It's the silly season

The summer-school kids, the builders and the conference-goers may be busy, but for academics, the mid-year 'holiday' on campus seems inimical to serious work. John Brinnamoor offers his theory of postgraduation languor

August 10, 2007

I am typing this at home, late at night. This cramped sanctuary, where I am hunched over a laptop while sitting jammed between the central-heating boiler and the back door, is the only one left to me - except the pub, which I will be forced to try shortly.

It's the same every summer. The whole university turns into a cross between a theme park, an urban warfare training facility and a cement works.

First, the narrow campus roads fill up with coaches as unlikely combinations of rich-looking, hormone-fuelled young summer-school students and gnarled, embittered academic conference-goers start to pile into the student accommodation. The noble lads from Security, Armed Forces veterans to a man, take one look at the explosive combination and shake their heads sadly - before retiring to practise their riot-control drill behind the bike sheds.

Then, as though on some unheard cue, immense builders' skips appear like mushrooms overnight - an awful portent to those who can read the runes of campus life. Soon, the air is filled with the heady miasma of hot tar and broiling human flesh as the contractors have another go at finding out why flat roofs don't work in places where it rains nine tenths of the year.

If it isn't the roof, it will be the ceiling tiles, on account of having broken so many when they changed all the lights for new energy-efficient (but hopelessly dim) bulbs last summer.

Forced out of my office this week by a hearty cry of "Don't worry, mate, just you sit tight - we'll be done in a jiffy!" I headed over to the library to bulk out next year's reading list. Most of the floor I required was cordoned off while they tried to stop the primordial air-conditioning system dribbling oily water all over Restricted Loan. Our subject librarian, keen and helpful as always, offered to limbo under the tape and retrieve any volumes I wanted - a task that ought to be considered as an Olympic sport.

Sadly, it was browsing I needed, not targeted plundering, so I wandered off to my favourite coffee shop for a restorative latte, only to discover that it was closed for the summer ("There's no call, squire..."). The alternative venue, avoided by the cognoscenti at the best of times, was filled to bursting point with prospective students and their doting parents fighting territorial battles over plates of dangerous-looking iced biscuits.

If you have read this far, you have probably decided that this is another trite little academic moaning session about what rubbish our support services are - but that ain't it.

Think about it. Why does everything awkward and messy get left until the summer break? I reckon it is at least partly because we would raise hell if anyone tried to replace so much as a light bulb, or rent out a lecture room, during term time - just in case it infringed our academic freedom in some bizarre way. If there is a simple cause of this problem, ladies and gents - it is you and me.

From Easter onwards, we have a tendency to say "We'll look at it over the summer," in reply to any question we don't like the sound of - especially when we really mean "I never want to hear that idea ever again". As soon as graduation is over, and hats have been thrown in the air as dictated solely by American teen movies, we tend to go off the boil, to lose our edge, to log out - to vegetate. My diagnosis is post-graduation languor - which is similar to the better-known postgraduate languor, but is much more dangerous and applies equally to all ranks of academia.

The coffee room in the department is first to show the physical symptoms. Superannuated yoghurts swell and detonate in the fridge, while the milk sours and separates. The coffee pot, left empty for hours on the heat, develops a black scale impervious to all known solvents. The reason for this squalor is that the self-appointed Fridge Tsar has gone on holiday and no one else has anything approaching their lack of tolerance.

Then there is the crucial piece of expensive equipment that only one person knows how to operate - that person now being somewhere in darkest Patagonia with no e'mail or mobile phone. Only the bitter memory of the last repair bill prevents us from trying it anyway.

Few of us are anything approaching snappy dressers, but by the end of July we are a bunch of slobs even by our own low standards. Somewhere, no doubt, there is a place for flip-flops, shorts, vest and sarong - but it isn't on an overweight, balding male lecturer. Trust me.

All these are expressions of what I believe is really wrong with the way we look at the world. Deep down, we believe that the Edwardian concept of the long summer break, where everyone trooped off to country-house parties for a bit of elegant social networking, should still have a place in academia.

For those who haven't noticed, we are now a major industry - with targets, deadlines, initiatives and all the other paraphernalia of big business. If we are going to make it through the next few long hot summers, we need to acknowledge that.

I honestly feel that we need to build organisations that don't rely on a two month lump of downtime every year in order to keep functioning - a model that treats development activities and maintenance as just another aspect of daily life, rather than something to be saved up for the summer holidays. Above all, we need to develop a system that allows us to manage our campuses without their looking like post-apocalyptic street theatre.

I don't know whether the answer lies in four-term academic years, two-year undergraduate degrees or whatever - but I don't think that the model so many of us still cling to can, or should, survive much longer. It will be a costly venture, of course, in all sorts of ways - not least in resourcing our support services so that they can function effectively, develop and respond, on a continuous basis.

In case you are wondering why I am typing this at the back of my kitchen, it is because my kids are back from university and the rest of the house is filled with them and their mates celebrating the fact that they are free for the summer. That thought alone should evoke your sympathy.

And now, I'm off to the pub - where they knew all about customer care long before there was a course in it.

John Brinnamoor is a pseudonym.

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