10th February

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 organisations. 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. Absenteeism is a hallmark of being in demand. This is called 'dissemination' in the rhetoric of grant applications - ie, 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 bed sit 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. 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 patronised in doomed attempts to bridge the university's class


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26 February