From where I sit - To the Collaborators, the spoils

August 4, 2011

The University of Western Australia's Arts Building is a solemn 1930s stone structure, built beside the Swan River estuary but lacking the panache of other campus edifices with their hints of De Chirico. Inside the three floors are composed largely of brick of reddish hue, although some sectors are painted what is now a begrimed white. The floor is covered by an aged yellowy lino, clean but scarcely sparkling. It is a comfortable-looking place where undergraduates and staff have mingled through the decades, although they do that rather less now because there are fewer tutorials and because so many erstwhile academic rooms have been occupied by administrators; the doubtless ever-laborious chief assistants to the assistant chief.

Just another university building, then, indistinguishable from thousands of others in Australia and the rest of the world. Yet one corridor is not like the rest. There the brickwork has been painted a brilliant white. An unkind critic might wonder if its candidness does not suggest a cancer ward, although perhaps it is meant only as a backdrop, and soon the ghost of Sodoma will fresco it like the walls of the abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore near Siena. No lino here; instead streaky grey carpet tiles that evoke thunderclouds and the trampling down of tumultuous emotions.

For this corridor is the forum of the leaders of the Collaboratory, as they call their major exchange activity with proud neologism, that for the next seven years will explore the history of emotions in Europe between 1100 and 1800. Here reside the scholars who, with a team that spans the nation and the world, won the lottery of 2010's Australian Research Council grants. For seven fat years to come, the Collaborators will have more than A$24 million (£16 million) to enjoy.

When the news came, there was euphoria in the Faculty of Arts, even if a few oldsters wondered at the claim in the presentation that must have swept away the judging panel: "Pre-modern emotions shape: our personal and social lives (emotional well-being); our sense of our past (heritage); our cultural reference points (arts); Europeans' first contacts with our Indigenous people and our Asian region." But we put any doubts behind us and marvelled at an Australian government so richly funding the arts, making a note humbly to keep track of the Collaboratory's achievement (at www.emotions.uwa.edu.au).

But as the Arts Building is now showing, it is a rare wind that does not blow somebody harm. While the Collaborators rejoice in shiny paint and new carpet, and even have a logo displaying what looks like a fragmented and presumably emotion-struck face of red, blue and white, while they discourse profoundly about their subject with clever people from overseas, while they savour just how many postdoctoral Fellows to appoint this year and next, and while they get on with writing their promised seven scholarly articles each year and their "definitive" books, unluckier beings make do with lino and a familiar brickwork.

They thus experience what at least ostensibly is the downside of the apartheid that spreads in academic life between those with enough luck, contacts and effrontery to win grants and bask in Elysium, and those who are left with "mere" undergraduate teaching and curiosity-driven individual research. Only we old men mutter into our sparse beards that undergraduate teaching is a joy for ever, and real books cannot be written without it. Only we old men know that collaboration needs resistance to make it emotionally and politically whole.

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