Bullshit jobs also exist at the UvA, and it’s good that this is finally being recognized. First something about the word itself: we should not take “bullshit job” too literally. It is a technical term from (late) anthropologist David Graeber that can best be translated into Dutch as nonsense tasks. And yes, bullshit jobs are plentiful.
For a long time, managers and administrators looked with pity when the problem of academic bullshit jobs was raised: “This is just part of the job”. And foreign workers were sometimes told, “This is just how we do it here”. But times have changed.
WOinAction has managed to put bullshit jobs on the agenda and since last year we have been sitting around the table with the Universities in the Netherlands (UNL, formerly VSNU) in order to wipe as many university bullshit jobs, pardon nonsense tasks, as possible from the academic table. We also call them “scraping sessions”, a euphemistic term for tasks that are completely unnecessary or duplicative. What are we talking about?
Nonsense tasks come in shapes and sizes. An innocent one is having to fill in the annual scientific output several times: publications, lectures, valorization activities, conference contributions, editorships, awards, media appearances and a few more such things. However, collaborators must list these outputs not only on their university website, but also on the website of the organization that funds their research, such as NWO, and then again on the Orcid (Open Researcher and Contributor ID) website that is virtually indispensable for applying for research grants.
And now comes the problem: NWO uses a different system (Isaac) for tracking scientific output than the universities (Pure), so everything must be entered multiple times: a bullshit job par excellence. And this is not a simple copy-and-paste operation, but every (co-)author must be added manually, as well as the title of the journal, the page numbers, the publisher, not to mention the other forms of output. It takes half a day each year to complete this task, and then three times. You would say: why don’t the universities forward the once completed output to NWO, or vice versa? Then the problem would be solved. Fortunately, this is now being worked on, precisely by dismissing this tripling of tasks as nonsensical.
But there are also bullshit tasks on our scraping list that are less innocent. Perhaps among the biggest bullshit task is the collection and processing of course evaluations by students, known at our university as UvA Q. Using anonymous surveys, students can give their professors “cues” to improve instruction where necessary. This sounds wonderful were it not for the fact that these surveys have become controversial due to their proven ineffectiveness. There is now incontrovertible evidence that “teaching ratings” and “student learning” are not related (see evidence1, evidence2) and that there is a misogynistic bias in the system (see evidence3). The whole circus of collecting and processing anonymous feedback by students should therefore be taken off the table as soon as possible.
I feel sorry for the UvA employees who have to carry out these nonsense tasks. Energy, time and money are being wasted here. Granted, this was done with the best of intentions. But there is also such a thing as advancing insight, and so we must now move to a different system where so-called educational quality assurance takes place through dialogue with students and peer review - and in the worst case through complaint reporting - but not through anonymous surveys.
Rens Bod is a professor of Digital Humantities. This is his first column for Folia.