Dangerous Things

It was to be the university in perpetual motion, the university that would never succumb to complacency, the university never destined to become middle-aged. But that was then…

Dangerous Things traces the fortunes of three characters during three years of turmoil in the now middle-aged Sparkes-Orr University: Li-Li, a student stumbling her way through the Bachelor of Arts; Godwin, an Englishman downunder, juggling his passion for the Enlightenment with bewildering romantic entanglements; and Alain, a philosophical Professor of Philosophy, trapped in the leadership of their disfunctional faculty. 

Dangerous Things is awash with ideas: big ideas, novel ideas, old ideas, ideas that defy reason, others that seem to defy gravity. A stunning new campus is proposed, then a radical restructure, as Sparkes-Orr struggles to re-establish for itself some sense of a contemporary identity. Others yearn for the freedom of the university’s ’Golden Age’…

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extracts from chapters 2, 3 & 4

It is because she has discovered this still rich and bountiful history department at the University of Edinburgh, that Dr Starc is now anxious to impress on Godwin Godfree the legitimacy of her own ambition.

‘I think a lot of History is stuck in the past…’, she begins, then realises how silly that must sound. ‘I mean, a lot of approaches to History. I think the future is in histories like Eco-Cultural History. They’re contemporary, they are the history that makes sense now.’

‘I think history is continuous’, Godwin responds. ‘I mean, you can’t have too much history.’

‘Sometimes we are called on to make a choice!’ Peta Starc shoots back. It’s the line the Deputy Vice-Chancellor used when he addressed them at the end of the semester, although she can’t quite remember what the context was then. ‘That’s how we see it here, anyway.’

Godwin tries to look thoughtful in response and Peta Starc is reminded of an issue she has discovered on his résumé. He has published a book! Even though he is only a few years out of his doctoral program, even though he is only her age, even though he has not yet secured a tenured appointment anywhere, he has published a book, and it isn’t his doctoral thesis, either, it is an actual book. But before she can frame a question to Godfree on the context of this puzzling achievement, her smartphone interrupts: the interview panel has now finally assembled. The two young academics walk the short distance to the interview room in silence, and when they take their designated places at the oval table, Peta Starc behaves as if she has never met Godwin Godfree before.

The members of the panel introduce themselves. Peta Starc is first.

‘Nice to meet you, Dr Godfree’, she says, without blinking.

The Head of History, Professor King, is next. It is she who introduces the Dean of Arts, sitting beside her. The Dean of Arts does not say anything. Next is Professor Spurrier, who doesn’t reveal her field, and finally there is Glenda from Human Resources. Glenda from Human Resources is the only one to smile.

There follows an awkward pause. They are waiting for the Dean of Arts to open proceedings, but the Dean of Arts does not speak. It is impossible not to notice that the Dean’s head seems too small for his body, or at least too small for the grey suit it pokes out the top of. He is staring at Godwin, but is expressionless. His hair is distinctly uncombed. Godwin feels that the Dean isn’t really looking at him at all, but looking through him, looking somewhere into the very far distance, perhaps even into another time.

‘I think what Chair is asking’, Professor King begins, although the Dean has not said anything, ‘…is: why do you want this position?’

Godwin is not sure which way to turn. He acknowledges the Dean of Arts, as if the Dean had actually asked the question, but then turns back to Professor King. He answered this question badly at the other two interviews, because he had misinterpreted it. He had taken it as a coded invitation from the panel to say something flattering about their institution, which he then did, and so came across as shallow and insincere. What they had really been interested in, he realised only later, was why did he want the position. Well, that is easy. There are absolutely no academic jobs in the U.K. for starters! But he isn’t going to say that.

‘We are all aware’, Professor Spurrier interrupts, ‘of how terrible things are in the sector in Britain. We all have colleagues there, of course. It’s not like that here.’ But then she adds, darkly, ‘not yet, anyway.’

‘Well, it’s true’, Godwin acknowledges, ‘there are very few jobs for young academics in Britain.’

‘Is that it?’ Professor King inquires. ‘Is that why you’ve come to Australia?’

Fabas indulcet fames!’ The Dean of Arts’ speaks for the first time, waving a bony finger at Godwin, as if identifying the party responsible for some trifling misdemeanour. He seems quite amused at this, and laughs out loud, a strange laugh that appears to disconcert the other members of the panel. ‘Fabas indulcet fames!

‘Is that it?’ Professor King returns to her question.

‘I see it as an opportunity, Professor. To go somewhere else, to broaden my horizons.’

And because Margaret Thatcher died. Afterwards, it is obvious just how much of that depressing ‘before-his-time’ culture is still out there. So it isn’t just the university funding cuts or the roll-call of unemployed Arts graduates. They are depressing enough, but he’s is fed up with Britain. It is a country in retreat: insular, irritable, nostalgic. A country in which all the wrong people do the talking.

It seemed remarkably easy to come to the decision. He has never lived anywhere but Edinburgh, after all. Godwin’s parents reluctantly agreed to the idea, but they wanted him to go to Canada or New Zealand. They considered Australia ‘materialistic and uncouth’. But Canada is too cold and New Zealand is too small, so Australia it is. Afterwards, after he’d arrived into the oppressive beginnings of a hot Australian summer, the doubts began creeping in.

‘Is that it?’ Miriam King keeps probing.

‘I think I have something to offer.’

King’s eyebrows shoot up. It is a form of unspoken question.

‘As an academic, as a historian…’

‘What?’ she asks, now, ‘What is it you think you have to offer? We are most interested in that.’

Professor King has very black hair that is cut quite precisely and sits on her head somewhat like a helmet, and she wears black-framed glasses that are so horizontal, only the pupils of her eyes can be seen through the lenses. And her black and white dress is so contemporary, she looks like she’s been designed in a studio somewhere. She folds her hands together now, and rests her chin on them. She seems quite amused by this Dr Godfree.

‘What? she repeats in an intimate whisper, ‘what?

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A pity about the office! Alain Iser is debating the question as he walks back to the Faculty of Arts. He is mindful of needing a good argument, mindful of the difficult task he will have explaining this unexpected development to Carmelina. He has just sort of become her boss. But Acting Dean of Arts is something he should do. Shoulds are central to his thinking here, because the question is a moral one. He has had the benefit of others taking the responsibility for academic governance and faculty leadership, for others taking all sorts of responsibilities, and it is true to say, that not having those responsibilities has underpinned his entire career as a philosopher.

But he can also argue, (and the temptation to do so is equally pressing), that being a philosopher, or being a whatever, is precisely what academics should be doing. Advancing their discipline, advancing knowledge and their students with it. Management should be left to others.

Look at those former colleagues who had gone down the management path! Cut adrift from their discipline, the only thing they really knew, swamped by the demands of their staff and the executive, pestered by fair-weather friends, and losing the respect of their colleagues whatever they did. Whatever they tried to do. And when it was all over, what had been achieved? Dissension and bitterness, usually. Hardly the recommendation for a career move.

Poor Motherwell, getting a send-off with three months ‘research leave’. What research is Motherwell going to do? He would barely recognise his own discipline these days. And therein lies the tragedy, because he had been a perfectly reasonable scholar, much better as a scholar than he ever was a Dean of Arts, and now he is neither.

What is needed, then, is a university that doesn’t need managing. A university that self-manages, so to speak. A university peopled with academics who know what to do and take pleasure in doing it. Academics who do not need to be told what to do, who do not need to be managed. A fantasy? Perhaps. But not necessarily. A tempting idea, most certainly.

And that tempting idea begins to take hold as he skirts around the construction site at the front of the Law building. Foremost in his mind is the intellectual challenge. What is the nature of responsibility? What is the nature of authority? By the time Alain Iser is past the Engineering block and can see the Faculty of Arts building ahead, he is warming to the idea of being Acting Dean of Arts, warming to the opportunity it will provide to explore a number of philosophical questions he never before had the opportunity to explore.

‘What luck!’ he suddenly exclaims to a passing student. ‘What glorious long-necked luck!’

Back in the Faculty of Arts, the newly-anointed Acting Dean of Arts slips upstairs to inspect his new quarters. It might have been useful for the outgoing Dean to run through arrangements with him, but Motherwell had packed up so quickly, there had not been time for the proper farewell. The period of collegiate mourning had only run a week, when Professor Motherwell suddenly departed, taking his bruised and battered pride with him.

And, it seems, most of the furniture. Alain Iser steps through the doorway to an almost empty office. The bookshelves are still mounted on the walls but the books are gone, and the chairs and the couches and the oval table he’d sat any number of times, (a plain English oak table he rather liked), have vanished as well. The empty office is hardly recognisable, and it certainly doesn’t suggest authority. With the furniture gone, Iser is only too aware of the awkward proportions of the room: too long and thin, with windows that don’t seem to belong in it.

It had been the Faculty of Arts library back in the early days when each faculty had its own library. Later, when they were absorbed into the one building in the interests of interdisciplinarity, the old Arts library had been cut up. This half had become the Dean’s office. Iser had been quite content as a junior academic working in the Arts library, but he couldn’t imagine nutting through a difficult question in this space.

Only the big old oak desk is still there. But it’s been emptied. There aren’t even any pens left. He will have to order more pens. That is just ridiculous. Why would Motherwell take the pens? Paper clips, pads, things academics hardly used anymore anyway, all gone. Considering it from another position, though, Iser thinks he can understand. The office, one had to imagine, has been the scene of an excruciating trauma for the outgoing Dean, the brutal end of his long career. Could there be anything worse? Perhaps emptying the office had been necessary; a purge, cleansing the office of its ghosts, so the new occupant could start afresh, and as the new occupant, perhaps Alain Iser should be grateful for the absence of pens. But another thought persists: had Motherwell been so bitter that he nicked the furniture and even the bloody pens?

One of the drawers is locked; Iser tugs at it.

What are you doing?’

Vivian Albright, the former Dean’s secretary has entered silently, her footsteps noiseless on the carpeted floor.

‘The Acting Dean of Arts is inspecting his new premises, Mrs Albright.’

He holds up the keys as verification. And he smiles at her, a gesture that predictably goes unrewarded. Not for nothing is Vivian Albright known as The Glacier. Her icy temperament and obstinacy made her the perfect front-of-house for the former Dean of Arts, keeping at bay students and staff alike, regardless of the urgency of their issues. Does she come with the job? Iser certainly hopes not! Glacier is the wrong word, though. She is obstinate, yes, but never slow-moving. She is actually quite sharp.

You, Professor?’

‘That is why I am poking around in the office, Mrs Albright. My office, now.’

‘It appears Professor Motherwell has made off with most of your furniture.’

Iser shrugs. ‘Not my furniture, Mrs Albright. I am Dean of Arts for just a short time. It wont be a problem. And the new Dean of Arts will probably bring his own furniture. Or her own’, he corrects.

‘I hardly think so.’

He will have to do something about the furniture, though. But what? He can’t just empty his own office. His battered old couch and few chairs would be swallowed up in this enormous space. Perhaps the Dean’s furniture has just been sent away to be cleaned? Would Motherwell have done something like that? He wonders who would know. It obviously isn’t Vivian Albright. And then there’s the issue of the pens…

Vivian Albright moves deeper into the room and stands where a chair used to be. She would sit on the edge of that chair in her meetings with the Dean. Sometimes they took tea together. That chair was special.

‘It’s not a very attractive room empty, is it? Rather like a country hall that no-one uses anymore.’

‘Is there anything else?’ Iser flexes his newly-acquired authority. She is showing no signs of leaving, and he needs to be alone. To think. He has been in the job for less than an hour and already things are becoming disagreeable. Perhaps he could hire furniture from somewhere?

‘I will need your mobile number.’

‘Philosophers do not have mobile numbers, Mrs Albright, they do not have mobile phones. For the philosopher, mobility means escape from the phone.’

‘And how am I to contact you?’

Men have become the tools of their tools. Henry David Thoreau. Philosopher.’

How am I to contact you, Professor?’

‘When I am here, I am contactable, and when I am not here, I am working. Not contactable, because…’

‘I will order you a mobile phone. Deans must be contactable at all times. I think you’ll find that’s in your contract, Professor.’ Vivian Albright turns abruptly and waltzes out of the room, but the scent of her victory lingers on.

‘I wont use it!’, he calls out after her. Wants to call out. ‘I wont use it’, he says to himself. ‘I will keep it turned off. I will take the battery out of it. I will lock it in a drawer. I will auction it at the Christmas break-up. I will not use it.’ He tugs at the locked drawer again. What is in there that is so bloody precious! Is it the only drawer that hasn’t been emptied? Tedious woman! Behaving as if she is already his secretary.

Because she is! She is the Dean of Arts’ secretary, he has just inherited her. No, actually not, it is she who has inherited him. Which, Alain Iser feels the need to reassure himself, is perfectly in order. The Acting Dean of Arts does not go round making new appointments. The Acting Dean of Arts is merely acting. But already he can feel the shine coming off his newly-minted authority.

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Right across the Hilltops campus of Sparkes-Orr University that hot autumn morning, the first lectures of the new academic year are beginning. Microphones are tapped, students are hushed, Powerpoints flash onto screens. In Narrative, the lecture begins with a quote from Milan Kundera and a question none of the students can understand. In Introduction to Cultural Studies, it begins with dim lighting and ethereal music. ‘I am your friend’, the lecturer seems to be saying. In History of Ethics, students are presented with an ethical dilemma, in Economics, with a set of definitions, in Jurisprudence, with the due dates for the semester’s assignments: the due dates, the word lengths, the formatting requirements, and the topics to be covered in the end of semester exam. No-one will be able to say later they had not been told.

In Discourse and Disposition, Dr Roslyn Tuttle begins her first lecture of the year exactly as she had done every year for the past twenty-two.

You don’t speak language, language speaks eeyoouuuooh!’

Her steely eyes scan the blank faces before her, her bony outstretched finger jabs at the air, accusatory. Her purpose is two-fold. At the very beginning, she must establish the fundamental role of language in the formation of human subjects. She must disabuse the students of their ‘common sense’ belief in the existence of an ‘autonomous self’. And she has a second purpose: she is introducing students to the university, and that means turning the students’ comfortable world on its head. These two aims are accomplished together. The end of ‘common sense’ dovetails perfectly with the beginning of intellectual endeavour. The immediate effect is confusion, but Dr Tuttle believes confusion is the precursor of knowledge, not its opposite.

‘Are you getting any of this?’, Li-Li whispers to the boy next to her. He is super-organised. He has an iPad, which he is using to trawl the web for references, while his phone captures the lecture and his paper notebook records his handwritten notes in different coloured pens. It’s like he’s got six hands!

Are you?’, she hisses.

‘Yesss’, he whispers back, unable to pretend he hasn’t heard her.

He wears glasses and looks serious, and that is why Li-Li is sitting next to him. Boys who look like that just have to be clever.

‘Could you explain it to me, later? I’m not understanding it at all.’ But someone shushes her from behind and the serious-looking boy does not get to answer. She opens her own tablet and taps in her passcode. A photo of herself playing with Duffy appears on the screen. Duffy! How she would just love to give Duffy a big cuddle right now!

‘It is through discourses that subjects gain the knowledge and language to speak of and organise themselves and the social world… We can only speak of and “be ourselves” within the definitions of self produced in discourses…There is no…’

Li-Li feels restless. She tries forcing herself to concentrate by transcribing the lecture onto the tablet but the bits and pieces she manages to capture make no sense. It is not an idea of language that Li-Li has ever heard before. Language to Li-Li means something entirely different: it is the beauty of language, the passion of language that has been impressed on Li-Li. That is what guides her reading of poetry and novels and her love of Shakespeare. 

‘As Foucault says: “One cannot speak of anything at anytime; it is not easy to say something new, it is not enough to open our eyes, to pay attention, or to be aware…”

And Li-Li thinks of the favourite poems they have learnt off by heart, learnt how to say them, as if just for the beauty of the sounds alone. She thinks of the readings of Shakespeare and her marvelling at the magic of that language, language that is so outside the everyday world, and she thinks of the sayings her father comes out with, sayings from his own culture, which, even when translated into English, still sound beautiful.

‘There is, as Foucault says, only discourse, and we cannot speak or know…’

And as the short commanding figure at the lectern talks on about ‘discursive fields’ and ‘subject positions’ and ‘discursive constructions’ and ‘functions of power’, Li-Li Zheng finds herself thinking about God. Is Language sort of like God? she wonders. Because, on the one hand, there is the God who loves you and looks out for you so that no harm will come, (so long as you are good, of course, or ‘fess up when you’re not), and then there is the other God, the furious, jealous God, the God who scolds you and judges you and castes you into the flames of hell for almost nothing. Are there two Languages, Li-Li wonders, just like there are two Gods? The Language that is beautiful and awesome and makes you feel strong, and this other Language, this one that just pushes you around. Dr Tuttle’s language, Li-Li reasons, seems to be just like the mean God, and she taps into her tablet, Language-is-a-vengeful-God.

‘That’s great!’, the serious-looking boy next to her whispers, ‘A vengeful God!’ He has been surreptitiously spying on Li-Li and he is staggered by the cleverness of that line. She doesn’t look clever at all. And Li-Li feels suddenly pleased with herself, too pleased for it not to show on her face, and like the serious-looking boy next to her, she thinks that her line is rather original; that is, she thinks ‘she’ has written it, rather than ‘Language’ has, and whether that is true or not will have to wait until more lectures have been experienced and tutorial discussions survived, and Dr Tuttle’s dreadful scrawled comments on her essays deciphered. But as an abstract of Dr Roslyn Tuttle’s first lecture of the year, language-is-a-vengeful-God is probably as good as any.

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