Gloria Monday: A campus corner that is for ever medieval

The v-c’s glorious IT dreams always fail in reality, laments Gloria Monday as she reaches for her pen and paper

June 19, 2008

At this time of year, I try to avoid going anywhere near the library. You can smell the fear as you walk between the stacks, and the place is full of bleary-eyed students struggling with mounds of notes. Whoever said that paper is being phased out should see how most students revise – it hasn’t changed in decades. I discovered a half-dressed couple behind a bush when I took a shortcut back to my building, and my first thought was that they were about to engage in youthful sexual activity. It turned out, however, that she was just leaning over him suggestively so she could hear him reciting model answers more clearly. And it was a very hot day.

Exam time is a drag for everybody, students and academics alike, although we academics definitely have the worst of it. After all, once students have sat their exams, they can all go home or run up even more debts getting drunk or whatever else it is they do when they are off the leash. But the wretched academics have to mark the damned papers, and then talk about them in interminable exam boards. And that’s not the half of it. Until this year I thought the reading and the talking was bad enough, but I hadn’t reckoned on Wee Tommie, our minuscule Registrar with the Napoleon complex, introducing a new computerised system for recording all the marks.

I’ve been around long enough to know that when someone in administration sends you a circular informing you of the introduction of a new, enhanced program for recording marks that will facilitate the process and ensure greater transparency and effectiveness, something is bound to go wrong. I’ve sat in enough rooms where people’s PowerPoint presentations have failed to materialise to develop a healthy scepticism about claims of technological enhancement – especially in a place like ours, where the entire IT system collapses every six months or so. Big D, our vice-chancellor, has been getting hot under the collar about this, and we’ve seen at least four IT directors come and go in an unnervingly short time. But rant as he might, the gremlins keep getting through. I suspect that we just haven’t paid enough money to get a decent system and competent team to run it, despite all the rhetoric about being at the cutting edge.

So I wasn’t surprised when I tried to log on to the new system and nothing happened. I rang the helpline, and a recorded message in a rather snooty voice said that it was not possible to connect me. When I asked the departmental secretary for help, she just sniggered in a rather sinister way and said every secretary in the building was being bombarded with queries about the new system so they had decided on united action and were not going to tell anybody anything. Then she said that her mate in Sociology had told her that the scheme had been piloted in their department and had been a total disaster, but Wee Tommie had rolled it out regardless. Ever a man to try to create an impression, is Wee Tommie. The only thing to do, she said confidentially, was to forget about the new high-tech enhanced super-facilitating transparent scheme and go back to the old system of entering the marks by hand. She was tactful enough not to add that the result might look better if I were to use a quill pen, but I got the point.

What makes this particularly irritating is that we are also getting daily e-mails (well, when the system is actually functioning) urging us to comply with Big D’s grand idea for us all to put everything we have ever written up on the web. One of his henchmen came to talk to our department to convince us that this would be another great leap forward. I asked about copyright and was told that it was irrelevant. “Look,” I said, “I may earn only a few pounds a year in royalties, but I don’t see why I should be deprived of that as well as having to pay additional parking charges.”

That was a well-aimed low blow: car parking is one of the sorest points around since Wee Tommie trebled the cost as part of his Go Green campaign. After my remark, everybody weighed in and car parking charges just took over, and we never did find out about whether electronic access to our research would be happening or not.

The trouble is that there is such a yawning gap between what universities like to tell the world and what actually goes on inside them. We are all supposed to be roaring ahead towards the 22nd century, with e-this and e-that all projected, but if we can’t afford adequate technology we’ll end up doing what we’ve always done and fell yet more forests. Forward to the new Middle Ages, I say. We’ll be reinventing chained libraries next. Which, given the number of books I need that have gone missing, might not be such a wild idea…

Gloria Monday is a mid-career historian employed in one of the many universities with aspirations to international greatness.

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