Don's diary: posters at dawn

April 11, 2003

Ask students for the causes and effects of 9/11. They produce long lists, but I am dismayed that Palestine is not mentioned. Return to office to stick poster supporting the Palestinian cause on wall outside office. After all, complexity theory indicates cause and effect can be disproportionate. My poster will have a massive effect on student awareness of the intifada. Spot pig flying past window.

My poster has disappeared! Ruminate on whether students are now so poor they have to steal material from tutors to decorate their walls.

Discover that posters advertising an Iraq war protest vigil are being taken down by the porters. Return to office as woman with a mission.

Write prissy email to campus manager: "Please can you tell me if there is a policy concerning the removal of material deemed to be 'political' from walls? And if so, with what justification?"

Receive reply almost immediately, citing fire risks and health and safety legislation as the reason for removing "defacement" from the campus walls.

But there's a keeping-up-appearances element too: "I'm all for freedom of speech but if this means that the fabric of the campus is spoiled in the process..."

Notice this email correspondence is copied to others. Presumably, watching foolhardy academics being torn to pieces by lion-hearted guardians of campus propriety is a popular spectator sport.

I reply, recalling a student who told me how sad the lack of sustained political debate between students made her. Just manage to delete the ultra-sarcastic sentence "Surely the campus would be tidier if we banned students entirely?", before pressing send.

Receive email from someone I've never heard of: "In my experience, paper generally burns, posters stuck to walls in protected escape routes ie corridors do constitute a fire risk, end of story." New correspondent turns out to be campus supremo, manager of all campus managers and, clearly, possessor of absolute knowledge. An informant - a master of understated sartorial elegance - says the campus supremo wears only suits.

Ponder on replies to the besuited supremo. Wonder if the impersonality of emails is allowing us to generate fighting talk, whereas if we met face-to-face, politeness and civility would reign. Perhaps he would be glad to know that there's a big poster for a Summer Ball inside a building that his porters have inexplicably overlooked? Or shall I tell him that risk is a social construction, à la Adams, and that the fire risks from political posters should be borne gladly to help preserve democracy? Or should I lecture him on how risk characterises late modernity (pace Beck) and that it is futile to try to reduce his exposure to it? Or should I tell him straight that the legalistic, juridical model of power he employs (suit and risk-wise) is way past its discursive credibility date?

Talk to my manager, who clearly thinks I am being somewhat eccentric in pursuing this issue, but is too polite to say so. I think I have a bad case of protest fatigue. (Yes, Saddam should be deposed. But war that isn't the last resort is wrong.) Decide I need a new displacement activity. What to do? Ah yes, there's this nice woman at The THES who lets needy academics write Don's Diaries...

Amanda Root is senior lecturer in sociology, University of Gloucestershire.

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