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Spotlight on Economics: An Economist and a Soldier

Cheryl Wachenheim, Professor - NDSU Agribusiness and Applied Economics Department Cheryl Wachenheim, Professor - NDSU Agribusiness and Applied Economics Department
The military is a command-based organization, while academia tends to be an environment that invites and encourages, or at least tolerates, sometimes extensive debate and discussion about most everything.

By Cheryl Wachenheim, Professor

NDSU Agribusiness and Applied Economics Department

I hit the send button too quickly, so it was too late to realize the content of my email would be overshadowed by the salutation. My email was to the faculty of our academic department at NDSU and began with “ALCON.” The initial responses from my colleagues did not address my request for input on a curricular matter. Rather, they wanted to know what ALCON meant. Perhaps you also may be wondering. It is Army shorthand for “all concerned.” It is a common way for me to address my military colleagues but served only as a curiosity to my colleagues at NDSU.

My failure to keep separate the academic and military cultures works in both directions. From time to time, I leave my soldiers wondering why their commander finds it necessary to explain in great detail how she arrived at a particular decision. In an academic environment, the route that brought us to a decision or a conclusion, rather than the outcome itself, is sometimes the more important part of the work we do and the message we share. Academic peers expect it to be communicated. My soldiers, on the other hand, do not expect me to explain the detailed process by which I arrived at my plan for their mission. The soldiers only want to know what specifically I want them to accomplish and how I want them to do this.

The difficulty I sometimes have moving between my roles as an agricultural economist and as a soldier is but a small inconvenience when weighted against the substantial benefits living in both cultures provides. That fact doesn’t make it any easier. It is not just the language used, the content discussed, and how one carries oneself, the very nature of how business is done is different. The first step for me in reconciling my role between the two cultures simply was to understand how they differ.

Most notably, the military is a command-based organization, while academia tends to be an environment that invites and encourages, or at least tolerates, sometimes extensive debate and discussion about most everything. There is a reason we call some of our discussions academic exercises. In the military, I have learned to limit my feedback on a stated conclusion or an assignment. As a full-time academic, I have more difficulty with this, a reality my academic chairman will verify.

The military does not encourage free-agency; meanwhile, the premise of academia is an unbiased opinion arrived at individually after careful consideration of input from a variety of sources and protected, to some extent, by the concept of tenure (no, I do not wish to debate the efficacy of tenure, so consider me a soldier for this point). The difference makes sense. As academics, we are working to discover and share knowledge. In the military, we are working to accomplish a mission with available knowledge. I would argue that accomplishing this mission generally is more efficient and effective as a coordinated effort directed by a clearly identified command.

It naturally follows that, in the military, it is generally not your mission. Although, as soldiers, we often informally discuss our thoughts using the “if I ran the Army” framework, we generally accept that we do not have all the relevant information and therefore it is OK that the purpose of the mission or how it will be implemented is sometimes not perfectly clear to us. We have faith in our leadership so that what we have been asked to do is part of the well-coordinated effort previously mentioned. As an academic, it often is our hypothesis, our project, or our idea that we are testing or implementing and we spend considerable time trying to personally evaluate all available information.

In the military and particularly in combat, as soldiers, we make and implement important decisions with incomplete information. As do academics, soldiers make assumptions based on past or expected rubrics, but the level of immediacy and the potential consequences require soldiers, at times, to internalize the process. Soldiers often do not have much time to reflect before making a decision. This is perhaps why we practice. The repetition is sometimes tedious, but the effort results in the right decisions at the right time for the right circumstances when there is little time to make them. In academia, we have colleagues and peer reviewers who point out the potential fallacies of our conclusions before they reach a wider audience and before they have an impact.

One final difference worthy of note is the languages used. Military communication, verbal or written, includes a lot of acronyms. The way we address an audience, start a meeting, describe an event or greet one another can leave those outside the military wondering what just happened. For example, as an academic, it takes considerable discipline not to ask why it is necessary to repeatedly go through the extended process of greeting those present at a meeting. When it is my turn to report to the brigade commander on the activities and plans of our company, by tradition, my greeting is “commander, command sergeant major, company commanders, first sergeants, staff and guests, I am Major Cheryl Wachenheim, commander of the 204th Area Medical Support Company.” At times, it seems uncomfortably unnecessary, but I know it serves as more than a time-honored formality, it ensures that we do the right thing when circumstances change. Should an unexpected guest grace us with his or her presence at the briefing, the practice of introducing myself every time will serve me well.

In spite of their differences, I am pleased to be part of two cultures and especially so because my military colleagues also are citizen soldiers. The same individuals who I stand beside on mission, each one armed and in full battle gear, are those with whom I later find myself discussing how an expiring stimulus package might influence gross national product or how increased imports of sugar influence sugar beet farmers in the Red River Valley.

So, just as I ask you to be patient when I use terminology unfamiliar to you or share ideas that seem inconsistent with what you have experienced and observed, I ask you to be patient with those unfamiliar with the language of your culture. Always keep in mind that, if you are a farmer, you share a unique language and culture with other farmers. If you are a police officer, you share a language and culture with other officers and so on. To be heard, you may find you first need to step back and learn about the culture of your audience and educate them on your own before you can effectively share your ideas. May your day be full of wonder.

NDSU Agriculture Communication – Oct. 30, 2013

Source:Cheryl Wachenheim, (701) 231-7452,
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136,
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