My university has asked me to keep a diary of my work, and I hate it

Requesting a log of daily activity means that trust between the institution and the scholar has broken down, says Toby Miller

November 19, 2016
Pencil lying on open diary
Source: iStock

I’m filling out a diary this week in which I’m supposed to account for my time. My university says that I must do this to comply with the UK's Higher Education Statistics Agency’s desire for information.

It’s part of financial sustainability and Trac (the Transparent Approach to Costing). How I love a good acronym in the morning.

This policy is routinely explained as a benign requirement to ensure continued funding. I shall leave to one side the point of establishing what I do each hour as a putative part of financial planning. Let’s take the authorities at their word on that bizarre notion. For the moment, at least.

I’m interested in what these developments mean as a professor.

I came to this country three years ago after two decades working at research-intensive schools in the US, both private and public. So I’m a senior neophyte.

Nothing like this was ever required of us. I doubt that it would have lasted, oh, five minutes at New York University or the University of California.

Being told to account for one’s time in a diary would have led to laughter, followed by civil disobedience, then the idea being quietly dropped. So what gives over here? Why this desire for surveillance? And why am I bothered by it?

After all, isn’t it reasonable to provide accountability, both financial and otherwise, in the expenditure of public money? Why should academics be any different from labourers or factory workers signing in at a building site or gate?

Why are professors so precious about their time?

For me, the diary mandate represents a major threat to universities’ relative autonomy from church and state, which was fought for so strenuously in Western Europe and the US over centuries; and it is a dire part of deprofessionalisation. I hate it.

I’ll deal with these things serially.

One credible way of depicting the success of the modern research university is as a product of seeking and obtaining freedom from direction by church or monarchy. Many things we do relate to public service, from epidemiology to archaeology. But a vast array of research is done simply because it interests people who have devoted their lives to enquiry and pedagogy, without reference to Christ or Congress.

This comparative freedom to order one’s work life, to write on a Sunday and relax on a Monday if you wish, was part of the rise of the professions, a privileged group of the emergent middle class that developed the right to control its own systems of accreditation and entry to, conduct within and departure from the ranks of accountancy or medicine, for example.

That autonomy is challenged by being required to say what I did, and when.

Deprofessionalisation is part of the Anglo-Saxon state’s quite clear agenda to treat faculty as public servants, subject to the same disciplinary norms as office workers. Of course, those office workers do the bidding of the government – they don’t follow their own noses to learn about old and new things as part of the passion for knowledge.

Calls to explain professorial routines are not entirely new. Fifty years ago, the historian Arnaldo Momigliano advised University College London that: 

In my Continental timetable of 24 hours a day I divide my day as follows:
(I understand that dreaming is now equivalent to thinking.)
2 hours’ pure sleep
1 hour’s sleep cum dreams about administration
2 hours’ sleep cum dreams about research
1 hour’s sleep cum dreaming about teaching
½ hour of pure eating
1 hour of eating cum research (= reading)
1 hour of eating cum colleagues & talking about teaching and research
½ hour of pure walk
½ hour of walk cum research (= thinking)
12 ½ hours of research cum preparation (= reading, writing, or even thinking)
1 formal hour teaching without thinking
1 formal hour administration without thinking

He was ahead of his time.

Why do I abjure this surveillance? I hate it because – and this is really the kicker – it represents mistrust. I gave up working in banking, bureaucracy and the media 30 years ago because I wanted to be freer to work where and when I wanted, freer in what I did and said and how I dressed, and freer to find out the truth of things without regard to my lords and masters.

What does this renewed scrutiny of daily life say to me?

The impost of the diary says: “We do not trust you, an experienced professional person, to do your job. You must tell us what you do and when you do it. To repeat, we don’t trust you. Obey.” Thirty years of work done without this requirement? Outmoded. Obey, obey.

Oh, I almost forgot. I’m not entering in the diary the time it took to negotiate with the publisher and write this column.

Toby Miller is a professor and director of the Institute for Media and Creative Industries at Loughborough University.

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Reader's comments (11)

I too have had similar experiences. I noted to one of my colleagues that the UK institutions fundamentally distrust academics (indeed nearly everyone) and believe that if they were not monitored and documented via a bureaucracy that reports to another bureaucracy that the faculty would be looting the institution in a wild rampage. Having spent many years at US institutions I agree that such monitoring would not last a day and 99% of people would simply refuse to do it. When I was at UCLA I thought I had seen maximum bureaucracy but it is almost non-existent compared to the UK, where a faculty member cannot even had out a syllabus unless it has been checked and validated by some 'external examiner'. I remember being bemused by this last fact and rather hilariously ran into my 'external examiner' who was a snr lecturer at another university who sheepishly told me that she had to 'approve' my course materials (she was, ironically, using one of my books in her class). I noted in another THE submission that REF/TEF basically tells academics that they are not trusted to do their jobs and that the market for excellence does not work and that a bureaucracy that is mainly filled with academic non-starters and academic failures is more attuned to what excellence is than the people who actually have to compete in that market. So I commend Prof Miller for pointing out yet another absurd aspect of the UK academic scene.
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What appears to be missing from this is how the author has refused to accommodate the imposition. The most effective form of resistance in the academy is for senior, securely employed academic colleagues to simply refuse. This makes it immeasurably easier for junior and less securely employed colleagues to resist. Or, conversely, take the matter too seriously. Keep the diary, and then when it is clear you are working double the hours you are remunerated for, make it clear to administration that now the evidence of over-work is documented by their process, you'll be cutting back. So, one wonders what is happening at that level when every new form of surveillance and control is met with grumbles at departmental meetings, a bit of a rant on THE. Obey, indeed.
Did something similar in my institution a few years ago. Actually found it very useful from a time management perspective. Don't know what all the fuss is about.
I have done the same Trac paperwork at the same institution (Loughborough University) as Toby Miller, and I think he is making a fuss over nothing. Yes, it is a bit of a drag to account for one's activities, but we're public servants so it's not unreasonable to be asked to give such an account ever so often. (It's not like it's every week, which is how often many employees are required to report their work.) There certainly are harmful bureaucratic trends at work in university life, but this is not one of them. Amongst the responses to Miller's complaint, T. Devinney's agreement that this sort of thing is like the unreasonable burden of having to satisfy an external examiner just makes him sound equally self-important. What is wrong with getting academics to check that their peers think that their syllabi make sense? That Devinney's external examiner was using his book in class is a good sign that the external knew the subject, not that the external was an inferior being who should never have been asked to give an opinion on what Devinney proposed to teach. Gabriel Egan De Montfort University
Where I used to work & we had to do that every so often, but the forms wanted us to use % ... so you couldn't reflect the actual numbers of hours worked. That was what really annoyed people. I think had people been asked to record hours, they might have done a bit more than just make guesstimates ...
Pompous self-interest masquerading as the moral high ground.
I used to do one of these every year for 4-5 years at UCL. I think it was called TRAK or something as well. It was done as % also so no recording of actual hours. I soon figured out a little!e Excel spreadsheet and just changed a few numbers each year.
If HPL lecturers did this, it might then become apparent that they're working 10 hours for every one they get paid for.
The TRAC return is a requirement of HEFCE (and the other funding councils). The Higher Education Statistics Agency does have an enormous desire for information (mostly on HEFCE's behalf) but the TRAC return isn't part of it.
Make the figures up. I always do. It takes about 5 minutes.


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