Academics at Christmas: are you ‘holly jolly’ or bah, humbug?

Seven scholars from around the world give us their festive reflections on snakes, bad lobster and turkeys’ backsides

十二月 21, 2017
Saint Nicholas on a bike
Source: Getty/Alamy/iStock

The Ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge

This Christmas, I will read A Christmas Carol. To myself. When I was a child, my mother read it to me at an age at which the basic point was largely lost on me. It has been a long time, but I think that I’ll get it now. Now that I risk becoming Scrooge.

The problem with Scrooge isn’t his miserly ways. It’s bigger and scarier than that. Yes, Dickens is writing about the empty allure of capitalism and consumerism but really he is tapping into the deep existential insecurities that drive many of us in our intellectual pursuits. Remember how the Ghost of Christmas Past reveals the teenage Scrooge? The boy isn’t a little capitalist. He’s a bookworm, buried in his studies, as the other pupils at his elite boarding school trundle off to see their loving parents for the holidays.

Of course, Scrooge is actually seeking solace in his books. His withholding father won’t allow him to come home for Christmas and probably thinks that he is teaching the boy a valuable lesson about the importance of hard work. Scrooge probably learns that he has to work impossibly hard to deserve to be loved. This time when I read A Christmas Carol, maybe I’ll understand the sad irony of his story: that working this hard – on a dissertation, another article, class prep, an umpteenth book, a research grant, another research grant, another – makes it nearly impossible to actually be loved. That is why Belle leaves Scrooge, I think: he preferred working on his next peer-reviewed article instead of keeping her company. Or maybe it’s the money – I can’t exactly remember.

What about that Ghost of Christmas Present? The tragedy of Scrooge’s life is that just beyond the walls of his study, just beyond the boundaries of his lab bench or the encasement of his laptop, there actually is a vibrant and welcoming world humming right along. All he has to do is join in, just for a little while. Just long enough to forget about impact factors, grade books, methodologies, all of it – just long enough that he remembers little Timmy’s name.

Beware of “Ignorance”, Christmas Present warns. This is no mere scholarly blind spot or theoretical shortcoming. The danger is practical, even mundane – beware of overlooking the incomparable value of what you take for granted every day. Because if you do, if you commit this secular sin, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is waiting for you. It’s not that you will die alone and broken; smart, rich as hell, but completely wasted. It isn’t that. Or not just that. It’s that the fruits of all your labours – those publications, inventions and patents – will eventually, according to Dickens, be sold off to “Old Joe”: somebody who reminds the reader of a nasty version of Fagin from Oliver Twist. Someone, some “Old Joe”, will pirate or plagiarise the research that I spent my life compiling. He’ll be the one who keeps my legacy. It won’t even be mine.

So, before that happens, before any of that occurs, I will take a break from this computer and read A Christmas Carol. And then I will go and read the Disney version to my daughter. I hope that there is still time.

John Kaag is chair of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.


The Ghost of Christmas Past

By my imperfect reckoning, some 40 years have passed since my first Christmas in academia. Much has changed since then and many of the festive memories are mixed and blurred in a manner entirely consistent with a career chasing contracts, compiling reports and writing papers that stretched the frail credulity of worthy referees.

Or it might be the booze. When I first entered the profession, alcohol was still an openly cherished part of the academic calendar. At Christmas, some folk even drank at lunchtime, although whether the cold fizzy beer of the students’ union actually contained alcohol was a matter for serious conjecture.

Other aspects of academic life were also based on a wildly different order. One department head on whose escutcheon I was briefly a blot ran a very tight ship, in a style that Victorian captains of industry would have recognised. Technically, Christmas Eve was a standard working day, but – in a gesture of genteel munificence – he would let us leave mid-afternoon once our labs had passed his inspection, which he carried out in the manner of a Royal Progress. Benches were scrubbed, whiteboards cleared of obscene caricatures and pristine lab coats handed out by a smiling chief technician – who was rewarded by the lab looking briefly as it always should have.

A major social test for the young academic was the traumatic rite of the Senior Common Room Christmas party. For me, troubled by my comprehensive school credentials and a degree from a concrete college, a deeply embedded impostor syndrome meant plotting a careful pattern of behaviour. This involved drinking just enough to help me edge out of the corner of the room and actually talk to the rock stars of the department – while avoiding a plunging, over-fuelled descent into dishevelled table-top dancing and the hard-eyed disapproval of my betters.

By tradition, we young folk, as the senior prof called us, were in charge of the music and nibbles. We pooled our hi-fi resources – stereo was a big deal in the 1970s – to create a moderately impressive sound system and spent hours on a thoughtfully compiled series of mixtapes to cover what we viewed as acceptable genres. We had a sweepstake on which track would bring the first mature couple to the dance floor, often with a cry of “That’s more like it!”. Abba usually won.

So absorbed were we in preparing the music that we once forgot the nibbles. Too late to head into town for supplies, we raided the vending machine and tipped the snacks into bowls – but it didn’t look enough. To make the spread seem more impressive, I nipped down to the lab and emptied the carton that my new pipettes had just arrived in. Under the subdued lighting of the SCR, the yellow foam packing chips looked just like puffed corn and filled out the tables nicely. Never dreaming that anyone would get beyond briefly chewing one, I was alarmed to see how few were left at the end of the evening. As I said, maybe it was the booze.

John Gilbey teaches in the department of computer science at Aberystwyth University.

Praying at the beach

The Ghost of Christmas Not Present

As an early career academic in North America in the 1990s, I used to attend the annual Modern Language Association convention, which in those days met for three days between Christmas and New Year’s Day. I have many vivid memories of that dreadful, family-wrecking week: saying farewell to my parents in the Southern California sunshine and arriving in Washington DC in an ice storm; delivering my first-ever conference paper to an audience of half a dozen people on a frigid Sunday morning in New York City; weeping in my Chicago hotel room, six months pregnant, after a disastrous job interview.

These days, the MLA has shifted to early January – but I no longer attend. Since moving to the southern hemisphere 16 years ago, I’ve learned to behave at this time of year like every other New Zealander I know: I shut down my computer just before Christmas and head to the beach. Our university library closes for 10 days and the whole institution locks its doors; we’re not even allowed to enter our buildings or laboratories without special security clearance. Last year, when I explained all this to my Chinese PhD student, her eyes widened with panic. “But how can I work on my thesis over the holidays if everything is closed?” she gasped. “Don’t work on your thesis,” I replied. “Read novels in English. Watch movies in English. Overdose on Australian reality shows, American police dramas, British soap operas. But give your thesis brain a rest.”

Some of my best research ideas have bubbled up during the summer holidays, especially when I’ve been physically on the move: swimming in the crystal-clear waters off Auckland’s Waiheke Island; tramping along the Sir Edmund Hillary Trail on the wild West Coast; cresting a ridge in the Southern Alps. I might stop briefly to jot down a few words in a notebook or record a voice memo on my phone; but mostly I tuck my thoughts away in the back of my mind and let them marinate until well into the new year, developing their flavour.

I’ll get my fair share of winter weather and family drama at other times of the year. But on 25 December you’ll find me with a pile of new books and a plate of Christmas pavlova – snowy white meringue topped with red strawberries and green kiwi fruit – under a flowering pohutukawa tree.

Helen Sword is professor and director of the Centre for Learning and Research in Higher Education at the University of Auckland.

Closed for Christmas

The Ghost of Christmas Come Yet Again

Christmas is just a few days away. I am one of the last left in the building on the day it closes for the break. Some colleagues come in briefly to pick up essays to mark. But the students have all gone, now that the factory bell of the last coursework deadline has sounded. Walking past the student village on my way to work, I saw parents loading a semester’s worth of their children’s lives into cars, as the rain gave it all a good wash.

In British universities, Christmas is only half-observed. The journalist Christopher Hitchens used to write an annual anti-Christmas piece complaining that it gave him a sense of what it must be like to live in a one-party state. Nowhere – airports, hospitals, waiting rooms – was safe from “the collectivisation of gaiety and the compulsory infliction of joy”. Maybe not, but universities come close.

At school we marked it all, from the first day of Advent to the end-of-term carol concert. (“Time wasted on foolishness at one’s children’s schools” was another Hitchens complaint about the season.) But semesterised rhythms mean that Christmas and the university are always slightly out of sync. The students seem more interested in Halloween – or perhaps that is just because it comes bang in the middle of term. The tradition of card-giving among my colleagues has largely died. Some cite environmental reasons, but actually it is because no one can be arsed.

The more festive lecturers prepare mulled wine and mince pies for their classes. The Scrooges among us just hand round one of those party boxes of chocolates (an annual experiment that demonstrates empirically that students will always leave the coconut ones uneaten).

And now we enter this weird interregnum. Christmas is still to come, but the university’s Christmas is over. The academic factory will soon go dark for the only time of the year. This (pace Lord Adonis) is our one season of enforced idleness.

At the school that I went to, my mother was a teacher. Waiting around for her after the final bell had gone, I came to enjoy the melancholy of a school building at the end of the day, with the polypropylene chairs stacked on tables, the newly mopped floors smelling of bleach and the unpeopled corridors echoing.

A university on the last day before the Christmas break has that same eerie feel. Only the remnants of other lives remain. One feels the weight not only of all the ghosts of university Christmases past, but of the years hurtling scarily by. “The jaded calendar revolves,” as Louis MacNeice put it in his poem An Eclogue for Christmas.

I pass by the school office, which is silent and stilled. There are slithers of tinsel wrapped round PC monitors and the usual office-party leavings: a half-empty carton of apple juice, some soggy Doritos, a few chocolate marshmallows wrapped in foil. The Christmas tree’s lights are off. The last post lies unsorted, including Christmas cards that will not now arrive in pigeonholes until January. As I buzz myself out, I switch off the lights behind me and say goodbye to yet another year.

Joe Moran is professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University.

Santa in a haystack

The Ghost of Christmas Recurring

Our household consists of two scientists and a neuroscience undergraduate student, so our festive family gatherings differ somewhat from those of the typical American family.

First, we lack any spiritual connection to the season; like many scientists, we think it wise to be agnostic about things that cannot be proven. This stance was buttressed by lessons from our only child when confronted with the data on Santa’s existence (p <0.09). She disputed early on the physics of a generous fat guy traversing the globe with eight featherless quadrupeds, hitting every house with a magical bounty in one evening. When she vocalised these apparent inconsistencies of our earthly realm, we did what most scientifically minded, logical parents do: we lied.

Over time, however, as small seasonal truths emerged, we adjusted our emphasis to exchanging trivial gifts and spending energy on family relationships. Our time together was limited, so optimising interaction was crucial. If done well, like the best scientific methods, then this experiment in festive joviality could be replicated again and again. We would not recall everything that we said, but we’d certainly remember how each gathering made us feel.

Unfortunately, while our home-lab contained a state-of-the-art oven, I singularly lacked the technique to make it yield any remotely mouthwatering results. I was a never-bloomer in the culinary arts and possessed only the limited experience of feeding myself on a minuscule budget during graduate school. When our daughter was small, she once pointedly assessed the quality of our family meal by asking: “Mommy, are you mad at us?”

Determined to up my game, one Christmas I bought a whole frozen turkey. I was going to redeem myself with a dinner worthy of a full magazine centrepiece. I dutifully read the cooking instructions and the additional information about removing the giblet gravy packet from within the turkey neck. I reached into the turkey and felt around for almost 10 minutes. The bird was huge and my hands were cold and blue, but no giblet gravy packet was to be found. Assuming that the slaughterhouse had forgotten to add it, I muttered that I’d wasted all that time looking for something that we’d toss in the trash anyhow.

My husband, who’d taught at a veterinary school for many years early in his career, looked at me with frank astonishment. “You won’t find the gravy packet where you are looking,” he remarked. “Your hand is not in the turkey’s neck. Your hand is up its rear end.” So now this colourful tale of my culinary ineptitude forms the centrepiece spread of our family Christmas story, shared every year with all who visit – and, strangely, never return.

Happy holidays.

Jennifer Schnellmann is associate professor of pharmacology at the University of Arizona.

Christmas on the beach

The Ghost of Christmas Never to Come

The Aussie Christmas – academic or otherwise – activates a series of clichés involving backyard barbecues, beer, cricket and Chardonnay. Yet Australian academics are split into two Christmas tribes. The traditional one is tanned, relaxed and hammered. The other one is overwrought, overtired – and increasingly overpopulated.

For the former group, the Christmas break begins in November, when the second semester finishes. Once the assessment committee concludes, the corridors empty. The car parks resemble a gathering of the Shane Warne Appreciation Society: that is, empty and desolate, regardless of the feral telemarketing and Twitter-selling. During this time, my Microsoft Calendar – the digital deity of our age – commands me to attend just five meetings a week, as opposed to 20-plus. Actual tasks can be completed during the working day. I can reply to and file emails, rather than hit “reply all” and hope for the best.

For this blessed subset of the academic community, Christmas is a time to live that old Catherine Tate slogan: “Am I bovvered?” To which the answer is no. Not at all. Drinking single malts and eating rum balls can commence at such a scale that academic colleagues can feel – in real time – the death of internal organs.

But for those who work for universities with three semesters in a calendar year rather than two, there is no room at the inn. The moment the second semester concludes in November, the summer session commences. Like Doctor Who’s Tardis, it is bigger on the inside than the outside: a full curriculum of work is presented in a truncated 10-week period that includes Christmas and New Year’s Day.

The sociology of the students working through this period is also challenging. They have either failed subjects and need to catch up or they hate university so much that they want to finish a three-year degree in 19 months. Their dislike of their degree is matched only by their disrespect for their teachers. They expect constant servicing of their emails, instant answers to their online discussion forum posts and hand-holding through their assignments. Yes, they expect academic gold, frankincense and myrrh on Christmas Day. And if they don’t get it, they report this lack of devotion to the head of school, who they also email on Christmas Day. I know about this, because I used to be that head of school. These students have the aura of the zombie apocalypse about them. If they are enrolled during the holidays, then they are taking everyone down with them. If they can’t party, no one can party.

Aussie Christmases are pretty wild and full of hazards, such as hot water coming out of both taps and people using two fingers to turn a blistering-hot car steering wheel. You need another shower after towelling yourself off from the first one and ceiling fans have a touch of the first scene of Apocalypse Now to them. They may just kill you. So might the snakes, spiders and sharks, all at the height of their summer activity. But relax – the snake-catcher is in attendance on campus. It will probably be fine.

Tara Brabazon is dean of graduate research and professor of cultural studies at Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia.

Christmas elephants

The Ghost of Christmas Omnipresent

The build-up has been stealthy but remorseless. The charity cards started thudding reproachfully on to the doormat in October and, by Bonfire Night, Marks & Spencer had cleared their shelves of sensible foodstuffs to load them with Christmas frivolities. BBC Radio 3 has been pumping out the winsome entries to its annual carol competition several times a day for an eternity.

And there’s no easy escape. In a small park in downtown Bangkok last year, I chanced upon a dusty Santa Claus and a team of limp reindeer in June – does Christmas come even earlier there, or maybe it just stays later? One Christmas vacation I absconded to Pakistan during Eid, ostensibly to see the work that a Pakistani PhD student of mine was doing there. It seemed like a safe bet, until I came across a Marks & Spencer stuffed full of garish Christmas goodies in the middle of Karachi. Bah, humbug!

But wait a second: have I actually ever read the tale (you know the one) from which that terse expostulation comes? I’ve seen the films, the musical, the cartoons, the ballet, the Blackadder parody. I’ve endured numerous eminent thesps giving us their Carol on the airwaves. But surely I owe it to Christmas past, present and yet to come to read the original?

And what a wonderful read it is. Dickens at full throttle: funny, angry, shamelessly sentimental, vivid, macabre and grotesque. No piece of screen trickery can capture the sheer oddness of his description of the door knocker that turns into the face of Scrooge’s late business partner, Marley: it “had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar”. What the Dickens can he mean, I wonder?

So I do what anyone does and Google it. And I’m indeed not the first person to have wondered: the eNotes website offering “homework help” lures me in with “what does Dickens mean when he says like a bad lobster?” – but demands payment for an answer. Bah, humbug. Someone called Coleen, on a “trivia” website, posts the same question, to which “Tabby Tom” points her to a Sheffield Hallam University bulletin board reporting that rotting mackerel give off a luminescent light due to the bacteria that make them decompose. A writers’ blog concludes with the self-admonition: “Every time I craft an original comparison, I’ll run it past the Bad Lobster.” (She considers Dickens’ simile obscure and forced.) But Howard, on a culinary forum, reports his alarm at finding his lobster salad glowing in the dark, so perhaps Dickens’ image isn’t so arcane after all? Luckily, Google also finds an Oregon State University posting that reassures us “that ‘glowing’ seafood does not present a food safety problem”.

Like Scrooge’s Christmas ghosts, Google whisks us magically to distant places. “I have endeavoured,” Dickens prefaces his Carol, “not to put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me”. Call me incorrigibly literal-minded, addicted to factoid trivia, or just a plain time-waster, but Dickens and the interdisciplinary lobster research that he prompted have indeed provided me with some enjoyable distraction from both work and the importunities of the season. And they’ve left me in a better mood to face whatever else Christmas demands. 

Nicholas Till is professor of opera and music theatre at the University of Sussex.



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Reader's comments (1)

The photo at the top (guy on bike) is NOT about Christmas. It is Sint Nicolaas (St Nicholas), whose birthday is celebrated on December 5, in the Netherlands and Belgium, with presents for the children and sometimes for adults. A bishop in Myra from the fifteenth century. The Dutch name is Sinterklaas.