I have long heard it rumoured in universities that unexpected things happen during the summer vacation. My more paranoid colleagues are convinced that once they are out of the way, all sorts of decisions are taken and nobody ever knows where the responsibility lies for having made them. Take buildings, for example: you go off in July and come back in September and have to negotiate past half a dozen bulldozers digging a hole that is apparently destined to be the latest in building technology that must have cost an arm and a leg. And nobody knows where the idea for the building came from in the first place, let alone the money.
Well, that’s what used to happen, apparently. These days, nobody has the cash to erect so much as a wooden lean-to, so whatever decisions may or may not be taken during the summer, we won’t be coming back to much building work next autumn, I can tell you. Although if there is any money floating around, you can be sure it will be earmarked for some grandiose science development. Scientists are the new gods, it seems. Extra cash for higher education, extra student numbers – all this is directed at raising a new generation of scientists, and the rest of us can take pot luck with the dregs at the bottom of the barrel. It’s almost an embarrassment these days to admit that you’re a historian or a literary specialist. And as for being an Old Norse expert – you’d crawl away in shame rather than admit that to one of the science-is-all brigade.
Sitting watching the rain – because, yes, I believed the meteorological reports (there’s science for you) that said that this would be a gloriously hot English summer, so there was no need to battle with Ryanair and pay a fiver to use the loo, or whatever the latest money-grubbing wheeze is just to get to a Mediterranean beach – I found myself alternately listening to the radio and reading a variety of newspapers and sinking into deepening gloom when I came across anything about higher education. This summer’s surprises appear to include turning away large numbers of students because the Government won’t fund any extra places and the suggestion that we may be heading for a university Ofsted system to police us even further. According to one story I came across, UK universities have fewer contact hours than anywhere else in Europe and students feel short-changed, so some mandarin somewhere, probably in a Greek villa, is plotting to send in inspectors to get us to smarten up our act.
My mate Rob, who is a physicist (I do have some friends who are scientists, although I admit to some bias because my ex-husband is a chemist, but let that be for the moment), says that if there is an inspectoral system, it will be the arts and humanities that will come under the cosh. All his colleagues, he says smugly, spend hours in labs with students, don’t disappear every Thursday lunchtime to reappear the following Tuesday, and actually stay around during vacations. What’s more, they work in teams.
I’ve tried telling Rob more than once that it doesn’t work like that in our fields, not everybody in our neck of the woods does a two-and-a-half-day week and anyway, one of the reasons why students don’t have that many contact hours is because they simply don’t turn up when they should. I have sat in an office – more times than I’ve had hot dinners – waiting in vain for students who said they needed to talk urgently about their work. I often think that once they’ve made email contact, they decide there’s no need to follow anything up, a bit like the ones who tell you how much work they’ve done because of the kilos of unread photocopies they carry around. And as for seminars and lectures, if anything is scheduled early in a morning, particularly after cheap beer nights in the student bars, the room will look like the House of Commons when global warming or the cost of the 2012 Olympics is being debated. By which I mean there will be a few odds and sods scattered around half asleep, while the rows of empty seats will test your self-confidence to the limit.
But I had my own surprise this summer in the form of an email from Brian, congratulating me on taking over from him as head of department. He, it seems, has decided to throw in the towel, and after what had been “an extensive consultation process”, there was unanimous support for me to take over. He ended by wishing me the best of luck for the future.
This email has stirred up all sorts of dark thoughts. Who consulted whom and when? Why wasn’t I consulted? Why has he decided to go right now, with all these rumours about the exaltation of science over arts floating around? Above all, what does he mean by wishing me luck? How much luck, exactly, am I going to need?
And why, oh why, did anyone invent bloody email and convince us all we couldn’t live without it? My cup of misery was filled when I tried to email him back with a set of questions and my laptop crashed in a thunderstorm. Still, perhaps that shows that nature can beat science any day.