Thursday, 30 April 2009

The two cultures

Although there are still scientists who think that the humanities are a self-indulgent waste of time, and humanities people who suspect scientists to be only semi-educated, I think the real divide in academia is between those who work nine to five (or rather, in a standard contract, from nine to five-thirty) and those who work in that wierder less definable way typical of academics. Or more roughly speaking, between admin staff and teachers. My brother works in University admin and recently went to a conference where the keynote paper was on this problem: it was called something like "The jobsworths versus the dinosaurs". (Of course, no academic would go to a paper like that.) Apparently it suggested that if we all thought about the divide less then it might not exist, and maybe this is true in more advanced universities, but here I think it could badly do with thinking about a bit more. Both groups see the other as somewhat parasitic: the academics see the admin people as getting in the way of something that's supposed to be about teaching and research; while the admin people see the academics as breathtakingly unprofessional, and expecting special treatment instead of just getting on with a job. My brother spends a lot of time chasing up basic vital information from unresponsive academics, but the recent removal of a picture which hung on a nearby stairway roused the same group of people into frenzies of outraged activity.

Also the college system magnifies the problem. The fellows give off strong vibes of not considering the staff as colleagues; many of the staff don't really understand what the fellows actually do or when and where they do it. The fellows don't tend to participate in college events like charity coffee mornings, but then again for most fellows a large proportion of their work, and their actual job, takes place elsewhere. Unfortunately class snobbery, in both directions, is definitely involved, both in terms of social class and educational background. It's all rather annoying. The college staff could usefully make a bit more effort to understand what fellows' jobs actually are; and I do think that the college could appropriately stop treating staff as underlings and involve them a bit, or at least keep them informed. There are students on the governing body but no staff; staff used to get governing body minutes but someone put a stop to that.

I sort of come into both worlds, as an ex-fellow and current member of staff, and it has often struck me as odd that I spend my lunch times with one of two different groups of people, all characterised by PhDs and active research interests, predominantly in their 30s, some with children and some without, discussing much the same sort of things -- but these two groups in the same college do not know each other and will never meet. The main difference between the two is in the level of calm -- I've come to the conclusion that having fixed working hours is a far healthier way to live. It's true that the people I work with are a little atypical, but the staff mostly get on reasonably well with each other. This morning having been forced very uncomfortably to get involved in all this stuff I am now in a very bad mood about it. It's tedious and annoying. A small amount of mutual consideration and attention would go a long way towards diffusing the dislike and mistrust that floats around college, but no one's going to do it, and I'm off in September so it won't be my problem any more. Hurray!

Monday, 13 April 2009

More nephew

My four-month-old little nephew seems somehow substantially more human than when I met him before. Back at Christmas I don't think I had ever seen anything so lonely in my whole life as my little days-old nephew beating his arms in purple-faced paroxysms of misery. He didn't seem to be asking for anything or expecting that anyone could help, and if you could calm him down by jiggling that seemed mostly incidental -- it was like he was expressing some pure and complete rejection of everything. I remember reading someone saying that we are born alone and we die alone, which I thought was stupid given that birth isn't something we undergo without company, but seeing tiny Arthur made me think perhaps there's something in it.

So it's nice that he's less angry now, and more willing to interact. (In the picture above he's pretending he can already stand up). My parents and I babysat the other day, and I read him the Gruffalo, just because I thought I would enjoy it, but he actually responded to it far more than I was expecting. He kept waving his arms at the book as if wanting to do things to it, although he hasn't yet got the hand-to-eye co-ordination to do anything, really. So I read it all to him, and pointed at the pictures, while he hit them occasionally and made interested noises, and as soon as I had finished I gave him to my mother and he just fell backwards in a deep sleep with his mouth open, as if exhausted by the demands of literature. He slept like a log for about twenty minutes, and then woke up cranky. So I would say that this attempt at practical aunting was a mixed success.

The best thing about him is how very easy it is to like him and enjoy playing with him without in the least wanting one of my own.

In other child-related news I found one of my favourites from when I was very little, Dr Concocter, which it turns out is translated from the Russian. How the Guardian would have approved. It starts:
Doctor Concocter sits under a tree;
He's ever so clever. (He has a Degree!)
All the Hares, and the Bears, and the Snakes, and the Weasels
Are sure of a cure for their headaches and measles.

It goes on to involve quite exciting stuff, when some African animals ask for his help:
"Don't you worry!
I shall hurry,
I'll be round to see you soon.
Shall I find you near the River,
Near the old Limpopo River,
Where the rains come down for ever
From the Mountains of the Moon?"

"Oh, our home lies hidden far
Beyond the Isles of Zanzibar,
Where the Hills of Ruwenzori
Touch the Coast of Cinnabar.
Where the empty Kalahari
Sighs for ever and for ever.
Where the jungle twines like ivy
Round the great Limpopo River."

Now if I could just find the poem that starts
Wouldn't you like to be a whale, with a tiny briny eye?

then I should have recovered much of the excellent stuff of my childhood.