When work gets in work’s way (on the tyranny of administration)

I love summer. Most academics do: it’s when the pressure valve opens just a bit, when the daily grind of the term gives way to open space – to take a proper deep breath, to dive into the pile of books that has been growing steadily up one side of the desk, to get out the research and writing to-do list and begin the new project that has been waiting patiently for term’s end. Contrary to popular lore, most of us do not spend our summers in one long, blissful holiday; if we work at research-intensive institutions we are expected to maximise our summer time to get the writing of articles, books, and other research contributions done. Also contrary to popular lore, we don’t all eagerly await summer because we hate teaching or are bad at it: most of us quite like teaching, many of us are very good at it, and all of us, if pressed, will explain how much we learn from our students each year, how much they teach us in particular about who we are or want to be as teachers and scholars.

The real reason I love summer – and I suspect I’m not alone here – is because so much of my time during the teaching term is taken up with non-teaching, non-research related tasks that are frequently unnecessary make-work projects – in other words, administrative crap. Now, I’ll say straight away that not all administrative tasks are classifiable as “admin crap” – many have important roles to play in the management of students’ academic progress, the shaping of new programs of study, and the fair, safe running of the university for all of its employees. Still others are geared toward ensuring that teaching and learning practices and goals are generally consistent within a department or school. Many of us know when we are engaged in a valuable administrative task because it feels like a task worth doing: pleasure is gained from the job well done, and I return home at day’s end knowing that, for better or worse, the labour of the day was significant and meaningful.


A lot of university administrative work is not like this, however. More and more, the make-work tasks are taking over our days, and they are getting in the way of important tasks that truly need our energy, attention, and emotional investment – whether those tasks are teaching, research, or indeed admin-related. Here in the UK, the problem is acute: many days during term time I have rushed into lessons at the last minute trailing hastily-written notes because my prep time was taken over by: counting student absences and sending out warning emails; or attending a meeting that ran overtime and at which my contribution amounted to about five minutes of speaking; or talking a colleague through the process of completing an online form hidden cleverly from those who most need access to it. You get the idea: stuff that only sort of seems necessary, and that, the more you think about it, begins to take on the air of the Kafkaesque.

And that’s just the banal day-to-day; more significant everywhere now is the admin crap generated by the urgent need for university administrators to account, constantly, to government funding bodies, anxiously assuring those bodies again and again that we do indeed know how to do our jobs, and that we are indeed teaching our students things they need and want to know. Again, let me stress that accountability is important, and that the people who pay for public universities – IE: all of us – need to be given clear opportunities to understand the work we do, how we do it, and why it matters. I do not know a single colleague who would dispute this. But in so many places, the measuring of a thing’s putative “value” now risks overtaking the doing of the thing as priority #1, and the results, for all of us who absolutely believe in the value of the things we do at universities, are profoundly disquieting.

The UK government’s REF (a huge research measurement exercise), about which I wrote a while back in a post on the language of “impact”, is a perfect example of how the elevation of measurement over achievement is actually threatening the quality of research and teaching across the nation’s universities – not to mention the emotional wellbeing of tens of thousands of staff. The REF required each member of academic staff at UK universities to submit four “outputs” – bureaucratic code for books, articles, and practice-based research documentation – created in the last five years for evaluation; that doesn’t seem like much, until you realise that not all “outputs” are considered equally worthy or valuable, and that a shocking amount of time and energy is spent, during REF preparation exercises, deciding which four “outputs” staff should submit, which have the best chance of getting an “A” for international significance, and which tell the right kind of “narrative” about the staff member and the department as a whole. Failure to produce four “good” outputs for the REF could result in a staff member not being submitted for measurement/judgement in the final exercise – with generally unclear consequences, though the dark possibility remains that some such staff members might yet lose their jobs.

As a result of this set-up, fear, anxiety, and rage ruled the months leading up to the REF’s late 2013 submission deadline for many colleagues around me. A lot of tears were shed, some privately, some in small groups. Livelihoods were on the line. And for what? We aren’t talking about people who were doing their jobs badly; we are talking about people, mostly very hard working staff members and often very good teachers, who were terrified of failing an arbitrary measurement exercise, feeling shame and worthlessness, and possibly even being fired as a result. And, even more ironically, we have little evidence the REF encouraged better research in any case: mostly, it just encouraged an excessive, hasty amount of it. If my own experience (as a reader of books and book reviews, a book review editor for a major scholarly journal, and a peer reviewer of manuscripts for various presses) during the most recent REF period is any indication, the raw numbers of academic books and articles produced in the UK in 2012-13 increased dramatically as quite a lot of work that was not really ready got published anyway, simply in order to meet the deadline. The government wanted books to count and boxes to tick; what it got was a crush of exhausted, frightened researchers doing far less than their best work for all the wrong reasons. And, of course, many of us were not just drained in the office – we were also a mess at home, and not exactly at our best in the classroom.

The REF is an exceptional example that, for me, proves an upsetting new rule: everywhere my colleagues work, from Canada and the US to the UK, Asia and Australia, the narrative we hear again and again from both government and the media – that universities need to be better at training students for “good jobs,” and need to prove they are worth the money everyone is spending on them – goes hand in hand with an increasing refusal to trust that the work we do is of intrinsic value, and that such value may not always be easily measurable or marketable. The pervasive contemporary cultural anxiety that universities are decadent bastions of useless critical thinking, and that they need to be measured up in order to be dressed down according to the new “realities” of the global economy, breeds soul-destroying make-work tasks for academics who would otherwise be spending more time and effort thinking about teaching, or working on new and innovative research. And it breeds the measures that trap us in those tasks, despite our dread, our fatigue, and occasionally our half-hearted protest.

Thinking about this now, it strikes me as no surprise: the neoliberal capitalism that has taken such firm hold in Anglo-America fears free thinking more than any other thing in the world, because free thinkers tend to endanger profiteers. And universities are not just the places where we train free thinkers – they are also places, perhaps one of the only places left now, where we insist that free thinking is a social good, of real and proper value, something that every citizen of every nation needs now more than ever to know how to do. Weighing us down with the pressure to account for our actions at every step, and in language bureaucrats can understand, seems on reflection a superb way to shut us up.

Every summer, when I dig out from under some (most) of the admin crap that weighs me down, when I breathe, look around, and see my research and writing, my lesson planning for the year ahead, the work I love doing and that feels, to me, like the kind of work that has real, human, social worth, I feel grateful for the job I have. But it’s a brief respite. If more of us had more time and space to breathe, to be curious, to plan creatively for work yet to come, imagine how much more – how much better – we could achieve, and how much of that we could share with our students, future thinkers and global citizens. What a world we might make then.

Just a smidgen lighter,