Transparency is the new opacity
I have spent the evening writing my 'supervision reports' -- termly assessments for the students I'm teaching for essay work, either in small groups or 'one to one'. There's a strong incentive to get them done on time, because you don't get paid until you've submitted them. (OK, I know that at most other universities people don't get paid extra for this kind of work . . . In defence I'd say that teachers at Oxford and Cambridge have traditionally had more 'contact hours' of this sort than those at other universities.)
In the old days you used to do these on little sheaves of carbon paper, which made several copies of each of your reports (one for you, one for the director of studies, one for the tutor etc). You sent these off in the mail and the director of studies would mediate the contents to the students. It was a good way of not only reporting on the student's progress, as well as sharing concerns. "She never talks when she is in a group with Jenny." "Hasn't she got terribly thin....?" You relied on the discretion of the director of studies not to read that kind of thing out to the student. Occasionally some idiots did. But by and large the system, and the judgement calls, worked pretty well. The student got to know how they were doing, and you could pass on other useful, frank -- even if unrepeatable -- comments without fearing that it would be fed direct to the student concerned.
Now it's all computerised. This has done away with the infuriating mountain of paper. It also gives the students direct access to what you have written. No more confidential warnings. It's all bland 'record of achievement' kind of stuff ("Jenny has made good progress this term. She seems to be mastering making more complex arguments -- this was very clear in her essay on the reforms of Tiberius Gracchus" . . .and so on).
Ok, this all comes up to new standards of transparency. There are no secret comments hidden from the student. That must be good, mustn't it?
Well yes, except that there's less honesty in the record. All those frank, confidential comments are still made, but 'underground' as it were and not in the reports. If you have anxieties about, for example, a student's weight loss, or binge-drinking, the temptation is to convey it in a quiet word in the pub, or on the phone. So it never gets written down at all.
This is particularly awkward with graduate students, who get the same kind of open reports.
Imagine this fictional scenario. (Dont worry my grads -- it really is fictional and not about you).
Suppose that I am supervising a relatively weak PhD student...let's call him Jim.
Jim is reaching the end of his fourth year of research and is struggling to finish his thesis, is on the verge of depression and of giving up (the end of a PhD is a tense time for even the most robust individuals). Frankly I am not confident that Jim will make it but I meet him every week, with a pretty upbeat message. What he's written so far is more or less fine, and all he needs to do is get those last 20,000 words done. This isn't entirely true, but if at this point I tell him that his first two chapters aren't really up to scratch and will need a lot more work, he will simply give up. . .and I reckon that the best chance of successful completion is to get some kind of draft finished. Then we can work on improvements. "Do you really think it's OK", asks Jim. "Yes" I say with some caveats ... though Jim doesn't spot the caveats. And I don't really intend him to.
Then the termly report has to be filled in online. The truth I ought to be conveying is that we have a potential disaster on our hands here, but if Jim reads that, he'll simply give up or go right over the edge. It'll be a self-fulfilling prophecy and he'll accuse me of gross hypocrisy, to boot. So I tailor something to be not entirely untrue, but with roughly the same upbeat message that I'm transmitting weekly and not much anxiety showing ("Although there has been some slippage in the timetable for completion, Jim is now making great strides towards completion . . ")
Lets suppose I don't win with Jim, and he does give up -- or finishes but doesn't pass. My colleagues try to find out what went wrong and summon up all the reports. There's not a single one which predicts the disaster that came. The disaster was completely unpredictable, they conclude.
No it wasn't, I think.
This isn't transparency, it's opacity in a new guise. Can't we accept that a bit of secrecy might be a price worth paying for honesty.