3.734 user-support (135)

Willard McCarty (MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca)
Fri, 10 Nov 89 23:35:46 EST

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 734. Friday, 10 Nov 1989.

(1) Date: Fri, 10 Nov 89 05:02:15 EST (45 lines)
From: Thomas Zielke <113355@DOLUNI1>
Subject: criteria for user-support? (42)

(2) Date: 10 November 1989 (60 lines)
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: user-support

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Fri, 10 Nov 89 05:02:15 EST
From: Thomas Zielke <113355@DOLUNI1>
Subject: Re: 3.719 LITIR? criteria for user-support? (42)

RE: user support person

I suggest that you look for the following qualities:

1. The person should at least *know* about some specific problems that
may arise in the science the users deal with - so rather choose a
historian than a computer scientist...

2. Has the candidate already been working with computers himself (this is
*not* a joke!) AND has s/he as well taught other persons in computing?
Try to find out about the person's qualities as a teacher...how about
a 'test course'??

3. Does the person know about the programs used at your site? Anyway, how
many programs does s/he know? And which ones?

4. Any knowledge in the use of tools like Norton Util's or PC Tools etc?
S/he better had - you never know what could happen to your data...

5. Not to forget: Does the person have experiences with the type of computers
and operating systems that are being used at your site? (Mac, IBM,

6. Last but not least: Is it a friendly person or does s/he tend to treat
users as if they all were a bit dumb because they do not know which key
to press or does s/he believe users asking questions to be a damned
nuisance because they keep him/her away from the *real* work to be done?

This is but a short list, however, I hope I could give you a bit of help.


Thomas Zielke
Universit{t Oldenburg
Historisches Seminar
Postfach 2503

D-2900 Oldenburg

(2) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: 10 November 1989
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: user-support

Having meditated somewhat on the problem of supporting users as well as
having done it, I find the question raised here difficult to resist. Dr.
Zielke has covered the desirable qualities of a user-support person
fairly well, but in reading over his list it occurs to me that the
question to which he is responding needs to be reformulated.

As well as asking what kind of a person one should look for, I think we
also need to ask what such a person will need in order to be happy in
the work. Dr. Zielke speaks of an undesirable trait in a support person
-- the impatience with elementary questions, the transparent desire to
get back to some other, more "real" work. True, this is a trait to be
avoided, but perhaps its cause is sometimes rooted in the situation as
much or more than in the person.

One can, of course, simply draw from the large stock of under- or
mis-employed academics, exhausting and replacing them indefinitely, but
I don't think that is any way to build a vigorous and stimulating
computing centre or to contribute to the development of humanities
computing. The best such places I've seen do as much as possible to
encourage their people to pursue their own interests.

The front-line warfare of user-support tends to exhaust people quickly.
For one thing, it is difficult to answer with patience and concern the
400th time you are asked some utterly silly question. Certainly
professors are also asked silly questions year after year,
but the context is different in several crucial ways. To put it rather
crudely, they are the lords of their society, while the support people
are among the servants. Academic society, like any other, has a
hierarchy it defends with all the subtle instruments at its command.
The justice of the hierarchy is seldom a primary consideration.

For humanities computing what seems most desirable, as Dr. Zielke points
out, is that the support person be academically trained so as better to
understand the problems behind the questions that are asked. At the same
time, the support position may very well have little to offer the
academic other than money. The years spent becoming good at the job,
this person discovers, count for nothing at an academic job interview,
and since time spent being a good employee takes time and precious
energy away from scholarship, this person falls further and further
behind in the Great Race. Since, as a colleague of mine said, there is
no calculus of compassion, the job interviewer simply has to discount
all considerations of what the applicant has had to do in order to stay
alive, perhaps support a family, and so forth. And that's a kind
interviewer; one less kind will assume that the applicant is obviously
inferior, etc. Anyhow, this is an old, sad story.

I can hear several of my friends grinding their teeth, cursing,
muttering, and weeping. The question is, what do we do about all this?

Many things, but one in particular is relevant to the question raised
here. In addition to looking for an academic to fill the support
position, you create a position with potential for research and, if at
all possible, for teaching as well. In order to continue to be a good
support person, the academic employee needs time for research and
recognition that such activity is an essential part of the job. It seems
to me that those who hire fellow academics to serve in positions of
support have a responsibility, not only to the individuals hired but
also to the field as a whole. Are young, bright minds to be exhausted
rescuing others from the pitfalls of wordprocessing, or are they to be
encouraged to apply their valuable mixture of skills to our exciting new
field? The ideal of service to one's community needs to go hand in hand
with recognition and respect for that service.

Yours, Willard McCarty