Filed Away

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Many years ago, I was working with a consulting company that focused on planning services for county and state criminal justice agencies. I used to joke that I never went to juvenile hall until I was 40, and then I went every week.

Anyway, I got a kind of harsh introduction to the work when I was sent to a rural county to do some analysis of how many kids got what kind of adjudication (we don’t say sentencing in juvenile justice, but that’s what it means; there was no glossary for that work, either), their age at first offense, numbers with multiple offenses, length of stay, and so on. I had a day and a half to go through their archives and learn all that.

When I arrived at the probation department, they knew why I was there and what I wanted, and a helpful man led me to a tiny, windowless, sage-green, cinderblock room. And in that room, there were a) a table, b) a chair, and c) a rolling cart heaped with file folders. “Let me know when you’re ready for the next batch,” he said, and departed.

And each folder contained between twenty and two hundred sheets of paper, of different colors and different sizes, each recording a specific interaction between some kid and the police, the courts, the probation department, the juvenile detention or commitment center he’d been referred do. They were randomly ordered, each new contact adding a layer like paint over paint over paint. And there was absolutely no way, in a day and a half, to make meaningful order of three hundred of these.

You, too, whether a graduate student or a job candidate or a faculty member or a contingent hire, are a file folder somewhere. And when some interested researcher arrives on the scene and says “what proportion of your teaching is done by adjuncts, in each department?”, some helpful person will shrug and lead you to a file cabinet of incommensurate records and tell you you’re free to have a look.

Institutional recordkeeping is not designed with investigation in mind. It’s created as storage, as archive, as the ability to deal meaningfully with the individual case rather than to look for pattern. Research recordkeeping, on the other hand, is all about revealing the overall pattern, at an enormous loss of detail about the individual. The check-box choices can be tabulated; the comments in the margins cannot, and are lost.

This competing interest explains some of why we don’t have very good pattern awareness across higher ed. It’s just hard to find out what job placement rates are for doctoral programs, especially since each institution has its own idiosyncratic recordkeeping system and vocabulary. There’s a lot of talk about the growth of administrators as a percent of college employment, but what does that term “administrator” even mean? Does that include the accountant in the accounts payable office? Does that include the facilities management people? Does that include campus security? Every college will classify their staff a little differently, use different local terms. And every college has made the transition from carbon paper and typewriters to (probably more than one generation of) electronic records management.

Part of any research study is the design and definition of recordkeeping. You decide up front what you’ll want to know and what you won’t, how you’re classifying and naming categories and why that matters. You recognize that millions and millions of things won’t enter your field of interest. But the recordkeeping of daily work is a pointillist portrait gallery in which innumerable tiny dots add up to an image of a specific person. The two functions do not serve one another’s purposes at all well.

So when we’re doing higher ed research, we have to know that the absence of large-pattern information isn’t necessarily a conspiracy of silence; it’s an artifact of millions of people trying to keep up with billions of interactions, each creating their own unique filing systems to do it.