WHEN PEOPLE LEARN I CHAIR a large department in a public, urban university (let’s call it City College University), they sometimes accuse me of living in an “ivory tower” and not being in touch with the “real world.” These people (for the record) spend much of their time staring at social media sites and watching reality TV so I don’t take it too personally. I do admit though that those of us in academia suffer our share of 21st-century neuroses. Even in academia, educated people can make change difficult and neurosis can trump reason. Thus, the title of this article. Lest readers think I am biting the hand that feeds me, my focus in this article is human nature rather than the academy itself. However, wherever human beings tread, some degree of nonsense is bound to follow.
I am a professor who trains people to be mental health counselors. Counselors, psychologists, and social workers are all practitioners of what is called “talk therapy” and we have our work cut out for us. I have a friend who works in the physics department. While he and his colleagues talk about Euclidian curves, imaginary numbers, and black holes, my colleagues and I are stuck trying to figure out why people act so crazy and how to help them be less so. We’ve made little progress. Of course, “crazy” is a colloquialism for being irrational, rigid, and prone to passionately defend ideas that are indefensible. As such, some degree of “crazy” is human nature and those of us in “the academy” fall victim to it as much as lay people. But I digress; examples may be instructive.
Exhibit 1: “The Cloud”
I am sitting in a meeting of the Executive Council of my college. It consists of department chairs, associate deans, budget officers, and the Dean leading the discussion. Joining us today are colleagues from Information Services and Technology (IS&T). We are told that City College U. is seeking to save money by taking data from our computers and putting them on “the cloud.” This “cloud” is discussed with a zeal approaching the evangelical until I point out “there really is no cloud.” The head of IS&T starts in his chair, frozen with a rictus grin. His eyes glaze over like he is having a stroke. No one, apparently, has ever challenged this. Shaking and heaving, he manages to respond, “What? I’m sorry?” I repeat, “There is no cloud. What you are describing is taking data off our computers and putting them on someone else’s computers. How will this save us money?” Now I’ve done it. The gentleman from IS&T insists we save money not paying for the maintenance of the computers. This of course begs the question; why move our data on computers no one is maintaining? Or, if they are, why not just learn how they maintain theirs more cheaply and do that with ours? The magic of the moment has passed and now everyone is asking questions. Like only academics can, the questions increase in complexity and spur side-debates and passionate rebuttals. Common sense dispensed with, the posse from IS&T, all but forgotten, beat a hasty retreat to go and do what they planned to do anyway—put our data on “the cloud.” On sunless days I gaze up in the sky hoping to see my students’ transcripts or my pay stub but, alas, it seems I was right. “The cloud” was just another computer.
Exhibit 2: Going Paperless
In its passion to boldly lead the way into the 21st century, my institution (like most others) began a campaign to “go paperless.” I hoped and prayed this did not include the restrooms, but in the academy one never knows (there may be a truck unloading electronic bidets as I write this). What it has included is increasing the complexity and time required of ordinary, simple tasks as well as those that engender enormous anxiety. Approving time cards used to be a simple task. I used my right hand (for I am right-handed) to sign off on the “cards” (actually, sheets of paper) every other week. Simple and elegant. These were then sent to the Dean who approved my signing off—done! Now we have a software system—let’s call it “Wasted Days.” “Wasted Days” demands that I create an eight-letter password with UPPER and lowercase letters, one Arabic numeral (Roman numerals not allowed) and some diacritic mark (#$!!!). This password of course must be updated every few months and most department chairpersons keep a list of three “Wasted Days” passwords taped to their computer that they cycle through systematically. So much for security. The real problem is that “Wasted Days” does not function well (hence its nickname). What used to take me fifteen minutes may take forty-five due to logouts, resets, and a “save” button that works roughly half the time. My institution has treated me well though, so every two weeks I load up on Red Bull and do battle with “Wasted Days.”
Exhibit 3: Staff Evaluation
I work with three brilliant and talented staff members without whom, our department would devolve into a chaotic, one-lung operation heaping shame upon the house of City College U. I see organization as an organic, choreographed process. The staff, faculty, and students of my department intentionally cultivate an atmosphere of care, respect, and creativity. My three staff members have very different assigned duties and carry them out with a grace that would make Fred Astaire look like a Hobbit with a titanium knee. These three staff are also represented by two different unions who get on about as well as Hezbollah and Israel. The two unions also have two different evaluation processes (all electronic, of course). Two of the three staff report directly to me so I must evaluate them annually. This leads me to the Human Resources Staff Evaluation software that we will call “Wasted Nights.”
“Wasted Nights” insists that staff be evaluated on goals and competencies worded by the respective, different unions. Of course the wordings are quite different and both sets of goals and competencies bear little resemblance to the hustle and juggling my staff do to solve crises, deal with penitent, desperate students, assist with enrollment, teach faculty how to run the copier, supervise student workers, and (voluntarily) decorate the office seasonally as well as clean it well beyond the humble standards of physical plant. The competencies in “Wasted Nights” are merely scratching the surface of the complex amalgam of duties these people carry out faithfully five days a week. There is a narrative section at the end of “Wasted Nights” where I can truly praise the staffs’ near Divine interpersonal skills, good humor, and compassion for the inevitable troubled student who wanders in two minutes before the office closes. While “Wasted Nights” is more-or-less benign, it keeps me working well into the early morning to make sure that I have matched the required wording of each program while at the same time conveyed my deep appreciation for these foot-soldiers of the academy.
Exhibit 4: Faculty Promotion
What is less benign than “Wasted Days” and “Wasted Nights,” is the new “E” dossier system. The dossier makes or breaks tenure-track professors and takes their first six years to compile. The dossier summarizes a professor’s teaching, research, and service activity. If they are deemed to be good-to-great teachers, productive scholars and good citizens of the academy, they are usually granted tenure and promotion. As you can imagine, the dossier itself is anxiety-producing and every rejected or revised article occasion for a homicidal fantasy; every snarky student evaluation evoking howls of outrage. The old dossiers were compiled in huge binders that were often wheeled around in carts from chairperson’s offices to the Dean’s office. Enter the “E” dossier program I call “Hera.” The aim of “Hera” was to eliminate all the binders and paper. The outcome is yet to be determined. Like the mythological Hera, this computer program is vicious, spiteful, and delights in inflicting agonies on defenseless, untenured mortals. My junior faculty have been trained three times in “Hera” because the manufacturer keeps “upgrading” the program so that commands that previously worked, no longer function. In addition to the anxiety generated by compiling a stellar dossier, now junior faculty must genuflect before Hera, hop-ing all their hard work will not be erased in one of her piques of disdain. This does not feel like progress.
Being human, I too am prone to fits of neurosis and anxiety about our brave, new, digital age. There is a little known point at which Baby-Boomers like myself lag so far behind the tricks and trades of the digital times that we never catch up. In academia, if this happens before we retire, it is a dark time, indeed. Let us call this the “digital rapture.” Similar to the “rapture” of theology, the digital rapture occurs when boomers like myself have either failed or refused to learn new software or new versions of old software. While those who constantly honed their “technology chops” are raptured to a new world with less space for the humanity of the academy, I and my ilk are left behind, exiled to wander an analog wasteland with only the company of a Walkman, a cassette of “Dances with Wolves,” and our last “flip” phone (rendered as useless as a rotary dinosaur). I saw foreshadowing of digital rapture when, as a junior professor twenty-five years ago, I chuckled at the senior professors whose new computers were neatly tucked in the corner of their office while they hammered away on an IBM Selectric. “Email? Why use email? Just ring me on the phone,” they would say. Well, they got out before emails, texts, “Wasted Days,” “Wasted Nights, and “Hera” came to rule the roost. Whether I will be as timely and fortunate as them remains to be seen. Or, perhaps I will succumb to the equivalence of being a glorified programmer, forsaking all teaching and writing to keep up with the ever-multiplying software and digital “edutainment” tricks. Time and my own breaking point will tell.