Monday, May 14, 2007

Academic Recordkeeping

I thought this essay from the Chronicle of Higher Education was interesting. . . .
Monday, May 14, 2007
Thanks for the Memory
By John Lemuel

First PersonPersonal experiences on the job market
"Make a file for everything," a graduate-school professor admonished me as I sat in her office. My request for a recommendation letter had prompted her to whip out a new manila folder, inscribe my name on the tab, and cram the folder into an already overflowing file cabinet. "Because you're going to forget, but then whenever you need it, right there it is."

A row of three file cabinets created a tall metal embankment on one side of her desk. She's not that far along in her career, I thought. At what point would she be forced to quit filing things or get a bigger office?

The fear of forgetting makes many academics file our memories in those ubiquitous metal boxes -- as well as in piles of papers stacked in front of, on top of, and all around the cabinets. The erudite term for such documentary accretions is "ephemera." But despite the fleeting, here-and-gone connotations of the term, those accumulations of memorabilia can have a considerable half-life.

Long ago, during a stint as a visiting professor, I showed up for a midsummer departmental work session to discover that the main tasks would be physical in nature -- hauling the contents of overflowing antique file cabinets from a basement storage area to a special dumpster waiting outside. Apparently, the academic corollary to the laws of physics states that matter, neither created nor destroyed, can only be refiled: from office to basement to landfill.

Through my first few jobs in academe, a paper record had proved most reliable. I couldn't count on having computer access, but a photocopier was always within reach. A clean master copy will get you pretty far as an adjunct -- any semester, any campus.

After I acquired a tenure-track job, my first real office was located in a recently remodeled building with clean walls, industrial carpet, and spare furnishings. The paper files I had accumulated overwhelmed the storage space allocated to me -- a single desk drawer designed for hanging files.

Upon request, the secretary checked the supplies budget, consulted the department head, and obligingly ordered a full-size file cabinet for me. Silly as it sounds, I felt legitimized, bumped up from the card table to sit with the grown-ups.

While I was waiting for my file cabinet to arrive, fall classes started, and I generated lots of new documents in digital files on my laptop -- my laptop. For a change, I would have the same employer-assigned computer for more than half a semester, not facing the constant threat of losing it to someone higher up the food chain. I could merge minds with this machine, creating separate digital folders for each of my classes, research projects, student advisees, conference proposals, job applications, downloaded documents, outside projects, and personal business.

By the time the file cabinet arrived, my laptop was already full of folders that would never be filed in print version. Some years later, that cabinet is still two-thirds empty.

My e-mail in box, on the other hand, started filling up faster than I could empty it. I used to take pride in deleting those messages down to zero, savoring the feeling that I had answered or banished every inbound item. A clean in box at the end of the day felt like a clean desk. Too bad neither of them ever stayed that way.

I created folders in my in box and dutifully shuffled certain items into them for future reference, but soon the folders became too numerous to keep straight. Then there were those individual e-mail messages that resisted classification. Creating a folder for one idiosyncratic message seemed to defeat the purpose.

It took too much time to revisit messages, second-guessing whether I would need them again. A few times I faced the embarrassment of asking someone to resend something I had deleted too hastily. When I felt tempted to print an e-mail message just so I could delete the file, I realized I had it completely backward. The clutter belongs on my hard drive, not on my desk.

These days I never delete anything other than spam. At this writing, my in box holds more than 2,500 messages.

Microsoft Outlook archives my in box every 90 days or so, but it's all still there in the laptop's memory. I don't reread e-mail messages unless I need to recall something. Then a quick search typically turns up what I need sooner than my own faulty memory.

Bombarded each day by more information than I could absorb, I simply quit trying. The computer's memory serves just as well as my own. True, the e-mail storage files have swollen to incredible size, too big to back up on a single CD anymore. That's OK; I got just as tired of old backup CDs littering my desk drawers as the loose papers that preceded them.

An external hard drive provides my new "backup plan," in case my computer develops memory problems of its own. The backup drive has 10 times the capacity of my laptop's hard drive, so I don't worry about filling it anytime soon. As far as I know, all my files are safely preserved there. It's like the safety net I hope I will never need.

So far I haven't suffered a crashed hard drive, perhaps because of my precautions. Just as closing the windows on your house before you leave virtually guarantees it won't rain, having a reliable backup device seems to ward off computer crashes. Crash preparedness just adds another ritual to the daily routine.

I first became obsessed with "data hygiene" when I was writing my dissertation. Then, preservation, not tidiness, was my main concern. After completing a couple of chapters, I realized I couldn't afford to lose so much work, or the months of my life it would take to reconstruct it. So besides the files on my hard drive, I saved my work on a floppy disk that stayed on the desk in my library carrel when I took my laptop home.

A couple of chapters later, and the risk of fire in the library began to weigh on my mind. I started saving my work to a second disk that I carried in my bag.

The odds of a simultaneous laptop crash, bag theft, and library fire seemed remote, but I was unwilling to hedge. By the time I had finished the thing, I had copies of my dissertation files squirreled away in my desk at home, my library carrel, my bag, my car, my shed, the neighbor's shed, and my parents' safe-deposit box.

I have recovered from what I now consider my degree-completion mania and live quite recklessly by comparison. Laptops are portable, and I take mine everywhere. In committee meetings, I am the one who can pull up the long-forgotten memo sent out weeks ago and forward it to the others again. While many people bring printed copies of the advance material, I'm reading it off my screen. They also have laptops, back in their offices chained to their desks.

I've allowed a similar accumulation of my electronic course documents -- syllabi, essay questions, PowerPoint presentations, and other sundry items. When one semester ends and the next begins, I drag and drop my course folders into the "Previous Semesters" folder. When I upgrade or replace my computer, that folder migrates and keeps growing.

My metal filing cabinet, meanwhile, sits in my office like a quaint relic of a bygone era.

Recently a department chairwoman from two jobs ago contacted me. A student I had failed now wanted to go to law school and was appealing my grade. The student's behavior was so flaky that I actually documented the progression of missteps leading to the failing grade.

Although the incident was several years ago, it took under a minute to turn up the file and the course syllabus, which I zipped back to my former chairwoman. She was amazed, and, frankly, so was I.

I used to strain my biological memory to keep it all together. Now I rely on computer memory to do that work for me. And when I die or retire, the silicon in my hard drive will take up a lot less space in the landfill than the artifacts in my colleagues' filing cabinets.

For now I'm considered technologically advanced. I should enjoy it while it lasts because surely my colleagues in the not-too-distant future will work from wristwatch devices that funnel voice and data wirelessly to retinal and cochlear implants. "Look at the dinosaur!" I can hear my future colleagues say. "His computer covers his whole lap!"

Well, it will be my turn then. Faculty members, like the latest technologies, start out new and sizzling, then drift more quickly than they are ready for toward obsolescence. When that time comes, I'll just be glad if professors haven't been replaced by downloadable avatars from the textbook companies.


Prashant said...

Feels like deja vu to me :-). Nice article.

EGD said...

And to think that I thought I was unique in my recordkeeping habits....this guy describes behaviors that are eerily like mine! Wow. thanks for the post!