Saturday, January 3, 2015


Yes, that's the right word for it. Kafkaesque. Wiktionary defines the word as
  1. Marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity.
    Kafkaesque bureaucracies
  2. Marked by surreal distortion and often a sense of impending danger.
  3. In the manner of something written by Franz Kafka.
It was early November. I am working on a project together with lots of other colleagues that was to terminate the end of December. However, a lot of the people working had quit the project (mostly over fights with my esteemed colleagues) and there was money left. The institution giving us the money had said: fine, you can extend the contract until March 2015. No extra money from us, but see to it that you get something done we can present as the best thing since sliced bread. We do need something to show for our money.

I had this idea for something that we could do to produce results and burn a little bit of money at the same time. I didn't need a person, just a computer. It had to be a bit specialized, but $1000 should do the job. So I applied for $1500 of the pot to buy what I needed.

"Sure, we'll do that, but first we have to write an application for the project extension in rhyming iambic pentameter and include lots of spread sheets. We're busy on that, but will order your computer soon."

I was patient. After all, this was more money than my part of the project, so I'll be happy with crumbs.

End of November I still had not heard a whisper, so I asked. Oh yes, they hadn't forgotten me, they were submitting the project extension tomorrow. They had been asked to rework it into non-rhyming dactylic pentameter,  but it was good to go now. They should be ordering any day now.

Since the books close about the middle of December I was getting nervous. The next week I politely asked again, and they said: Yes, we'll order that as soon as we get the extension in writing. I asked if we could maybe just order it anyway and pay when the extension comes through? Oh no, the new computer system won't let any accounts go below zero and you can't order anything just before a project runs out. And since the computer does not know about any extension, nothing can be ordered.

At the Christmas party, a day after I had heard the rumor that the books had been closed a week early, I was reassured that I was still good to go.

The last week before Christmas I went by in person: They couldn't order without the extension in writing, they only had it by email, but they had to have a signature in order for it to be entered into the computer so the computer would let us order anything. And anyway, the company we have a deal with can't deliver anyway, so it will be January.

Seething, I stomped out and went to our lab engineers and asked pretty please if there was anything in the cellar I could have soldered together to make what I need. They said they would look.

The next day the project guys called. Hurrah, the signature was there! But the books were now closed and no extensions could be entered because they were doing the yearly balance. Come back next year, specifying what exactly it is that you need.

My lab engineers came up smiling with an ancient box that they had stuffed a new hard drive and some storage into that I could use over Christmas until I got my box. Well, I tried it out. It was lame, but it was up to calculating, sort of. But somehow, the brilliant idea I had back in November had gone stale in my mind. I suppose I should have just run down to Staples and bought me a box to spec with my own money. Silly me, I mean here I steal my own office supplies to take to work, I should have realized that it would have been easier to just purchase my own box. And it would have been even easier still to just smile and go for coffee instead of having good ideas involving any research that needs more than paper and pencil.

Happy New Year's from Suzy


  1. That's some labyrinthine bureaucracy you've got going on there.

  2. They did that on purpose, I'm afraid. This passive aggressive crap is epidemic and they don't seem to care that they are shooting themselves in the foot.

  3. It is just this kind of bullshit that has been so toxic for my liver.

    I once bought a computer on my own dime so that I could avoid being treated like a criminal just because I needed a computer to get some work done. I did the cost-benefit analysis: a computer was cheaper than the (unreimbursable) sessions with the shrink I'd have needed had I gone through "proper" channels.

    My current institution keeps me from ordering research supplies by heaping more committee work on me.

  4. Yep. That's college administration hard at work. Gotta protect the donors'/taxpayers'/funding agencies' limited financial resources. Don't want none of them flakey perfessers running off on one of their idears or nuthin. Lawd only nose what they might get up to.

  5. DANGER, WILL ROBINSON, DANGER!!! (My hooks are flailing around wildly!) If your administration finds out you're willing to spend your own money on what ought to be professional expenses, there's no limit to what they'll next expect you to finance on your own dime. Alternatively, they may yell at you because they don’t like you to do this. Back when I was an untenured and much-too-easy-to-please junior academic, it always cracked me up whenever the EXACT SAME administrators would yell at me for BOTH reasons, SIMULTANEOUSLY.

    Kafkaesque, you say? I say Pythonesque, which means inducing one to jump up and down in a bowl of treacle saying “NIMI-NIMI-NIMI!” and then going completely off one’s nut, rolling around on the floor waving one’s arms and legs in the air yelling, “PTING-PTING! PTING-PTING!”

    More seriously: When you were Dean Suzy, what did you do when this happened? I'm curious to know. Whenever one of my undergraduates who is a ROTC cadet is openly disrespectful to me, particularly when he's in uniform, I write a letter on university letterhead to his Commanding Officer, which goes into his file and follows him throughout his military career. I know that trick since I'm a Navy veteran.

    1. [scraped treacle off self, laughing menacingly] As dean I was able to MAKE the adminflakes move, and I had the Dean's Slush Fund for financing stuff that there was no booking number for. I think the AdminFlakes still hate me for that, and are exacting revenge. Sigh. I thought I was back doing science.

  6. Alas Suzy, in accursed adjunctland we are spared the lunacy of being given the expectation that ANY needed materials would actually be provided by the institution.

    But ... nevertheless a similarly Kafka/Pythonesque experience ...

    Not so long ago, the university's Grand Poobah left for greener pastures and the Placeholder Poobah held a meet-and-greet Q&A. After regaling us with repeated claims about the financial health of the institution, I saw my opening:

    "Given our solid fiscal footing, oh Placeholder Poobah, do you think we might get around to actually hiring some full-time teacher-types?"

    "Well, of course I'll be reviewing staffing needs with the various departments" ... blah, blah, obfuscate, backpedal ... (and then!) "but ... many of our super spiffy instructors who contribute to the solid financial health of the institution -- oh, and student success -- prefer to toil away in abject anonymity, holding their breath until they learn if next semester they will be able to afford basic necessities by teaching more classes than a FTE or will need to reapply for SNAP but teach only one class, and continue postponing getting that pesky health situation situation evaluated as they remain benefits ineligible for going on 20 quarters of consecutive employment."

    OK, I did extrapolate that last part, but Interim Poobah really did say "prefer not to" have a full-time position.

  7. This is so strange. This describes research at my school so precisely that I must have wrote it. Yet, I don't remember writing it. This was a bad week to stop sniffing glue.

    My God, the accounting people. I want to strangle them.

    1. As bad as it is, it makes me feel better to know that I'm not the only one suffering from the accounting flakes. I don't think I was channeling you, and I haven't opened the Jameson once this year. Yet.

  8. My place:
    1. book all flights / hotels before getting approval for travel, as a necessary part of the process.

    2. use previous incumbent's office equipment until next round of budget approvals goes through, and stuff arrives (maybe 16 months' wait).
    Could have been OK except that the previous guy was literally 5 feet tall, and had some sort of custom made desk and chair.
    Couldn't get my butt into his chair, or my knees under his desk. Happy Days!!