Why "good practice" can ruin good practice
When I was a graduate student, things were different. I didn't have to fill in many forms -- in fact, I think I just applied for a British Academy grant (as it then was) to work on a PhD in nothing more than "Roman history". I wasn't given a code of practice. If I wanted to learn something (like a new language), I went off and did it; I didn't demand a specially targeted Faculty class in it (Turkish for Roman historians, or whatever).
My supervisor didn't bother me too much (though he did give me a few big kicks towards the end). Whenever I wanted to see him I sent him a note (pre-email) and he would have me round, and I would stay for as long as it took to go over my work or my problems. If I wanted to talk to one of the other senior Faculty members, I would catch them after a seminar or in the library, and we would have coffee or (more often) a drink.
I am sure that this laid back, unregulated system let some students down (we all heard stories/urban myths about PhD students who had not seen their supervisors in 12 months). But it worked wonderfully for me and for many of my friends -- and probably much better than what we now offer to our graduates.
Now, if students want funding, they have to explain what they will discover before they start (the best applications are, as most of us suspect, written by the supervisor). When they arrive on their course, they are given codes of practice up to their ears -- they know how often they should meet their supervisors, they have regular reviews with other members of the Faculty, they have a secondary supervisor (in case their first one isn't good enough), and they even have log books in which they can register their contact with their supervisor (in which I fear a jolly good, intellectually productive, discussion in the pub doesn't quite count -- how wrong is that?).
All these initiatives were, I am sure, very well intentioned. They were intended to make sure that PhD students didn't go for 12 months without seeing their supervisors, or didn't take seven years to finish their theses, or, worse still, didn't fail at the end of the process. But I do wonder if the baby hasn't been thrown out with the bath water. To put it another way, despite (or because of) our good intentions, I suspect that most graduate students now have a worse "learning experience" than we did -- at a time before we knew what a "learning experience" was.
The point is that I am now so busy with supervising, being a secondary supervisor, interviewing applicants for graduate funding, doing first, second and third year reviews -- that I am simply not available any more to meet a graduate student for coffee after half a morning in the library. So I go through the tick box routines, but don't any longer have the time to chill out with a student, doing what I am best at (and what my own teachers were best at) -- which is just talking about the ancient world.
And it isn't only a question of graduate students. Similar changes have happened in my relations with my colleagues and my undergraduates. When I started my lectureship at Cambridge (in 1984) we used often to go to each others lectures. It wasn't to rate them, but to learn -- yet of course if you were just starting out it was really useful to talk to your older colleagues about what you (or they ) had said. That useful practice has stopped, because we are all too busy going to the lectures of those we are officially 'mentoring' (tip-toeing around all the awkward issues, not wanting to come to a lecture if the lecturer might not be entirely happy, and then having an embarrassing and almost worthless feedback session). And we hardly ever have time to read each others' work, which was always one of the best things, the intellectual advantages, of being in Cambridge.
As for the undergraduates, I remember that when I was a student, supervisions went on as long as there was something interesting to say. That was the case too when I started teaching at Cambridge. Now I only rarely have a supervision that lasts more than an hour and a quarter. Why? Because my time is taken up promoting "good practice"and transparency. So now our students have access to all kinds of (true but unhelpful) documents on what kind of transferable skills they may gain from a Classics degree, or what distinguishes a first class degree from a 2.1. But they have less of my time, because I am writing this stuff, as well as being a supervisor, secondary supervisor, mentor, appraiser. whatever . . .You can get a flavour here.
One day, I hope, someone will look back on the way we spend all our time on process and paper trails (rather than doing the job and changing people's minds) and they will wonder where, when or why we forgot what we were really about.