Sunday, April 16, 2006


The Politics of Document Construction

Some students in my Document Engineering and Information Architecture course have encountered the politics of document type construction in their class project to analyze the processes and document flows involved in faculty reviews and promotions. What looks on the surface to be an interesting but straightforward analysis and redesign of a form is turning out to be anything but that, and in talking to the students I’ve realized how much the construction of documents can embody political and organizational power considerations.

The processes center around a form called the "bio-bib" that every professor has to fill out annually. The stated purpose of the bio-bib is to collect from each faculty the biographical (i.e., key events and accomplishments) and bibliographical (i.e., publications) information that are the fodder on which reviews and promotions are based.

The bio-bib form is extremely broad in its coverage, with sections for Teaching, Publications, Committee Service, Professional Activities, Appointments, Awards, and so on. Each of these sections is highly detailed; for example, the Teaching section distinguishes activities involving undergraduates, master’s students, PhD students, and post-docs; the Publications section distinguishes many varieties of peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed articles, books, and patents; and there are even nine subcategories of Professional Activities.

We can’t find "change logs" or design rationale for the bio-bib, but you can imagine that the highly complex and nuanced structure of the form reflects a history of heated debates and complaints about the value of some kind of activity or publishing by a professor. For example, the last sub-category of Professional Activities is "Efforts made in support of the University's Affirmative Action goals."

But the implicit design goal to make the bio-bib fair to everyone has created a form that everyone hates to fill out. No matter how much you accomplished, when you’ve completed your annual bio-bib you feel like a failure because you are staring at a sparse form because there is no way you have something to report in most of the categories.

You might also think that being fair makes it sensible that every professor, regardless of discipline or department, fills out the same form. But this assumes that all the categories mean the same thing for every professor, and that’s not so. For example, while you’d think that publishing in a peer-reviewed journal is always preferable to a non-peer-reviewed one, law professors seek to publish in law reviews, in which their papers are selected by law students. A computer scientist would probably get no credit for publishing an article in a student-edited journal.

In addition, it is hard not to think that every list of subcategories of biographical or bibliographic events is ordered in some principled way that reflects their weighting or value in a professor’s review. Many of things I do are "down at the bottom of the list" in their implied value (for example, "consulting" is many steps below "serving as a reviewer or editor"). So I cheated and listed my service as a member of the OASIS Board of Directors (a standards organization), as "Service to scholarly or professional societies" because the latter is #3 in its category.

I could go on and on here, but I should let my students discover some of this for themselves (and then I could write in my bio-bib that I did a good job mentoring their project).

-Bob Glushko

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