Total disclosure a sign of the academy's time-and-motion sickness

Thomas Docherty examines the transparency culture, its political uses and the dangerous implications for scholarly freedom

July 30, 2009

In the late 1960s, Robert Lowell, the great American poet, wrote a series of poems in which he transcribed, verbatim, private letters from his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. The exposed documents caused a stir, but would they occasion any surprise today in this age of fetishised transparency?

In our time, mere "privacy" has been rewritten to become suspicious "secrecy", and perhaps this is nowhere more true than in public life. Witness those politicians on all sides vaunting their desire for total transparency in all matters of potential interest. It makes one wonder what the point of the Freedom of Information Act is.

Lowell published his poems at a time when the US still felt threatened by its Communist enemies, and, in the consequent reawakening of attitudes reminiscent of McCarthyism, the air was thick with demands for self-revelation, self-confession, a nudity of mind and body. Behind this was a quasi-religious drive that turned the suspicious gaze inwards, to check that we were not - even in the darkest corners of the unconscious - a sympathiser with the enemies of the state.

This politicised confessional impetus is consistent with a demand for conformity with the presiding ideology. However, in today's university sector, the demand for transparency has a more specific force and a particular effect.

Who could object to transparency? It seems innocuous and even has a happily reassuring acronym: Trac. The Transparent Approach to Costing requires us to reveal the "actual costs" of our research and teaching. To do this, we undertake regular "diary exercises" to track how many hours we spend each week researching, teaching and doing administrative-related tasks such as ... well, diary exercises.

In Joseph McCarthy's time, Trac would have been called a "time-and-motion study", and someone would have been employed to follow us around, logging our activity. That's inefficient, and the managerial "improvement" is that we are now required to do the job ourselves - one of the more demeaning and tawdry bits of administrative overload that afflicts the higher education sector.

Trac, though, is flawed and has scant concern for the actualite. In our work, costed activities cannot be so easily or transparently compartmentalised. The flaw can be exposed by some very simple scenarios:

- It's 4am and I'm asleep. In California, a student reads my book while another listens to one of my lectures posted on iTunes. They learn something. Am I teaching? Yes, but not in the classroom

- Next morning, I drive to work. Richard Strauss' Elektra is on the radio and I listen attentively. My passing thoughts return to me when I write a piece about the voice of women in Modernism, and I publish my motorway musings. Was I doing research? Yes, but not in the library.

Trac brushes aside the niceties of truth. It wants crude information and it makes no difference what figures we give, for it will change them anyway.

My diary-log will be recalibrated as percentages of my working week, which Trac has decided is 37.5 hours. My research might actually take 20 hours this week, but, if I have also dedicated 20 hours to teaching and the same amount of time to admin, then my 20 hours of research is measured officially as 12.5 hours. Transparent, yes; true, no, and funding will follow this falsification while purporting to be just and legitimate.

Transparency has become a poor substitute for truth. Freedom itself is compromised as propaganda supersedes truth. And, as McCarthy knew, the flip side of transparency is pernicious surveillance.

The transparency culture prevails because there has been a concerted attack on trust in academics, as if we are secretly profiteering from, or clandestinely undermining, the state: therefore, all aspects of our activity must be - quite literally - minutely scrutinised.

In fact, we research and teach extremely well, and extremely efficiently. But that's not the point for a political class that wants to cut our expenditure.

We might have hoped to find advocates in the Higher Education Funding Council for England or the research councils, but it seems they are more interested in producing world-class time-and-motion studies than supporting us to produce world-leading research and teaching.

Lowell's defence against the critics who chastised him for his transcriptions rested on his claim that he was interested in truth-telling. Our own defence against Trac might include the scholarly requirement for truth-seeking, but could also take the form of the rightful demand that academics need a private life, a self that is not constantly under surveillance by the state.

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