A couple of years ago I read an interview with a scientist from the US. One of the things he explained was that his strategy for continuing to do research was to avoid administration. Just like we’d all like to do. What’s even more impressive was that he had worked out a strategy that worked.
What he did was to culture the impression of administrative incompetence: he would make a couple of visible cock-ups every year so that nobody would want him on their committee. I thought this was a man to be admired for having the gall to put into practice what we’d all like to do.
I decided that this was a great strategy, although it can get in the way of managing your own projects. So I have adapted it, using a strategy that is considerably aided by or central administration.
The first part of my strategy is to live in a foreign country. Preferably one with an obscure language that is difficult to learn. I started well enough in Denmark, until people told me that I had a good Danish accent (not difficult to acquire: pretend you’re drunk). That’s when I had to move on, and arrived in Finland. A country whose vocabulary is so far from English, every word is different, except sauna and taxi. And they even spell taxi differently.
The second part of my strategy is to be generally dis-organised. Or at least to give this appearance. This needs a bit of care – you can’t just have a pile of papers in your office, you need to be able to pull out the vital document when the head of department is there, and be sure that the pile will fall impressively, but without having to call out the local speleological1 club afterwards to find him (or her. But I’m in a maths department). Time management is also a key skill, along with the ability to determine the softness of any deadline.
The final part of the strategy is the one our central administration has helped me a lot with. This is to culture a subtle inability to use the software that’s needed for administrative tasks. This is not a trivial task, especially for someone who uses a computer for their real work. What would not work would be a blind panic in front of any new package. If you do that, someone will “take pity on you”, and help you. No, the trick is to know enough to be able to work out how to really screw things up. This needs the software to be sufficiently complicated that with a couple of well-placed clicks it can be well and truly buggered.
And this is where our admin has been so generous. That have given us an intra-net, Alma, so that we can have everything in one place. But they haven’t bothered to integrate everything with this. So, travel plans go into WebTraveller2. Sometimes I have to approve budgeting, which uses Rondo. After careful experimentation, I discovered that this is because the usage follows a rondo form. You sign in (_A_). Then you try something (_B_), and once you do it you have to spend 5 minutes working out what to use as your signature (_A_). Once you’ve done that, you have to approve another document (_C_), after which you have to spend another 5 minutes working out what to sign (_A_). Then you try something else etc. etc. It only stops when you have exhausted the n attempts to guess what the system wants as a password. The problem being that it is not a password that you can set, and when you get an email telling you to do something, it gives you a username/password of the form 666fredgod. You are then guessing whether the password is 666fredgod, 666, fredgod, or some combination thereof. As you can see, plenty of scope for confusion and messing around.
Oh, and the really great thing – they haven’t bothered to translate the stuff from Finnish. So unless I’m ordering a taxi or booking a sauna, I’ve no idea what it’s trying to tell me. So, when I get a warning message, I can happily click at random, and thank whoever set the system up for their help – I can happily log out leaving the mess behind, and get on with the more important tasks of research and
1 Egads, it’s in the spell checker.
2 I gloated over this for a couple of years. Because I wasn’t paid by the university, I wasn’t allowed to use it. Our admin had to let me use real paper to report my travels.