Struggle for seating

Darwin’s insights have cast fresh light on staff meetings, writes Gloria Monday

February 2, 2009

Everyone is talking about Charles Darwin. The whole world, it seems, has been avidly reading The Origin of Species, so I decided it was time I knuckled down and read it, too.

I felt rather virtuous when I picked up my copy, since I don’t believe for a second that all the pundits who go on about Darwin have read much of what he wrote. Everyone knows that academics are experts at pretending to be knowledgeable about great works they have never read.

Some even boast about it, usually when they have had a few drinks. One once told me he had given a whole lecture series on the Modernist novel without ever reading a single item on his course list. There are so many cheap and cheerful guides to Modernism that anybody can knock up a few lectures, apparently. Well, that was his story anyway. I doubt if you could get away with that sort of shoddy preparation if you were a mathematician, but I could be wrong.

I managed to read Darwin’s book from cover to cover, not because it was particularly well written or even interesting, but because it cast fresh light on office politics.

Take the point where Darwin notes that “habit has a decided influence” – dead right. I see that in every staff meeting, where some people turn into home-grown Taliban fighters if they can’t sit in their accustomed place around the table because somebody got there first. Why people care is anyone’s guess, but I watched Professor J sulking in a rage for an hour and a half last week when he saw that his usual pew near the radiator had been snaffled.

Darwin probably took a lot of inspiration from similar meetings. He tells us “if any one being varies ever so little, either in habits or structure” so as to gain an advantage over others, “it will seize on the place of that inhabitant”. He must have been thinking about some of his colleagues when he wrote that.

I observed Dr S closely, sitting very upright in the snaffled chair, periodically flicking her brightly coloured scarves ostentatiously over her shoulder. She was smirkingly confident of having done better in the research assessment exercise than Professor J, whose great book has still failed to materialise seven years and a sabbatical since he announced its imminent appearance.

Darwin would have had him down as a Galeopithecus that had been wrongly classified, while she would have reminded him of the Puffinuria berardi, or know-it-all bird.

What I observe from my fellows is another aspect of evolution: the progression from student to academic over the years. Some of our bolshiest members of staff who moan about everything and lay claim to revolutionary thinking appear to be the ones who were complete nerds in their student days, while some of the dullest old fogeys were apparently never off the picket lines and moved around in a haze of scented smoke. Someone once said that those who go on about the Sixties and Seventies missed the fun completely, and I’m inclined to agree.

You can check out this hypothesis by looking at old photos. When we had our last reunion day, some pictures resurfaced thanks to Sylvia, our secretary, who did some digging. There immortalised were some of today’s most boring people with wild hair and Zapata moustaches, while Dr Trendy with his ripped designer jeans and sickening personal website looked like a real mummy’s boy, the sort who went to every lecture in a clean shirt and a Marks and Spencer jacket. Dr S appeared to have changed school uniform for postmodern feminist apparel overnight.

This poses a serious intellectual problem. If, as Darwin argues, natural selection is predicated on the concept that new species have some advantage over others in the struggle for existence, what is the future for Homo academicus if radicals evolve into pedants and geeks evolve into pseudo-radicals? Is there any way that the fierce battles over who sits where in staff meetings will ever be resolved?

Darwin must have sat in one meeting too many, which inspired him to write the famous sentence about the one general law leading to the advancement of all organic beings – “multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die”. True, his examples include cuckoos tossing other birds out of nests, ants enslaving other ants and objectionable things that eat caterpillars alive from the inside, but you can apply it to the academic world without too much effort.

As the meeting ended and we were gathering our papers together, Dr S’s overloud laugh suddenly turned into a coughing fit. Somehow, her scarves had become hooked on the edge of the radiator and she was in danger of becoming a second Isadora Duncan, strangled by an excess of chiffon. I swear Professor J had just walked past her, but then it could have been my imagination. I must go back and reread Darwin’s chapter on instinct.

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