Welcome to the New Website of the Circumlocution Office

In the popular imagination, the “English professor” is pictured as an individual of middling gender, sporting a certain amount of corduroy and tennis shoes, and having a really bad hair century. We imagine English professors, if they’re over fifty, as being halfheartedly obsessed with symbolic archetypes in the plays of T.S. Eliot and keen on converting the young to the latest version of MLA style. We think of under-50 English professors as simmering with a desire to reveal how naturalizing heteronormative cultural practices under late capitalism are inscribed on disabled bodies in the graphic-novel-style advertising of polyglot postcolonial spaces.

In real life, much as English professors wish we could be doing such exciting things, we resemble every other institutional employee on the planet. Our days are spent reading memos, drafting memos, and complying with mandatory paperwork. As in all other corporations, we’re often told how easy that paperwork is “because it’s all on line now!” – as if enduring browser crashes, getting scolded for lack of cookies, being interrogated for one of 75 inmnemonic personal passwords, fording unnavigable interfaces, and waiting for 30 seconds between screens for individual bytes to be schlepped by carrier pigeon from some antiquated server, only to see, after 10 minutes, the dreaded “your session has timed out” message – as if that were Bob’s-your-uncle compared to filling out a paper form.

UTA is no exception. Much as we are told that we are “Mavericks” who think in mercurial, untramelled ways, our work routines are (like everyone else’s) increasingly strangled by red tape.

In the paper-ridden 20th century, English professors would hand out class syllabuses, try to get papers published, and occasionally fill out a tax form to record their meagre earnings, or maybe a travel-reimbursement form if they were lucky enough to deliver a talk in some glamorous conference venue like Toledo in February.

In the 21st century, we hand out syllabuses, but we must also post them on line at our “Research Profiles.” If we publish or deliver papers, we must enter them on the same Profiles. If we direct dissertations, we must read and comment on them as always. But soon we must also enter our contacts with students on the on-line “DS-PRO” database, so that every step of the process is replicated by a on-line data trail. (As one Graduate Advisor put it, a grad student using “DS-PRO” is like a swimmer in a race looking over her shoulder every other stroke to see if anyone’s gaining on her.)

If that graduate student wants to travel to deliver a paper, she must fill out request forms and reimbursement forms and save receipts – and now must also supply three letters (from herself, her supervisor, and her conference host) that all contain the same information – plus an itemized estimated-budget spreadsheet. But no problem – it’s all on line!

If that graduate student wants to do research that involves speaking with any living being, she must run a gantlet of Institutional Review Board protocols to seek a sanction hard-won, temporary, and easily revoked. Rules originally meant to discourage vivisection now bloatedly govern questionnaires that ask you what your favorite poem is.

In the 20th century, English-professor ethics were straightforward. If you didn’t commit theft, assault, plagiarism, or aggravated mopery, you were probably OK. In the 21st century, in order to become keener ethical thinkers, we undergo regular “compliance” training – naturally, all on line! In the early 21st century, this training was provided by slides followed by tough exam questions. For example: “Are you in compliance with University best practices if you require each of your students to pay you $500 to attend a Mazola party on University property where scheduled drugs will be consumed by students under the age of 21 while they are forced to use University photocopiers to duplicate Libertarian Party leaflets?” The radio-button options were Yes and No, and if you answered Yes, you were redirected back to the slides for a refresher course.

Well, that got to seem silly even to the Compliance Office. So the tests were replaced by slides that merely ask you to affirm that you’ve read them, making Compliance training a matter of seeing how fast it’s humanly possible to click through a slideshow.

This past week, in the latest of the new electronic straws on faculty backs, we were informed that every professional service duty we undertake – the bread-and-butter of academic life, such as peer review of scholarship and peer evaluation for promotion and tenure – must now be approved in advance as “outside employment” (even though such work is expected of faculty as a matter of course in their inside employment). Don’t worry, an administrator told me – it’s all on line, and it only takes a few clicks, a form, and a few days of waiting to get approval!

It seems a matter of time till toilet doors on campus will be fitted with ID-card swipelocks, opening only if an instructor has first submitted an on-line Request for Evacuation form that indicates #1 or #2, estimated paper consumption in square meters, and carbon footprint of ambient heat generated by zipper friction.

All such red-taping appears to increase accountability for spenders of taxpayer nickels and dimes, of course. But its cumulative effect is to ensure that less and less intellectual work gets done on campus. I hope that’s not the intent. But as compliance and monitoring bureaucracies grow, there’s less focus on true accountability, and more on expanding the missions of the compliance officers.

Two serious principles are involved in my rant. One is the incremental burgeoning of bureaucracy. To be fair, this is nothing new. Mission creep was at the heart of the Circumlocution Office, and I’m sure of Roman Senate subcommittees, and has probably been around since the first Sumerian beancounter said to his staff “But it’s only one more cuneiform tablet, guys! How long does it take to press a couple of sticks into wet clay?” To which my answer is, sure – it’s not much skin off my nose. But it makes my life a little harder, a little more stressful, every day. And it takes time away from my students and from the flagging life of my mind. Impose such obstacles if you must, but don’t pretend that they improve anybody’s life.

The other principle is newer and more insidious. Now that databases are ubiquitous, storage space is infinite, and Internet access universal, everything that can be measured will be measured, whether or not the measurement serves any practical purpose in any conceivable world. We assume that the more data a computer stores, the better off we will all become. But when record-keeping becomes an end in itself, the machines that were supposed to save us labor and shrink our bureaucracies end up generating work and spawning new offices full of staff to keep up with it. What kind of Maverick keeps a spreadsheet with columns for Distance Traveled from Herd, Cowpunchers Dodged, and Estimated Time Spent Bucking and Snorting?

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on November 27th, 2009 |1 Comment »

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  1. On November 29, 2009 at 7:00 pm Chad Said:

    Tim, a very insightful and delightfully funny account of the growing red tape that has become an end (rather than a means) in itself. If we do not start holding the line somewhere, then we’ll be hip-deep in it. Thank you for being the first in this holding operation!

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