocytoma) into remission. She is still with us and functioning quite well, with only a few, very minor impairments.

    Human beings run on emotion and the programmer and the neurosurgeon are no exception. I only like being rational because it feels good to me to do so. In my youth, I had a somewhat volcanic temper, prone to tantrums and crying. This did not sit well with everyone else. Mostly I conquered that, and sought a way of life that would avoid such complications. As a much younger man, I once described my emotions as “wild horses”. As much as I loved books and reading, math and computers seemed to offer a more cerebral existence, one that avoided both the unpleasantness I experienced internally, and the social sanction that followed it.

    On the day of my wife’s brain surgery, I was not in a state where I would have been able to program. I am very glad that the neurosurgeon was not in that same mental state. I doubt that he would have been able to operate on his own spouse.

    It is by doing math, by measuring, by charting, that we conquered cholera. I went to my job and programmed every day, even days where I otherwise might not feel like it, because I loved my family and feared the consequences if I did not go. When there, I entered an emotional state of “low hum”, or I did it as best I could.


    I have no idea why all these various tools of measurement have descended on you. At one level, yes, it seems kind of silly. I think it’s likely that you feel a sense of responsibility to the people who use the places you clean more keenly than you feel any sense of obligation to an administrator that you’ve barely know and never see.

    Perhaps it’s exactly that alienation that that administrator feels and is acting upon, though perhaps not in the most efficacious manner.Report

  3. Joe Sal says:

    Excellent work Rufus.Report

  4. Jaybird says:

    Wowsers. This was amazing.Report

  5. Anne says:

    Space Awesome! Thanks RufusReport

  6. North says:

    Powerful writing Rufus. Great job.

    I suspect some portion of your over supervision is from the bloated administrative body of your university nervously trying to justify their own existence.

    And while measuring and empirics can be easily overused to inanity or insanity I’d like to join Doctor Jay in pleading that, in moderation, they are vital and it would be very hard to justify doing away with them entirely.Report

  7. Burt Likko says:

    Part 1: It is abundantly clear to me that someone told the administration that they have to objectively quantify everyone’s job performance, and no one in the administration has a clue how to to so for the custodian positions. So they will gather data that is unlikely to reflect useful information, and therefore which is all but doomed to be either neglected or misused. Query as to whether distributing lottery tickets would have yielded similar results.

    Part 2: Absolutely loved it after reading part 1. I’m not familiar with Bovary, much less the author’s adventures, but the parallels you draw are clear and powerful.

    You can write stuff like this all you want whenever you want.Report

  8. I want to echo Burt and Dr. Jay in saying I really liked this piece and hope you keep writing them.

    However, I do read Flaubert’s presentation of Charles Bovary, differently from how you do. (Disclosure: I read the novel only once, and that was on 1993, so I’m not as present with the work as you probably are.) I don’t see “Charbovari!” as “the cold rationalist surgeon who looks into his wife’s dead body on the autopsy table and sees nothing.” I see him as a simple minded person who learned to jump through hoops (I believe Flaubert put it as, “memorized the exam questions [to become a surgeon] in advance”…..a paraphrase of course) and is more.

    I also differ with your statement that “[w]e never get the sense of an omniscient narrator.” In Mme Bovary, that’s pretty much exactly what we see, or at least what I see. We see the internal thoughts of that guy who seduces here (down to his wondering, before he’s accomplished the seduction, how he’ll dump her), we see Emma’s internal conflicts, and we see even a little of Charles’s education (going to brothels, etc.). I’ll grant, however, that Flaubert sometimes becomes more of a “reporter,” as with his account of the bourgeois guy (I forget his name, but he eventually wins the legion d’honneur) who sets up Charles’s surgery to “fix” Hyppolite’s [if I recall the name correctly] leg.

    And your broader point, I think I see that differently, too:

    she’s all of us barbarians and fools who cannot be regulated, or assessed, or made rational or improved. In other words, the overwhelming majority.

    That’s how it is until it isn’t. The “collective underperformance” you refer to is in a sense a form of regulation, one that’s informed, although probably informally, by a community assessment of what work is good enough and what is so bad that it’ll get one fired (or what is so good that it’ll get one branded a Stakhonovite). It’s a rational (if, again, informal) decision.

    Emma Bovary is just as capable of being one of the assessors and bureaucrats as the rest of us. She’s differently situated, so she’s not going to surrender to “bourgeois” norms so easily. I’ll concede a point. maybe in some way she–and others–is constitutionally predestined to resist, like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Even so, I believe we all are, to some extent, so disposed, to greater or lesser degrees, under the right (or wrong?) circumstances.Report

  9. Michael Cain says:

    Please write more posts.

    On the down side, stuff subject to Moore’s Law is getting so inexpensive that it will soon be dirt cheap to “observe” whatever management thinks needs observing. Processing, memory, imaging and other sensors, wireless data… the administrators will find some reason to put a monitoring package everywhere. IIRC, it has become very, very difficult to go out in a public space in a city of any size in England and not be in range of some networked camera. In my US suburb, I see cameras in more and more public places. Facial and other individual recognition gets better and better. I’m waiting for the first Supreme Court case where the individual robbing the liquor store in a full mask is convicted on the basis of computer comparison of body movements.Report

  10. Kolohe says:

    But who will assess the assessors?

    The outside managment consultants hired on a juicy contract.

    Great post, as usual.Report

  11. Will H. says:

    360 anonymous feedback is something of a fad these days, though the inherent difficulties of internal measurement are well-known. Some people like to complain, and this gives them a platform, unleashes the beast. Some people have an axe to grind with One Certain So-and-so, and this effectively sanctions such conduct.
    From a management standpoint, the primary functional impairment is that of task ambiguity. In all cases, task ambiguity is the result of massive and egregious failure of management, in one of two forms. In this case, it is overlapping roles. My own university is suffering from this right now, though they teach differently in the business & management program.
    As you can probably guess, the quality of feedback tends to degenerate over time with the 360 anonymous feedback method. That’s why they teach to use it sparingly, and always in conjunction with other, less subjective, data.

    Which is kind of funny, if you think about it. They probably teach the same thing at the college of business & management at your own university.
    Quite literally– The classroom instructions entails methods of overcoming massive and egregious failure of management at the university, among other places.
    The bad part is there is nothing that can really be done about such silliness except to ride it out and wait for management to come to their senses, or get someone new directing things.
    In the meantime, the overlapping roles will evolve to become highly individualized, to the point of distraction, performance will suffer, goals will not be clearly defined or obtainable, and employee morale will suffer. (Vroom’s expectancy theory)

    A deplorable situation.

    Excellent writing though.

  12. There is very little comparable in any other country at that time

    Though in the second half of the 19th, Mark Twain made travel books an industry. They’re not much read these days, but The Innocents Abroad, A Tramp Abroad [1], and Following the Equator were among his most popular and profitable works.

    1. Whence The Damed German Language, which is still read and enjoyed.Report

  13. Wonderful post. I echo everyone else who says “Write more!”.

    I’m sure Burt’s right that this is about quantifying performance evaluation, probably with the recursive feature that your higher-ups are being evaluated by some quantitative measure of how well they’ve done that. And there’s no telling what uses this data will be put to. It might be as evil as justifying staffing cuts because the place is cleaner than it strictly needs to be.

    Also, I presume you’re familiar with this.Report