Sally Feldman

November 9, 2007

Gossip has been raging like a bushfire this week round the Harrow campus where my school is based. Someone swears they saw Tom the electrician dancing on a table with Liz from illustration. Mark the project manager was reported to have got unbuttoned with the fashion team. And there were apparently even fisticuffs when one of the salvage crew was attacked by an artist. He'd expressed mild scepticism about a piece of student work: an installation made of builders' rubble that had unfortunately tumbled on to his head.

It all happened at our recent topping-out party. We were celebrating the completion of our temporary building, erected in record time - just six weeks after fire destroyed our art school. We drank, we flirted, we caroused. And we handed out medals, crafted by our ceramics department, as we thought it would be nice for the contractors who had worked on the building to have a souvenir made in it.

The atmosphere was euphoric, with the builders having a great time and many academics appearing bemused, unused to such high-spirited, uncomplicated fun.

For the construction world, the topping-out party is routine: a standard ritual for thanking everyone for a job well done. But for the assembled university staff it was a bizarre manifestation of tribal camaraderie. They're just not very accustomed to celebration.

How often does the department rejoice when someone wins a research grant or publishes a book? Even when they do turn out, they're unlikely to whistle, stamp their feet and cheer. More often, they'll exchange sotto voce confidences about how the book really isn't as good as her last one and the advance was paltry.

Even the most modest attempt to praise people can backfire. This is partly a throwback to the clerical origins of our profession. The first universities were peopled by monks who, in flowing garments designed for untrammelled contemplation, would eschew earthly considerations in favour of the life of the mind. It's an ethos that still prevails. To be a scholar, you must be serious, undistracted by trivia.

So those who see social skills as a threat to their intellectual integrity tend to mistrust manners as a managerial trick and praise as so much insincere gush, especially in the more sceptical disciplines. Sociologists are suspicious of gestures because they know how to deconstruct them. Literature scholars are reminded of perfidious plotters who can smile and smile and be a villain. Historians have seen it all before.

And that endemic ethos of cynicism means that any overeffusive greeting will cause an academic to start wondering what the catch is. If you send a letter of congratulation for achieving your student numbers, they'll suspect you're going to raise the target. If you invite everyone to drinks to mark a promotion, the rest of the team will assume that you're going to announce a restructuring.

That's if they read your message at all. Aware that my memos get thrown in the bin and e-mails relegated unread to trash, I've taken to sending postcards instead, usually of art or photography. But that can be hazardous. Have you any idea how many works of art carry suggestive messages? If I'm trying to send a nice note to any man on my staff I have to avoid all pre-Raphaelites, Madonnas and Surrealists. Nudes are out. Don't even consider Nan Goldin.

Thank goodness for the cult of the banal. But, even then, you have to be careful. Too bare a landscape or too apocalyptic a vision will be treated as a subtext for the future of the department; anything cheerful a typical example of sugary mendacity. Someone once threatened to take a grievance out when I sent a gracious note after an exhibition opening. The image? An Eames chair - about as neutral as I could find. The trouble was, the chair was empty.

You can't really blame the academics, though. They're just not used to being appreciated. They're not even used to common courtesy most of the time. Higher education seems to operate on blame rather than reward. In a world dominated by increasing weights of unmeetable targets, most institutions panic about what is still wrong and forget how much is still right: how committed people are to their students, how expert in their subjects and how much they invest in their jobs.

On the odd occasion when there is some attempt at acknowledgement, it's usually in that grudging, budget-conscious faculty style: flat Cava, stale Twiglets and curling sandwiches. There's rarely any joy, any showbiz, any razzmatazz to make our rites of passage meaningful and to affirm our collective consciousness. It's one lesson we'd do well to learn from the building trade.

So next time someone retires, or you've finished annual course monitoring, or finals are over or you've completed the research assessment exercise submission, bring out the balloons and the champagne, sprinkle some glitter, turn up the jazz - and have a topping-out party.

Sally Feldman is dean of the School of Media, Arts and Design at Westminster University.

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