Those of us academics working in UK universities will be familiar with the requirement to fill in forms every so often, accounting for how we spend our working week. Somehow we are supposed to account for every minute of that (ha ha) 37.5 hour week the Research Councils believe we work. When I attempt to do this I always feel defeated by the categorisation. I was reminded of this thankless task recently when I spent the late May Bank Holiday (Cambridge does not take heed of the May Bank Holidays, as the days are too precious as exams approach) tackling a reference request for a US university.
Writing references is of course a regular task for academics, writing letters in appropriately glowing terms for students, past and present, for former postdocs or even long-departed colleagues. (I keep meaning to get hold of the much-praised book, Dear Committee Member by Julie Schumacher, an epistolary novel entirely made up of imaginary reference letters, for some light entertainment.) The reference on this occasion fitted into the latter category. What appalled me most about this task was the voluminous literature I was expected to study when writing a reference for promotion for this person through the higher echelons of the professoriat. 862 pages I received via an inconvenient website, which didn’t even enable me to get hold of a merged pdf at first time of asking! Now of course most of it I didn’t read; indeed the vast majority of it consisted of student evaluations of taught courses. I read a few; I gathered an overwhelming impression of the excellence of the teaching given. I didn’t need to know more than that.
But what absolutely shook me was the amount of verbiage that had to be entered personally into a system that required a listing of all talks given, committees served on, courses given etc etc over the entire life time of the applicant. I wouldn’t be able to do that at all. I have no idea what talks I gave 30 years ago to whom, let alone the committees on which I sat; and, although I probably do recall the major courses I gave, that wouldn’t include the one off lectures to graduates on some specific topic. One has to ask does it really matter if someone served on the departmental student liaison committee in 1990 when it comes to promotion in 2015? If this poor benighted professor were asked to fill in a TRAC (Transparent Approach to Costing) form, although as far as I know there are no such requirements in the USA, how would he have accounted for the weeks spent filling in the form? And I know we’re talking about weeks here, because it was stated in fury by the applicant in their personal statement that the university’s IT system had swallowed their first attempt at form filling so that the whole thing had had to be done again. What a massive waste of time.
For myself, I find it hard enough to cope with trying to work out how to allocate time spent on emails. If I have a request from someone asking me for advice, a student in another university perhaps with whom I have no relationship, what does that count as? How do I account for time spent deleting spam from my inbox? What about declining invitations to speak at one event or another – does that count as outreach or public engagement even though I’m not going to do it? Or, away from email, the time spent travelling from one end of Cambridge to another for meetings? My life and the TRAC form do not mesh easily. I am sure I am not alone.
Although, apparently unlike many of my academic colleagues I do understand the need to have large numbers of administrators to fulfill the tasks imposed on us by an ever-more-demanding central bureaucracy (all hail the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework for providing further forms to be pored over and sleep to be lost), I am baffled as to how to fill in my timesheets in a way that genuinely has any meaning. Academics, particularly senior ones who have moved on with regret from a life of pure research and teaching, do many important but practically intangible tasks and yet we have to assign them to categories.
Even if I ignore the measly number of hours that I am alleged to work, if I just deal in percentages of my total working week, it is horrifying to think how much of this time I spend on email. That is how communication has to be done: about diary dates, about requests, committee papers, departmental strategy or safety or meetings, let alone about reference – or refereeing – requests. If I attempted to carve up this time into different headings I would go mad. OK, you could argue that reading the committee papers is not email, even if that’s the mode of delivery, but it would be hard to pull that chunk of time out of total time spent staring at an inbox.
Letting academics get on with what they do best and trusting them to use their time wisely was something that Thatcher had no time for. She wanted us to be accountable. That in itself shouldn’t be a bad thing, but some of its manifestations clearly have many drawbacks and we have been increasingly ‘measured’ in all kinds of ways. Checking how academics spend their time sounds sensible in concept; in practice I suspect many of us make wild guesstimates since precision is impossible to come by. Each year I earnestly start the week I’m allocated by jotting timings down, but my good intentions tend to slip quite rapidly. Hard evidence, transparent costings are both self-evidently a good thing. The practical implications are quite another.
More general thoughts on metrics will have to wait for another post, as we await the HEFCE Metrics Report.