January 31, 2008

The new building

Some of my academic colleagues have moved into a new building. It is all new and shiny. Well it will be once the cleaners have thoroughly vacuumed and mopped it. The building is accessed by means of swipe cards, and gets locked with a key lock at 6pm.


Now I can see the merits of having a system where you need to use your key card to get out as well as in, it makes it harder for the local chancers to nick all your equipment. And apparently all the doors (should) open if there is a fire alarm. But.... locking lecturers in the building when they are working late? WTF?

The caretaker (let's call him Fred) was left to stand by the door as Mike the administrator left the building just after 6, and as he went, Mike assured Fred that that was the last of the staff left in the building. Oh yes all the administrative staff had left... but not several academics. Fortunately for some of them, Fred wasn't convinced, and he stuck to his post, and sure enough, several more academics needed to leave the building subsequently, including me as I'd just popped over there for a look at the new lecture theatre. Poor Fred had to then put up with me ranting at him that 6 o' clock was very early for many hard-working academics to be leaving the building and Mike had had no business saying that (especially as there were obviously lights still on in various offices).

Even then, there were a few staff who remained in the building long after Fred had gone. They then had couldn't get out, because the building was locked and they couldn't phone the security staff because, as it was a new building, the paper phone lists hadn't been distributed yet, and the online phone lists are useless. I am told they had to resort to rather extreme measures to get out, involving a door that isn't really meant for human use...

We are told they are going to fix the swipe cards so that people can get out of the building after hours.

January 29, 2008

Web server troubles

We have been having a lot of web server troubles recently (sigh). Recently, this has just gotten completely ridiculous.

Two Fridays ago, in the morning, our departmental web server went down. This is an important web server, containing a lot of documents that students need to access for their courses. And yes, web servers do go down sometimes, that's not the issue. Finally we got an email from tech support late on Friday afternoon - the web server had been hacked, they were cleaning it up, and hoped to have it back up and running, with its data, by Tuesday.

Tuesday came and went. So did Wednesday. Thursday and Friday, likewise. Only when it got to yesterday did we find in our inboxes any kind of communication on the subject. And the web server is back up. In theory. It looks ok, though time will tell.

Now I'm not an expert in helping fallen web servers back on their feet, and to me it seems that having a major web server, on which many people depend, out of action for more than a week is longer than it should have been out of action. But to not even let people know what's happening for 8 days? What is with that?! They even said explicitly at the end of their original email that they would keep us posted about how things were going, before going silent for more than a week!!

And of course you can't complain to tech support about the level of service. If you made it into their bad books there are a 1001 little ways they could subtly annoy you by messing with your computer settings if they wanted to. Or they could just ignore your polite requests for tech support.

Oh wait. They already do.

January 24, 2008

Choice student phrases

Some things students said (ok I might have paraphrased a bit) and the responses I would like to have made:

"I didn't realise the deadline was in November, I thought it was December."

Yeah, like you've only been told about it 6 months ago and the information has been available to you all through that time if you'd just bothered to look.

"I didn't realise the deadline was in November, I thought it was September."

Ok so this student isn't going to be that devastated.

"I got divorced and got awarded custody of my 3-year old and I'm adapting to being a single parent and finding it very difficult to get work done."

Awwww, ok, we'll let you have that one.

"It's 5000 words!"

No, more like 500. Stop exaggerating the requirements. The martyr act does not play well in this office.

"I have exams on 18th - 21st June."

And that prevents you from submitting on May 18th just how?

"Can I have my coursework back?"

Err no. You plagiarised, remember? I caught you and it was identical to that of that other student who admitted giving you a copy of it. So no, you can't have YOUR coursework back, what are you thinking?!

"I got up late."

At least it's an honest excuse.

"Oh am I meant to do a project?"

Yes you are meant to do a project. Those four separate emails you got telling you that you had to do a project? Guess what? YOU HAVE TO DO A PROJECT!

"But the web server was down!"

And the web server had nothing to do with you handing in your work on time so stop pretending that that is some kind of excuse!

"Please can you email me my grade because I won't be back until next week?"

No, I do not have time to be your personal emailing service. Just curb your curiosity and pick up your coursework from the allotted place like you were told, when you do get back.

"Please can you email me the lecture notes?"

Are you SERIOUSLY telling me you can't be bothered to pick up the lecture notes from the website? You really can't cope if they aren't personally delivered to your inbox? Sense of entitlement, thou art personified.

January 21, 2008

Forms forms forms

What's with all these forms they keep sending round? Health and safety forms, forms from HR about working from home (how safe a work environment is YOUR armchair?!), other administrative forms. Pages and pages of 'em!

If they meant something, fine, but they don't. For most of the academics they're sending the forms to, this is just ridiculous. What do the forms accomplish? Nothing for us academics! It just wastes hours of time filling them in - it's not just the form filling in, but also we're supposed to read the vast quantities of accompanying notes to explain the forms.

And to what purpose? Nothing! We are supposed to apply for the right to mark our exam scripts at home in a comfy chair rather than hunched over a desk in our tiny offices. If we want to work at home for a day, using our own personal computers, and get a lot more done because we don't have students banging on our door every other minute then we are supposed to apply for the privilege?

Maybe applying for homeworking makes more sense for certain categories of workers, but do these administrators actually consider that academics work at universities and academics typically have pretty flexible working patterns anyway? Sometimes we work in a library, sometimes in our offices, sometimes in a coffee shop, sometimes at home.

These forms are just a ridiculous waste of our time. Our time is very precious; we don't have nearly enough of it just to get the basics like lectures prepared and research done, and you send us stupid forms to fill out?

And just why are the forms needed, anyhow?

Could it be because the University wants not to be sued because if we sign the form then it's an implicit admission of OUR responsibility. Oh no it's not the university's job for us to have a safe work environment, it's OUR responsibility.

Or could it be that they want to avoid being sued because if someone turns around and sues them because they tripped over a daisy while walking over the grass to the library building and they HAVEN'T filled in the forms, well it's their fault for not filling in the forms and looking at the regulations of their responsibilities! Oh yes, it's their fault for not having filled in the form.

Or could it be that it's makework? The administrators are bored and need to do stuff to justify their position, so they make up forms and send them round to everyone.

Could it be that they are being pressed to do it because of their bosses pressing them, as a result of pressure applied top-down from government legislation?

Alternatively, could it be that these form-sending administrators are control freaks who like making the academics jump to it and toe their line?

Of course, we academics are going to ignore the forms. This course of action is not irresponsible, quite the opposite in fact. It is not in our interest to fill out these forms, nor is it in the university's interest, because we'd be spending hours filling out forms rather than do much more beneficial work for the university.

But from the administrators' point of view, we are naughty little academics who won't fill in their forms like they've been told to. And thus widens the gulf even more between administrators at the centre of the university and the academics on the outside. From their perspective, we are naughty academics for not filling in the paperwork, not doing as we are told, and not caring about health and safety issues of comfy armchairs! From our perspective, they are control freaks who want to add to our workload, waste our time, and to add insult to injury,

....actually that describes it very well, they insult us by getting control freaky on the safety of our own armchairs and if we do get injured, it's OUR FAULT.

Yes, if we get injured in an armchair from being attacked by a marauding red pen whilst marking exam scripts, it's our fault! Yes! Not the university's fault! Not the University's business, my armchair! So stop deluging me in forms, university!

January 14, 2008

Advice and the notice students take of it

So a student emailed me for advice about the options he's planning to take for his degree and his final year project. I like that the student emailed. It's not just that I find asynchronous communication more convenient (phone calls or knocks on the door are inevitably unexpected and disrupt the thought processes), but email also offers a record of what has been said.

A record is very useful: the student can then refer back to it at a later date. But it also covers your rear end. When some of the little darlings make poor choices and mess up their studies and come and complain that they didn't know about such-and-such, then you can point to your emails and explain that they were warned about it on May 29th (or whenever). It is a wonderful defence mechanism that stops them right in their complaining tracks. Emails can have problems, however, often with the tone of voice that you write and how this gets perceived by the student. Sometimes you can't win, there's no middle ground between what a student doesn't notice and what a student gets offended at.

Anyway, back to this student who emailed for advice concerning the options he was choosing...

I responded to the student's email with various sorts of advice, explaining that he needed to take certain courses, sort out his project, and he can't possibly do all those options he chose at once, he needs to balance out his studies a bit more over the whole year.

The student replied with a second plan that did not address the first point (thus not meeting the degree requirements), proposed to ignore the project entirely, and suggested the complete opposite of a proper balance of options.

So I replied again. I emphasised that he hadn't chosen options to meet the degree requirements, he can't possibly study all those options at once, and he still needed to get his project sorted out.

He seemed to have taken in the first and third points, and then switched to complaining about how come he wasn't told about sorting out his project earlier? So I pointed out all the emails (about four of them) he'd ignored that were telling him about sorting out projects over the previous few months.

His final email on the subject consisted of telling me that he had just realised that he can't do the paperwork online, he needs a paper form. Yes, and if he had been paying attention, he would have seen that I warned him about that in the first of these emails!


December 06, 2007

We must protect the Sellotape from December

Why can't we have access to stationery?

Yes, I'm serious. Why can't I have access to the stationery cupboard? Why can't any of the lecturers, from the junior to the professors, have access to the stationery cupboard?

More to the point, why do all the admin staff get to have access to stationery, but we lecturers do not?

This is how the system works:
Say you want a ...paperclip. You would have to get a stationery form, fill it in, and put the form in the appropriate administrator's pigeonhole. (Good luck figuring that one out since she left some months ago.) Then you wait until the administrator has some time to go and get you your stationery. And no the administrator doesn't like it if you want it at a snap of your fingers, they naturally want to do it at their convenience not yours.

Alternatively you could go to the nearest colleague's office and ask them whether they have a paper clip.

So therefore don't ever require any stationery out of hours, because you won't get it.

When I arrived here, I couldn't believe that such a stupid system existed. I asked the head honcho administrator why. I got told officiously that when it had been a help yourself system, rolls of sellotape tended to go missing around December time (at this point the administrator glanced meaningfully in my direction), and also we tended to run out of stocks because people would take stationery and not notify the admin staff.

This just sends me ballistic. So we swapped a system where SOMETIMES the stationery you wanted wasn't instantly available, for a system where the stationery you wanted was NEVER instantly available?! Unbelievable! And why are administrators entrusted with the oh so precious sellotape? Surely the cost of the sellotape is much less than the cost of the administrators' time in fulfilling stationery requests?!

And... it's got worse. It used to take about two days to get stationery. Now, if you're lucky, it takes a week.

As a consequence, I think our stationery bills have probably gone up. Now everyone has little caches of stationery in their desk drawers. Lots of unused stationery around the building, lots of old envelopes with gum going unsticky.... the easiest solution is often to buy your own.

And people wonder why a divide develops between the administrators and the academics! Obviously the administrators don't trust us as far as they can throw a paperclip. How much do the academics trust the administrators? Who knows? We can't demonstrate because we haven't any paperclips to throw....

November 20, 2007

Students! Demands!

Again, he did it again!

This student, whom I have encountered twice before showing disrespect for my time, turned up again, knocking on my door. He happened to catch me at a bad time when I had a lot of urgent work I had to do and no I couldn't spare 5 mins or 30 mins or however long it was going to take to help him, RIGHT THEN.

That's not what I said to him though, I was very polite. I reminded him of the notice on my door that not only explains when my office hours are (he did not turn up during office hours) but also explains that at other times students need to make an appointment because I can't guarantee to be available. I explain that I was busy at that time and he needed to make an appointment.

He did not accept this. He didn't take on board what I'd said about being busy and not having the time right then at all, and continued to ask (nay, demand) that he get to speak to me right then. I replied again saying that I'm sorry, I'm busy, and he was still demanding my time as if he thought that just because I was in my office, that means he got to choose how I spent the next few minutes.

After repeating myself twice, I snapped at him: "I said, I'm busy!" and immediately shut the door. He immediately starts banging on the door and shouting. I don't know what he did after that, because I put my headphones on along with some loud music, and got on with my work.

Later on I sent him an email explaining carefully that he needed to show more respect for others' time. Just because he might have something important to deal with at a particular time doesn't mean that other people don't have anything important to do at that same time. Let's hope he learns the lesson that you can't force other people to give you what you want, when you want, just by disrespecting their time.