Wednesday, May 07, 2014

A small lesson in the growth of bureaucracy

I have just ended my course for this term, and my darling students had as usual a wealth of questions. Several of those were to the formalia of the course: How to submit, how to write references, how many words and pages etc etc.

This is a fairly well developed course, but it's developed for paper submissions, which means there are certain things we take fairly easy on, and I thought the students would be happy about that. But no, this year the Q&A turned into a lesson in how bureaucracy grows.

First, we had a fairly soft limit: 8-11 pages, which increased at a fairly relaxed rate with the number of students. There's a formula for text type, size, margins etc, so the pages would get fairly standardised. Then the students needed a word count. OK, we gave them from 3400 - 4200 words. Still a generous range. Then they needed to know the precise word count if they were more than one. We set some more counts, still at a range. Then they needed to know exactly what to do with images. We tried again to explain that they needed to keep images at a very "need to use" basis, so please don't give us 20 pages filled with pictures. Then they needed to know exactly how many percent they could exceed the word-count range. What happens if they have 10 pages, but 4273 words? What if they have 3789 words, but 12 pages? What happens if...? They really, really wanted us to be absolute, to give them a strict and non-negotionable limit, something we would be forced to enforce. Flexibility, common sense and a generous interpretation were not words they wanted us to work by.

Year by year, as the technology allows for increased precision, this becomes more and more prevalent. In my days, we would count 10 lines, then the words in these 10 lines, find the approximate number of words on a line, add that up to a page, then add that up to the whole paper. Then we knew how much 4200 words was - approximately. And nobody would count every word.

Today they and we can count every keystroke, and with more options for precision there is also a much larger perceived potential for error. This means the insecurity increases, and answers that address a range or an approximation is no longer good enough. There is a point where the potential of the machine makes us forget about common sense, about the brilliant turn of phrase, the seductive writing of a good argument.

What I really want to tell my students is this: Write well, seduce us, lead us through the labyrinth of your argument, and we can forgive you the length of the text or the shape of the print. Make us laugh with joy as we explore the intricacies of your understandings and your thoughts, and remind us why teaching is such a beautiful thing. And please, don't make us formalize your work down to the last keystroke. We want you to have a range within which to work, some room, some flexibility. Each question we have to answer hems us in, more and more. Please - take a risk on the word-count, because we are reading, not counting.