Gloria Monday: ‘Leave’ me out of it

Gloria Monday on business-speak, unpronounceable graduands and the human face of administration

July 20, 2009

I keep being asked when I am “taking annual leave”. The first time I heard the phrase, I retorted that since I was an academic, not a member of the armed forces or the police, I most certainly wouldn’t be going “on leave”, although I was planning a holiday during the long vacation. I don’t like the sound of “leave”. It has all sorts of negative connotations. “Dr Monday will be on leave for the fortnight commencing 3 August” makes it sound as if I’ve been allowed out under duress.

However, the use of “leave” is now so widespread that I have given up trying to resist. I presume it’s another example of the business-speak that has found its way into everyday usage, such as the term “line manager” – which is what I have become, Brian the Anxious having declared his intention to stay on sick leave for the foreseeable future. Being a line manager meant that last week I not only had to go to our ghastly degree ceremony, I had to read out the names from a podium, too.

You might think that is easy enough, but since we have vast numbers of high fee-paying overseas students, some of whom have utterly unpronounceable names, it’s a daunting job. How, for example, do you pronounce “Ng”? Or “Wdz”? I looked at the list with dismay, noting that some people had as many as five names, all of which had to be read out regardless of whether I had a clue about how to pronounce them. I rang an admin minion for help, but got nowhere, apart from being advised to consult a native speaker. Given that the names were so diverse, and obviously reflected several dozen different spots on the map, I dismissed the advice as a waste of time.

In the event, I just stood up and made a stab at them all, trying not to notice when people cringed at my pronunciation. A couple were rude enough to turn to the audience, wave their arms about and shrug dismissively, obviously implying that they didn’t appreciate my foreign language reading skills, but eventually they all made it across the platform and tottered off to collect their certificates. “Tottered” is the right word, given that six-inch heels and tight skirts seemed to be the standard uniform, at least among the female graduands. Several of them were so bizarrely clad that it made me wonder whether they had grown up in houses without mirrors, but at least it gave me some comfort that however big my bum might appear to me, it’s not the only one.

Because I am acting head of school, I was invited to lunch with our honorary graduate – one of those grey-suited middle-aged blokes who has done something or other in business and wormed his way on to the honours list. Fortunately, I was seated some distance from him, and actually had quite a decent time. The food was infinitely better than the usual university fare, and my table companion was Wee Tommie’s assistant registrar, a Glaswegian named Renee, who joined us only recently.

It may have been the wine, or the sense of relief I felt at having made it through the name-reading without choking or being punched by an angry parent, but I found myself surprised to discover an administrator who wasn’t filled with self-righteous importance. Renee had once been an academic, she told me, but packed it in because what she was teaching (science) had become so dumbed down that every seminar was excruciating. What she found herself teaching third-year undergraduates was what she had been taught at GCSE level, she said.

We commiserated with each other about the increasingly dismal experience of teaching people who can’t read, write or spell. I told Renee that I thought the rot had set in when people started talking about primary school “students”. Overnight, pupils turned into students, another of those linguistic transformations that, like annual leave, have deeper connotations. If you’re a student from the day you start school, then going to university is hardly going to be transformative – it will simply be a continuation of class projects, resits, teachers spoon-feeding you every step of the way and Mum and Dad hovering over your shoulder. I expect that, even now, someone is planning to introduce a uniform for university students to make 18-year-olds feel more at home.

I was motivated enough after the conversation to tell Renee how I felt about annual leave. She assured me that leave was a more professional word that didn’t have the flippancy of “holiday”, and in no way carried any implications of duress – but she grinned when she said it.

I think I have finally met an administrator who is a human being. Either that, or I’m getting soft in my advancing years.

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