July
27th 2009
What the eff?

Posted under: jobs, students, unhappy endings

whiterabbitclock

What effort time is it? I'm late!

Just go read Female Science Professor about her recent wrangling with a project accountant about her estimates for an imaginary concept called “effort time:”

I had to talk to the accountant about effort reporting for Project 1 and she asked “What % of your effort — not time — will you spend exclusively on this project during the effort reporting period?”

I thought back on my day, which was fairly typical for the summer, randomly guessed a number between 1 and 100, and spoke it as a question: 15?

She said: That’s a lot. Are you sure?

I said: 2? 7?

She asked: Which of those is correct?

I said: Neither. The correct answer is “I don’t know.”

She said: We need to use the correct number. OK, how much time will you spend on this project?

I asked: In hours?

She said: No, in % of your total time of 40 hours.

I said: But what if my total time is more than 40 hours? Can I just give you a % of whatever time I work? How about 4? 12?

And so on. We did not reach a number. I pleaded with her to tell me what number would seem like a good number and she refused because we might be audited and it would be bad if I worked more than what was listed and it would be bad if I worked less than what was listed. Every time I suggested a number, she rejected it because it was either somehow not an acceptable number (too low, too high) for mysterious accounting reasons or she wasn’t convinced it was accurate. I said that if she told me a good number, I would promise to work that amount, although I was of course lying because I’m going to work whatever amount is best for the project in the time I have available, and also I still don’t get the concept of time and effort being different but the same. She refused.

Ha!  I feel dumber already, having read that brain-damage inducing explanation of the importance of bull$hit numbers.  Any faculty member who’s gone through an annual evaluation will recognize the made-up nature of these attempts to evaluate effort distribution in our professional lives.  The formula my department uses is 50% teaching, 35% research, and 15% service.  But, really–those numbers bear little witness to the truth of our working lives, which vary sometimes semester-by-semester and month-by-month, even.  The year I was both Grad Studies Chair and the Program Committee co-Chair of a major conference I sure was spending a hell of a lot more than 15% of my time on “service,” but all of that work could only be considered 15% of my workload. 

Here’s something else I liked about FSP’s post.  She precedes her crazzy conversation with the accountant with a very true-to-life description of her work day:

One day not so long ago I was working on Project 1 when a student working on Project 2 needed some help, so I helped him for a while, and then, after I briefly went back to Project 1, another student came by who had questions about Project 3, so I helped him, and then I got email from a co-author with the reviews of a manuscript related to Project 4 and we discussed the reviews and then I dove briefly back into that manuscript and thought about some things we might change and that reminded me that I need to deal with reviews for Project 5, so I worked on that for a while, and then I got an alert by email about a journal and so I did some journal-grazing and read-skimmed some papers relevant to Project 6 and then I went back to Project 1 for a while before being interrupted again.. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.

alice-in-tenureland

Must. Escape. Foolish. Bureaucracy.

How would you describe that work day?  (It sure looks familiar to Historiann, who probably spends too much time responding to other people’s needsrather than shutting them out to get some damn writing done.)  How much of FSP’s day was “teaching,” how much “research,” and how much of it was “service?”  How is your “effort time” distributed, and does it bear any relationship to the reality of your work lives?

Sometimes I think it would just be easier to be like attorneys and record “billable hours.”

18 Comments »

18 Responses to “What the eff?”

  1. Paul on 27 Jul 2009 at 9:13 am #

    I’ve been lucky enough never to have a job where I had to break down my time or effort by percentages like that, but almost everyone I’ve known who does just says that they pretty much guess at a number and then state it like it was a hard fact. If someone actually tried to break down their time or effort by percentages hour by hour and day by day, then the final percentage would probably include “35% of effort spent exclusively on trying to figure out exactly what percentage of effort I put into every other task.”

  2. squadratomagico on 27 Jul 2009 at 9:51 am #

    I, too, have never been asked to quantify efforts in each area of teaching, research, and service like that. At OPU, we’re judged more by products, I suppose (publications submitted or appeared, committee documents and decisions made, classes completed) rather than trying to quantify either effort or hours. It’s a very goal- or product-oriented way of reviewing.
    That conversation sounds like a peculiar form of hell.

  3. quixote on 27 Jul 2009 at 10:23 am #

    Historiann, I love this site, but there are days when I just get too many combat flashbacks here.

    God, does that ever bring back filling out grant proposals, filling out progress reports, filling out annual evaluations, filling out curriculum planning documents, filling out . . . well, anyway. I really do try so very hard not to go there. (I’m in the sciences, too, by the way. Maybe this sort of thing is more endemic there.)

    The thing that always made me the most livid about this, the one fiction out of the whole fictional enterprise that could send me into irrational rage, is: “No, [she said] % of your total time of 40 hours.” Forty hours? Find me an academic who works a mere 40 hours. I want their job. In one of my irrational rages I actually kept a diary of hours worked, and the slowest week was 60. Most pushed 90.

    For obvious reasons, I love the idea of billable hours.

  4. Buzz on 27 Jul 2009 at 10:24 am #

    Our annual evaluations have a formula of how much weight is given to research, teaching, and service—but there is no expectation that the weighting represent how we are using our time. And the fractions are set by the chair separately for each faculty member (within an approved range for each); he makes an effort, at least with the untenured faculty, to chose the weighting to maximize the total score.

  5. Indyanna on 27 Jul 2009 at 10:40 am #

    Six-minute billable clickers is probably exactly where we’re headed. This is the cost of the rise of the administocracy in the life of the university. While faculty “complement,” as the toilers in admin like to call it, is regularly shaved away here and there, the proliferation of associate deputy assistant whatevers has grown in the university like ants on a paper plate. The languages they use are almost worse than the realities they represent. And when you find it leaching into the vocabulary of your department, usually through a membrane at the chairly level, they’ve got you dead.

    We have to do semesterly “[Some Dead State Legislator's Name Here] Reports,” that track weekly hours spent at this, that, or the other thing. The numbers are totally made up, and they’re probably UNDERestimates, because it would be embarrassing to be accurate. The other thing is, they’re online now. If you don’t do them you get periodic reminders that say” “if you don’t complete this now, you’ll get another reminder in two weeks.” That, plus the notation that “we need an 85% participation rate,” combines to make it clear that you can probably wait for the other suckers to do them.

  6. Historiann on 27 Jul 2009 at 11:40 am #

    Sorry, quixote, if you’re getting PTSD here!

    In my job, these formulas are hassles more for department chairs and Deans than for anyone else. Individual faculty just need to report all of their work for the year, and to sort everything out under “teaching,” “research,” and that amazing catch-all for everything else, “service.”

    On the one hand, the undervaluing of service means that there’s little if any incentive for tenured faculty to take on major service assignments or to chair committees. On the other hand, it’s easier to get publilshed as an Associate Prof. with a book than it was as an Assistant Prof. without a book, so research productivity doesn’t necessarily need to suffer so much.

  7. John S. on 27 Jul 2009 at 12:06 pm #

    This anecdote is part of the reason why I never want to co-author anything else in the future. I was co-editor of a collection of essays a few years back, and when it came time for my review, I was asked to quantify my my participation in the project. The process was bizarre. Who authored the book prospectus? Who edited more of the essays? One of you wrote the intro and one the conclusion–which was longer? In the end, we came up with a figure of 70%. This may be unfair to my co-editor (sorry!), but I would understand if he did the same thing to me in one of his reviews.

    And needless to say, the whole project took many more hours than a contribution to an edited collection would. But with articles and essays at least a review committee can point to it and know I wrote 100% of it.

  8. Historiann on 27 Jul 2009 at 12:44 pm #

    John S.: and a very fine collection of essays it is.

    I have co-authored just one essay once, and to my great relief (in part because it took us 7 years to write it, on and off) my co-author and I agreed to call it 50-50 and forget about it. (Mostly because it seemed like too much of a pain in the a$$ to spend the time assigning what to whom, etc.)

    (And–so what? Like your Chair or Dean was going to track down his Chair or Dean and compare notes to see if your co-editor took more or less than 30% credit?)

  9. human on 27 Jul 2009 at 12:51 pm #

    Haha, I read that post and tried briefly to figure out how the heck to measure “effort” as opposed to “time” and then my brain exploded and I had to wipe down my cubicle.

    Seriously, WTF?

  10. Emma on 27 Jul 2009 at 1:35 pm #

    Sometimes I think it would just be easier to be like attorneys and record “billable hours.”

    The evil catch to keeping accurate time records is the second guessing about whether that amount of time was necessary for the complexity, or lack thereof, of the problem. In the client’s mind a “simple” problem = less “effort” which should = very little time billed. Or, god forbid you bill them for that telephone call where they just had a question for you! Why would you bill them for that! Geez! It’s not like answering their telephone calls and emails is real “work”!

    Not to bemoan my fate, I have a pretty good job, but to say: beware the license to second guess inherent in the billable hour! :)

  11. Sisyphus on 27 Jul 2009 at 1:56 pm #

    Whimper. That conversation is abusive, you do realize that?

    I just had a flashback to my ex brother-in-law shouting at his kid “what did you just do wrong! Tell me what you just did wrong!” and certain of our faculty members who have very … fraught and invested … close relationships with their students who play the “guess what color I am thinking of” game in oral exams and classrooms.

    Whenever I hear a series of questions with bizarre, byzantine rules and definitions I know it has nothing to do with getting at the truth and everything to do with a display of power: no matter what you answer is wrong and no matter what he (the questioner is usually male) asks he is always really saying “you are worthless and stupid and will never please me.”

  12. Monocle Man on 27 Jul 2009 at 2:53 pm #

    Historiann -

    Can we talk about Gates v. Crowley some more?

    Not only I am expert in getting detained by the police (since my last update I have recalled a stop for failing to wear a seat belt and a police action when I played my music too loud) but I am also well versed in beer, which seems to be the next chapter of this episode.

    For the reconciliation party, Obama has chosen Budweiser, Gates is going with Becks or Red Stripe and Crowley is going with Blue Moon.

    Obama’s choice is clearly pandering nonsense with an eye toward the 2012 NASCAR voting block.

    Gates stays true to his reputation as a guy with fine, international tastes as well as someone deeply committed to the black cultural aesthetic.

    Crowley’s choice is somewhat perplexing. On the one hand there can be no doubt that white beer is a feminine beverage. On the other hand, your readership may get a chuckle as they associate Crowley with the persist urban mythology surrounding the Coors Brewing Company.

    I say this topic is worthy of a new post!

  13. Indyanna on 27 Jul 2009 at 3:00 pm #

    For a brief (if wacky) backgrounder on the relations of power and process that caused FSP’s phone to ring that day, one could do worse than see “A Quick Introduction to Effort Reporting for UC Berkeley Faculty.” (2004). One wonders if or rather when this sludge will start burbling over the gunwales into the humanities disciplines? For the moment, when we get small outside grants, we can usually keep them from being shunted through our U’s Office of Overhead Capture and Process Imposition, but you have to imagine that between the suits at the U and the ‘crats on the Potomac, no tiny streams of revenue or autonomy will be left untouched forever. Will blog posting and commenting be on-book, or off-book?

  14. Digger on 27 Jul 2009 at 4:12 pm #

    I’m with Emma on the billable hours. Where -do- you put all the generic email-catchup, desk-clearing, filing stuff, anyway? I sure as heck ain’t doing it for free!

    Mmmmm beeeeer.

  15. shaz on 27 Jul 2009 at 7:55 pm #

    The correct answer to the time/effort question (one I’m sure many savvy [male?] scientists easily give) is the number that most benefits them. No fuss, no muss.

    On the crazy divisions of teaching/research/service: published book reviews don’t count as publications at my research U. They go under service. ???

  16. Cassandra on 28 Jul 2009 at 12:03 am #

    Related to the previous post for grad students…and related to Emma’s connection to billable hours:

    As a grad student, I sometimes had professors who requested timesheets for the jobs I did for them.

    In general, we were required to work NO MORE than 20 hours a week for our grad assistantships (thank you, union!), so some assholes…er, loving mentors…decided to make us accountable for every hour per week we were supposed to devote to them. In general, we had 10 hours of Teaching Assistantship with one prof and 10 hours of Research Assistantship with a different prof. Needless to say, we often had a great deal of negotiating to do when Prof #1 gave us teaching and grading and proctoring responsibilities that amounted to more than 10 hours or Prof #2 gave us a list of research-y chores that ate more time than a Chronovore yet seemed incapable of believing us when we said it took over an hour to download those 15 articles because the school’s internet service sucked (even on-campus).

    Habitually, being a TA required about 12 hours a week. Therefore, some of us were really reluctant to GIVE 2 extra hours because Prof #2 wanted them (no! DESERVED THEM!). Honestly, most profs would just give a list of (reasonable) chores and were happy when we completed them in a timely manner. But if you got a timekeeper (not ironically, almost always anti-union), you were in Hell for a semester because they were going to scrutinize every single week’s records.

    And most of it was just bullshit reporting. How do you really keep track of this crap when you’re answering all sorts of e-mails, at odd times, often for minutes at a time, for both professors and your own personal business? Say you’ve decided to devote an hour to RA duties but, while answering e-mail, an URGENT (aren’t they always?) e-mail from a student pops up. Just ignore it? Or deal with it? Shouldn’t that count for time spent? How many of us would set the timer for such a short chore (especially if it suddenly becomes a long chore)?

    An example: I once arranged something in the middle of the night and the person in charge of the accounting for the project (a Ph.D. working at a U but not as faculty) actually told me I couldn’t report working those hours because I honestly admitted they were in the wee hours of the morning. My job didn’t require working in the actual office…and I wasn’t even required to submit the actual times I worked, just the total hours for the week. But the hissy was pitched in any event. The PI just told me to shift the hours from a.m. to p.m. and that was it. Even though it was a needless lie.

  17. Kathie on 28 Jul 2009 at 7:36 am #

    I co-edited a special issue of a journal with a colleague a couple of years ago, and I believe we really shared the work, including co-writing the introduction. It was quite well received and even garnered a brief review in another journal, not a common experience! However, she is up for tenure this year, I wrote a support letter including information about the work, *effort*, and results of that collaboration – and she just wrote to tell me it only counts as “service.” Made me glad once again to be an independent scholar, as I don’t have to explain my scattered but productive workday to anyone!

  18. Matt L on 28 Jul 2009 at 8:10 am #

    Hey Historiann! Female Science Prof’s experience and your own reporting requirements echo the professional development plans (September) and professional development reports (March) we do here at Woebegone State University. We’ve got five categories that all seem to overlap… (professional development in addition to the usual research and scholarship -whats the difference? )

    And yes the report is due halfway through the second semester so that the administration has time to evaluate it before the term ends in May. The percentages are pure PFA.

    Coincidentally, the two colleagues who have probably done the most work in terms of publishing, teaching and service are former lawyers. I think one of them, lets call ze Professor K” actually applies the billable hours model to ze’s professional life. Terribly efficient.

    I am fine with the idea of billable hours as long as we also go to negotiate 5 year contracts with specifically defined outcomes (i.e. teach x number of classes + y number of pubs + z number of committees + advise r number of students/ 5 years = $ salary). But I want the flexibility to schedule all of my classes to be taught in the first, second, and 5th years.

    I think right now the publication requirements for regional universities and colleges resembles FSP’s guessing game with the accountant.
    Assistant Prof: So how many pubs for tenure?
    Admin: I am thinking of a number greater than zero but one less than those required at an R1… we need to raise the research profile of our faculty.