12 September 2016

Brain-addled from a heady mix of Danish oil, concrete floor paint and the tiny particles of wood and lath dust that swirl around me. My arm is definitely not right. Or, rather, it’s different now. Typing alerts me to new twinges and I find myself in meetings absent-mindedly rubbing my tendons. My to-do list includes things like curtain rail runners (who knew there were so many different varieties!) and applying 2nd coats of paint to the bathroom floor and I fight my impatience to reapply within the recommended 16-hour re-coat period.

curtains

The A B C of Curtain Rail Runners (with apologies to Christopher Hawkes)

But I must return to a daily working rhythm. So many missed deadlines because a house waits for no woman and, while academia remains wedded to a rather old-fashioned idea that its scholars have wives at home to deal with such things, doing up a falling-down house takes time. However, I’m now out of time and out of money so this is the point at which I say that enough has been done for the lodgers to move in.

So, it’s a return to the university and its plum-liveried meeting rooms to discuss Impact case studies and the nature of evidence and to race against time to develop teaching plans for courses I’ve only just been told that I’m teaching. The reality of ‘efficiency’ and the collision of just-in-time planning, reduced budgets and increasing bureaucracy around monitoring and quality assurance produces the worst of many worlds. We run around at breakneck pace busily gathering evidence for how we’re improving experience, which doesn’t leave very much time at all for designing and delivering that experience. If a tree falls in the forest but the event wasn’t recorded in three different databases and subjected to both quantitative and qualitative analysis did it really fall? While it seems that everyone working in UK Higher Education understands the increasingly Czech overtones of the system, from Kafka to Daisies, it’s dangerous stuff to utter in meetings. Above all else, the University is a growth machine and must not be questioned.

The rhythm of this secret archaeologist’s year sees September arrive without a proper summer hiatus, a long list of overdue research commitments and the feeling that many academics experience at this time of year of being strapped into a rickety roller coaster, heading up to the crest of the first stomach-churning hill. Things to remember to dampen the rising panic are that this is a loop and that catastrophic structure failure is remarkably rare. Things to quicken the heart are also things to remember. Things of possibility and enjoyment. The autumn brings new students and different enthusiasms.It starts a new season of conferences and travel to places I’ve not visited before. And on my new walk into work through Old Market I see so many pedestrian commuters in autumn-love. The trick in making this all liveable seems to lie in doing what needs to be done without losing ourselves in the machine, in finding playful ways to resist bureaucratic violence and to remember to celebrate the liveliness of others. And when even IKEA is marketing imperfection and being good enough, well, I guess something’s in the air.

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