Academic work: some things are getting better

Dear colleagues,

Is academic working life becoming more onerous? One of my colleagues asked whether I could think of anything about our work that had improved. Others she had asked had only come up with negatives.

Sure, there are many things to complain about. Teaching loads are heavier - far heavier. Every time you publish a paper, there are more forms to fill out. Unwanted email seems to be an ever-expanding curse. Research groups form and dissolve without end.

Yes, academic life today is tough, probably tougher than decades ago, and certainly more rushed. Nevertheless, some things have become easier. For those who are relatively new to the academic game, let me mention a few processes for getting academic work done that have changed for the better.


With my new phone, I can dial any number in Australia. Previously, to ring someone outside Wollongong, I had to put in a password first. I also remember an earlier era, before passwords. To make a call outside Wollongong, I had to dial the switchboard, give the number to an operator and wait for them to ring back when a connection was made. If no one answered, it meant repeating the process - few people had answering machines. When I obtained a password, for me it was a great advance in efficiency.

I remember being warned about going over budget in telephone calls. I value not having to worry about that. I also think it's great to have the option to run a conference call through my telephone. In earlier years, doing this required a complicated arrangement with Telstra (or Telecomm as it was then).

Research administration In the early years of research groups, I was coordinator of a research programme. Every time someone wanted something, I had to fill out a form. For example, if someone wanted a $20 library photocopy card, I had to print and sign a form for them. That sort of task is now handled centrally. I was happy to see it go.

Student matters

Students used to come around asking subject coordinators for signatures to change their enrolments, for example to add a subject after the first day of teaching. This is now all done online. (The problem of class numbers going up or down existed back in the 1980s - that hasn't changed much.)

In olden days, students would come around looking for signatures for special consideration forms. Now it's called "academic consideration" and done much more easily online.

Each research student has to do an annual progress report. This used to be a paper form, circulated from person to person using internal mail, in many cases getting stalled or lost on someone's desk. The online system reduces these problems.

Using the student management package, otherwise known as SMP, it's easy to total up student marks. We used to have to do this ourselves, using pocket calculators or multiplication and addition by hand.

Photocopiers and printers

The facility to scan documents and have pdfs sent automatically to your email address is wonderful. So is the ability to send documents to printers via computer.

In the old days, we had to walk to photocopiers for any copying. There was no automatic double-sided photocopying or printing. To make double-sided copies of an article or subject outline required care, doing first one side of a page, then putting the copies into the tray before copying the other side, and then collating the lot by hand.

In the early year of photocopiers, there were no feeders for automatically copying a series of pages. I remember standing at the machine for long periods copying articles one page at a time.

Internet and pre-Internet

Before the early 1990s, to send a letter to someone, I typed it, printed it out, put it in an envelope, put the recipient's address on an envelope and put it in the out tray for postal pickup. Today, there are plenty of unwanted emails, but it's still a lot easier to communicate.

In the old days, when I published an article, I would receive reprints or, quite commonly, make photocopies of the article. Then I would post copies to people who requested them - they often sent postcards with requests - or to people I thought would be interested. With my articles on the web, it is far easier for me. People can get copies without asking and I don't need to do all that photocopying.

Before the advent of digital databases, I remembering going to the library and thumbing through old newspapers looking for articles, or scrolling through spools of microfilm. Libraries had card catalogues. Requesting an interlibrary loan meant filling out a printed form (with built-in carbon copy) and taking it to the library.

Word processing

Ah, the joys of automatic footnote renumbering. I remember a time before desktop computers. I had a typewriter provided by the uni. I would write articles by hand and then type them, correcting mistakes with the backspace ribbon. After receiving comments from peers or referees, I'd go through making changes in the original, for example typing new text and sticking it over earlier text using scissors and sticky tape.

There was an era before that too. I wrote my PhD thesis by hand. When it was ready, I wrote the whole thing in very neat handwriting so a typist could type it. IBM golfball typewriters then were more expensive than computers today. It was great for me when a typewriter was provided in my first academic job.

Just a few years before that - before I started my PhD - there was little access to photocopying. Academics wrote papers by hand and gave them to typists who did an original and four carbon copies. When they made a mistake, they had to stop and correct each copy by hand with whiter fluid.


Some academic tasks - certainly not all - have become a lot easier. However, few academics seem to spend much time reflecting on improvements. Much more attention is directed towards difficulties. Why?

One explanation comes from research on happiness showing that people adjust to their external circumstances. Happiness levels don't vary much with salary or material possessions. So it's safe to predict that no matter what happens, if you're whingeing today, you'll probably be whingeing tomorrow and a decade from now - just as people whinged decades ago.

Instead of complaining, you can reflect on all the improvements in working life. Research shows that expressing gratitude will make you happier!

5 March 2010


I thank Georgine Clarsen, Michael Flood, Nicola Marks, Chris Moore, Colin Salter, Frances Steel and Andrew Whelan for helpful comments on drafts.

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