Saturday, June 11, 2016

Varia: Fasting, Documents & Respectability

We are now approaching a week of Ramadhan now. I consider Ramadhan in three phases (with respect to our body and not the spirit), namely, (i) adjusting phase; (ii) accustomed phase;  (iii) fatigue phase. The first phase is merely adjusting to the practice of going without food and water during the day. Dependent on the individual, this can be easy (especially for those who had practiced fasting even in non-Ramadhan days) and can also be difficult (especially for those who have gastritis - see here). My own experience this year, I had some unsettling stomach in the first three days but now I am fine. Some people take a longer time to adjust but usually as one enters the mid-third of Ramadhan, one has gotten used to it. The third phase is when fatigue starts to set in. It (the last ten days) also coincides with the suggested period of intensifying one's acts of worship. This period could be as difficult as the first phase (if not more) in various ways: simply fatigue, slight depression of not achieving more, urge to celebrate etc. At this time, I only wish to perform better than last year, at minimum.

Yesterday, I chaired a meeting that lasted three hours which is much longer than my own usual meetings. I normally put a bound on the duration of a meeting: two hours. If one exceeds this duration, one can easily say that the meeting is not conducted effectively, veering off from the usual purpose of meetings, namely making decisions. The meeting was on annual report and we ended up with editing the whole report (second time round) as if it is a workshop of doing so. I can sense the restlessness for which I then wrote a post to the staff and try to justify what we were doing (the post itself may sound pretentious to some). We had to involve all officers from each laboratory and unit since we require information from all of them (requires teamwork). I'm pretty sure that the annual report is not at the top of our mind when it comes to our job tasks and for the academics/researchers, there are certainly other things that we prefer to do. However, there are expectations of annual reports from good institutions and it comes with the duties of (part-) administrators of the institute. In the post, I gave examples of the following:

Some may say that these are established institutes for us to be compared with. This is however more the reason for us to emulate them at least to a certain fraction (rather than an excuse not to be). I have a problem with the idea that we ought to be sub-standard and this I hope to comment below.

Some of the points raised in the meeting may sound pedantic but this is what is needed for a well-prepared document. Some of these are with respect to the formatting and writing standards. I'm sure everyone had at some point frowned about making corrections and editing documents e.g. minutes of meetings, exam questions. Most of the time, it is because we want to get our job done without (trivialised) difficulties. I have some rules of thumb regarding these pedantic matters. If the documents are only for internal consumption and not open to public viewing, there is no real need for formatting standards. If it is open to public, then formatting standards should be applied and when the documents are regular or periodical, some uniformity across the documents is the norm. Whatever type of documents they are, contentwise, they must be proper. For example, minutes of meetings replete with mistakes and unfathomably vague, even if circulated internally, do not reflect the organization in a good light. An advanced level of language competency is needed to ensure that the contents are crystal clear and well-representing the intended points and this is indeed expected from our professional officers. Parts of the discussion yesterday are indeed addressing the appropriate terms and style to be inserted/incorporated in the report. As far as formatting and writing standards, an often-quoted reference is the Chicago Manual, which was indeed mentioned yesterday.

Note: I learned about the Chicago Manual while I was given the responsibility of (all) publications in my previous institute, ITMA and I can still remember how the staff is all stressed up. I remember pointing out the missing commas and dots in some of our publications. Now, I have softened up a bit due to more duties (I can't micromanage anymore).To me, it was amazing to see how meticulous the contributors to the manual can get, when it comes to writing and I respect that. Should we not follow?

The annual report may not be the type of output that will get noticed much by the upper management. For instance, it will not really add much to my CV. But still we do it for a different reason. First, it is a historical record of the institute's achievements. I believe many of the things we do that help the institute have not being documented well enough. Many times, we had to recall events from memory or search deep into an archive of files to get those information with so much uncertainties. This could be avoided if the information is readily available in our annual reports. Secondly, annual reports can serve as a publicity material for the institute. Many times, we had visitors coming to the institute and we could not find a proper document to give, that helps explain what the institute is and what we have done. Once in a while, we prepare special documents profiling our institute or some form of prospectus to suit these purposes. These are fine but they get outdated easily. Better still, is to rely on the annual reports as historical documents and the contents will 'remain true' from being simply historical records. A lot of work could be saved then but we have to be consistent in putting them out. With our international involvement getting bigger, it only makes more sense for us to do so with an English version of the annual report. This may add further editorial work (the historical facts) and demands respectable English competency from us. I simply we will get used to it. We may defer this idea for some period of time but eventually we have to do this.

Presently, our annual reports tend to list activities with minimal descriptions. A step to be taken perhaps later (yes, I know it is easy to suggest) is to include more information on activities (or research) we would like to highlight. This we can learn from the annual reports from the links given above. But let us take this one step at a time. As I said in my post, this publicity drive (through the annual report) is for us to own up. No one else is going to do it for us.

The annual report is among the avenues we could help the institute to be respectable in the eyes of the public. A colleague often said to me, it is always the good quality research (as opposed to say, annual report) that will make us respectable (and not others), which I agree. But in the face of often adverse public stereotypings that we receive, we should highlight whatever good achievements (big or not) and show that we have progressed (in a small way, if you like) and I consider it is as a form of duty for us. We can always be critical of ourselves and look at our weaknesses but there should be room for us to celebrate our achievements and progress. We should avoid joining the chorus of negative stereotyping (which at times we are guilty of) but rather help work on our improvements, the very least. Again, no one is going to do this for us and it is up to us to do so. Earn the respect and let us not lose sight of hope and our responsibilities. 

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