Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Research Continues

What is most interesting to me about this topic, is how the nuclear program uses a web of texts to monitor and direct the activities of its personnel. It does so on a number of levels.

At the highest level, Naval Reactors used texts to control activity on submarines from its Washington D.C. office. The admiral required submarine Commanding Officers to send quarterly letters detailing the number of training sessions, shipboard drills, qualifications earned, operational incidents, and more. Instructions for this letter required gory detail, even to the level of high, low, and mean grades for routine quizzes and exams, lecture/seminar titles, qualification delinquencies. Naval Reactors also published a series of "technical bulletins" collected particularly egregious events chronicled in these letters, which the admiral used as warnings to educate and control his nuclear crews.

At the shipboard level, the Commanding Officer and his Engineering Officer also used texts to control events. For example, before retiring to bed each evening, these officers issued texts in the form of "night orders," which all watchstanders had to read and initial. Thus these officers controlled shipboard activity from the comfort of their "racks" (beds).

Finally, at the crew level, texts played a large role in enculturating new personnel in the norms of shipboard existence. The crews of at least three ships on which I served maintained their own "Vindictive Night Order Books," (V.N.O.B.) which parodied and lampooned the orders of the senior officers, and teased and targeted fellow crew members. While on the surface, this was a subversive text, below the surface these texts served the function of what Bierly and Spender (fellow submariners, and researchers in management) describe as a "rich, group-oriented learning process." The V.N.O.B. contained its share of off-color humorous tales and obscene limericks, but also told stories which described mistakes other sailors had made, mistakes as watchstanders, and the mistakes of the "newbies" as they learned the shipboard cultures. the V.N.O.B. was a place where the sailors became acquainted with an avalanche of nuclear jargon, acronyms, and cultural imperatives. Even the subversive nature of the text served its purposes: Rickover himself was famous for the practical jokes he played on the slow-minded, and he frequently signalled to his nuclear operators "that it is OK to stand up and say what you believe rather than blindly follow orders" (Bierly and Spender). Rickover himself, shortly after leaving the Navy, told a Rolling Stone interviewer that "I followed those orders I agreed with." The fiercely independent operator who defied fear challenged his supervisors when they were taking actions detrimental to the safe operation of the nuclear power plant was part of this culture Rickover was trying to promote.


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