Don's diary: dark days ahead

October 3, 2003

Freshers' week: an academic springtime full of hope, expectations and eager students with a look on their faces that reminds me of first-year secondary school children before they become hardened to their new institution.

We have been congratulated by the dean on a good clearing period. In my subject, numbers have soared and we seem to be thriving. Yet, on my desk sits the second of a series of redundancy letters that we have all received, reminding me that in my grey granite building this week is the playing out of both a beginning and an end for the different groups living out their lives within it.

As I enter my building, I sense the insidious silent sadness that permeates the long dark corridors. Staff are picketing a management meeting later today and all talk is about redundancy.

How can we concentrate on the beginning of teaching next week when this hangs over us? People try to push it away. We must focus on the students, we must get on with writing, we must plan for the future, be creative... but what if we don't have a future? The doubts and fears return. My letter sits there in the middle of my desk mocking me. I see the fear and anxiety on the faces of friends and colleagues. They scan the jobs columns. Time is spent not on preparation but survival; writing applications and submissions. Families depend on it. Children have to be provided for, mortgages paid. All thoughts of planning for holidays, Christmas, weekends disappear. I remember a question in my finals literature paper all those years ago: "'All's cheerless, dark and deadly.' ( King Lear , V, iii). Discuss."

Meet and greet the day with our new students. We all smile and joke as we explain what will unfold over the next three years. They cannot know our worries and concerns and we must not show them. We have to capture their enthusiasm and nurture it until it creates new knowledge for them. It's sheer dark theatre.

Afterwards, I hear a colleague has collapsed. The stress of what hangs over us is too much. We go bleeding to the doctor but we won't go sick. Now is not the time to appear weak in any way. We must not appear to be unable to do the job.

I reread an old lecture on work and the selling of our labour and I am reminded of the Marxist notion: "When we are at work, we are not at home. When we are at home, we are not at work." I realise that I am indeed only a resource. It can't be any other way.

At my desk again. Student numbers are high and we worry about how we are going to teach them all. But there on my desk sits that letter reminding me that we are to lose staff not gain more. Colleagues meet and discuss the "skills audit" that we all have to complete to show we are worth keeping.

The end of a worrying week. I sign three more contracts for books and chapters, which raises my mood. I like to write. It makes me feel human and creative, a nice way to begin the weekend. Then I start auditing my skills and I sense that dark, deep depression slowly returning.

On Monday teaching begins and I am ready... but for what?

Michael Presdee is reader in criminology, University of Sunderland.

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