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25 January: Holding the Fort

Published onJul 09, 2019
25 January: Holding the Fort

My daughter came into work with me today. Walking past the rows of empty offices she said: ‘Your work must be a lonely place – there never seems to be anyone here!’ Academics are absentee workers. This is why high profile ‘big names’ are infrequently the people that really make universities work as organizations. In part this is due to the fact that in order to inflate one’s name intellectually and in terms of standing (and too often self-importance) it is necessary to be missing. It means having to travel to give that international keynote address and be out and about in the world of ideas. I am as guilty of this as anyone else.

Absenteeism is a hallmark of being in demand. This is called ‘dissemination’ and ‘impact’ in the rhetoric of grant applications, that is, to scatter the academic self in order to propagate ideas and harvest citations of one’s published work. For this reason the office of an academic ‘high flyer’ can look like an intellectual bedsit that is only intermittently inhabited, home only to books overtaken by academic fashion – a kind of intellectual equivalent of putting your furniture into storage.

It’s a curious, perhaps even a unique thing in the world of employment, that academic employees often try to avoid going to work in order to work. This is why university departments are sparsely populated, even at the busiest times of the academic year. To the uninitiated this seems preposterous: ‘Why aren’t you at work if you are working?’ Non-appearance is not indicative of indolence but the real labour of mind takes place elsewhere and certainly not ‘in the office’. I don’t know many lazy academics. This might seem contradictory. Our minds are rarely off our work but not necessarily on what’s going on in the department office. How do universities function if academic members of staff remain institutionally absent?

The smooth running of universities – even the most prestigious ones – depends on those who are left behind. Usually referred to as ‘support staff’, as Mary Evans has pointed out they are a predominantly female workforce of secretaries, administrators, web designers, accountants, human resources specialists and clerical workers. Alongside them is a legion of working-class men who serve long hours as porters, gardeners, maintenance staff and security guards, often over-qualified migrant labourers doing these jobs to earn money while dreaming of a better future. Without them there would be no university. Academics would have nowhere to teach their students or return to from their adventures on the frontiers of knowledge.

They are the university’s public characters but many of them often have interesting lives off campus. Take Trevor, for example: his job is to greet and he assists visitors to the college at its main entrance. A ceaselessly patient and welcoming person, he is almost singlehandedly responsible for the positive experience guests have visiting Goldsmiths. Most of the people he encounters there are unaware of the fact that he is also an accomplished bass guitarist who has recorded and performed with jazz and soul artists on prestigious stages from London to New York.

Attempts to bridge the academic/support staff divide contain a sometimes touching pathos. As a student, I looked on disparagingly at professors who, to prove that they hadn’t lost the ‘common touch’, would joke with the porters as they arrived with impossibly large bunches of keys to lock up the seminar room. Support staff on the receiving end of much more brutal forms of academic self-importance and snobbery might say that being patronized in doomed attempts to bridge the university’s class structure is the least of their problems.

I have always had a strangely Fordist habit of actually ‘going to work’. As a consequence, my workplace friends and acquaintances have often been ‘non-faculty’. This is not to claim some perverse street credibility or the delusion of being outside of what is being described here. It is simply to suggest that it is deeply sobering to listen to how they view the behaviour of academics. Some say there is a stark division on campus between the ‘intellects’ who regard each other as peers – whether loved or loathed – and the ‘clericals’ who are non-persons disregarded or disparaged.

As the minute-takers and intellectual non-combatants they are witness to bickering in meetings, paddies of high moral principle and the worst cases of academic vanity. Highly intelligent people are reduced to acting like squabbling children at the seaside in ‘red bucket’ syndrome: ‘I want to build my sandcastle with the red bucket not the yellow one!’ That is how it often seems to bewildered secretaries and administrators who have to manage what one friend described as the full ‘cornucopia of personality disorders’. More disturbing is the double standards with regard to workplace etiquette where support staff are ignored in ways that a faculty colleague simply would not be.

A former secretary of an academic department offered three pieces of advice (her own three ‘red buckets’) for academic staff:

1. Before you ask a question of an administrator, check the emails they have sent you in the last week or so. The fact that you have suddenly thought of that question probably means that a section of your brain was prompted by an email you’ve received that answers all your queries perfectly, but you didn’t read it at the time.

2. If you ask an administrator to do something, please trust them to do it. The fact they haven’t done it within two to three minutes of you sending the email or speaking to them does not mean they are ignoring you. In fact, if you check your emails you will probably find that they were waiting for a vital piece of information from you. What they don’t appreciate is slogging through your rambling prose/random, seemingly unconnected words (please delete as appropriate), finding your response to the question they asked you four days ago, doing the task and then being informed by someone else that the job is already done because you decided to do it yourself anyway.

3. Administrators are not sitting twiddling their thumbs and filing their nails waiting for you to come to them with that thing you should have done last month and now needs to be sorted by tomorrow. Do not expect to be greeted with a smile in this circumstance. Administrators tend to plan their time which means if you have come to them for help because you have failed to do so, they will then be under even more pressure than the students/university/HoD/other members of staff/external agencies already put them under. Realize that an emergency for you will mostly be very low down the list in the grand scheme of things. Oh, and when they have sorted it out for you, a smile and a thank you wouldn’t kill you!

This is one side of the story.

Others will say that faculty and support staff collaborate amicably most of the time. The ivory tower is divided to its very foundations by stark class and status divisions. Academics might complain about the inappropriate loquaciousness and strange preoccupations of their non-academic colleagues but it bears remembering that they witness and in large part tolerate our own strange habits. Regardless, it needs to be remembered that in the absence of us faculty it is non-academic staff who actually get things done and make universities work.

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