X is for Xerox
Illustration: Amanda Woodward
I once interviewed an elderly New Brunswick couple who, when the Depression hit, enrolled in barber and hairdresser schools, figuring that people always needed their hair cut. As someone teaching Canadian history, that resonated. If the worst happens, will my skills be needed? Ultimately, I didn't forsake academe for a more apocalypse-resistant (let alone apocalypse-retardant) occupation like hairdressing, archery or optometry, but I have tried to adapt in my own modest ways. If my colleagues are in the position of deciding which colleague to eat, I want them to say, "Let's save MacEachern for later. He knows how to use the scanner."
"The" scanner because there is only one, of course. Just as there is only one pencil sharpener, one colour printer (broken for five years, since the day it arrived), one working stapler in my department.
At times you can find four or five professors with 12 or 15 degrees clustered around my department's lone Xerox machine, waiting to make copies of course outlines, maps (inevitably Western Europe, usually the First World War, often the Schlieffen Plan), receipts, cartoons or, sheepishly, application materials. When the copier jams, as it invariably does, you get to witness firsthand that in a crisis more people really do succumb to lethargy than panic. Otherwise-intelligent adults stare at the floor, poke aimlessly at flashing buttons on the copier and hope beyond hope that someone else will go fetch a member of the office staff. My department is now quietly seeking a tenure-track candidate with a background in photocopier repair; all our ads now state that "Interest in the history of reproductive technologies an asset."
Which all leads to the question of why faculty are doing their own photocopying anyway. It used to be a given that professors would dump reams of handwritten pages or an audiocassette on a secretary's desk, confident that it would be promptly typed up and ready to be submitted for publication, all for a cheery acknowledgement down the road. That, and it was her job. The worlds of faculty and staff were fundamentally distinct, except when they occasionally married. But today, Microsoft has made everyone their own secretary. Most faculty members can commiserate with staff as to the shortcomings of Word, and may even be able to offer tips about PowerPoint.
It would be nice to see in this the evidence of a desire for egalitarianism, a belief that there should be no hierarchies within academe but rather just a group of folks pitching in to get a job done. Academics tend to skew to the left, so maybe we are unconsciously fashioning our own communal, utopian society within the ivory tower. Or maybe not. Other factors are likely at play. For one, young faculty members have been trained to be DIY by their experiences prior to landing their job; in my field, professors are hired already possessing essentially the same credentials they once required for tenure. They have taken control of every part of their career, and many continue to do so at the day-to-day level by doing their own photocopying or even managing their own faculty website.
But perhaps the main reason is that faculty see how busy office staff already are. Staff are expected to know the calendar inside and out, understand how the entire university works, offer solutions to an infinite variety of students' academic problems, help manage up to millions of research and personnel dollars, still perform for some older faculty the duties always expected of them, and be the department's default ambassador, party planner, institutional memory and web designer. And drop everything to get the photocopier up and running.
A colleague occasionally reminds me - and himself - that at least we're not digging ditches. And neither are our office staff. But I get hives just imagining a job in which people constantly loom over you, derailing your thought process, sweetly asking if they can get help with "just" one small thing right now, and they're quietly willing to press the matter because they know - it's embarrassing to say aloud, but impossible to dispute - that their work is surely more important than whatever else you're doing, particularly if you're helping who they think you're helping.
Fortunately, my behaviour has always been above reproach. The staff in my department's office love me, for my thoughtfulness, my patience, my endless good humour. But just in case: Brenda, Chris, Kim, Myriam, please let me take you to lunch. I don't have to come, if you'd rather.
Alan MacEachern is a professor of history at the University of Western Ontario.