The X-mas files

December 19, 2003

The THES serves up six pages of reflections on some of the changes that have been making many people in our society feel increasingly anxious and frightened

A harried head of departmentswamped by reports and audits sees his world overturned when a spectre of the past pays a visit in a holiday fantasy by Paul Magrs

They've decked the halls with calls for conference papers; sign-up sheets on faculty doors; recent amendments to complaints procedure.

There's festoons of limp-looking posters and flyers for readings swagged on noticeboards. Trodden-on letters from the library and gutted internal envelopes drift under leatherette banquettes and spill from pigeonholes: it's Friday evening at the end of Week 12 (Hurray!) and Christmas is coming.

Everybody's fled, of course. Only the twin photocopiers in this corridor make the occasional noise: the odd moan of exhaustion through their half-opened lids. The greenish flash of repetitive stress brought on by endless duplication, reduction, sorting and stapling... The endless, endless task of making handouts... And each year, at exactly this time, at the concrete entrance to the Arts Building, the Spirit moves again and returns to wander the breeze-block halls. He has a shufti through the debris, reading memos, spying in offices, catching the echoes of what's being learnt and taught here nowadays: these oh-so hectic, these oh-so accountable, transparently latterday days.

Merry Christmas.

Here he comes. Jocular, wayward, the King of Misrule. Ruddy-faced and beaming - a sort of Willy Wonka of postwar letters - obsessed with Dickens and other grotesques, yet not averse to poststructuralist theory (or anything a bit Frenchy) and, frankly, on pleasure bent.

They've restructured the front doors of his old school, it seems. Suddenly they're zippy, automatic and so sensitive that they swish open even when a ghost happens to hover in their sensor beams. So he skips through the double air-lock into the department and up the stairs. And here - ah, evidence of the much talked-about institutional restructuring. He can tell: burly fellas in plastic coveralls and masks have been mincing about with drills and heavy-duty machinery, evidently: the toilets, their cisterns, the tiles, the urinals, all have been hacked to bits. There's still a plastic tent around the entrance to the gents' with an asbestos warning taped to its softly fluttering sides. Muffled bangs and crashes from the toilets all day long, and soft mists and powders still gusting out: this lovely fake snow settling on the stairwell. It makes him cough as he glides into the English department.

Gently wheezing and groaning in time with the duplication machines, he remembers that it was 20 years ago that they pulled all the asbestos out of here, like silk hankies out of a magician's sleeve. About the same time they banned smoking in seminars. Ripples of irony around his heavenly aura, a wreath of holly on his snow-white hair, and he muses on the relative frequency of respiratory problems among full-time faculty... and he chuckles with black humour (as is his wont) as he checks out the paper trail left lying about. All the drafts and redrafts and minutes and the glittering tinsel of quality assurance documentation.

What a lot of writing they do! He approves of their industry, their deep moral seriousness and severe application. In short, their rigour. But the Spirit has to admit that he deplores their prose. It's so much like Spin (as they call it now) he's almost dizzy. It's all very abstract and could do with Sexing Up.

Program Specs? Learning Outcomes? Aims and objectives?

Ho ho ho.

But the prose in this place is aching for transparency, too. For accountability, for these "Learning Outcomes". The prose in this place - and the poetry, too - is straining towards the same clarity of purpose and ease of motion as the new double doors with their swish sensitivity.

All this form-filling. He can feel that strain still hanging in the air.

The chuntering acronyms seethe and scrabble in the ether: TQA, QAA, RAE.

Like anything cryptic, arcane, opaque, they have a ring of desperate seriousness about them.

He remembers when everything was about pleasure - all learning, all reading, all writing. And teaching was an excuse to impart the idea of pleasure, of adventure, and this was why he came here to work in the first place. A good King Wenceslas who last looked in this time last Christmas and will continue to do so, as he has ever since the place was built, even though the story gets bleaker each year, the footsteps (and coursework) a bit harder to mark.

Mark my footsteps good, my pages...

There's talk here, in the papers he shuffles, of Institutional Audit.

Another Spirit that will come in January to stalk these halls and pry into these filing cabinets. It will, apparently, rustle through the Paper Trails and follow the connections. It will, they say, Drill Down - but not as noisily as the overalled men in the toilets. He catches a whisper of this impending visitation in the ether of the place. Or maybe he hears it through virtual means, since this Ghost of Christmas Past has become so proficient, these past few years in surfing the streams of email messages, the strings of ineffable data and chat that go ping, ping, ping, hour by hour, into all these distended Inboxes. Everything has turned so paperless.

But he likes the feel of paper. He likes the smooth, rough, wrinkled texture of pages to turn, to bend, to cut, to scribble on. They call it hard copy now, and he approves of the term. Hard copy that's fibrous and knotty, that he can annotate in felt-tip with messages of encouragement. He's not sure what he thinks of all these cc'd missives: forwarded and shunted from pillar to post, with everyone "copied in". It all sounds rather busy to him. Rather hectic and bloodless.

And what's this? Junk mail arriving on the television sets people have in their offices. Curious gifts from strangers: invites to Boobworld, and to buy something called Viagra online. Do they still get invites to speak at conferences? Do they have proper means of communication with the outside world? To the Ghost, it looks as if they all sit in their offices watching their screens and streams of data.

He reads their messages and decides that he quite likes the sound of these very young things who teach here nowadays. The young experts, who think of this University as an Old University, because it was flung up, thrown up, strung up, in the 1960s. They're ever so busy, they're ever so harried, these young professional academics.

He wonders how they've ever had time to think, to really read and consider, since it's all been so quick for them. He feels for them. He can feel the bristle, the tension of their industry - their bearing the brunt of increased student numbers, of top-down management, of assessment and research outcomes. And he feels so sorry for them. In his day, it was different. There was a bit more flouncing. A bit more messing about. In his day, there was still space and time for the dilettante and the luxurious amateurism of the expert. Especially when it came to novels.

He remembers coming to look at this place when there was nothing here but a few Tonka toys and prefabricated huts. The future Head of the Department walked him out into the muddy fields under the leaden December sky and sketched out what would be here one day. A whole new university of concrete and glass. Everything still to be invented. All the old nonsense swept away.

Seems like a long time ago, now.

So, he thinks: If I'm the Ghost of Christmas Past, if I'm Yesterday's Man and I can sense the drab spectre of Christmas Future about to turn up to examine the Paper Trail... Where is Christmas Present? And why aren't they celebrating the season?

Why, the present Head of the Department is having a sulk in the stationery cupboard, by the lifts. He's barricaded himself in with box files and heaps of headed notepaper and he's refusing to come out.

The Ghost of Christmas Past gently coaxes him to dig himself out and be festive. Throw your homework on the fire! Let your hair down! It's the end of term! Everyone's gone home!

The Ghost of Christmas Present shakes his head dumbly. He stares in appalled dread at the tipsy Ghost of the Past. He wants to be left alone.

"Has it all become too much?" his jocular antecedent asks. "All the box-ticking, box-ticking, box-ticking? Your AHRBs and your QAAs?"

The Head of the Department crouches lower in the corner of the cupboard, hoping the ghost won't come any closer. He is still wrestling with being positive over the changes to come. He can see great opportunities opening up: the challenge of throwing everything up in the air and restructuring everything in sight. Of saving money. Of making money. No, he can't. He can see impending disaster. He can just see the pressure. He can just see budgets being squeezed and squeezed...

"The cleaners tried to throw me out... " he whimpers. "But I hid in here. Are they still around? Can I sneak back to my office?"

Christmas Past watched the cleaners leave the building - twists of tinsel on their trolleys, all of them wearing party hats. "They're gone," he assures the Head.

"They're out for my blood," the Head whispers. "Everyone's after me.

They've all got it in for me."

"Never mind. Let's have a drink. Toast the season, before the Ghost of Christmas to Come turns up."

The Head looks alarmed at this. But he follows the ghost to his office and finds that it's been tinsel-trimmed. There's even a little tree, teeming with baubles, next to his PC. The Ghost is trying to make things a bit more Christmassy for him, but there's heaps of tidy paperwork everywhere. "What are these? Essays?"

"That's the Paper Trail," the Head sniffs. "That's what I'm still working on. Tidying it up. It's an endless, thankless task. Making everything connect with everything else. Making everything Accountable, Transparent, Explicable. Do you know how hard that is in a place like this? The kind of people I have to work with?"

The Ghost nods and swigs his mulled wine. "This is all for the Audit Ghost, hmm? He'll be sniffing through all of these forms, hmm?" He riffles through the sheets on the table in front of him.

The Head nods. "And if he finds gaps or mistakes or a minute not minuted, and action point not followed up... then it's my head for the block. That's what they don't realise. The academics, the students. I'm shielding them from the world out there. The scary world out there. All the spirits milling about on the perimeter of campus. The pressures coming down on us, to Find Us Out... "

"It all sounds very interesting," yawns the Ghost, staring out of the third-floor window at the flat black fields. Looks to him like there's snow coming.

"And complaints!" the Head cries. "That's all we get! Everyone complaining! Everyone demoralised, sniping, chuntering, getting litigious!"

The Ghost shrugs. "Perhaps if you made the Complaints Procedure less Transparent, fewer would bother? Make it complicated, labyrinthine. That's what we used to do. That's what bureaucracy's for, man! They soon give up!"

The Head shakes his head and puts it in his hands. "It's a different world now. It's all different. You don't understand."

"No, it isn't," says the Ghost. "It's the same world. It's just the same.

It's only rules and regulations. It's only paperwork. But it's Christmas! You shouldn't be doing it now, my dear."

The Head has a wild look in his eye. "You can help me. If we both work together, through the night, through the next day ... through the 12 days of Christmas if we have to... we can get it all done. We can get the papers in order, ready for the Audit Spirit ... " "Me?" laughs the Ghost. "Oh, I was always dreadful at the admin. Used to hide it. Never bothered."

"But you have to! We all have to! We have to Manage!"

"I'm afraid not," smiles the Ghost.

But he relents when, to his shock, the Head of Department starts to cry. He pats him on the shoulder and agrees to help him out.

"If we get down to it," sobs the Head, "we might just ... Hang on - what are you doing? Come back!"

The Ghost has seized up an armful of the tidy documents. Now he's over by the Head's window. He's flinging it open, and the night winds steal into the office, bringing with them the first flurries of snow.

"You'll mess them up! Everything's in order!" cries the Head. "The Paper Trail!"

But the Ghost just cackles with maniacal glee as he tosses the first batch of papers into the night. He follows it up with another load of neatly wordprocessed forms.

"The Programme Specs!" howls the Head, tearing at his whitened hair.

"All gone! All gone!" laughs the Ghost. "Merry Christmas!" He dashes to the desk, grabs more files, and chucks them out the window, too. "Gone! Gone! Hurray!"

"The evaluations! The complaints procedure... !"

The papers are tearing and wheeling away like birds in the black sky. The Ghost of Christmas Past nods in satisfaction as he watches them go. "Just try following them!" And he turns to look for more to despatch. "Where's your Inbox?" he bellows at the Head.

And there's nothing the Head can do.

"Away! Away! And God bless us, one and all!"

Paul Magrs is senior lecturer in English and creative writing at the School of English and American Studies at the University of East Anglia.

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