Your friendly annual control exercise

Death, taxes, and annual reports: the three famous certainties in life. As it’s again the season for certainty number 3, it struck me how control-focused some of these processes are. Line 3 of the reporting document that I just completed today welcomes the reporting faculty with the words “Do NOT” (emphases in the original); the other pages are sprinkled with friendly admonishments such as “are required to” (in bold), “must” (also bold), “MUST” again (this time bold, capitalized, and underlined) when it’s about reporting grade distributions (better not too high!), and so jolly on as the document progresses. The tone is held to the friendly imperative of a Roman centurion, foreign legion. The impression one gets is that of a person really afraid that others are not doing their share of the work or—even worse!—not doing as much as whoever it is who wrote the reporting form.

So, who wrote the reporting form? Colleagues of mine on a committee, friendly people in a friendly department, some of whom I count as friends and who definitely don’t intend to play Roman centurion, foreign legion. And the form is actually a good one in the sense that it is clear, easy to complete, provides guidance on what should be reported, what shouldn’t be forgotten, etc. There are worse forms around! (Like the blank page form…)

What strikes me in this and other official processes is the apparent need to assert control, to police, to make sure people are not slacking. What’s the fear behind this need? Is it the pressure from above and outside? (I doubt even the accreditation authorities count the musts and requireds in the form.) Is it the fear to appear superficial or flaky if one’s department does not impose rigorous quality control? (Or is it a feeling of being flaky and irrelevant that’s soothed by being rrrreally strict?)

During the COVID crisis, a number of observers commented on the pervasive controls imposed on students by faculty and institutions, for example in the context of online proctoring. (I am particularly moved by the discourse on the Hybrid Pedagogy page as well as Jesse Stommel’s work on un-grading.) My sense is that the desire to impose control in academia goes beyond the control of students. At first, this seems paradoxical, considering the open-ended work beyond regular work hours in flat hierarchies that characterizes faculty work culture. But besides that comparative freedom enjoyed by faculty (at the cost of an expectation of overwork, I should add), academia is often obsessed with control not only of students but also of faculty (many of whom don’t have the freedom granted by tenure) and staff. Online teaching and working, it seems, may have heightened the institutional need to assert control, as more of out activities have moved away from spaces in which we are immediately visible.