Parallel lives

December 15, 2006

An academic and his undergraduate son at the same university offer different perspectives on an issue. This month: the season of goodwill

The father

Just occasionally, something your offspring says surprises you. We were sitting in the pub, and I was savouring one of those father-son discussions that I find myself valuing so highly. We talked about his flatmates, the vagaries of university administration - then he came out with it. "Isn't washing powder expensive?" An innocuous phrase, but a mark of his passage into the adult world. Odd, though, that it has taken him until this point of the term to find out.

This was a moment of unusual calm, as the department has started gearing up for the research assessment exercise, with all the attendant panic that that implies. Furtive meetings have been held, plaintive e-mails sent and publication lists are being scoured for the academic pixie dust that will transport us to that next rung on the golden ladder of success.

I looked guiltily at my list when it was dropped off by our manically motivated administrator who pointed out the deadline if I wanted to add to it. The entries are regular, sound scholarly and demonstrate what at the time seemed a robust approach to the development of my field. But let's be frank - none of them is likely to make a citation classic. Should I face facts and ask for teaching-only duties? Is it less of a slap in the face if I suggest it, rather than waiting to be told? Perhaps it is the Christmas present my department head hopes for?

Meanwhile, I have spent days trying to build a pointless report that goes to the management team on Monday, where it will be added to the fatuous scheme that goes to faculty board and eventually wind up in some unread appendix of a paper that the members of Senate will spill coffee on.

People just wouldn't leave me alone. My e-mail pinged every minute, so I turned it off, then wasted time wondering what was arriving. Students queued outside my office, asking whether I really did mean Friday was the last date for the coursework. Why would I make it up? I shut the door, which made it worse. I could see the shadows of their feet under the door and hear murmured - disparaging - remarks about my lack of availability.

The administrator is cross with me, despite her office being decorated with a "Peace on Earth" banner. She wants to know if I am going on the course she sent me an e-mail about. It is about time management, apparently.

The son

Christmas is coming, the students are getting malnourished. Their loans are running out and the cupboard is almost bare.

A pall of barely suppressed panic hung over the university like a shroud in the lead-up to the end of term. Deadlines were piling up. For my first essay, I was given three weeks, but that very rapidly became tomorrow morning. And after that, it was an essay a week for the rest of term. Three weeks suddenly seemed a long time...

And just as the cartons of eye-reddening extra-strong cola started to stack up in my room, the Christmas trees were going up and the Christmas parties were in the works. This all seemed ridiculous to me since, to my mind, I had only started uni a fortnight ago, but it appeared to be a widely held belief, so I just had to go along with it. At any rate, it meant we were getting a holiday, and I wasn't going to tell anyone it couldn't be time for one yet, just in case they agreed.

Anyway, I'm fairly sure the lecturers wouldn't give us a Christmas holiday if they hadn't set the exams to start after we get back. If there is one thing the average lecturer loves more than setting an essay before you go away for the weekend, it's reminding you about the exam before you go off on holiday, with that smirking "I don't do exams" smile they must teach to all lecturers at some kind of big college.

And while we're on the subject of Scrooge lecturers, you'd think that after we've all gone to the time and trouble of writing these essays, printing them, buying our own paperclips, and walking all the way to the department office to hand them in, the least they could do would be to let us forget about them for a few weeks. But no, just before we broke up, there was a seminar to give us the highlights of what we were all being marked down for.

All I can hope is that they all get a performance review next week. That'd show that there's a God. Merry soddin' Christmas.

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