Don's Diary

July 17, 1998


The weekend of my mother's 80th birthday. My siblings have been assembled from around the globe, no mean feat of organisation, and we are off to a lunch for 42 at a Sussex hotel. This event is very proper, yet surprisingly successful. We are riveted to see people not sighted for decades. As erstwhile sociologist of the family, my eyes and ears are professionally attuned to what others might regard as mere gossip.


The second of three interminable undergraduate exam boards. Each meeting is prefaced by a formal announcement that the university is committed to equal opportunities, but as we mark scripts anonymously for this very reason it is not clear how we can respond to it at this stage. This one is for the first year. The expansion of higher education seems to have expanded student casualties and I have to speak to the plight of several of my tutees. I describe one of them as having had a "year of hell" and realise that I am borrowing the title of a recent episode of Star Trek: Voyager. Captain Janeway excised that particular year from the time line, but my student will not be able to do this.


A selection committee for promotion to a personal chair. These are interesting for the interviewers, and useful for management purposes, but a bit grim for the candidate who is being grilled by internal colleagues as well as external assessors. Since our man is in visual arts, I ask him how we might exploit our location in fashionable Clerkenwell and turn the foyer into an art gallery. He says this is like asking someone at a party "you're an artist, what colour shall I paint my sitting-room?" I am impressed by this robust response in a stressful situation.


Another exam board. We meet in the Senate Suite, as all lecturers and tutors on a large modular degree scheme must attend. This means that a lot of the time we are discussing students we have not taught, which can get boring. At Microsoft, where they know that creative people get bored, they hand out toys as you go into a meeting, but we are offered only the prospect of a cup of tea. Over the years an informal but inviolable seating code has developed around the senate table - sociologists and philosophers sit to one side facing the economists, the psychologists sit at the end facing the chair. Psychology is expanding so fast they have not really got enough seats at their end, but disciplinary identification prevents them from spilling round the corners. For the first time in living memory one of them advances an actual psychological interpretation of a student's behaviour: I perk up.

In a moment of boredom I count the number of research person-hours this meeting is costing the school; this is a perfectly legitimate activity as I chair the school's research committee and have my eye on our research assessment exercise strategies. I vow to write to the dean, proposing the board be sharply reduced to two representatives from each department. Will I do it?


My diary says "Ring Dr Gregory". Our gorgeous dog has been very ill and I am in constant touch with the amazing people at the Royal Veterinary College's hospital. This gives me a secret bond with our retiring vice-chancellor, who has chosen to have his official portrait painted with his canine "adviser" in the frame. I work at home (interrupted by 15 calls from the department) on a new research brochure. My job is to write the copy. I shamelessly plagiarise brochures from other universities.


I finish the brochure and take it into work. I am glad to see the back of a task I have put off for too long. This week is full of desk-clearing activities like this, which need to be done before getting down to some summer writing - seeing MA students about their dissertations, fixing up teachers for next year, preparing course outlines. Why am I doing them in July when my friends in the United States were doing this in May? My son has collected the photos he took on a school trip to the Great War battlefields. My PhD was on the first world war, and I am now working on it again so I have a more than maternal interest. We go through the brochures he has picked up in Belgium and France, looking at different styles of memorialisation. There is a picture of the gravestone of a boy of 14, and I wonder how my son and his 15-year-old friends relate to what they saw of Ypres, Vimy Ridge and the Somme. He seems struck by the enormous quantity of names with no graves and graves with no names. And with DNA testing there need be no more "unknown soldiers".


The week rounds off with a very different kind of birthday bash - the 50th of a friend. This one has a terrific live band, dancing, and a lot more alcohol and smoke than my mother's 80th. It too has speeches in which important things are said. I like lecturing but I hate making speeches. I have 13 months to consider a strategy for my 50th.

Michele Barrett Professor of sociology, City University, London.

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