What are academics for?
Because we have very few fixed hours of work, university teachers are often assumed to have loads of free time. People see us taking retail therapy on a Tuesday morning or having a long lunch, and they tend to forget that all our weekend and most of the night was spent in the library. Not great for family life, as most partners of academics complain.
This makes us easy prey to all kinds of demands from those who think that we can easily give some of that “free time” to them. There are scores of “independent television makers” who will ring you up and try to get you to plan their new programme on gladiators, sex in the ancient world, the fall of the Roman empire, or whatever, over the phone. Now that e-mail is the standard medium of communication, we’ve got out of practice at the old art of putting the receiver down – which is, of course, why they ring.
Then there are the eager sixth-formers, who think that an enthusiastic letter or e-mail will prompt you to give them more help with their A level course work than you should by rights offer. As I can testify, there are more kids in this country working on “Roman Women” than you could possibly believe.
These rules consist mostly in a list of things he won’t do:
“No external lectures/conference papers will be given in term time. Only exceptionally will lectures/conference papers be given outside term”
“No books or articles will be read for publishers in advance of publication.”
“No meeting in London starting before 11.00 am or 11.30 on Mondays unless overnight stay is funded”
But there are other canny conditions laid down:
“All travel should be refunded within 6 weeks of the journey undertaken. Thereafter interest will be charged at a rate equivalent to that on my credit card. All air journeys lasting over two and a half hours will be expected to be funded at business class level.”
“Books will be reviewed for journals etc. only exceptionally, and only if they are major reviews of substantial length with a notice of at least 8 weeks.”
I can see where he is coming from. I still get angry about some universities abroad who have taken more than six months to refund my travel expenses. And certainly there have been times when rearranging my university teaching, taking a cold and uncomfortable train journey cross-country, and then talking to a handful of conscripts in a village hall has not quite seemed worth the trouble it has caused.
But what has happened to the idea of public responsibility? The fact that academics get paid (albeit inadequately) by the state surely gives them a duty to the community more widely. It may not be part of our contracts, but it is certainly part of how most of us understand the job in its widest sense, to spread our word outside the academy. Draughty church halls, lectures in unglamorous locations with no travel expenses (prisons are one of my particular favourites), short reviews in local papers all have their place on the agenda.
Most important of all are the talks to schools (strikingly absent from the “Rules of Engagement”). True, these are not lucrative and they aren’t always exactly fun. It isn’t easy for the untrained to hold the attention of sixty or so 14 year-olds, especially when half the audience has been dragooned into your talk to give their exhausted teacher an hour off. But somewhere in there, just occasionally, is someone’s whose horizons you might change.
My husband, now an art historian, recounts just such an eye-opening moment from his own school days. He had never thought of art history as a subject you might actually study, until Nikolaus Pevsner came to his school and gave a still-remembered talk on local buildings, and – in particular – on the different architectural histories of the towns of Bristol and Bath. Cliché as it must seem, it was the start of another art-historical career.
Pevsner was already a well-established figure at that point. But I rather doubt that he laid down careful conditions about his travel expenses and his credit card bill.