Showtime at the Census

Posted on April 3, 2009 by


Yeah, your boy is a part-time celebrity!  Holla!


I like how they start that camera shot off with my profile and my boss says “These People…”  Feels cool to represent the people.  Haaaaaaaaa!

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But on the real, census training was a great exercise in everyday individual and social cognition.

I was fascinated by how people tried to keep flexing their individual intellectual capabilities.  When we were reading as a class about topics, it seemed like they were having a contest about who could enunciate and speed through a passage as quickly as possible.  They’d move ahead with procedures on the hand-held computers, when the instructor explicitly told them to stay behind.  They’d finish exercises as quickly as possible, while finding all kinds of ways to display boredom and impatience. One of the kids at one point whispered aloud, “can this be anymore redundant?” which earned a giggidy or two.   They probably set the record for most awkward and inappropriate  “wise”cracks.

Yep, me calling something else awkward and inappropriate.  Life’s strange.

Meanwhile, probably the actual resident smart dude in the room, a mathematician, took his own sweet time doing things, whether it was reading, doing the exercises, or whether it was following procedure…reminded me a bit of Lester Freamon, mostly because he was black, clearly aging, quiet, and figured shit out on his own without being explicit about it, except to the most pertinent channels.  Or at least that’s just how he looked.

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I’m sure I’ve acted like an intellectual human flex machine before without consciously realizing it,  criticizing any and everything bureaucracy and gov-related, whining about redundancy.  Perhaps stints of repetitive jobs, watching other people do it en masse kinda made all that whining look uncool and somewhat myopic in their understanding of their jobs.

There was kind of a built in redundancy in the manuals our crew leader read verbatim to which that one kid.  This was probably designed to protect the crew leaders’ ass, the governments’ ass  to quality control the new hires.  I know from personal experience and from observation that not everyone in a class gets things the first time, especially with the sheer density of procedures to remember and raw data thrown our way. I wish I’d a told that kid that redundancy in the eternal optimist’s view is really just “practice.”   To me, the practice was a simple memory exercise of making things elaborate and explicit in order to socialize, automatize, and proceduralize  the work we’d be doing  on the field.

On the other hand, it was quite easy to understand why people found it quite boring.  Shiiiiett, I nodded off a few times myself.  What we did in the classroom would ultimately be meaningless if we couldn’t put all this information together in real life.

Perhaps people just wanted to hurry up and get up in the field, walking neighborhoods, recording data, and conducting interviews and learn the procedures of Census Bureau enumeration simply by doing as opposed to 5 days straight of sitting in a classroom using abstract models in a workbook and only getting to the field the very last day, for which you will be tested.

I can understand why they would need to flex their intellectual muscle.

If tons of people were doing it’s probably because the situation called for it.  This work of canvassing, recording data of every block is not really an exercise in social cognition.  It’s ALL individual.  Only ONE person conducting interviews and collecting data, and ANOTHER individual verifying data.  If they screw up, the levels of bureaucracy will eventually center in on the individual who made the mistake.  Ain’t no teamwork in a cost-efficient operation like this.   Carrying out the work depends on your individual working memory of the procedures, unless you want to search through a 500-page manual in the middle of a canvassing route.  Ain’t no external memory devices that will feed you the information.

Like the TV interview mentioned, we did have to take a test to even get in, and we will continue to take tests, informal as they may be.

So the strategy amidst all this focus on individual cognition and testing?

Behave and acquire the habitus that you know what the fuck you’re doing.  Whether it was racing to announce the answers, or racing through test questions or racing through exercises, coming in late and explicitly performing  acts of boredom, people are out there to show that in case the test fails to measure what they can do, that they as individuals are quite capable.

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