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Dec 7, 2014

The blight of dual use

Every university generates a fair amount of paperwork. Among other things, paperwork is essential for curriculum quality control. These are standards, program and course proposals, catalog descriptions, web pages, then syllabi, rubrics, scoring guides, assignment instructions, etc. One particular problem comes from those documents intended for dual use. Most notably, course syllabi are subjected to this particular blight. In theory, syllabi are written for students, and should contain only information relevant to them, in the language that is the easiest for them to understand. In reality, all sorts of overseeing and accrediting bodies also would like to take a look at syllabi to understand what is being taught. To make their jobs easier, such bodies apply certain pressure on instructors to include a little more information relevant to them. For example, list not only course objectives, but also mark them with standards. This way, an accreditor can just check course syllabi against the list of standards, without reading the actual thing. Accreditors in general like to transfer most of control on those being controlled. It makes the accrediting visit go a little faster. Then university lawyers come along and ask everyone to include on their syllabi standard statements on students with disability. A provost will ask to put in a little blurb on plagiarism. And then - add some information on how the course grade is calculated. A department chair or dean, frustrated with poorly taught courses will try to make sure something very basic is present in all syllabi, to make teaching a little more fool-proof.

The results of all these manipulations not only make the document larger and therefore less usable; that would only be a half-problem. The real problem is that students will immediately detect that the document is not written for them, and lose interest in using it. Only a minority of students read syllabi before the course, I believe. The rest rely on what instructor is saying in class, or on reminders, or on course calendar. Only a small minority of professors are stubborn enough to produce two versions of the syllabus – one for students and one for accountability. Most will stop at producing only the latter. In every university, the power rests with academic bureaucrats, not with students?, and increasingly – not with instructors. Bureaucrats will find a way of shaping all documentation into formats that are useful to them, to their particular limited function. Very few have enough vision and experience to see that the pressure actually damages the use of university’s documentation. What was invented to make things transparent and user-friendly, ends up adding more fog and in the end alienating both students and instructors from learning. Pretty soon people forget what the original intent of any document is, and learn to produce correct but meaningless text, sole purpose of which is to keep oneself out of trouble.

This is how an organization undermines itself by doing everything right, and makes itself worse off by trying to make itself better. One solution is to treat business writing as any kind of writing. It should have a specific audience and clear purpose. And we should try to refrain from the dual use of documentation.

More generally, we should learn to control bureaucracy in universities. One obvious way to do this is faculty governance. Alas, I have seen many a faculty who become the most zealous bureaucrats once they join a curriculum committee or any other such body. What to do about that, I do not know. It is perhaps in the human nature to focus on the correctness of a process and lose sight of its purpose. So, all university offices should have an inscription on their walls: “Why are we doing this, again?”

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