Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Always On My Mind

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.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

"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. "

why the incredulity?? It doesn't necessarily mean he's sleeping any less than otherwise, it could be that he's spending extra time in bed working that he otherwise would spend sitting at a desk working. I often work on my laptop while I'm lying in bed. It's just more comfortable than sitting in a chair because it relieves pressure on the spine, otherwise the pain gets very distracting. I suffer from chronic back pain (due to long-ago sports injuries during my college days that left permanent problems). Back then I always wished I could somehow work while in a lying-down position because it was so painful to sit for an extended time. Now my dream has come true with the advent of laptops that are smaller and faster and have larger capacity AND with the advent of wireless internet.

I can't imagine being an academic in the pre-online days. It sounds like a nightmare to have to be so limited in when and how you can cram a large amount of reading in. Compared to today, it must have been so slow and inefficient.

teekay said...

You rightly point out some of the advantages of onvenience and the disadvantage of being 'online' 24/7. But quite frankly, in my English academic environment we are clearly in between 'paper' and 'online' stages and the benefits of convenient access are more often than not outweighted by logistical challenges. We are printing more, photocopying more and there isn't a single meeting where additional copies are distributed. I'm not old enough to know the really ancient, typewriter days, but since I started university some 12 years ago paper has always been an essential part of academic work. I have also submitted many applications for scholarships etc in print and I am still surprised to review handwritten forms for a large foundation outside the UK. For me, the change seems less drastic than you describe, or, put differently, sometimes being locked into a room full of documents seems relatively appealing, because I don't work more, better or more efficiently even if I have the flexibility, the electronic devices (university paying for a *nice* laptop, printer for home office, I-Phone etc) and the possibilities that electronic document management offer. But I'm a social scientist and like to work/browse in libraries as well...

Anonymous said...

Aah, now we get applications by email in bits and pieces and we have to gather them and put them together. Our resident hostile zombie just forwards them to us.

Anonymous said...

This practically sounds like an endorsement of the Apple iPad! For reading in bed, it's even better than a laptop! :-)

Anonymous said...

what's quintillioniplicit?

Anonymous said...

I agree completely that the shift from paper hard copies to electronica is fabulous. I even now have identical Fujitsu ScanSnap sheet-feed double-sided scanners in my office and home-office so that I scan all my handwritten notes. Yesterday was typical: I was in a meeting from 9-11am and took 5 pages of notes. By 11:15 my notes were scanned in and saved. (Original paper went in the recycling bin.)

I'm fully on board with keeping everything electronically. But I still print way too much paper for things I prefer to read/edit/comment as hard copy (drafts of papers/proposals, papers I'm reviewing, stacks of proposals for panel reviews). I have high hopes that in spite of its unfortunate name that an iPad will cut down on my need to print significantly (especially if it's PDF commenting capabilities are good).

But,

My bedroom is the one place in my daily life that I protect entirely from work. Sleep is too important.

Miss Outlier said...

And if you get one of those new tablet computers, you don't even have to SIT UP in bed...

I kid, i kid.

I've also been spoiled by the availability of everything online. I love the convenience, but I find to avoid going mentally unbalanced I have to turn everything off once in a while...

Kate said...

My favorite line: "The files are always with you. You don't even have to move the cat."

I'm glad you wrote a post about this. It is unfortunate that the more accessible work is, the more we feel we need to be doing work all the time.

plam said...

We had paper admissions files for graduate students until 2008. They also were only accessible in the graduate office.

Now, the problem is that the system we use for grad admissions is unbelievably stupid (requires Java or ActiveX?!). As a computer scientist, this makes me angry.

John V said...

The wireless laptops and iPhone are great, but the biggest benefit to me is bringing home just a zip drive rather than a briefcase if I'm working away from the office.

I resent even have to lug around a Mac Air and its dongle for lectures.

Those boxes of 100 NSF proposals for panels were the worst. Dealing with the graphics "artist" to have figures made was second worst.

Hope said...

I briefly considered but then rejected a title for this post based on this anecdote; I bet you can guess what it was.

Now see, I would have gone with “The Files Are Too Much with Us,” after Wordsworth, but “Always On My Mind” is a nice enough song, I suppose.

I *love* reading in bed – both books and laptops.

unlikelygrad said...

Now see, I would have gone with “The Files Are Too Much with Us,” after Wordsworth

I thought that the reference to the dentist's office would have indicated a title such as "Like Pulling Teeth"...

I admit to being a fan of paper copies. For some reason, my brain doesn't absorb information from a screen as well as it does from paper. When I'm doing a literature search, I do an initial screening using first abstracts, then PDFs. But when I find a paper that I want to use as a reference, I download it and print it so I can extract the maximum information from it. Highlighting & scribbling in the margins are two of my favorite activities with articles.

Anonymous said...

" 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.**"

The made-up one must be the comfy chair in your office--no University supplies comfy chairs

Mark P

Comrade PhysioProf said...

FSP, you know you've read files while pooping! FESS UP!!!!

amy said...

@unlikely grad: I'm the same way. I read abstracts and skim papers online, but if I really want to get into the paper a hard copy is much better. I also find it helpful to write by hand if I'm really struggling with part of a paper I'm writing. Something about the blank paper in front of me just helps me think better. On the other hand, I'm so grateful for word processors. My worst memories of the pre-computer days are having to put footnotes in by typewriter. I'm *so* glad the computer age was in full swing by the time I wrote my dissertation.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

Now see, I would have gone with “The Files Are Too Much with Us,” after Wordsworth

For some strange reason I read it as 'The flies are too much with us"

Pagan Topologist said...

We still do Promotion and Tenure dossiers on paper. I think almost everything else is online. The paper files are more secure in this case, I think, than would be electronic ones.

Come to think of it, we still do our student course evaluations on paper, in class. The idea there is that it biases the sample towards students who actually attend class, since their observations may be more valid than those who never do.

Anonymous said...

I often print out hardcopies of papers so I can write notes in the margins. I still find the PDF annotation software slower and clumsier than writing it on paper. I've tried connecting a pen pad to the computer so I can draw and handwrite (for equations) directly on the electronic copy but it comes out looking like a 2 year old did it. That's about the only time I ever print hardcopies anymore.

elizabeth said...

"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.**
** I made one of these up."

I'm pretty sure my doctoral advisor read files at the dentist's office - I once had to meet her there to drop off an application for her review. I really should adopt her time management techniques. It seemed so odious at the time...

plam said...

JohnV: I never bring files from place to place on a physical device; I always transfer them over the network.

Anonymous said...

I've read papers while at the dentist's office. What's so strange about that? You have to wait so long anyway. First you wait in the waiting room even though you've made an appointment. Then when you're finally in the chair you wait some more. I once read an entire paper from start to finish while sitting in the dentist chair.