I was shocked recently to discover that my state university campus (from whose hallowed halls of ivy I am retiring) has a policy against destroying any and all student papers of whatever age. This is a bit insane. Maybe it strikes me as more so because I’ve always required that my students do lots of writing. If everyone in my department levied similar demands, a small room or large closet would be filled up with papers by the fifth year, I’m guessing. The result would be more than a waste of precious space: it would constitute a fire hazard, and even a health hazard. (Roaches love old papers; and while they don’t spread the bubonic plague, they’re dirty little critters, and plenty of students haul their Starbucks purchases into our classrooms.)
I should clarify that I actually give most of my papers back—with written comments, representing the most exhaustive part of the job. I would so part with those papers, at least, before our curriculum started to shrink and I found myself teaching almost nothing but composition. At about that point, the paperwork started viciously boomeranging back on me. The freshman composition instructors (whose director can’t abide the word “freshman” and insists on “beginning student”) were suddenly commanded to round up all the semester’s essays in portfolios which a select few would sample and brood over in order to generate reports satisfying accreditation boards, state officers, etc., etc. The “portfolio years” numbered about three or four, as I recall, before they were declared null and void and we were newly commanded to shift everything to an online campground. I resisted, because I knew that I had just one more year left. Now I’m almost sorry that I held out.
For this imbecilic decree from the bureaucrats of higher echelons (possibly, again, the state capital) to create and preserve vast document cemeteries has suggested to me why our campus rolled out its “go paperless” initiative: mere survival. I’d assumed that the shift of all assignments to the digital was a marketing tactic, meant to titillate the public with “cutting-edge technology”—or else a marginally legal political payback, engineered to nudge business in the direction of certain software and hardware providers. It clearly wasn’t done out of any genuine consideration for students, many of whom do not like entrusting their arduous labor to the vagaries of e-space; nor did it take into account the much higher probability of deliberate thought and careful proofreading that accompanies the preparation of hard copy. But as a means of not drowning us all in dusty, moth-eaten cardboard boxes, the digital crusade was likely a pretty smart move. I just don’t know why we have to sacrifice teaching efficacy on the whim of some idiot board of mandarins.
Or perhaps I do. It almost has to be some sort of prophylactic move against lawsuits, doesn’t it? What kind of lawsuit? Oh, I don’t know… a student’s claim that his papers were never graded because of his green Martian skin—something in that genre. If there’s a chance in a million of needing your ordinary trash as an exhibit in a court of law, then you will not be allowed to empty the trash can. Our legislators are all lawyers themselves these days, so they all think the same way. They’re all scared stiff of frivolous legal wrangles because they know only too well how successful frivolity can be before a sleeping judge or a cerebrally challenged jury. They’ve played the game themselves enough times—and won at it—to know that, for instance (and I’m not kidding), no horseshoe arrangement of tables can be permitted in a classroom lest a fire occur and some unhappy person prove too clumsy or stupid to find the way to the exit.
I could go on teaching for years: there’s nothing wrong with my health, thank God. But in doing so, I would probably shorten my life as my blood pressure rose and my dismal sense of the futility overhanging every corridor of Western civilization grew darker. We increasingly resemble the old Soviet Union, dead of arterial sclerosis as its mammoth bureaucracy eradicated flexible elements from every element of society. The things we do make no sense except as answers to concerns entirely extrinsic to quality of job and initial purpose. We’re designing a plane that won’t fly because the mechanics’ union demands wings 200 yards long to justify its wages and every interior seat requires wheelchair access.
Finally, I’ll also admit that I worry about the ramifications of these permanent document reserves. Is there not a Mueller in every department now who will potentially nab all of us sooner or later for saying, “Man up!” or, “God help me!”? Might I be tried five years from now for sexual harassment because of scrawling on a paper five years ago, “You’re a beautiful and talented young woman, and you should write with greater confidence”? Where does it end? Only this morning, after one of the last email log-ins I shall ever trudge through, an announcement reached me of a seminar in “microaggressions”—how to spot them in oneself and how to purge them from one’s speech. Could the shift of everything to the digital, in fact, be intended to create a readily searchable database for incidental infractions of Groupthink?
Call me paranoid, if you like. I’m retired now—I don’t give a damn.