Paper weights

July 30, 2015

Bureaucracy has become a hot topic after the recent publication of David Graeber’s book The Utopia of Rules (“Compliant captives in a paper cage”, Features, 21 May). In terms of form-filling, I would agree with his advice: if you suspect a form is “pointless”, do not fill it out and wait to see what happens. You will probably cut out one-third of forms this way. But I think the apparent indignity experienced through filling out forms is a bit extreme – purely administrative form-filling for the typical academic role is likely to take less than one hour per week. But I confess that when I am away from the university there can be nothing more frustrating than when an email arrives demanding my signature on a piece of paper.

Bureaucracy is an unavoidable effect of large-scale human organisation. Try to imagine a university without any records of its activities – do you think this would lead to a better system? The challenge, as Graeber concludes, is how we can live playfully alongside bureaucracy – creating a system that is sustainable and fair, but also open to creativity.

Mark Gatenby
Via timeshighereducation.co.uk

I suspect that Mark Gatenby has a greater tolerance of form-filling than I. The time-sheet system under which I toil is particularly soul-destroying in the utterly transparent nature of its pointlessness. I receive an automated reminder each month to fill in the hours that I’ve worked across two projects. I am costed on to each for a particular percentage of time, and I am left to assume that this percentage must be reflected in what I report. Not only is this impossible to do accurately, but were one to structure tasks according to a monthly time quota, rather than according to the demands generated by the project, one would be a terrible researcher. The bottom line: you must tell the system what it wants to hear, not what happened. Accordingly, I ignore these requests. Then, every 12 months, I get an email telling me that my time sheets “need to be done”. I usually ask the sender why. They reply that they “need to be done”.

I spend half an hour trying to remember my password (the system makes you change it regularly and not reuse old ones). I stew in my rage while I wait for the reset to arrive. I experience a moment of pleasure when designing a new, expletive-ridden password. It lasts as long as it takes me to realise that the next time I won’t remember this password.

In the spirit of resistance, I devised a means of maximal efficiency when filling out the time sheet. I divide the total monthly paid hours by the percentage I am formally allocated to each project. I then report working 18-hour days (the maximum it allows you to enter) for as many days as it takes to fill the required quota for each project. Every time I enter “18” into a box, I have to tab to the next box, at which point there is a second-long pause while the page saves the entry. In this second, I think about the fact that my life is finite and I’m closer to death now than I was a second ago.

I end up with a time sheet that shows me working 160 hours in nine days and taking the rest of the month off. Despite my act of defiance, I am nevertheless furious, because the system accepts this absurd record as legitimate. The system is called “AGRESSO”, as if the designers wanted me to know I’m being trolled.

Murray Goulden
Via timeshighereducation.co.uk

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