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A vision for academia

November 26, 2009

Did you know that Isaac Newton’s birthday was Christmas Day? Or that spiders’ blood is copper-bearing rather than iron-bearing, and is blue? Or that on Venus, the sun rises in the west?

Also, did you know that Shakespeare’s The Two Noble Kinsmen is a reworking of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale? Or that Tolkien’s Ents are named for the Old English word for ‘giant’? Or that Carveddras in Cornwall was once spelt Caer Vodred – Mordred’s castle?

I do. And because I think all of these things are cool things to know, I want to spread the love. I think everybody should know cool things – the little tidbits of trivia that make you smile.

The first few questions are random interesting factettes, of the sort that people accumulate through life, via pub quizzes and Fun Fact columns and the Horrible Histories books. The second set would qualify as middling to extreme medieval geekery depending on who you asked, and I only learnt the answers whilst doing my degree.

Yet I’m fairly well convinced that the same impulse lies behind the two sets of questions: the burning drive to, having learnt an Interesting Fact, immediately communicate it to everyone I know. I don’t do this very much (did you know that Charlie Brooker’s first name is actually Charlton?) at least I like to think I don’t, but the instinct for rei frigidae (cool facts) is constantly on the watch.

In the shady groves of Academe, research tends to be paramount. The promise of shiny new research is what gets funding out of the AHRC (the clue is the R) and contracts out of prestigious universities, because it’s the quality of the research, not the quality of the teaching, that is assessed in the RAE (again, clue is in the R). And obviously research is all well and good.

But there’s a reason that Great Academics do not spend all their time locked in ivory towers libraries perusing their books of magic. And that is because you have to somehow generate the next wave of researchers and the only way to do that is by teaching students, in the hope that some of the hitherto undifferentiated horde will be inspired to carry the sacred flame forward to the future. And so on.

The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that the driving impulse behind the really good academics, the ones who get up on tables in full gownage to play God in Noahs Fludde and teach alliterative meter with the aid of bongos (no, really) is the same one that makes me want to tell people that there’s a gene called sonic hedgehog. It’s the sheer impetuous desire to want everyone else to be as excited about something as you are. To pass on facts that make you smile, or think, or tickle the intellect and send the imagination swerving off down unexpected paths.

Too often academia gets given the reputation of being a dry, boring, pedantic place. And I don’t doubt that for people who’ve been railroaded into university – because they don’t know what they want to do, or because it’s What Nice People Do even though they want to be a hairdresser, or for any other reason – it can indeed be dry, pedantic and boring as hell. The academic environment isn’t for everyone.

But I think that part of that reputation is to do with the (still a little bit prevalent) ivory-tower, ancient-scrolls approach to research and teaching. Ostensibly the reason we devote decades of our lives to our little fields of speciality – be it the physics of coffee or the nuances of 14th-century poetry – is because we love this stuff, and so why shouldn’t that love come out in the way academics teach their students?

In a subject as, um, subjective as English, there’s no such thing as authoritative truth. The reason we study the Arts is not to discover the Ultimate Answer (did you know that rainbows are made by light hitting water at a 42-degree angle?), but to explore new ways of looking and new lights to cast on old things. The mood should be one of constant curiosity, of questioning, of poking and tinkering, of turning something round and looking at it from the other side. It should be about infectious excitement – the mode of “Hey, look what happens if I do this!”

Because the world is just awesome, and every res frigida, every cool thing, that makes you smile and go “. . . that’s pretty neat” is a little piece of that. I honestly think that that’s what it comes down to, for me: I want to show people how many weird and wonderful and boggling things there are in the world, and how they reflect, refract and illuminate one another.

Perhaps I’m simply too young to have been disillusioned by funding applications and university politics, but right now I can’t think of a better way to spend my life.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Seamus permalink
    November 27, 2009 1:29 pm

    Hey, I recognise that lecturer referenced up there. He really is excellent. If he only had the fun-loving side, he’d get pretty tiresome, but his secret is the thing you’re alluding to here: he really is a deeply committed expert in his field.

    Your vision for academia reminds me also of Johannes Balaena, who while, like the lecturer above, is a very odd man, has an attitude to English teaching with which I agree: since we are studying art, our studies must be artistic, not scientific; therefore, as I think I’ve said to you before, a Balaena lecture is a poem, a memory, an autobiography: a work of art interesting and pleasing in itself. I get the impression he enjoys lecturing more than research, if only because research isn’t done before an audience.

    I was going to suggest you bust into one of his lectures but it looks I haven’t got any more with him this term, so never mind.


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