On leave from the barmy army

After two weeks on holiday, with time to think, Gloria Monday considers whether she should leave the exhausting world of academia take the less-regimented option of life in the military

September 4, 2008

Sneaked into my office on Sunday afternoon to avoid running in to anyone. I don’t want them to know I’m back from what I call a holiday, in case someone wants to talk to me. Holidays are more generally referred to as “annual leave” in our institution these days.

I thought you only had leave if you were in the army, but perhaps these militaristic connotations are indicative of the thinking of our admin team. Wee Tommie, our power-hungry registrar, would be putting us in uniform and sending us on assault courses if he had his way. And making us salute him at the start of every senate meeting.

I spent my holiday with my niece and nephew, to give their parents a chance to try to patch up what was always going to be a dismal marriage. I knew as soon as my sister brought home her hubby-to-be that it wouldn’t work out; he has the energy level of a slug in winter, and since he’s put on weight it would take an Olympic champion to prize him out of his armchair in front of the TV once the rugby season begins.

I used to get on well with niece and nephew when they were little, but once kids pass the age of 12 they metamorphose into creatures you might expect to see in a Star Trek episode. The boy spent most of his time glued to a small black box that he carried around with him, which made odd noises in the middle of the night and woke me several times, while the girl just moped about moaning that she couldn’t get a signal on her mobile.

We did a bit of hill-walking in between Scottish monsoon rains, but the one cultural visit to a rather fine castle bored them to death. “When you’ve seen one castle, you’ve seen ’em all,” said my nephew, as he sat on a bit of ruined wall flicking buttons on his little black box. The only time they cheered up was when I came back from the shop with alcopops and crisps.

What worries me is that this lot are the students of four years down the line – supposedly in the top percentile, according to their school reports. I never saw either of them open a book or express themselves in words of more than two syllables. A fortnight in what was more like a bothy than a cottage helped me understand a bit more about why my own students are as irritating as they are. They can’t function without the technology they’ve grown up with. Books? Papers? Board games? Not a chance.

The junk in my postbox was a reminder of why a wet fortnight with teenagers is still an improvement on the daily grind. Our alumni haven’t been coughing up enough cash so we are going to launch a new fundraising drive, and I am on the committee setting it up.

We have dropped again in the league tables, despite all the money thrown at bringing in supposed superstar researchers just before the research assessment exercise. I don’t appear to have been given a salary increase, and the refurbishment of our ancient building (years overdue) is so far behind schedule that the front entrance will be out of use until late November and we will all have to make a detour through the car park.

Some fancy leaflets printed on recycled paper were sent round by the local city council asking whether I was grabbing the opportunities offered by the 2012 Olympics.

Sending me something like that is about as much use as the item I noticed in one of the countless Christmas catalogues waiting for me at home; an object described as a kilt apron with a sporran pocket. Honestly, and people get paid for thinking these things up!

I did manage a bit of research while the niece and nephew either slept or mucked about with the black box. I actually managed to read three books from cover to cover – and remember what I’d read, which is a step forward. And I made a lot of notes for a paper I keep meaning to write. Mostly, though, I thought, and one of the things I thought about was how little time I normally have to think about anything.

It’s all so exhausting in universities these days: the frantic dashing around, the committees, the emails, an increasing number of which are sent with a “high priority” mark (I delight in trashing those, especially if they come from the registry), the climate of anxiety whipped up by the damned league tables.

You end up spending half your life dealing with trivia and the other half trying to sleep off the effort. Maybe life in the army is preferable to life as an academic, after all. I suspect it’s actually less regimented.

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

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