Bullshit Jobs in Higher Ed


“The degree to which those involved in teaching and academic management spend more and more of their time involved in tasks which they secretly—or not so secretly—believe to be entirely pointless” is a hot topic on academic social media this week, owing to an article about it by anthropologist David Graeber (LSE) in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The article, “Are You in a BS Job? In Academe, You’re Hardly Alone,” (possibly paywalled) is a preview of Graeber’s forthcoming book, Bullshit Jobs.

Graeber takes bullshit jobs to be “forms of employment seen as utterly pointless by those who perform them,” and “make no meaningful contribution to the world.” The holders of such jobs consider them a “waste of time,” and think their disappearance “would either make no difference or make the world a better place.”

His primary concern is with the “bullshitization of real jobs”: the phenomenon by which purposeful and meaningful work gets taken over by more and more bullshit tasks. Bullshitization is a problem for academia:

In most universities nowadays—and this seems to be true almost everywhere—academic staff find themselves spending less and less time studying, teaching, and writing about things, and more and more time measuring, assessing, discussing, and quantifying the way in which they study, teach, and write about things (or the way in which they propose to do so in the future. European universities, reportedly, now spend at least 1.4 billion euros [about 1.7 billion dollars] a year on failed grant applications.). It’s gotten to the point where “admin” now takes up so much of most professors’ time that complaining about it is the default mode of socializing among academic colleagues; indeed, insisting on talking instead about one’s latest research project or course idea is considered somewhat rude. 

Graeber notes that the increase in these bullshit tasks has coincided with a substantial growth in university administration and support staff. From 1985 to 2005, he notes, students and faculty populations at colleges and universities increased by 50%, while administration increased by 85%, and the number of administrative staff increased by 240%. Graeber writes:

In theory, these are support-staff. They exist to make other peoples’ jobs easier. In the classic conception of the university, at least, they are there to save scholars the trouble of having to think about how to organize room assignments or authorize travel payments, allowing them to instead think great thoughts or grade papers. No doubt most support-staff still do perform such work. But if that were their primary role, then logically, when they double or triple in number, lecturers and researchers should have to do much less admin as a result. Instead they appear to be doing far more.

Graeber thinks the problem is a version of “managerial feudalism”:

Rich and powerful people have always surrounded themselves with flashy entourages; you can’t be really magnificent without one…. In the contemporary corporation, the accumulation of the equivalent of feudal retainers often becomes the main principle of organization. The power and prestige of managers tend to be measured by the number of people they have working under them…. Office workers are typically kept on even if they are doing literally nothing, lest somebody’s prestige suffer. This is the real reason for the explosion of administrative staff in higher education. If a university hires a new dean or deanlet… then, in order to ensure that he or she feels appropriately impressive and powerful, the new hire must be provided with a tiny army of flunkies. Three or four positions are created — and only then do negotiations begin over what they are actually going to do.

The new deans and deanlets and their minions have to justify their value to the university. One person he interviewed for his research on bullshit jobs, Chloe, accepted an appointment as a dean with the task of providing “strategic leadership” to the school. She says that since she had no control over the school’s budget or authority over its resources, “All I could do was come up with a new strategy which was, in effect, a re-spin of already agreed University strategies.” She was given a staff but had no real use for them, and concludes “I spent two years of my life making up work for myself and for other people.”

After the deanship she became chair of her department:

My very brief stint as Head of Department reminded me that at least, at the very minimum, 90% of the role is bullshit. Filling out the forms that the Faculty Dean sends so that s/he can write her strategy documents that get sent up the chain of command. Producing a confetti of paperwork as part of the auditing and monitoring of research activities and teaching activities. Producing plan after plan after 5-year-plan justifying why departments need to have the money and staff they already have. Doing bloody annual appraisals which go into a drawer never to be looked at again. And, in order to get these tasks done, as HoD, you ask your staff to help out. Bullshit proliferation.

He hypothesizes that higher education has been particularly susceptible to bullshitization because

academe is a kind of meeting place of the caring sector—defined in its broadest sense, as an occupation that involves looking after, nurturing, or furthering the health, well-being, or development of other human beings—and the creative sector.

The growing prevalence of a managerial outlook in these domains means that their practitioners are “obliged to spend increasing proportions of their time pretending to quantify the unquantifiable.”

Read Graeber’s article for a fuller explanation of his view.

While Graeber sees the increased bullshitization of the university as an outgrowth of managerial feudalism—basically as downstream effects of ostentatious displays of status and self-justification from those with power—there is, I think, a contribution to the problem that is less easily vilified, and which is in fact held up as laudable in other contexts: the drive for accountability.

It is not unreasonable for the public to want proof that its ivory towers are valuable and that their occupants are doing their jobs well. Sure, some demands for accountability are themselves bullshit—political posturing and the like. But not all. If private donors or state legislatures are interested in figuring out how to deploy their resources, it helps to have comprehensible accounts of how valuable their options are.

It’s also not unreasonable for the public to not just take our word for it. “Just trust us” is not an option.

Even if you think we don’t owe the public an explanation of our value, don’t we owe it to ourselves to know how well the enterprise to which we belong is doing? Gut feelings, status quo bias, path-dependence, blind faith, and self-serving platitudes won’t cut it.

The trick is to figure out how to convey how we’re doing without adopting standards and methods ill-suited to what we’re doing. Graeber is correct to lament the time wasted “pretending to quantify the unquantifiable.” But we also must acknowledge that some of the valuable things we take ourselves to be doing are, in fact, quantifiable. Figuring out which is which, how to express how well we’re doing with the unquantifiable stuff, how to assess the quantifiable stuff, determining which assessments require disciplinary expertise and which can be handled competently by support staff, and so on—and how to do all of this without bullshitizing our jobs—that’s a formidable challenge.

Bovey Lee, “Tightrope Walker” (cut paper)

 

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RJB
RJB
3 years ago

Never much love for accountants! Having taught managerial reporting to executives for many years, I can attest that what Graeber calls bullshit jobs are everywhere in the business world, and they are largely just what Justin suggests: part of the apparatus of accountability. Managerial reporting gets people to articulate organizational goals, encourage them to pursue those goals, assess how well they’ve done it and why their efforts did or didn’t work. Like any other function, there is a lot of waste and pain, but that doesn’t make it any less important.

I’m glad to see this topic discussed on a philosophy blog, because managerial reporting has a lot of connections to the field. The title and theme of my (free!) textbook, <a href = What Counts and What Gets Counted comes straight from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: the reports and measures that get counted are mere shadows of the performance that actually counts. That’s one reason people resent them.

There’s another reason people resent reporting systems, which I’ve been fleshing out in a lecture I call “The Philosopher King’s Accountant.” Accountants help managers impose a full-fledged philosophy on members of an organization. They spell out organizational and employee purposes (teleology), constructs for performance, opportunities and challenges (metaphysics and ontology), cause and effect relationships (etiology), performance measures (epistemology), valuations (axiology), and duties (deontology). Of course, executives and their accountants don’t talk about it this way, but that makes it feel even more insidious, since people don’t even realize how their view of the world is being shaped by what Graeber calls bullshit jobs. No wonder people bristle, especially academics who are used to constructing their own personal philosophies.

I’m not a philosopher (IANAP?), and I’ve just started fleshing out this idea. Input much appreciated!Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  RJB
3 years ago

Hi RJB, thanks for your cheerful response to an article arguing that you should be wiped from the face of the earth!

Feel free not to respond if this is a 101 question in managerial studies, but it seems to me that you could be right about the importance of accountability. And of course managers are inevitable in any large organisation that has a lot of stuff that’s otherwise no-one in particular’s responsibility to manage. Granted this (and really it’s a very small or abstract thing to grant), there’s still the problem of determining how much managing and accounting, or rather how much specialised/professional managing and accounting, needs doing. Obviously this could, in principle, expand infinitely (not least through recursion). Even Graeber, despite his unpleasant tenor, grants this much; really his complaint is that there’s too much of a good thing, and that the reason for the quantity is explained not by a sober consideration of the costs and benefits of particular administrative roles, but by economic and prestige considerations.Report

Robert Bloomfield
Reply to  JCM
3 years ago

We accountants are used to the hate. See how few likes I got? We expect it.

My big lesson to students is that “no system is perfect”. This is easiest to see in the case of pay-for-performance. If you try to reward people for measured performance, you will get some mix of better performance and gaming of the system (what I call measure management, managing the measures of performance rather than just performance itself). If you want more performance rather than more measure management, you need to devote a lot more time and effort to the reporting system (i.e. bullshit), getting better measures, designing better systems and defending them against gaming.

Sometimes it is wiser to cut the bullshit, but understand you’ll have to count on people’s intrinsic motivations. As a professor, I think we could do that more in academia, but opinions differ. There’s also a great piece of jargon called “coercive homophily”, which captures the idea that organizations tend to adopt the reporting structures of their funders. So non-profits that get a lot of money from the government end up with lots of government-like reporting (bullshit). I think that is a hefty source of Graeber’s complaints.

Hey, why are we complaining about accountants? If you philosophers would just make people better people, we wouldn’t need all this bullshit!Report

apostdoc
apostdoc
Reply to  Robert Bloomfield
3 years ago

“Hey, why are we complaining about accountants? If you philosophers would just make people better people, we wouldn’t need all this bullshit!”

Is there any awareness in your field that people are, by and large, already quite good? Or is this an illusion of mine?

For example, my university expands a great deal of resources (including my own time, that they pay for) to ensure that I do not steal from them.

Just a handful of examples: My expenses claims involve stacks of receipts that are double-checked by two people (they add them up again, but yet somehow I also have to compute the sum to fill out the form). I have to report my working hours daily (we do not have a punch clock yet, but I feel it might not be far off), the monthly summary of which needs to be validated by two people. If I need research material (a book, a computer, a new display), god knows how many people have to validate and approve the request. The biggest nightmare was when my chair broke: two people came to verify that the chair is actually broken, and they eventually gave me a form that I could use to ask someone else for a new chair; that person was in charge of the storage but they were out of chairs. Someone else was in charge of ordering more.

But nothing could be further from my mind than embezzling any money from my university. Even if a sizable percentage of my peers have less such qualms, I’m starting to doubt that they could embezzle half the money that the university spends on stopping them.Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  Robert Bloomfield
3 years ago

Thanks for all this interesting stuff, Robert, but it didn’t get to the nub of my question. You say:

“If you want more performance rather than more measure management, you need to devote a lot more time and effort to the reporting system”

But what I want to know is (and this is along the lines of apostdoc’s question): is not another way of getting more performance, at least sometimes, *less* measuring? Or at any rate: is the decrease in performance of not measuring, relative to a better measuring system, worth the lower cost and better worker well-being of not measuring?

I’d like to know how accountancy people think about this. Because clearly at some point it’s *got* to be the case: accountancy can expand infinitely.Report

RJB
RJB
Reply to  JCM
3 years ago

[From apostdoc]: Is there any awareness in your field that people are, by and large, already quite good?

Kinda. I’ll break it down into motivation and misbehavior, focusing mostly on accounting scholarship, which is maybe 2/3 economics and 1/3 psychology.

On the motivation front, managers can count on psychological forces to provide a background level of intrinsic motivation to do good work (because people like to feel competent, valued, efficacious, etc.), and if the boss treats them well, can rely on people’s tendency toward reciprocity. However, that only takes you so far, especially for tasks that aren’t rewarding–or more precisely, for tasks that are rewarding to the boss (principal) but not the worker doing them (agent). That’s when you need to provide some extra economic oomph, which means building the apparatus of measurement, incentive compensation, auditing, etc., and where (as I suggested above) the boss-as-philosopher-king needs an accountant to implement their philosophy and impose it on workers.

On the misbehavior side, accountants work with a model called the fraud triangle: people are most likely to commit fraud when they face a pressure they need to address, when they have opportunity to relieve that pressure through misbehavior without being detected, and when rationalization allows them to still see themselves as moral despite their misbehavior. So there is a little bit of ‘people are good’ here: if they don’t face pressure, or if they have trouble rationalizing misbehavior, they will be good even if they have an opportunity to misbehave without detection. But you need to eliminate those opportunities anyway because you never know when pressure will arise, and people have an amazing ability to rationalize just about anything that benefits them.

Taking this into academia, a good accounting system is relatively light-handed for a lot of matters, because faculty have relatively high intrinsic motivation and the work is relatively rewarding (despite the complaints I’m seeing in comments below). But pressure to perform is pretty high for getting grants and publications, so a lot of bureaucracy arises to address that.

I talk about a lot of this in my book. Since it’s free, I don’t feel so bad for the self-promotion, so here is the link again: What Counts and What Gets Counted. This material is mostly covered in Part 2 (pay for performance) and 3 (forms and shadows). I also have an essay on accounting post-modernism! (4.3), for dessert.Report

jake
jake
Reply to  RJB
3 years ago

RJB, thank you for your insightsReport

Douglas W. Portmore
3 years ago

I don’t think that the drive for accountability can justify such large increases in administrators and administrative staff. For I see no reason for thinking that the public has achieved (or can achieve) better accountability from their public universities as a result of such vast increases in the number of administrators and administrative staff. Indeed, the public now has to hold all these new administrators and administrative staff accountable, asking whether they constitute a cost-effective solution to whatever problem that they were meant to solve. So, if the public wants to increase accountability, I think that they should start by looking at how many people-hours that used to be dedicated to teaching and scholarship are now dedicated to admin and whether as a result of this reallocation in people-hours our public universities have come to more or less cost-effectively produce the same outcomes in terms of, say, research products and successful graduates.Report

docf emeritus
docf emeritus
Reply to  Douglas W. Portmore
3 years ago

Part of the reason I retired 8 years ago was this increase in BS, busy work. I do not know when and how the drive for such crap began precisely, but it sure seems like with the rise of PHD’s in education administration it was fostered by people who have such degrees and maybe never taught a class in their lives. The result is that they impose their views on front-line teachers, having never been one, or being one only so they work their way into administration.

When the ratio of full-time, tenure-track faculty falls below that of full-time administrators with secretaries, we are doomed. S tats from my state, Michigan, indicate that 71% of faculty are part-time, non-tenure track across the board; Community Colleges is 82% and we have 7-8 CC’s with no full-time or tenure track faculty.

In the words of a colleague from the CC we taught at: “There is no hope.” Money and administrative power have Trumped (capital T intended) real education. It is the students who suffer the constant change and flux of faculty. And I say this, having been an adjunct for 12 years in Illinois, but at two schools, one a CC and the other a major Jesuit university, that honored its adjuncts and kept them on – and indeed, paid us pretty well (I made in the 70’s what current faculty at my last school make now).

It is all about money, period. Students’ learning and teachers’ abilities or credentials matter not at all. Administrators call it “flexibility”, I call it being able to fire people whop do not toe the line.Report

lecturer at large, mediocre state school
lecturer at large, mediocre state school
3 years ago

I feel like my job is kind of bullshit, but self-assessment and bureaucratic nonsense are secondary factors. More significant is the cultural and intellectual disconnect between my students and I. As colleges admit more students, the student body’s needs change. As a result, “getting through” to resistant learners is as big a part of the job as helping intellectually inclined students explore ideas. Meanwhile, universities continue to hire the same kinds of people (specialists with PhDs) to teach (I’m one of them). So we get a disconnect over the written word. Instructors expect college students to enjoy exploring difficult ideas through certain kinds of non-fiction writing. Very few undergraduates like this kind of writing. Indeed, very few undergraduates read very much, and most of those who do are reading Twilight, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Buzzfeed, or ESPN. This disconnect makes me wonder whether my attempts to sharpen my students critical thinking, reading, or writing skills is bullshit.

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7653/55b49dcf011f44fbc1a49d12a0d18cb070be.pdf

Other disconnects probably result from parenting styles, overly accommodating high schools, and the consumer model of higher ed. Thus there is the end-of-semester flood of (atrociously written) emails in which students beg for extra credit assignments or to have their grade rounded up, or contest their grade on the flimsiest of grounds. This leads to an arms race of tighter syllabus policies and student attempts to find loopholes. Teachers expect a level of personal accountability and deference; having been taught that they are the always-right consumer and are entitled to an A (or at least a B) in high school, this kind of personal accountability is a foreign concept to many freshmen. “Read the syllabus? Psh. If I miss something important, I’ll just re-negotiate any penalties.” Responding to these emails is an absolute bullshit waste of time.

https://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/spring-2004/its-time-tell-kids-if-you-dont-do-well-high

https://www.applerouth.com/blog/2013/10/23/when-a-is-for-average-the-high-cost-of-grade-inflation/

These feelings of bullshit are heightened by the thought that one is paticipating in administrators’ schemes to raise enrollments partly on the backs of underprepared students who are being set up for failure and large debt loads.Report

Michael Barkasi
Michael Barkasi

Judging by Jonathan Weisberg and Daniel Kaufman’s comments below, you are not alone. I’ll throw in my hat as well.Report

Jonathan Weisberg
Jonathan Weisberg
3 years ago

This description comes closer to my own experience, too. My job certainly involves its share of bureaucratic bullshit. But the bullshitiness that most induces despair is the impossibility of doing the real job well in the circumstances..

I can’t teach the students the university enrols—not really and meaningfully. They’re impossibly underprepared, and much too distracted and unengaged. Just for a start, they’d each need one-on-one tutoring on a daily basis, for multiple semesters, in order to learn how to write passably.

I also can’t generate substantive, worthwhile research on the schedule demanded. I’m too busy publishing trivial, reactive, half-baked schlock in order to keep the CV growing and the raises coming.

So instead of doing the real job, I put on a performance of doing it. And that seems to be exactly what my employer expects, judging by what they choose to reward.

In many ways this experience is exactly the sort of thing Graeber describes as a “bullshit job” in many of his writings. But in this piece he seems to have decided to go exclusively the other way, taking the “Fall of the Faculty” angle.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Jonathan Weisberg
3 years ago

Jonathan: This is, unfortunately, tragically true of many places including my own.Report

apostdoc
apostdoc
3 years ago

The raison d’etre of the university administration is to ensure that it can always be demonstrated that the university administration has done everything correctly. For this goal, researchers and students are irritants; research and teaching are sources of error. This is why there are all these forms that are archived unread. So that later it can be demonstrated that “due diligence” has been done.

This is also the reason why there cannot be accountability. I’m from a former communist country, and we have a saying: “even when the production targets are not met, the production targets are met.” Even for very clearly quantifiable things (say, number of X produced). Worst case, you change the production targets ex post. If it’s the raison d’État (or, in this case, the raison d’université) to ensure that the production targets are met, you can be damn sure that a piece of paper will be produced that says attests to the fulfillment of the production targets. I’ve seen some truly shit research projects (and was briefly part of one), and every single one of them could present stellar yearly, midterm and final reports to the funders. None of the promised results were (actually) achieved, let alone any “impact” on society, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from the paperwork. Modern capitalist bureaucracy is a Stalinist nightmare (as quite lucidly pointed out by Mark Fisher in his “Capitalist Realism”).

Thus, while I agree that the drive for accountability plays a role, I’m inclined to assert that “just trust us” is indeed the way to go. However, one must ask where the drive for accountability is coming from. My guess is that this is tied to the rather modern (and may I add, American) idea that a college provides vocational training, and an university provides innovations that somehow translate to economic growth. If you have such goals, of course you want to steer by instituting accountability.

But this is misguided. You cannot mandate innovation, howevermuch you try (looking at you here, European Research Council). What you can do, is give smart, passionate people a living salary tied to a modest amount of teaching, and otherwise let them follow their intellectual whims. Make it the primary purpose of the university to cultivate intellectual engagement and increase the “gelehrtes Publikum”, so that intellectual culture is not isolated in the ivory tower (as it regrettably is today).

For your economic growth, harvest the windfall. For your vocations, take the smart people who are inclined towards the applied (they exist! they always existed!). Everyone else can do training on the job, which is more effective anyway. If you have a true crisis-level problem, make that problem well-defined enough, and get someone to obsess over it (say, “the Germans have a fancy encryption. Break it.”). It works. It’s proven.

So, self-organising guilds of scholars it is. Would there be a handful of these scholars that laze around, unchecked by any accountability? Yes, of course. But they are few, and in sum a much lesser evil than the overwrought mechanisms of accountability (and less costly, to boot).Report

Maja Sidzinska
Maja Sidzinska
3 years ago

Where is Max Weber when you need him?

More seriously, does anyone know of any current philosophy of bureaucracy? Does philosophy have an analog of poli sci’s “organizational theory”?Report

lbr
lbr
Reply to  Maja Sidzinska
3 years ago

I don’t know if there is any good philosophy of bureaucracy, exactly, but there is a lot of interest in these topics among historians and sociologists of knowledge (as well as other science and technology studies scholars). An especially provocative set of arguments that has come out of this literature concerns the “performativity” of assessment schemes (which RJB alludes to, but not in so many words): in a great many social contexts, representations that purport to be descriptive turn out to be normative, shaping rather than reflecting people’s behavior. A classic example is the Black Scholes Model for stock options pricing, but bureaucratic assessment schemes (including standardized tests used to measure teacher performance in public schools) have this dimension as well.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  lbr
3 years ago

This sounds really interesting. Can you provide a few quick references?Report

lbr
lbr
Reply to  Sam Duncan
3 years ago

Off the top of my head, I would say:

Callon, Michel (1998) The Laws of the Markets (Oxford: Blackwell).

Donald MacKenzie, “Is Economics Performative?,” in Journal of the History of Economic Thought.

Ted Porter. “Funny Numbers,” Culture Unbound, Volume 4, 2012: 585-598.Report

jake
jake
Reply to  lbr
3 years ago

Some of Foucault and his follower Nicholas Rose can be considered a philosophy of bureaucracyReport

EBrown
EBrown
Reply to  Maja Sidzinska
3 years ago

Maybe not exactly what you’re looking for, but I remember it being pretty good and interesting:
https://philpapers.org/rec/BUCTAT-2Report

Maja Sidzinska
Maja Sidzinska
Reply to  EBrown
3 years ago

That is exactly the kind of thing I was looking for.

I was asking because, from what I know (which isn’t a lot) about this area of study, unlike poli sci/sociology/public policy (see: http://www.katewillyard.com/academic-blog/rational-natural-and-open-systems-perspectives-of-organizations), philosophy as a discipline hasn’t really touched organizational theory. My favorite open systems theory of organizations is garbage can theory, which is a non-normative theory of institutional behavior that roughly is committed to this thesis: “an organization “is a collection of choices looking for problems, issues and feelings looking for decision situations in which they might be aired, solutions looking for issues to which they might be the answer, and decision makers looking for work”. Problems, solutions, participants, and choice opportunities flow in and out of a garbage can, and which problems get attached to solutions is largely due to chance” (Cohen, March, Olsen, 1972).

Philosophers could have a field day with this. And it is a mystery to me why they are not having such a field day.Report

Eric Brown
Eric Brown
Reply to  Maja Sidzinska
3 years ago

You also might find the writings of Russell Ackoff interesting (there are lectures on Youtube as well). He was a philosophy Ph.D. student of C. West Churchman at UPenn and wrote extensively on systems and organization.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell_L._AckoffReport

professor
professor
3 years ago

I agree it is shocking the level of educational attainment students apparently achieved in high school. My job (at least the teaching part) is really more like a 6th grade teacher – except these 6th graders cannot be punished , or graded fairly.. I don’t know how you change this. And it varies. I have taught at schools where students are excellent. I honestly cannot get my friends, who teach at those schools with good students, to believe the stories about the educational level of my students at the 80% acceptance rate state university.

Anyway, philosophy of bureaucracy is needed. I agree with most of the article.Report

Migrant Worker
Migrant Worker
3 years ago

The educational inequality in America is shocking. Some colleges are degree mills. Students expect As – and get them. If not, they’ll mutiny. What can you expect when you’re charging $10,000/year? The price tag proves that education is a commodity, not a right.Report

nicholesuomi
Reply to  Migrant Worker
3 years ago

I wish I could tell whether that number is supposed to be appallingly high or envy-inspiringly low.Report

Postdoc
Postdoc
3 years ago

A Few Absurdities

In Europe there are masses of fixed-term employees who are paid by external grants. Although the grant is for a full-time research project, they spend half their time trying to attain further grants. Only about 10% of applications are successful. So, 45% about of researcher time and 45% of funders’ money is wasted on applying for grants they don’t receive.

When I worked at a big UK university about 10% of my students couldn’t write. They were basically illiterate. But I was somehow expected to teach them philosophy! Another 50% of students were so poor at writing that it was almost impossible to read their work. It was painful! Most of the time when marking essays, the mark had more to do with how well I could read the essay than anything else.

A UK university where I worked employed someone to sit in a glass box by the front doors of buildings. Perhaps his job was security? I never really knew. All I knew was that I was not allowed to book a room without this man sitting in his box. What did he do and why was he there? I’ll never know!

As a TA, I had to fill out pay claim forms, which were absurdly unintuitive, in order to get paid. They were also constantly being changed. The university hired people to check these forms and wasted my time filling them out. Why not just pay us for the job we were hired to do?Report

EBrown
EBrown
Reply to  Postdoc
3 years ago

“A UK university where I worked employed someone to sit in a glass box by the front doors of buildings. Perhaps his job was security?”

Was he alive? Maybe it was a Jeremy Bentham-type deal?Report

sahpa
sahpa
3 years ago

“It’s gotten to the point where “admin” now takes up so much of most professors’ time that complaining about it is the default mode of socializing among academic colleagues; indeed, insisting on talking instead about one’s latest research project or course idea is considered somewhat rude.”

Verily, verily, ours is the most absurd of all possible worlds.Report

Dale Miller
3 years ago

I’m a deanlet, and I don’t even have an entire admin assistant for myself. How do I get a tiny army of flunkies?Report

EBrown
EBrown
Reply to  Dale Miller
3 years ago

Well first a mommy flunky and a daddy flunky have to love each other *very* much….
Or you could just clone them.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
3 years ago

I have some complex, and possibly contradictory, thoughts on this. I wholeheartedly agree with Justin that the public is right to demand accountability from us. However, I’m pretty sure the sorts of objective performance measures admin loves to apply don’t do that, and I’m suspicious that even better objective performance measures could. I also think that there’s a mindset common in managerial circles that makes this a lot worse.
I’m skeptical of the numerical objective measures for two reasons. One is that any time you deploy a measure and reward people for doing well on it you introduce a perverse incentive to game the system and maximize the measure itself rather than the thing it’s supposed to be tracking. Take for example high schools that up their graduation rates simply by passing a lot of people they used to fail in response to rewards and penalties that are imposed based on graduation rates. The aim behind these measures is a good one– to get schools to better serve students who they might otherwise give up on– but the results are not. The same danger lurks with any such measure. Now of course you can address this by imposing better measures, but developing and deploying a really good one for what we do in education, while likely possible, would be prohibitively expensive in terms of both money and time. I think that philosophy should teach students how to reason logically and write well, but how in the world would we measure that? Do we have students write a short piece after their philosophy classes and then have outside readers evaluate it? That would work, but there’s no way it’s practical. Do we make students take the GRE or the LSAT? Well again that’s expensive and if we did it, we’d find ourselves teaching to the GRE or LSAT in Intro rather than doing what we’re supposed to. If someone can develop objective measures for what education should do that are 1. Accurate, 2. Don’t introduce perverse incentives, and 3. Don’t require incredible amounts of time and resources to apply then I think we should immediately impose them. But I’ll believe that’s possible when I see it, and I haven’t seen it yet. What tends to happen instead is that a manager or bureaucrat develops a standard that satisfies 3, but is flatly awful as far as 1 and 2 go with predictable results.
What makes all this worse is the attitude that’s common to many in admin, though luckily not all (My own dean’s management philosophy is pretty much the opposite of this thankfully. She summed it up as, “Hire people who are good at their jobs and trust that they know what they’re doing unless they somehow prove otherwise.”) That attitude is that workers are both lazy and incompetent and will not do their jobs well without constant evaluation with attendant punishments and rewards. This is part and parcel of the old system of Taylorism and it seems to go in an out of fashion. From what I can tell it’s not in fashion in many management circles these days– it’s pretty much anathema to the way Silicon Valley does things– but it does seem to be in vogue among a lot of higher ed administrators. The thing is that just about everyone wants to do their job well and takes pride in it as long as they can see some point in that job. My father was welder and a good one, and he did his job well because he was proud of being good it. The same goes for my uncle who worked in a munitions plant (okay okay let’s not get started on the moral issues there). This goes much more for academics. We’re professionals and we love what we do. If you leave us free to do our teaching and research well most of us will. It’s when you bullshitize our jobs that you need to impose the all these measures with their (relatively few) carrots and (very many) sticks. The employees are stupid and lazy management philosophy creates exactly the problem it’s supposed to solve.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

The ritualization of publishing is also a part of the BS. We measure achievement, above all, by the amount published, yet it is of almost no concern to us that the average publication is read by so few people. The system allows philosophers to prove their abiiity to get published, which allows us to evaluate their achievements numerically. Yet we tend not to ask what the ultimate professional point of all this activity is, beyond demonstrating that we are good at philosphy and so should get raises and praises.

Please note, I’m not arguing that publciations that are read by few people have no value. I’m arguing that if we take the call to do valuable work seriously, that it should concern us that, on average, we spend so much time writing so much that will be read by so few.Report

Ben Serber
Ben Serber
3 years ago

I’d just like to direct the commenters to an excellent blog post on this topic from Tim Burke: https://blogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/blog/2015/10/02/inchworm/
I can’t recommend reading the rest of his blog highly enough either.Report

RJB
RJB
Reply to  Ben Serber
3 years ago

Thanks for the pointer!Report

Curtis Franks
Curtis Franks
3 years ago

I am interested in seeing a single graph depicting changes in public trust in higher education together with changes in the number of university administrative positions, which some say have increased in order to shore up that trust, over the past 30 years. I conjecture that it will look like a “straight edge” tattoo.Report

UK Philosopher
UK Philosopher
3 years ago

So, I am a lecturer at a UK philosophy department. Recently, the university has created a horrible thing called ‘Time Allocation Surveys’. Almost every few weeks, academics get an e-mail that looks like a complicated spreadsheet and which asks you to document every hour you spent (during some selected week which you will have surely forgotten) by breaking each day of that week down into categories.. This vicious form requires dividing each day proportionately between a range of categories (e.g., teaching, research, admin, grant capture, supervision, etc.), percentage wise, and the numbers are supposed to add up. The document would take well over an hour to fill out if you tried to do it even remotely properly, which is how you are expected to do it. And if you DON’T fill it out exactly like they want, your work e-mail is spammed with reminders. In my case, I’ve gotten behind on my Time Allocation Surveys (due to revising journal articles and marking tons of exams) so badly that three of them have piled up. It would take me probably a full day to go back and do them right. I’ve only today figured out a way forward (that doesn’t involve keep letting them pile up)–as a kind of protest, I’m (seriously!) thinking about filling them out by saying that I spend 100% of each day, during each week they are inspecting, filling out previous Time Allocation Surveys. Hopefully they’ll get the message. (Though more likely, they’ll arrest me.)Report

dig dug
dig dug
Reply to  UK Philosopher
3 years ago

Send all your previously filled TASs along with a case of Red Bull and a pack of smokes to a discreet person in the computer programming department. I’m just a hobby programmer and feel confident I could tackle the job in a single evening.Report

Barry Lam
3 years ago

I just realized the only reason I do bullshit work instead of telling people to fuck off is the moral obligation to those who have to pick up the slack of bullshit if I weren’t the one doing the bullshit. What an insidious and highly successful way of perpetuating bullshit.Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Barry Lam
3 years ago

The revolution begins in the human heart! (I swear this is a reply.)Report

Phoenix, Son of Amynto
Phoenix, Son of Amynto
3 years ago

“The trick is to figure out how to convey how we’re doing without adopting standards and methods ill-suited to what we’re doing.”

Haven’t we already been doing this with a thing we call grades? I grant that grading is an imperfect mechanism, but the spread of grades does say something about how well (or poorly) students are learning.Report