Monday, November 20, 2006

Academics and 'Busy Work'

Update: In my last post, I raised a question about certain corporations scanning the blog arena. The two companies I especially raised questions about were Entergy and Halliburton, who had previously paid me a visit after I had mentioned them here. Well, guess what, today I had a visit from both corporations! The log entry for Entergy can be found here and the entry for Halliburton is here. [N.B. I am a little uncertain how the Site Meter assigns URLs, so these links may not be good for too long -- we shall see]. Perhaps this is now a question to be posted to Slashdot?

As regular readers will know, one of the topics that gets discussed here is the status of the professorial life. In particular, I am always amazed at how incredibly idle and unproductive some of my co-workers are. They teach, but as best as can be inferred from the evidence, they do no research, or at least, do precious little. This has led me to wonder what these people actually do with the their time. I have also been slightly interested in learning how these people get away with it. Having undertaken a little bit of a study (albeit with too small a sample size to be truly scientific), I think I now have an answer: These people spend their time doing 'busy work'.

The interesting part about 'busy work' is that it gives off a pretence of being a real academic activity, or at least an activity with some academic purpose. This perhaps explains how folks manage to get away with it. Our administration types are not all that on the ball and it seems that the terminally idle get away with it by spinning elaborate yarns about all the effort the put in on what they depict as being vital tasks. There is a moral lesson here too for academics everywhere. If you find that you are putting inordinate amounts of effort into tasks that are not really research and do not result in conference presentations and/or academic publications, then, this should be taken as a red flag. You could be headed for 'deadwood' sooner than you think.

In order to help others spot the signs of folks who may be headed for this particular kind of doldrum, I have compiled a list of common 'busy work' tasks:

  • Designing/Maintaining Web Sites. As anyone who has either designed, or maintained a web site knows, this process can be quite an effort and time consuming. This being said, once the design has been done, if a web site is architecturally well designed, it should not take too much time to keep up to date. As most administrators are techno-wienies, they have few ideas about how much effort is really involved in running a web site. Thus, what once may have been a useful and meaningful exercise can, over time, become a form of busy work.

  • Mystery 'Administration'. The deadwood types often speak in hushed tones about all the time they spend on 'administrative tasks'. Quite what these tasks are, or why they should apparently take up so much time and be such a burden is seldom revealed. Now, every one has to do some administration. It is a necessary evil. However, it is clear that not all administration is of equal value. For instance, alphabetising a collection of CDs can be seen as a form of administrative task, but it is clearly one that is best left to office help, or a student worker. However, the joy about these administrative claims is that the real administrators may be impressed by them, as they spend so much time on this kind of activity.

  • Creating Promotional Materials. There can be little doubt that marketing is important. However, it is not so important that a faculty member should spends days, or weeks working on it and nothing else. An attractive pamphlet providing information about a program may bring in a few majors. However, the difference between a pamphlet which has been worked on for few hours and one which has been worked on for a few days, in terms of the majors it yields is likely to be minimal. A similar point can be made about a poster. Is there much point in days being spent on a poster announcing a talk, when only a handful of people show up for the talk? I would say not. Yet this is just the kind of 'busy work' that is a favorite of the deadwood types. In addition, few academics have any real skill in graphic design. For this reason, this is often the kind of job also much better left to staff members.

  • Talking To Students. Talking to students is an important part of the job of an academic. However, not all kinds of talk is helpful. Discussing class readings, working on paper outlines and even assisting with graduate school plans are all useful and worthwhile activities. However, swapping gossip, discussing movies and other fundamentally social activities are not a good use of either professorial, or even the students time. Although it may be fun to get to know one's students a little, it is a mistake to treat them as friends, other than in perhaps exceptional circumstances. Getting a reputation for being cool with the undergraduates is not real work. People need to remember this.

  • Blogging. It always slightly shocks me to see how often academic types post to their blogs during the working day. Some justify this activity by claiming that it is a method that helps them clear their thoughts, in order to get them into a better frame of mind to actually conduct and write up their research. This justification wears remarkably thin when there is no actual evidence of this alleged research, in terms of publications. Although blogging may be fun and therapeutic, until the priorities of the academy change, blogging is not an academic activity, as the concept is currently understood. Thus, this too is at the very best mere 'busy work', if it is to be counted as work at all (currently a doubtful proposition).

This list is by no means exhaustive. Indeed, some of the activities described are mere placeholders for numerous similar activities that are fundamentally similar in nature, in amounting to little more than 'busy work'. Most professors know that students are not graded upon the amount of effort they put into an activity. Rather, students are graded upon their performance. It puzzles me that professors sometimes seem to forget that the same applies to them.

The CP


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