Under high grey clouds of uniform grey, Bob and Ben strolled round the main campus quadrangle. The Head of Psychology passes them in the opposite direction, after which Bob and Ben sniff, scrunch their faces in performed puzzlement, and feign a drunken amble for a few steps. Pursued almost as religiously as their daily quad ritual, this is their act of resistance against the Head, whom they despise. This is because of his habitual afternoon drunkenness, his being Head, his academic calibre (which Ben looks down on, and Bob secretly aspires to yet resents at the same time).
Moments later a first year undergrad catches them up. “What is it, boy?” groans Dr Jones. His affectation of old-school-master annoyance comes as no surprise to the student, who like his peers knows that Jonesey cares deeply about students’ welfare, despite his flippancy. The student explains that he has just come out of a meeting with the Head of Psychology, prompted by his having missed two small group seminars in a row – something unthinkable in the Head’s new regime of tight monitoring of attendance (“Seminars for ten students are expensive! Moreso if only half of them turn up!”). Unfortunately the student’s attempts to explain himself had not gone well; or it had gone swimmingly, depending on one’s perspective. The Head had appeared both dunk and distracted, and concluded the meeting by asking what subject the student was studying (psychology) and saying the student should sit a penal timed essay on the subject of the missed seminars. Bob and Ben both chuckle, explain to the student that there’s no chance at all that the Head will remember the meeting let alone act on it, and that the student is not at liberty to ‘bugger off and leave them in peace’.
Ben turns to Bob and says “I went past the great hall yesterday evening, when you were rehearsing”, referring to Bob’s conducting a secondary university orchestra. “Sounded pretty awful to me”. Bob, clearly affronted, replies “Well there are lots of tricky corners in the final movement”. Hopefully, he asks Ben if he’s going to come to the concert on Thursday night, to which Ben replies “No”. “Why, are you busy?”, Bob asks. “No. I’ll be in the Queen’s Head as usual”. No less wounded for the lack of surprise, Bob changes the subject to his planned jaunt to central Asia and the complexities of a trip which involves liaisons with one mistress while taking a second along with you.
Ruth sits at her desk, checking facebook while she can hear the printer down the corridor spewing out the pages of her upgrade document. Lit review, tick. But no, the hefty pile of unread papers on her desk rekindles the gnawing doubt that she has not read enough. Move on. Design, tick. She’s had feedback from Peter, her supervisor, that she’s planning too much – probably about three PhD’s worth of fieldwork, but she can’t see how to let go. Ethics issues, tick, but accompanied by the sickening thought of the ethics form and approval process that looms after she completes her upgrade. “That’s the thing with this”, she thinks “you get over one hurdle only to be faced with another, worse one”. In her analysis of the deferred successes and relentless challenges of research, she is not wrong.
She notices the time display on her computer screen, and begins to pack her bag. The research committee, for which she is the postgrad representative, is due to start in ten minutes. The meetings are boring and long, offering her less insight into the mechanics and machinations of higher education than she had hoped. And they never seem to come at a time when she feels she has time for them. She knows that a peppering of committee work is good for an academic CV, but nowhere near as valuable as a suite of publications. But she’s not ready to publish yet, and can drop the committees later. And anyway, who else would be any good on the committee? Unlike many doctoral students, she doesn’t harbour imposter syndrome. Rather the opposite. She looks round at the empty desks in her office, three of which show few signs of being any kind of work-home, unlike hers, which is festooned with post-it notes, photographs of family, and small and discretely placed images of Dan from The Only Way is Essex (a deviant use of departmental colour printing facilities, but justified on their motivational effects). Where are these other students? The ghosts of her office, whose existence is only confirmed by the occasional leaving of a computer logged in, or increasing height of the ‘to read’ piles on the desks (none as high as hers, of course). Nah. Nice people as and when you meet them, but not the kind of dedicated heavyweights needed to represent the postgrad student corpus.
Ruth’s thoughts upset her and she tries to dismiss them. She finds this kind of intellectual snobbery unpleasant and disquieting. But all the same she does reflect on what might have been had she stayed where she originally started, where student desks were occupied into the early hours, and if empty, this was due to the fierce debates in the coffee area about the postmodern turn.
The noise from the printer stops, and she gets up and stuffs her draft into her bag as she strides off to the committee.
Peter meets Ruth as their trajectories merge on the way to the meeting. Inside he is brimming with a mixture of fury, though outwardly all one can tell is that his latest lunch, likely to have comprised over-sized portions of the least health option, made several successful leaps for freedom between plate and fork, and are now on display on a particularly vulgar turquoise and orange tie.
His fury is directed at the feckless reviewers of his last research grant. He offers Ruth an impromptu lesson in the academic ‘real world’, gasping for breath as the vent of his anger overtakes his capacity to walk, talk and respire simultaneously. “The f*ckers wanted statistical power calculations!” he rants “in a f*cking case study!”. Months of work drafting and redrafting, getting partners on board, hassling time-poor, forgetful professors to hassle their equally time-poor though less forgetful administrators to send letters of support. The excitement and promise of two years working on what would be a ground-breaking study. All for nothing. Why? “Because the bloody RCEW [Research Council for England and Wales] can’t find referees who know sh!t about research that isn’t a randomised controlled trial”. Despite his anger, his affable quality remains, and his pride undented.
“Remind me to say something about recruiting someone who knows statistics when we get to ‘Any other business”, he says to Ruth. Ruth nods, and a seed of doubt creeps in: will it be possible to make a career out of qualitative poststructuralist research? Should she throw it in and go for crowd-pleasing numbers and objectivity? She looks over to Peter and reassures herself: no, he’s made it doing what many others regard as subjective, jargon-ridden waffle. If he can, why can’t she? And anyway, maths was the only subject at GCSE in which she didn’t get an A*.
Amanda feels a bead of sweat pouring down her back as she walks up the hill towards Roo University’s central campus. It is hot and humid – conditions which she is fast learning are not best fitted to her well-fitted blazer. The buildings around her are ugly, concrete monstrosities. The lofty spires and gargoyles of UIT have been replaced by layers of brown pebble-dash and edifices of grey concrete. The peaceful quad and homely chimes from the clock tower replaced with a 6 lane highway, car horns, sirens, and the scream of engines from aircraft on approach to landing.
Today should be a good day. She’s got through most of her emails on the bus (where ‘got through’ means ‘deleted’ or ‘sent a cursory reply’). She’s got a meeting of the advisory group of her flagship research project, with some eminent colleagues joining through videolink from overseas. The frustration and impatience at having spent two hours yesterday afternoon with the IT people making sure the videolink works have evaporated now: it seems a very sensible thing to have done, ensuring the meeting will go smoothly. This is a key meeting – the first time all the bigwigs have actually been available at the same time. The application for a top-up grant to continue for another year is due in a few days.
Before the research meeting, she sits for an hour with Emily, one of the doctoral students she is supervising. This particular student is pretty capable, timely with submitting writing, and has ‘taken off’. By this, Amanda means has taken ownership of where the study is heading, and is charting the course into new knowledge territory with the required independence. The focus in supervisions now is more on ensuring the strongest articulation in writing, and supporting her in getting stuff published. Amanda is quietly relieved when Emily asks her to be a joint author on the first paper at least. This gives Amanda 0.5 publication points (while she is in agreement with most of her colleagues that the counting system is, to put it mildly, daft, she is perhaps more strategic in playing the game to her advantage than others), and she was feeling awkward about suggesting co-authorship herself.
Emily leaves the meeting feeling the time was well spent, ready to tackle the next draft of her paper. Later that day, when she sits at her desk and reads her notes from the supervision, she furrows her brow. ‘It needs more voice’ is what she wrote on the page. She remembers Amanda saying this in the morning, and remembers nodding in agreement. At this moment, Emily’s thoughts could be summarised thus: What on earth is voice, and where to I get more of it?
At the same time, Amanda’s thoughts could be summarised, and indeed are publicly shared in her statement: “For God’s sake, this place makes an abacus look high-tech”. Somewhat predictably, the video conferencing hasn’t worked. They’ve spent 20 minutes trying to link with colleagues in the UK, South Africa and the West Coast of the USA. For a brief moment they had a good view of all of them, but no sound. Then they were able to bring them each up in turn, but not together. And now they have a kind of feedback thing going on where each image repeats in ever smaller versions of itself. It would be cool if it were in a modern art gallery. Not at all helpful right now. What is also not helpful right now, is the person who has come down from IT who has done two things: describe a self-evident problem – “Ah. We’ve lost the others now” – and push various buttons on a control panel. His initial confidence has been replaced by what is now clearly a guess and hope for the best approach. When he bends down to switch the whole system off at the wall and turn it back on again, Amanda gives up. “F!ck it. Let’s go to my office and do it on Skype. We’ve wasted too much time already”.
So minutes later, some of the world’s most eminent researchers on identity are huddled together around a screen. Amanda’s office is large enough, but they have to cram round the screen in order to be heard. The outcomes of $5,000,000 worth of research, and the potential for another $500,000 in follow-on funds are thus discussed between bodies that are variously sweating, crouching, leaning, listing, straining to see and hear, interrupting accidentally, falling into uncertain silence, and tutting or gasping in dismay whenever Skype informs them a connection has been lost.