Posted by September Blue Friday, 21 November 2008

So here's the problem with my department: it has no short-term memory. I don't mean that it collectively forgets stuff. I mean that on certain matters, and by 'certain' I mean 'most', it is incapable of retaining new information.

Like the case of the postgrad conference folder. Back in, oh, 2003, 2004, the department thought it would be a good idea if the PhD students organising the postgraduate conference put together a folder of information about what they'd done, who they'd contacted, and what needed to be arranged for when. Maybe it would have been; but, things being things, people got busy and the folder never got made. Nobody claimed it had been made; nobody claimed it would be made; nobody connected to the project was ever under the impression that it existed. So later that year, when the secretaries wanted to know where the folder was, people let them know politely and with no confusion that the folder did not exist, and so the matter passed.

Until the next year, when the secretaries wanted to know where that folder was, and people explained once again that it didn't exist, and the matter was dropped. And the year after that, when the secretaries wanted to know where that folder was, and people explained through gritted teeth that THERE WAS NO FOLDER, and the matter was dropped once again. And the year after that, when the secretaries were very annoyed that someone from the previous year-group was obviously holding on to that folder, still, because it wasn't available to give to the new group, and people wept softly in corners and spent long nights drafting the most unambiguous e-mails possible about the non-existence of the folder. And last week, when the secretaries decided they'd had enough of this folder going missing year after year, and requested copies of all the documents in it so they could build up a folder of their own.

It's possible I'm missing out a few conversations about the folder, here. There were a lot. Anyway, what I'm saying is that I think most of the department's dysfunction can be traced back to this same idea - that once it has got an idea into its collective head, that idea is there forever, no matter what else happens to interfere with the facts.

I'm grumbling about my department a little here because I've just had dinner with a friend who got his PhD today, and who's one of my favourite academics in the whole wide world (even after his baby bit me). He's also great to talk to about work matters, because although he graduated from my department, he was distanced from it for so long that its bizarreness just seems absolutely ridiculous to him. I mean, I know it's ridiculous, too, but you don't realise how much of its oddness you've internalised as just the way things are until someone else interrupts your story with a 'they told you whaaaaaaaaat?'

So here's the slightly less funny things the department has got into its head recently:
- TA allocations are divided up entirely at random. The fact that they hugely favour the same few individuals year after year does not in any way impact upon this randomness.
- The department has absolutely no obligation to let current TAs know if they won't be teaching next semester. Word will get round from the people who did, so they'll hear about it eventually.
- Post-PhDs like me doing hourly-paid teaching are a persistent annoyance, and are only still attached to the department because they don't want to leave [gosh, who would?]. It is, therefore, totally acceptable to ask them on very short notice to teach 25% of the first-years, but to drop them from the list of end-of-semester party invites because they're not staff.
- Post-PhDs like me whine, and we don't understand how things work, and we don't appreciate how much the department's done for us, and we persistently let it down, and we need to grow up and act like professionals and stop taking everything so personally.

This can get to you after a while.

My friend staged what I can best describe as an academic intervention, insisting that I get an old research proposal together and submit it to funding bodies for this year's consideration, pointing out to me that it's really really interesting and that it would work very well with one increasingly trendy research area, giving me names of people and departments to contact about taking this further.

"And also," he said, "you have got to leave this place before it drives you insane."