Laugh? I nearly signed up for early retirement

Academia Nuts
February 13, 2004

An alarmingly large number of my crop of unsolicited emails come from the very undergraduates I did my best to avoid during their time at university.

But whereas they could then be kept at bay by a locked door, now they can electronically burst into my office at will and regale me with crudely critical accounts of the irrelevance of my courses to their present employment ("I tell you, there's not much use for Foucault here at Debenhams") or with wheedling requests for yet more references ("Could you possibly mention that I have exceptional interpersonal skills").

But there is the occasional choice cut in this barrage. Last week, one of my favourite ex-students, Zoë Ainley, spent only a paragraph of her email on her own life before turning to me. "How are you, professor? I don't see The Times Higher here in New Zealand but someone told me you were still knocking out your old column. Surely universities stopped being funny long ago. Now, they're just tragic."

Clever, clever Zoë was much in mind when I picked up Academia Nuts . Oh dear, that title. And, oh dear, those cover blurbs. A "witty campus novel" by a former professor of literature. A witty campus novel? In 2004? It seemed as likely as a holiday romance set amid the tropical delights of Guantanamo Bay. Where in the technological, bureaucratic confines of the modern university was there room for the happy academic indulgences and airy pretensions and self-conscious posturings that were once juicy fodder for Bradbury and Lodge and Amis?

I need not have worried. Michael Wilding got there well before me. His opening chapter is called - what else? - "Last campus novel" and features his three elderly academic protagonists, novelist Henry Lancaster (who is wondering whether to turn his talents to the campus form), Doctor Bee, professor of literature, and Doctor Pawley, a dope-smoking Marxist. Bee and Pawley busy themselves throwing cold water on Henry's project. What on earth, they wonder, could form the content of a contemporary campus novel?

"This," said Henry. "All this."

There it was, their world lay all before them. The deserted common room.

The chipped cups. The worn, unfigured carpet.

"There's not an awful lot here," said Pawley. "I think you need more than the common room."

"The university as such," said Henry.

"You'd better hurry," said Pawley. "It's all being outsourced. There's hardly anything left. The convenience store is the new model. A modem here, a terminal there. The virtual university. No tenured staff. No gross moral turpitude. No sad contagion of the gown."

"I shall write about the university in decline," said Henry.

"I think you might have left it too late," said Dr Bee.

Everything about the modern university is filtered through the words and imaginations of these sardonic, disenchanted heterosexual dons. It is they who try to make some sort of sense, any sort, of newly introduced early retirement policies, sexual-harassment procedures, student evaluations, research ratings, the downgrading of reading, the rise of monstrous women and the death of scholarship.

And, yes, Zoë, it is politically incorrect. Appallingly so. But it is also very funny. So funny that I had to stop reading it in bed in case my roars of laughter were disturbing the neighbours: so funny that it deserves to be the final great campus novel. It is unlikely to be challenged. For what Wilding's aged unreconstructed dons are playing with such absurd brio is unmistakably the last waltz.

Laurie Taylor is a fellow of Birkbeck College, University of London.

Academia Nuts

Author - Michael Wilding
Publisher - Wild and Woolley www.fastbooks.com.au
Pages - 237
Price - $26.95
ISBN - 0 909331 94 4

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