Mobiles and mother hens

Gloria Monday has to negotiate her way past the crowds of parents on campus for a meeting that can only mean more work

October 9, 2008

They’re back! There were no seats left on the bus this morning, and when I got into our building, I had to push my way through hordes of them, all swinging great bags around and slurping from cans and walking four abreast in little phalanxes.

They don’t seem able to communicate without shouting at each other, and their daft mobile ringtones reverberate outside my office all day long. I picked up two dropped mobiles in the first week and am still trying to decide whether to hand them in to lost property or whether to let the careless little buggers do without, although I suppose their owners have already been in contact with mum and dad and begged them to fork out for a new one.

Mums and dads seem to enjoy university more than their offspring these days, to judge by how many of them show up on open days and at the start of term. When I went to the library recently to take advantage of one of the last days of freedom before the hordes rush in and occupy all the seats, I ran into a couple of long-haired blonde women gawping round vacantly.

One of them shouted “Excuse me” imperiously as I walked past, then in very patronising tones asked me to direct her to the geography department. When I pointed out that registration wouldn’t be starting for another week, she glared at me and said she had come up early with her daughter so they could both get to grips with the campus layout, whatever that means in plain English.

It was then that I realised that she was probably a bit older and fatter than the other blonde. Clocking the younger one’s expression, I could see that she was definitely a chip off the old block.

And the decibel level of the older one proved that they both had the same mobile phone habit. Come to think of it, it might be the daughter whose phone I’ve picked up, so on second thought I will chuck it in the bin after all.

We had a pre-year meeting to discuss “issues” – as our head of department, Brian the Eternally Anxious, put it. “Issues” meant learning who was off on semi-permanent sick leave claiming to be too stressed to teach and being told who was going to do the teaching for them.

I don’t believe any of the three who aren’t turning up have anything wrong with them at all. When I asked for details, I was told that X is suffering from “exhaustion” (aren’t we all, I asked, but Brian ignored me as usual and kept shaking his head like a deranged camel), Y has sent in a medical certificate saying he has palpitations (tell him to drink less coffee and alcohol, I suggested, which did at least get a snigger from the assembled company), and one of our laziest is claiming to be suffering from repetitive strain injury caused by annotating her footnotes.

The upshot of the issues meeting is that I am now lecturing on the rise of Napoleon and the Spanish-American War. For a 17th-century specialist, as I claim to be, that’s spreading one’s talents a bit thinly.

Brian the Eternally Anxious also rambled on about this being the year when the research assessment exercise results come out and about how he doesn’t want us to worry too much in anticipation in case it affects our performance. I told him I hadn’t given the RAE a thought since I sent in my four items a year ago. I was far more likely to worry about the rising costs of heating my house in the coming winter, I said, because my performance will definitely be affected if I go down with pneumonia.

It isn’t strictly true that I haven’t thought about the RAE because I have been listening to gossip all summer from mates of mine who are sitting on some of the different RAE panels. It’s supposed to be strictly confidential, but the reality is that all the panels leak like old buckets, and the tales they tell make a mockery of all the guff about equality and transparency and parity of treatment that our masters and mistresses would have us believe.

No two panels appear to be behaving in the same way, and they all seem to have found cunning ways of rewarding whatever they wanted to reward before they even started the exercise. I shall keep my inside knowledge tightly buttoned until the results are out, but I may make a trip to the betting shop before then to see if I can put a safe bet or two on who is going up or down and make myself a bit of extra cash to put towards the heating bills.

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

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