Festive faux pas

Gloria Monday wonders about the dean’s motives in choosing the evening of the RAE results day for his annual Christmas party

December 15, 2008

I opened my email the other day and found a picture of a rather wild-looking puppy sitting on a pile of shredded papers wearing a Father Christmas hat. This was the image the dean had chosen to accompany his annual invitation to seasonal festivities. Unfortunately, he has picked Wednesday 17 December for his shindig, apparently unaware that this is the day when the research assessment exercise results come out, and I doubt whether many colleagues will feel up to the usual stale mince pie and plonk this year. A few stiff forgetfulness-inducing gins down the local will probably have more appeal.

For academics, RAE results are the equivalent of exam results; this is the moment when all your inadequacies are going to be exposed to the rest of the world, and won’t there be some lip smacking and chortling and cries of “I told you so” when the bald details are set out before us all. What makes it worse, of course, is that Times Higher Education will know the details before academics do, thanks to the bizarre decision to inform the press prior to sending details to each university.

It seems like a very long time ago that we sent in the submissions, and since then we’ve all heard all kinds of rumours. Some have been obviously false, but quite a few more are to be trusted, given the propensity of academics to leak everything. Gossip is such a cornerstone of the university world that you can hardly expect people who have managed to finagle their way on to one of the RAE panels to keep shtum for months when they know full well that everybody and their dog is desperate for news. I’ve heard such conflicting tales, though, that I suspect that some people are deliberately trying to cause as much aggro as possible, safe in the knowledge that nobody is ever going to take them to task when the actual results come to light.

I wasn’t that bothered about the RAE, since I don’t give a toss about whether we go up a few notches in the History Second Division, although I suppose I would complain if we were relegated again, as happened last time round. However, in view of the gloom that our vice-chancellor is spreading about the financial state of our benighted place, I am starting to think that quite a few senior managers will rub their hands with glee if the RAE results appear to offer an opportunity to get rid of a few people across the institution. I would be, if I were in their position. For a start, I’d dispose of all those bone-idle layabouts who claim to have been writing a big book that nobody has set eyes on for yonks, as well as those who are too busy to give students their essays back.

Since I became deputy head of department, my eyes have been opened, I can tell you. I’ve had a steady stream of bolshie students complaining that they haven’t had any feedback on their work. One came to see me yesterday, and although I thought he had a case (every time he’s tried to see his tutor since the end of September the meeting has been cancelled, none of his written work has been marked and so he has no idea whether he’s doing brilliantly or about to fail the January exams), I did feel I should point out that bombarding your tutor with offensive emails is not going to make him read your work any faster. “Yo, Jonesie, you fucking bastard, get your lazy arse in gear and give me my essay back” is hardly likely to win you any brownie points, I told the student, although I added that I could understand his sense of frustration. I am rapidly acquiring some senior academics’ turns of phrase. I shall be “feeling their pain” shortly, I can tell.

Actually, the truth is that many of my colleagues have been doing as little as they can for years, safe in the knowledge that they have a steady salary and a pension at the end of it all, not to mention the long vacations when the old “I need time for my research” excuse kicks in and they head for the beaches of Crete. The RAE may be a seriously flawed enterprise, as the next round of results will surely show, but it does at least shine a spotlight on some rather uncomfortable areas, to wit the poor value for money that much higher education offers.

Looking again at the dean’s puppy in the heaps of paper, it occurs to me that this isn’t such an inappropriate image at all – in fact it’s rather apt. And maybe the old sot didn’t get the date wrong; perhaps this is his idea of an ironic touch. Or, since he has been serving on one of the RAE panels, maybe it’s a subtle way of showing the level of appreciation of our scholarship. I shall advise the recalcitrant tutor to consider sending coded messages of this kind to students, so that even if it takes him another three months to mark a 2,000-word paper, he could at the very least save himself the bother of having abuse hurled at him on a daily basis.

And on 17 December I shall make a surprise appearance at the dean’s drinks bash, wearing a Father Christmas hat myself.

Gloria Monday is a mid-career historian employed in one of the many universities with aspirations to international greatness.

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