Don's diary: Christmas reflections

December 24, 2004

In the uneventful life of a university lecturer, the smallest victories and defeats assume epic qualities. This would explain the peculiar feeling of deflation I experience when I spot a handwritten poster today from a student trying to sell all the books for one of my courses.

The poster states: "Most of these books are brand new (that is to say not read). Some of them are almost new (that is to say partially read with a few marks in the margin)." But I am soon cheered by the discovery that an anonymous Santa has placed a packet of Minstrels in the Christmas stocking I jokingly hung on my office door.

It's the night of the Christmas staff-student pub quiz. There are the usual drunken but good-humoured postmortems about half-right answers to ambiguously worded questions. Most academics are bet-hedging relativists, but pub quizzes demand theological certainty. Your answer gets a point or it doesn't; awarding half-marks is the coward's option.

Each member of staff is assigned to a student team and, in the manner of the parlour game Humiliation, in David Lodge's Changing Places (in which an English academic admits to not having read Hamlet and loses his job), I disgrace myself by failing to recognise the last line of The Tempest and bring my team in second from last.

Passing through the photocopier room, I overhear two colleagues discussing exam invigilation. Half an hour later, they are still there, only now they are talking about Julian Clary's chances of winning Strictly Come Dancing . This leads me to wonder who invented the "water cooler moment" - that ubiquitous and inaccurate term for anything that is likely to generate discussion at work.

For the modern-day academic, it's not water coolers but photocopiers that are the equivalent of the tribal campfire or the parish pump, where gossip, folklore and opinions about last night's telly are exchanged.

Arrive at work later than usual and suffer the typical punishment of the tardy: not being able to find a space in the car park.

Clark Kerr, the former president of the University of California, once said that the modern university had no conception of the common pursuit of knowledge and was just "a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking". He presumably meant that parking was a trivial matter compared with the weightier concerns of academic disciplines.

I wonder if he would feel the same today, when the political economy of parking spaces has become as fraught as with any other piece of real estate.

I go to see Enduring Love at Liverpool's new Fact (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) cinema. Like me, the lead character is a university lecturer called Joe. But, unlike me, he wows his students in lectures by using swear words and rakishly inquiring about their love lives. Why are cinematic lectures so unrealistic? Lecturers in films are either caddish poseurs or charismatic geniuses who move their students to tears by standing on tables and reading out poems, à la Dead Poets Society .

I guess you can get away with that sort of thing if you wear your glasses as photogenically as Daniel Craig.

Joe Moran teaches English and American studies at Liverpool John Moores University. His book Reading the Everyday is out next summer from Routledge.

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