November 07, 2019
Ah, the ubiquitous bureaucratic form, not at all descended from the Latin 'pro forma' (for the sake of the form) as its common usage in UK Higher Education might make it seem. Indeed, this Latin phrase is an adjective and not a noun... we seem to have gained this new meaning out of some strange desire to evoke the mystic power of Latin to make ourselves sound grandiose, a power the Catholic church was accused of wielding when Latin was the language of mass. Through its own vacuous, secular rituals, contemporary form-filling bureaucracy has shown itself to be an excellent producer of irritable yet docile cyborgs throughout society, and especially in the British university.
What might be called the Cult of Quality lies at the heart of the way form-filling is used in Higher Education in the UK, an all together different approach to the way the same practices are used in government to evoke an anti-pay wall. The dogma of Quality asserts that our practices will be enhanced if in addition to whatever it is we're supposed to be doing, we also document it in standardised paperwork. There is in fact one practice which does improve as a result of quality paperwork: our capacity to complete quality paperwork. But convincing evidence is never provided (nor likely to be found) that quality paperwork improves teaching or research practice, which the bureaucracy inevitably makes harder by whittling away both time and patience.
If it is to be objected that the paperwork is necessary, it must seriously be asked: for what purpose? For neither teaching nor research are adequately summarised by standard forms, and the practices of neither are transferable willy nilly across disciplines. The way we engage in chemistry, or philosophy, or theatre, or game creation have little in common - certainly nothing worth enshrining in a kind of paperwork for tracking quality, nor in a mythic 'best practice' that would transcend circumstances, a critique brilliantly pursued by Frank Coffield and Sheila Edward in 2009.
Ironically, benefits can come from our becoming embedded within the cyborg networks of quality forms. They bind us to others in that network in ways that are superior to having no such ties to draw upon. But whenever the operation of those networks buys into the Cult of Quality, the result is not enhancement but mere stultification, and attempts at enhancing anything then flounder on the impossibility of translating achievements between radically distinct situations. The greatest success stories come not from any form-filling power trip, but simply from letting university staff watch each other at work. Alasdair MacIntyre warned of our metaphysical faith in management expertise - the quality form is the physical embodiment of that faith. Let they who have achieved perfection fill in the first form, the rest of us have better things to do with our time.
A Hundred Cyborgs, #65
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