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A Community of Like-Minded Scholars

Are academics normal? Well, obviously their intelligence isn’t: they’re the best of the best, experts in their chosen field, on the brink of research that could change our lives forever. And you see them sometimes out in public, on Radio 4, on Great British Menu, chumming up with comedians for light-hearted podcasts… they seem normal then, right?

Yes, there they are, with the TV cameras or recording equipment turned on, chatting away with celebrities, acting like they’re perfectly normal people just like you and me. Except, of course, for the small matter of their superior intelligence and expertise, which must be acknowledged and deferred to.

They are normal people, just like you and me, but, you know, better. As long as you accept that, and it informs and underlines your every interaction with them, then everyone will get along just fine.

There is a fairly common trope in fiction that places brilliant, maverick leaders, creatives and scientists at the centre of a story, frustrated by wrong-headed bureaucracy and narrow-minded paper-pushers.

Of course he or she is getting angry, the story says, their self-evident genius is being blocked and subverted by nefarious know-nothings! Who cares if they happen to shout at one or two of these faceless drones, or throw a few things around? They’re the hero of the story, dammit, and they’re so close to a breakthrough.

In real life, such behaviour could perhaps be justified by, say, the people working on the COVID vaccine. Or ground-breaking cancer research. But in their minds, all academics are working on their version of a cure for cancer, or something equally important.

In fact, it would take something as incredible as that to impress those academics who would be otherwise engaged in sneering competitiveness and one-upmanship between disciplines: the professor who would dismiss research in the field of history as ‘sitting in their French chalets drinking wine and making things up’ but then jump to align his own ‘soft’ science subject with more concrete breakthroughs like vaccinations - and would doubtless be ridiculed in a meeting of a ‘hard’ science department for doing so.

Despite the perpetuation of stereotypes that might seem unfair, it was remarkable how often they turned out to be true: scientists were aloof and hopeless with people; the artists could be charming but also highly strung and easily combustible; academics involved in counselling courses were constantly psychoanalysing others; while the law department’s big problem was [redacted].

And I once saw a philosophy lecturer, upon being challenged about the loss of around £600 worth of textbooks from the library, trying to argue his way out of the charge on the basis that ‘books are just ideas’ and ‘ideas are meant to roam free, not be locked up in a building’.

Academia as a career breeds a certain mentality, one based around single-mindedness and self-focus. Don’t be too nice or you’ll be seen as a soft touch, or be given loads of thankless jobs that no one else wants to do. On the other hand, if you act like a dickhead, throw your toys out of the pram, do a bad job or refuse to engage with things that you consider beneath you, then this behaviour will be rewarded.

The notion of a community of like-minded scholars is largely for the sake of appearances only, with the forced bonhomie of departmental meetings masking a whole network of simmering resentment and personal agendas. Each of those sat around the table could not care less about the fates of the others, unless they were to suffer some kind of professional disgrace that would also impact the department and its reputation.

Genuine friendships appeared to be fairly rare. Ultimately, however much two colleagues might have liked each other and worked closely together, they were also rivals. If two new lecturers were to co-teach a module, for example, it would be a battle to see who would end up doing most of the heavy lifting while the other was able to focus on their research and a possible promotion ahead of the other.

Those with a larger teaching load and lower research profile might take the opportunity to pontificate on learning and teaching, but this territory, too, was there to be fought over, a smaller piece of influence to disagree about and squabble over. Meanwhile, the senior professors considered this all beneath them; lower beings fighting over table scraps.

The place of non-academic staff would be somewhere below the table scrap level. In some ways it was difficult to know whether it was better to be treated with open contempt, for at least that displayed some honesty, or to deal with the slightly more patronising approach of having people think you unintelligent and worthless while pretending to consider you a colleague.

It took me a while to realise that academics often didn’t even treat their peers as their peers; when they worked in completely different departments, each would consider the other inferior; if it was the same subject, but a different research area, ditto.

Those who were below them on the ladder deserved to be there; those above had been fortunate. It helped me to not take things that they said and did personally, even if it did create an atmosphere that proved rather suffocating.

The shared office would be the only place any of us felt we had any power. Six pairs of eyes focused firmly on someone with no social skills could be quite disconcerting, as they scrabbled about trying to garnish whatever it was they wanted with the kind of easy-going small talk they were ill-equipped to deliver.

It also meant that there would be several witnesses to any inappropriate comments or behaviour that may ensue. Of course, we were all perfectly polite at the time, safe in the knowledge we could rip the piss in private as soon as they left the room.

The best and most frequently repeated scenario was an academic tip-toeing into the room, rictus grin affixed, eyes darting left and right trying to find a familiar face and perhaps even a name to go with it. More often than not, they would come up empty, until they blurted out something along the lines of, ‘Who can I talk to about…?’ or one of the assembled support staff would put them out of their misery and initiate contact.

When the longest-serving administrators left, it brought howls of anguish from academics because theirs was the only name with which he or she was familiar. ‘Why are they leaving?’ the academics would ask, as if being treated like shit for years for crap pay was something that the likes of us should be grateful for and reluctant to abandon.

One day, I overheard a member of my team making polite small talk with a notoriously unpleasant academic. My colleague had recently married and managed to buy a house within commutable distance of the university. He was relaying this to the lecturer with some level of pride.

She congratulated him on his news and asked where he had moved to. Upon hearing the location, she made a childish sort of retching noise and said, ‘Ugh! Why would you move there? Horrible! Horrible!’

Even as someone well used to such things, he was rather taken aback. However, he understood the rules of the game that needed to be followed in order to ensure a quieter life. There was little point in responding with unprofessional behaviour of your own, or by trying to use what little power you had to withdraw co-operation.

Academics didn’t seem to understand that their being rude did bother you, actually, but there was no point making a fuss, because they were never going to change, and raising it was more trouble than it was worth.

The rules that bound us did not bind them: quite literally, because the HR codes of conduct applied only to support staff, while academics were governed by dusty statutes, presumably written on parchment during the Middle Ages.

One professor even argued, when challenged, that her right to be rude to administrative staff was enshrined in these statutes and that any request to moderate her behaviour impinged on the codified principles of academic freedom.

(An argument otherwise known as the ‘this is actually against my actual human rights, actually’ defence, as uttered by countless sullen teenagers upon being sent upstairs to clean their room.)

In other words, they could treat us however they liked, and we had to take it.


This is an edited extract from Our Teaching's Great, The Admin Sucks: Tales From Inside Higher Education by Ben Richards, available to buy now.


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