In the old days, when everything was made of paper, certain tasks involved reading file after file after file of documents. Who remembers the old days of submitting NSF proposals on paper, by mail, in quintillioniplicit? Some of us are even (barely) old enough to remember the days before the 15 page limit on the project description.. And if you were on a panel in those days, you no doubt also remember getting boxes filled with proposals (with everyone's Social Security number on the front page!), and then lugging them all back to NSF for the panel meetings.
In addition, in the old days, any committee work that involved the reviewing of files (for admission to an academic program, for hiring, for promotion, for awards) involved spending much time poring over many documents organized in files and binders of various sorts. My file-gazing typically occurred on nights and weekends, when I could have uninterrupted time and access to the files I needed. In some cases, the files could not be removed from a certain room, adding to the logistical complexity of the file-evaluation process and typically decreasing the likelihood of reviewing the files in a comfortable or pleasant setting.
And what if the time you set aside for reviewing documents coincided with the time when your most obnoxious colleague also chose to review documents? I shudder at those memories that I have not yet successfully repressed.
Some of my more senior colleagues tell tales of having to review files late at night in a certain room in an administrative building whose lights all went out at midnight. My colleagues brought flashlights so they could keep reading and, later, find their way out of the darkened building. I rather like the image of professors wearing headlamps, wandering around empty, silent, cavernous buildings in the dark of night, but I'm glad I never had to do that myself.
I know there are some committees that still do things with endless files of paper, but for some committees, everything is online or, at the very least, available in some sort of electronic format that can be accessed via personal computer. I am very happy about this because I like the convenience and the flexibility of being able to examine the relevant documents when I want and where I want. There can be security issues involved with transferring and storing files, but there are ways to deal with that in a reasonably effective way.
The convenience aspects are excellent, but there is a downside to having all the files available all the time: they are always there for you to read. You can never say "Well, here I am at home relaxing on the couch knitting my graph paper patterned sweater. I guess I won't be able to read those files since they are across town and my car is at the mechanics and there is an extremely large cat sleeping on my legs." That excuse is gone. The files are always with you. You don't even have to move the cat.
Not long ago during a committee meeting involving the evaluation of many files consisting of many documents, all of which were available online, one of my fellow committee members pointed to his zippy little laptop and said "You know what's great about this? It's a lot better than larger laptops for working while you're lying in bed."* Some, but not all, members of the committee stared at him, incredulous.
But he kind of had a point. We had an insane number of documents to read in a short amount of time, all the documents were online, and we had 24/7 access to them from our laptops. So why not read them in a comfortable place?
Well, I can think of a few reasons why not, but every day I read files in all sorts of places. The files were always with me, and that turned out to be a good thing. If I had been restricted to reading physical files in a designated secure location, perhaps even in a building across campus from my office, I would have been spending nights and weekends in a dark empty building reading these files. Instead, I read files at home (sitting on a couch), in cafes, in a comfy chair in my office, at my daughter's piano lesson, on airplanes, while driving, and at the dentist's office.**
Despite the potential for feeling oppressed by the ever-present files, for me: convenience rules. I strongly prefer having the relevant documents always with me and available for viewing compared to the old days of complex logistics and piles of files. And I get far fewer paper cuts these days.
* I briefly considered but then rejected a title for this post based on this anecdote; I bet you can guess what it was.
** I made one of these up.
8 years ago