Last man in the university: it’s 13 o’clock on campus

Control, surveillance and thought manipulation: there is an undercurrent of 1984 in today’s academy, doublethinks Eric Blair

April 7, 2016
Daniel Mitchell illustration (7 April 2016)
Source: Daniel Mitchell

It was a warm August day and the clocks were striking thirteen. Dr Winston Smith, sitting hunched over his telescreen, was instantly alert. An electronic ping had announced the arrival of a new email.

Winston had been immersed in his research, or “REFprep”, as it was termed in university Newspeak. As a member of the Outer University, this was one of his two key tasks, the other being teaching, or “TEFprep”. Those in the Inner University focused on the more important tasks of “strategy”, “executive decisions”, “mission statements” and “quality assessment”. Perhaps the email contained an important communication from the Inner University?

The title at first seemed unpromising. A faint smile flickered across Winston’s face. A few months earlier he had realised that important communications from the Inner University no longer came via the old route of discussion at departmental meetings, but through emails with innocuous titles. Indeed, the more banal the email header, the more important the communication. Probably this was one way the Inner University checked that Outer University staff stayed alert. As he looked more closely at the title, “FW: event booking system: training for supervisors”, Winston’s smile broadened (but not too broadly, as that might be reported to Big Brother as a “facecrime”).

Nervously, Winston opened the email. The message was stark: henceforth all interactions between supervisors and doctoral students (even phone calls and email interactions) required “booking an event”. In typical university Newspeak, the email warned that “this system *MUST* be used for recording PGR student attendance and engagement wef October 2018”.

Winston sat stunned and confused for several minutes. For years, he had seen doctoral supervisions in terms of detailed discussions with students about a draft chapter they had written or literature they had read. Then suddenly, in one of those moments of penetrating insight, of total crystal clarity that occur only once or twice in one’s academic career, Winston realised that what mattered most regarding doctoral supervision was indeed “booking an event”. He marvelled at the soaring intellect of the Inner University official who had recognised this. Was it the pro vice-chancellor for truth? Or perhaps the PVC for love?

Winston wondered why he had previously failed to see this essential truth, but the explanation soon became clear after opening the email attachment. Since becoming a supervisor all those years ago, he had assumed that PhD students, having obtained a good bachelor’s and master’s degree, should be treated differently from undergraduates. Now, as the email attachment stated: “The Inner University has agreed that it will be a requirement to monitor the attendance of Postgraduate Research students with effect from 2018, in keeping with practice at UG and PGT level. This is essentially for reasons of good academic practice.” Treating undergraduate and doctoral students the same was self-evidently “good practice”, and the Inner University was relentless in its pursuit of “good practice”, forever finding new “good practices” or even an occasional “best practice”.

But how to go about “booking an event”? A second attachment helpfully provided a “Short Guide to the Event Booking System”, although, to Winston, it did seem rather complicated. It appeared to involve booking a room, such as “Arts A123”. At this, Winston’s brow furrowed. He sometimes held supervisions with doctoral students in the coffee area or over lunch in the cafeteria. Could these be “booked” for an “event”? What if someone else had already “booked” them? The Inner University would surely have thought of all these complications. Nonetheless, a nagging doubt remained in Winston’s mind. What if he held a supervision somewhere the Event Booking System refused to recognise – like sitting outside on the grass? Would such a supervision not count? Would it be deemed an “unsupervision”?

Then Winston was struck by a more serious worry. In previous times, room booking had been simple and anyone could do it, but two years ago this privilege had been taken away; now only a select few in the Inner University had the necessary authority to book a room by the University Direct system. However, the percipient Inner University official had thought of that problem, too. The email’s recipients were informed that “IT Services have now set up training sessions for using the Event Booking System. You are invited to go to University Direct to sign up for a session.”

Relieved, Winston dredged his University Direct password out of his email history and logged on. So far so good! But then what? Should he click on “Admin”? Or, perhaps, “Personal”? For each, a long list of options appeared but none seemed relevant. Winston sat there, suddenly paralysed by fear, a tremor going through his bowels. Last week, when he had clicked on a certain button, his computer had frozen and the telescreen had informed him: “You have performed an illegal operation.” Doubtless, this had been reported to Big Brother.

If only that IT support officer were still around to help. But it had been more than a year since support staff had been removed from Winston’s building and relocated to “the School Office”, where they could devote themselves to meeting the needs of Inner University officials, undistracted by the less important problems of Outer University faculty.

After brooding on this, Winston realised forlornly that it was beyond him even to find out how to sign up for a training course, never mind actually “book an event”. After glancing around to check that no one was watching, he dragged the email with the cursor to the computer’s “memory hole” and deleted it. With a quiet sigh, he returned to his REFprep.

Eric A. Blair is an academic at a university near you. (George Orwell’s original title for 1984 was “The Last Man in Europe”.)

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Print headline: Last man in the university

Reader's comments (3)

George Orwell's original title was Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Notwithstanding how annoying institutional bureaucracy is, I think this is a good thing. Drop-out rates are high, mental well-being is low and supervision quality is mixed. Is a little accountability too much to ask for?
This is the equivalent of Winston complaining that the rats are insufficiently groomed.

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