Overloaded with tedious details

July 13, 2007

Bin all the paperwork and excise the e-mails - otherwise no one will read them. The bare essentials are best, advises Susan Bassnett

Twice in the past week I have misread information sent to me via e'mail. I managed to recover in both cases, but it has made me thoughtful, especially because my students misread information all the time and I sometimes feel quite irritated with them for this. A case of pot calling kettle black because I don't read the material sent to me every day very diligently either. Nor does anyone else I know, so it's not just a student problem.

Not long ago, fed up with having to give identical advice to PhD students about preparing for a viva, I posted the key points on our departmental website, e-mailing the link to every student. The advice is pretty basic: bring a copy of the thesis with you, which you have reread; dress smartly and comfortably; ensure you eat something beforehand so your blood sugar level doesn't drop; be prepared to defend your argument; and above all, try to enjoy the experience of being with people who have read everything you have written and want to know more about it.

Did anyone read this? I don't think so, to judge by the number who continued to beat a path to my door to ask the same questions.

For what feels like for ever, academics have been writing codes of practice, programme specifications, student handbooks, guidance notes and essay criteria, warnings against plagiarism, equal opportunities and diversity guidelines; course outlines and module specifications and goodness knows what else.

If this goes on, we will be producing leaflets on healthy eating habits and providing students with our favourite recipes. Where once we had to produce decent reading lists and details of what courses we would be teaching, now the paper trail stretches off into infinity. We are also advised, in the interest of saving the planet, to put most of this stuff on the web where, we are told, our students are most likely to look for it.

Except that they don't. Students are as fed up with all this verbiage as we are with having to write it. No student I know has ever thanked me for clearly defined programme specifications. Rather, they express blank incomprehension when told that this paperwork exists or claim they can't find it (given the dire state of many university websites this is hardly surprising) or can't understand it when they have it put in front of them. Nor can students be blamed for this, since so much of the stuff we circulate is written in impenetrable bureaucrat English and is way too long for the average intelligent reader to absorb.

In the rush to lay down paper trails for audit processes to work effectively we seem to have lost sight of what the paper is for. We have also forgotten that normal people don't want to be burdened with endless instructions, handbooks, guidelines and so on. What students need to know is straightforward: what do I have to read, when and where are the classes, how can I contact my tutor for help, what do I do to get good marks, how can I improve, how long before I get my essay back?

To be fair, some institutions are excellent at providing this kind of information clearly and concisely, but all institutions are compelled to provide so much other stuff that the sensible useful advice is often submerged in the bilge. And it is bilge that none of us bothers to read - even those of us who had to write it. It's time to halt the handbooks and get back to communicating like human beings.

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor at Warwick University with responsibility for campus life and community affairs.

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