Monday, July 18, 2005

The case of the missing projects

On the last day of the summer term, the grad students and upper-level undergrads in the advanced class turn in their PR media projects. In lieu of a final exam, they have had to prepare fairly elaborate collections of idea pitches to media outlets on behalf of the clients they've been working with all summer. Some have done PR work for non-profit arts agencies, some have represented individuals around campus trying to get media notice for something -- a book, a new bit of research worth crowing about, a collection of art pieces.

So in they come, 20 students, laden with notebooks, CD-ROMs, storyboards and videotapes. Everything goes into a big empty photocopy paper box retrieved from the Xerox room. One of the swimteam guys, Lars, helps tote the box and other stuff over to my office. We leave all of it on top of the desk.

On top of the desk. Important to know.

It is after 5 and I don't want to start grading the stuff yet. It takes a while to get through all of the projects. You have to read the written materials word for word, examine the layouts, watch the tapes and listen to the CDs. Lars' project is on top. He and a buddy are trying to market a new line of surfer tees and he's personally tie-dyed a bunch of samples and then silkscreened designs on them to show what he'd send out in a real media kit to the fashion and sports press. He also has nifty photos of student models posing in the shirts. Good stuff.

This crop of students has worked particularly hard. Thinking I'll give them a better shot at high grades if I'm not so dead tired, I leave the box on top of the desk and go home for the night.

Wait. You're jumping ahead, aren't you? Because you know how things go in the academic wing re: Murphy's Law.

The next morning I arrive early, ready to plow into the projects and get grades posted by the end of the day. I unlock the door to the little adjuncts' office and flip on the light. The box is right there on the desk where I left it.

But it is empty.

Everything goes into excruciating slo-mo. Wheeeeeerrrrre arrrrrrre theeeeee prooooojeeeeeects?

I look on the floor, under the desk. I pick up the empty box 10 or 12 times, thinking that the things might magically reappear.

Then it all starts to click. I punch numbers into the phone. Janitorial department. What happened? Where's the dumpster? I will jump into the dumpster if I have to.

A few minutes later a lady supervisor appears in the doorway. Too late, she says. All the trash was picked up the night before. There's no point in dumpster diving. The projects are at the landfill by now.

Many apologies from the supervisor. She explains that there's a new crew on campus and they don't all know the cardinal rule of academic offices: Never throw away anything that's not in a trash can. Professors are pack rats. Papers and magazines and journals and books get stacked everywhere. Except for emptying the trash containers, nothing else should be touched in a prof's office.

The clean-up crews these days all wear red and brown uniforms adorned with the logo of an outside company contracted to do janitorial work on campus. In the old days, even the janitors were full-time university employees. They and their kids were eligible for tuition benefits, the same as the kids of the administrators, professors and office staff. Many a grad can boast of being the first in his or her family to earn a college degree, thanks to the years of hard work by an immigrant dad who waxed floors all night or a mom who shelved library books. And if they wanted to, the janitors and other service employees could take classes, too, earning degrees by studying under the same profs whose offices they tidied.

In the business world they like to use the phrase "ownership." The company's widgets will turn faster and last longer if the employees who make them feel a sense of ownership over the product. Those janitors of the past who worked all night bent over buckets and floorwaxers had a stake in what they did at the university. Because they did the grunt jobs, their kids could study alongside the Benz-driving Ashleys and Brads and after graduation wouldn't have to sling mop water or empty garbage. The old janitors had tremendous pride in their work. We knew their names and we knew their kids.

I don't remember even noticing the changeover. When did the new service come in? What budget-cutting bean counter finally noticed that the university could save X-thousand dollars a year by getting cheap labor from the outside who wouldn't qualify for tuition bennies?

The workers in the brown and red uniforms from the Acme Cleaning Service (or whatever it's called) feel no ownership. It's just another crummy job to them. Some do it well, some don't. Turnover is high. You never learn their names. Nobody brings a cake for the janitor's birthday the way we did in the old days. They're just anonymous worker bees.

A box of papers and stuff? Looks like trash. Out it goes.

Professor J. sees me in my office, looking stunned. I tell him what's happened. He has a story, too. Just a week earlier, he'd told his students to slip their research papers under the door by midnight on deadline day. He was surprised the next morning to find no papers and assumed that his students had blown off a big deadline en masse. Until he figured out that the cleaning crew had scooped the papers off the carpet and tossed them.

Students start dropping by my office around lunchtime to check on grades. One by one, I break the news. They do not have to create duplicates. Nobody's made a copy of anything because who could have predicted something like this? It's not their fault.

I feel terrible. But I know what I have to do. I turn toward the computer, type in the codes to get to the grades input page for the class. Twenty names, 20 A's.

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