Monday, February 16, 2009

Fools, damned fools, and the designers of online forms

I've a sabbatical coming up next Lent term, and I really ought to apply for matching "double your research leave" funding from the AHRC to have another term off. Not that I hold out much hope of getting it rather too near retirement, but it Looks Good with the powers that be to make the effort. But I'm struggling with the idiocies of the on-line application form, which seems purpose designed to raise your blood pressure to the point where you decide that it would be better for your health to give up and bang your head against a wall instead.

I'm planning to write a shortish book on matters to do with the consistency of arithmetic, which is just underway now, and should be very well-advanced by the end of next Lent term, given I've promised to talk about the stuff in various places in the meantime. But "if you are seeking funding for the completion of a monograph, you need to identify the chapter headings and contents in the Case for Support." Eh? Am I just supposed to lie? How best to organize and chunk up your material might only become clear pretty late in the game, especially if -- like me -- you favour rather short snappy chapters. I haven't a clue what the chapter headings will turn out to be. Have the people designing this form ever written a book? The hell they haven't.

Oh well, set that aside for the moment: let's try to tackle the easy stuff. "You must state the reason why relief is required from the teaching, administration, examining and/or managerial duties detailed." Ah, that's straightforward: because I can't do two things at once. But then they know that, and my reason is exactly the same as everyone else's. So why the hell are they asking? Are they idiots?

Ah, now I have to list my current teaching. Fair enough. Make a list of current lecture courses. "Hours per week?" And what on earth does that mean? Official contact hours? Contact hours plus preparation time? Contact hours plus preparation time plus time going to grad seminars that aren't exactly duties but it would be a Very Bad Thing if no lecturers turned up to? Contact hours plus preparation time plus grad seminar time and background reading to be able to talk informally to various grads? Where do "teaching" hours stop? Who is to say? I press "Help". Which doesn't give any clue at all. More idiocy.

Well, I'll just have to see if our Faculty admin officer -- who is of a very calm and reasonable disposition, and knows about such things -- can hold my hand through the process tomorrow without me blowing a gasket.

Fortunately, I guess the dolts at the AHRC responsible for these forms don't read academic blogs.


Jebadiah Moore said...

I recently applied to a couple of UK schools via UCAS (I'm an American), and I had the exact same problem. Some of the issues I think were probably due to differences in terminology and education systems, but some were definitely just poor design.

Caroline Jarrett said...

Your problems are so typical of a form where the designers haven't thought about how the person filling it in would find the answer to the question.

I particularly sympathised about the 'hours' problem - a fine example of language that is apparently plain but not quite so clear when you get a little further into it.