When I first worked in academia, I developed strong, indignant views about some of the senior – by which I mean very much older – members of the department that I’d joined. I was full of ideas and desperate – really desperate – to start carving out a niche and take the world by storm. From my blinkered and, frankly, bigoted stance, these ancient and irrelevant old stagers were just cluttering up the place – occupying the very offices that I viewed as my potential fiefdom. Such was the bizarrely extreme arrogance of youth, encased in layer upon layer of assumption, misunderstanding and cliché.
Analysing this sorry set of feelings many years later, I suspect that it stemmed from a pivotal job interview at a well-known provincial university. After the interview board, an enthusiastic fellow youth was assigned to show me round the campus – including the senior common room. Wood panelled and brimming with stained leather armchairs, this tired brown space, gently illuminated by shafts of light softened by a thin veil of pipe smoke, seemed to me to indicate everything that was wrong with universities.
It was just after lunch on a Thursday, and many of the chairs were occupied by elderly ladies and gentlemen in attitudes of deep reflection or repose. In several spots, small groups clustered and muttered to each other, breaking off at our approach to glare at us, harrumph and turn back to their discussions. They were, I reasoned, parasites who should have been booted out years ago – outdated and outgunned by the rising tide of folk such as me, with new skills, new ideas and the energy to put them into practice.
I spent much of the following decade learning that those grey figures knew and understood a great deal more than I did. But they were keen and eager to share the benefit of their accumulated knowledge. This material wasn’t just raw data, it was closely argued – and much debated – information about subjects, techniques and principles that they cared deeply about. Supportive and enthused, they helped me put flesh on my understanding of the subject in a way that built on current thinking at a time when I felt the urge to reject it wholesale. At the same time, they encouraged me to break out of my rapidly hardening attitudes and investigate new skills and additional threads of development. This, I now realise, was mentoring of the highest order – and established a debt that I’ve tried hard to repay since.
It came as a shock when I realised that I was eligible to apply for my bus pass, but, as someone whose career success never extended to having a reserved parking space, I took up the offer with alacrity.
With age has come many things, some of which firmly place me in grumpy old man territory. These include the constant subclinical complaints from body parts that have been maltreated in the name of both science and recreation; the inability to find an information system that doesn’t change its layout and defaults every five minutes; and the sense that ridiculously complex new forms of technology have been installed with the express intention of catching me out (I only want to photocopy a page of A4 for God’s sake, why do I need to scan it to my email first?).
But although I am now officially old, I still view myself as a youthful thirtysomething with everything to play for, much to do and a wealth of ideas to investigate. That has the potential to be problematic given that a balding, bloated, bearded figure such as me is never going to be offered another proper job (trust me, I’ve tried). Yet I have got beyond the depression that recognition would have caused me even just a few years ago, and embraced the liberation that it brings. It turns out that knowing that you are no longer in competition for the next post, contract or grant really takes the pressure off and allows you to focus on the things that you feel are important.
The nice folk who I’ve worked with during the years leading up to my most recent retirement are reasonably happy to pay me a few quid here and there to fill in on courses that are useful for the students but are not something that the rising stars of the department are going to derive any career benefit from. But I am also free of the career anxieties that constrain those stars from speaking out about institutional matters. I can finally speak my mind about issues that really concern me – without having to bite my tongue when it comes to areas where I and my adoptive university significantly disagree.
I confess that fieldwork now wipes me out to such an extent that I recently found myself nodding off in the senior common room after lunch. But such weakness remains relatively rare. My time in that hallowed space is mostly spent conspiring in its darker corners with fellow stroppy old buffers. And in these days of academic micro-management, with its expectation that staff sing the company song and acquiesce on things that deserve to be challenged, that seems an increasingly important function to fulfil.
John Brinnamoor is a pseudonymous writer who lurks on the fringes of the UK academic community.