From where I sit - Fine words and a handful of dust

March 3, 2011

"Philip and I will be able to give you more granularity if you want." No, this was not the Queen speaking.

For one thing, she would perhaps have said "We and Philip", and I certainly hope she would have omitted the word "granularity". With a bit of luck, she might believe "details" would do, or even "facts". But no, even in my current refuge at the University of Reading in the UK, my dean of arts at the University of Western Australia offers me "granularity".

As I read her email, my thoughts flashed back to my boyhood, when my mother subscribed to Reader's Digest. It had a section titled "It Pays to Increase Your Word Power". Was it then that my writing career as a historian took off on its track towards some eventual payment and not a lot of power? Are "granularity", to "granularise" and "granularification" the latest management-speak words that will assist stick-in-the-mud humanities academics, after "diarisation", to progress their publications to a rewarding tally? Maybe.

Maybe not. Could my dean have chosen "granularity" over "details" or "facts" as a euphemism, not so much to say something as not to say it? After all, the event that was being "granularised" was the Excellence in Research for Australia programme, often called, euphoniously for a historian, the ERA (so long as it proves passing). In this exercise, Western Australia did only so-so.

Of course, a mere dean was not really called on to explain or explain away the university's disappointing score; her focus was the Faculty of Arts. Alas, it did relatively worse than other sectors, even if my history department earned a respectable 4 (falling behind institutions such as the universities of Sydney and Melbourne, which scored 5s).

I'm still awaiting the "granularity", but although the dean and her numerous assistants may grind the story and its moral exceeding small, I have a feeling that an acute student of fascism will detect the bastone e carota lurking in their recommendations. And, of course, they will pass responsibility for the "failure" on to the academics; they and not the managers will be the ones in need of improvement and/or chastisement.

Will the ERA have much effect in the great scheme of things? In my heart and brain, I think not. Research assessment exercises are an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual lie, one that dominates our strange contemporary world. Everyone, including academics, must favour "transparency". Once transparent information is honed into a list, we must be happy and satisfied.

No matter if, in every exercise I've ever known, the process towards "truth" has been conditioned by manipulation, falsehood, the interplay of patron-client networks and other personal factors ranging from nepotism to sexual connections.

No matter, because the inseparable partner of transparency and its proof of unchallengeable numerical hierarchy is the lottery, the utterly imponderable play of chance that chooses one and not another. Just as did the lotteries of 18th-century Naples and Harlem in the 1920s, it allows the majority of us who are perennial losers to pinch ourselves and say "there with the grace of some god or other go I" (and simultaneously hope that we alone one day will find a secret and certain way to fix the lottery and win).

Yet, eternally awaiting that paradise and enduring ever more lists, we fearfully acknowledge that the devil is always in the granularity.

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