Time lords' ticking-off

January 4, 2002

Academics occupy that higher plane because their secretaries are rooted in reality, argues Valerie Atkinson.

See that advancing university academic? The one with the big batch of letters to supervisees that will have to be despatched now, immediately, urgently, even though they have been lurking under a pile of library books for a week and it is almost time for you to go home? There is a reason why this happens. And it is your role - as secretary - to understand and accommodate it. For in common with Zaphod Beeblebrox and Dr Who, university academics have a special relationship with time. It positions them in a separate alien world, quite distinct from that of their secretarial colleagues.

It seems that academics own the latitude within which they function, bending and distorting that apparently limitless expanse. But secretaries do not. They function in static dimensions, fixed by, and belonging to, the institution. Their identity is "other", their absence always more likely to be noted than their presence.

If you are a secretary, try coming in at 11am, with a carrier bag bursting with transcripts or minutes or letters to students, saying, "just off to the library snack bar for coffee. Back after lunch to finish off the address labels". Then you will be noticed. If you are an academic - vive la différence .

For although academics do have static commitments - lectures, tutorials, meetings - beyond those constraints, they inhabit a fluid universe, where work, thought and creativity merge: working at home, research release, on sabbatical, at a conference. It is the secretary, rooted in her immutable working week or fettered by her curiously rigid flexitime, who has to provide the explanation on behalf of the absentee.

And a skewed relationship with time - in a fixed world - is difficult to handle, whether mindful or accidental. Difficult (for the mere mortal) to understand why academics find deadlines for setting or marking examinations so hard to meet. True, there are other things for academics to prioritise: the frontiers of knowledge, the push for national supremacy and international recognition, the drive for promotion, the siren call of the senior common room.

But, despite efforts to curtail liberty, academics continue to enjoy considerable periods of non-accountability. With the power even to overcome teaching timetables, the time lords have a degree of choice whether to be visible or not; to be accessed or not by their superiors, students and subordinates. And the ex-presidents of the galaxy - those who have found acclaim for their original research, their ineffable contribution to the academy - are at liberty to spend those absent hours cutting and pasting their conceits into endlessly massaged "new" ideas, with accompanying research papers; thereby creating an expanding universe where credibility, as well as time, knows no bounds.

Subdue those rising hackles. I am not insinuating that during their "out" periods no work is done. But I am suggesting that - to a secretary - an academic's experience is, essentially, one of considerable self-determination, advantage and difference. For it would be ludicrous to suppose that every minute away from their desks is spent in intellectual contemplation; and while at their desks, naive to suppose that every endeavour is for the benefit of their immediate employer or the invisible taxpayer on whose tangential investment they rely.

And that disparity has become more evident with the research assessment exercise. The higher the RAE grading, the more research-productive the staff, the more likely they are to enjoy increased licence and looser ties to an institutional goal.

The RAE, in particular, has driven many academics further into their isolated, cosseted individualism. Often appointed just for their research potential (from which may dangle a bulging purse), encouraged to pursue their singular interests, it is all too easy to abandon departmental cohesion and institutional allegiance and become increasingly apart. Timeless. Alien.

And from the viewpoint of the secretary, who provides a structured presence and a commitment to a common purpose, that advancing academic might just as well, like Zaphod Beeblebrox, have two heads.

Valerie Atkinson is a department administrator at the University of York.

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