On or around this week, for the past five years, I have participated in a maddening little ritual: I run around like a madman, from office to office, little pieces of paper in hand, filling out forms, finding at least one or two reasons to panic, usually because of the wording of form letters.
Coming into my fifth year of graduate education, I still have yet to manage a single year where this ritual doesn’t have to be performed, to save me from getting kicked out, not getting my loans, not getting my funding, etc. The funny thing is, this is all supposed to be computerized. Everything is automated, online, paperless, seemless, perfect.
But every year, I find myself breaking into a sweat as I run through the heat between two heavily air-conditioned offices, clenching The Most Important Piece Of Paper In The World in my hand. And I can’t help but think… does it really have to be this way? Why does it feel like something goes wrong every year?
So far this week, I’ve had to run registration exceptions from our department to the registrar’s office. I had to get my contract, sign it, and run it to the dean’s office. Hopefully, by the end of the week, I’ll have received my re-printed, re-mailed financial aid award letter– the original somehow got lost in the mail– and run it to the office of financial aid. I spend the week tracking things down, micromanaging everything, and walking bits of paper from office to office.
Now, I’ve a bit of administrative experience, and I know that the paperless office is more a potential than a reality, as yet. I don’t mind that these things need done– in a large bureaucracy, you get used to looking out for your own matters, making sure everything ends up in its place.
The thing that really gets to me, though, is the contrast between this little ritual and a memory from when I went to college.
I went to a really, really small college. Like, tiny. Three hundred students, on as many acres. So while it was the late nineties, we still did registration every semester the same way my parents remember doing it when they were at school:
You went to a specific building at a specific time, set according to your number of credit hours and where you fell in the alphabet. When your moment came, you and thirty or so of your classmates ran into the building, where all the professors were assembled. You knew what classes you wanted, and you knew which classes you wanted, and which were most likely to fill up first. You ran from professor to professor, in the order of which classes you most wanted to the ones you weren’t as sure about. You put your name on the list in front of the professor, and got their signature. And then you moved on. If one class was full, you’d get on the wait list, and madly run to your back-up, trying to assure yourself a slot in that class. Sometimes, if you had a real string of bad luck, you would have to consult the course guide there, in the middle of the panicked crowd, trying to remember what else had caught your eye.
What really gets to me about the difference between that little ritual of running about and my new one was that I look back so fondly of the one from my undergrad days. I almost miss it. It was exhilarating– the thrill of the hunt. It was fast and anarchic and you had to think on your feet, but it was something, to be honest, that I looked forward to every semester.
So what’s the difference?
The registrations at my college were planned, they were an event, a ritual. They were supposed to happen. When I run around at the beginning of every school year now, it is because something went wrong, a symptom of a blunder or an oversight or a miscommunication. We are told, today, that if everything goes smoothly, we won’t have to scramble about with our all-important little scraps of paper. But it never works out that way. There’s always something that needs to be delivered last week, or else untold cataclysms will occur, and I will be left penniless, dropped out of school, unemployed.
So this year, I decided to anticipate it, to know that something would come up. I decided to look at it through the lens of that memory of the thrilling chaos of registration.
It’s working so far. I’ve caught myself smiling as I rushed from building to building. Why should I be upset that I’m told that if everything had gone smoothly, I wouldn’t have to endure this? Everything never goes smoothly…
And anyway, that’s a large part of what makes life fun, isn’t it?