Mine Eyes Glaze Over: the systematization of tedium

May they stumble, stage by stage
On an endless pilgrimage,
Dawn and dusk, mile after mile,
At each and every step, a stile;
At each and every step withal
May they catch their feet and fall

— Robert Graves, Traveller’s Curse After Misdirection (from the Welsh)

There is something fundamentally wrong with a system where individuals are expected to invest more time and energy in proving that they’ve done a thing than in actually doing the thing itself.

It seems to me that in the world of education (in the UK, at least) we have stepped through into that looking glass world already. And it’s getting worse.

Case in point: my school’s new salary policy. Gone is the system of automatic salary progression (subject to satisfactory performance management, of course). Instead, any teacher seeking to progress on the salary scale will need to submit — oh joy of joys! — a portfolio of evidence. And this is evidence required in addition to the evidence required for the performance management process. One system is not enough! We need two complex, mutually independent systems to check that everyone is doing the job that they are being paid to do.

In a way, it’s quite endearing: this is our leadership team admitting that if a person happened not to be doing their job properly, then it is more than likely that no-one on the management team would have noticed.

But never mind! An extra layer of inflexible, unresponsive bureaucracy will undoubtedly do the job, as it has done in numerous other instances.

I can’t help but be reminded (yet again) of Woody Allen’s Dictator who required that all citizens change their underwear every half hour. And that they wear their underwear on the outside. Why? “So we can check.”

The dreaded words weekly minuted line management meeting cannot be far behind. The idea of this is that I get to spend an hour meeting with my line manager and then another hour meeting with the people that I line-manage and then we’ll all email each other to confirm the issues, actions and timelines discussed in the meeting. And type up the minutes so that our line manager can submit them to his or her line manager. The upshot of this is that of course nobody has the time to actually take the actions agreed on  in the meeting. As the old joke has it: a meeting is a process whereby you spend hours in order to produce minutes.

And will the line manager of our line manager read the minutes submitted? I doubt it. Nobody possibly could, even assuming they wanted to.

This is the latest iteration of an ancient human idea:

[W]hen any uncertainty disrupted the smooth flow of life . . . men turned to the supernatural . . . The ordinary person found many willing to allay his concerns [including] professional magicians ready to supply incantations for any need . . . Superstition in general guided life . . . Charms were commonly used against all manner of ills.

Robert Knapp, Invisible Romans (The Romans That History Forgot) p.13

I conjure you, daemon, whoever you may be, to torture and kill, from this hour, this day, this moment, the horses of the Green and the White teams; kill and smash the charioteers Clarus, Felix, Primulus, Romanus; do not leave a breath of them.

— spell written on a lead tablet by an ancient Roman, quoted by Knapp p.13

To develop independent learning within a whole school context and challenge staff and student underperformance at a systemic as well as individual level
— Recent performance management target

Computing includes the concept of ROM — Read Only Memory; that is to say, memory that is designed so that its contents cannot be deleted or overwritten.

In my opinion, what passes for best practice in the world of education today includes the concept of WOD — Write Only Documents; that is to say documents that are designed so they are never to be read after they have been written.

Quite frankly, we are building giant pyramids and Doric-columned temples of propositions that are destined to be forever unread: mighty, cloud-piercing ziggurats of unread words.

For all the good that they do, these words might just as well be scratched on a pottery shard or a scrap of lead and thrown in a magic well as, once upon a time, the Romans used to do.

May they stumble, meeting by pointless meeting
Upon an endless paperchase,
Dawn and dusk, email after email,
Each one more urgent than the last;
Each one demanding data,
Available to the sender
Who finds it easier to press “send”
Than look it up themselves.

And may the bone that breaks within
Not be, for variation’s sake
Now rib, now thigh, now arm, now shin,
But always, without fail, THE NECK.

(With apologies to Robert Graves for the first 8 lines)

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2 Comments

Filed under Education, Humour, Society

2 responses to “Mine Eyes Glaze Over: the systematization of tedium

  1. Oh how right you are. But at least we don’t seem to have gone quite as far down that line as you. The curse of the modern world is that we have invented so many machines to do real work that we now need to invent pointless thing for people to do to justify paying them. That however is not true about teaching which is – or was – a real job. But they’re having a damned good go at making it pointless anyway.

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