Dangerous Things

Right from the beginning Sparkes-Orr was different…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 experience of students, young academics and ageing professors during three years of turmoil in the now middle-aged Sparkes-Orr University. Among them, Li-Li, stumbling her way through a Bachelor of Arts; Godwin, a novice academic juggling the history of the Enlightenment with bewildering romantic entanglements; and Alain, the philosophical Professor of Philosophy, thrust into the leadership of their dis-functional faculty.

Dangerous Things is awash with ideas: big ideas, novel ideas, old ideas, ideas that defy reason, others that seem to defy gravity. Amongst these, conflicting ideas of what it means to be a university percolate down from the professoriate, and bubble up from impromptu student forums as Sparkes-Orr struggles to re-establish for itself some sense of a coherent identity.

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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, and 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.’

‘Well, 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’s an actual book. But before she can frame a question to Godfree on the context for 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. Then she introduces the Dean of Arts who is 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 say anything. 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 expressionless, and 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 he hasn’t 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 misinterpreted it. He had taken it as a coded invitation from the panel to say something flattering about their institution, so he did, and came across as insincere. What they had really been interested in, he realised later, was why did he want the position. Well, there are absolutely no academic jobs in the U.K. for a start! 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 Godwin 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 ‘uncouth and materialistic’. But Canada was too cold and New Zealand was too small, so Australia it was. 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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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 clearly 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.

And he thinks about those former colleagues who had gone down the management path. Oh, tragedy! 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. Look at poor old Motherwell! Off on his three months ‘research leave’, now. 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 was 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 is the beginning of the process that will guide Alain Iser’s own practice as Acting Dean of Arts. Foremost in his mind is the intellectual challenge. What is the nature of responsibility? What is the nature of authority? By the time he is past the Engineering block and can see the Faculty of Arts building ahead, Iser 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 has never before had the opportunity to explore.

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

Back in the Faculty of Arts, the newly-crowned Acting Dean 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 most of the furniture! The Dean’s office is almost empty. Alain Iser is standing inside the doorway: 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, and windows that don’t seem to belong to it.

It had been the Faculty of Arts library back in the early days when each faculty had its own library. Later they were absorbed into the one building in the interests of interdisciplinarity and 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.

The big 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? But the 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? He 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 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 can 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.’ She turns abruptly and waltzes out, but the scent of her victory lingers on.

‘I wont use it!’, he calls out. 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’s 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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In residences across the broad expanses of the Shire of Murrumbeet, members of the executive and the professoriate, and politicians and local dignitaries are putting on expensive clothes and black ties, and looking forward to the canapés and free French champagne. The Dean of Science is stepping out for the first time with his secretary, Rosalind. And why not? Everyone suspects them, anyway. The Director of Research is taking his precocious twin daughters along, with unforeseen consequences likely, and the Director of Finances is busy cursing bow-ties and the emotional instability of baby-sitters.

Professor Crystal Spurrier has chosen a Carmen outfit for the evening. A thick black stripe had been dyed into her long greying hair, hoop earrings adorn her neck and her lips glisten with her favourite Peckinpah Red lipstick. Crystal Spurrier has not actually received an invitation, and that is the reason she is going. She will be there to represent all the others who have not received invitations, all those who would happily go and enjoy the champagne and nibbles, even at the cost of remaining quiet during the Vice-Chancellor’s speech. She is going for them. It is a role Crystal Spurrier has played before.

At six o’clock, as the cars and taxis swirl around the McManus building, the first of the summer storms breaks over the Hilltops Campus. Big fat drops of rain accompany the arrival of the guests, smacking into the bonnets of the cars and the bare arms of the ladies. By the time rain is pounding against the windows and lightning is crackling across a dramatic sky, everyone has made it safely inside, and the inaugural storm of the season takes on the quality of an orchestration: music and fireworks to accompany the Vice-Chancellor’s spectacle.

In the foyer, there is a crush of laughter and loud voices. Compliments gush forth; a sense of warm community erupts. And these are the very same people, Crystal Spurrier muses, who, on any ordinary day, would be bemoaning the continuing fact of each other’s existence! But she smiles and gushes, too, as practiced as any of them.

Upstairs, the Vice-Chancellor and Margaret are hosts. As usual, their division of labour is gendered. Margaret busies herself with the women, academics and the wives of academics alike. The Vice-Chancellor feels more at home with the men, and after the handshakes and a few carefully chosen words, he guides his charges towards the display that now occupies a sizeable part of the foyer in the Vice-Chancellor’s suite. It has only appeared that afternoon, almost like a miracle, a gleaming, meticulously-fashioned architect’s model of the new Sparkes-Orr campus.

Nothing, not the storm raging outside, not Margaret’s exasperation with him, not Professor Spurrier’s ridiculous costume, not even the guests getting drunk and silly, as they will undoubtedly do, nothing is going to detract from the Vice-Chancellor’s special moment. The crowd around the model of the new campus is growing and he can hear their gasps and exclamations now, the thrill in their rising voices. And in every isn’t-that-wonderful! and how-did-they-achieve-that!, the Vice-Chancellor believes he hears the music of the spheres.

On the shores of the beautiful Bay of Refuge, the Waterfront Campus is dominated by nautical themes. The site is dissected by a series of gently curving canals that suggest the outline of a boat with the bow pointing inland towards the campus entrance. The canals move serenely through parklands and plazas while the smooth humped footbridges add a touch of Venice. At the water’s edge, the glorious white-tiled Odyssey Centre rises up like a giant wave with three floors of sheer aqua-tinted glass at its crest, and the beautiful waters of the Bay of Refuge are reflected in the glass façade, as the glass itself is reflected in the sparkling waters.

Alain Iser kneels in front of the scale model. At that level, you experience the vision the architects intended, of arriving at the campus from across the water. White-tiled aqua-glassed ‘waves’ large and small, rise and fall, punctuated by sleek ‘masted’ structures reminiscent perhaps of yachts or galleys. On either side, marinas extend out along the water’s edge complete with yachts and small pleasure craft. The effect is a mutual embrace of architecture and water. This is the Vice-Chancellor’s stunning new campus, and Iser has to agree, it really is stunning.

It would be difficult to imagine a greater contrast between the architectural tour de force of the Waterfront Campus and the sheer grey misery of winter at Hilltops. Sited on a ridge outside the city because the land was cheap, the Hilltops Campus is especially exposed to the vagaries of the coastal climate. Light breezes keep the weather benign in mid-summer, when staff and students are on holidays, but in winter, gales roar along the coast, fresh off the Southern Ocean. Gusts of freezing wind sweep across the empty plazas rattling the flagpoles and cowering the outdoor furniture. Sleet rat-tat-tats on windows and fingers of icy water push their insidious way under the glass doors.

The weather had been as much a part of Sparkes-Orr as the pranks and the pedagogy in the early days. It lent a certain anti-establishment grunge quality to the campus and fostered an egalitarian spirit, since all of them, from Vice-Chancellor  McManus down to nervous first-year, were huddled together against the tempest outside, all equally wet and cold, fingers frozen, noses running. The winters had been strangely exhilirating then. It had made them defiant. They would build their university, and they would astound people! In the development of the university as an intellectual community, the winter weather had played a vital role.

There will be no bleak skies to tarnish the Waterfront Campus. There, the sun will sparkle on the water and dance across the white-tiled ‘waves’. And there is truth in that, because although the new campus is just twenty kilometres away, the Bay of Refuge lies in a sheltered location on the other side of the city, and the whole area is protected from the worst of the weather by the same exposed coastal ridge that houses Hilltops. Boats enter the bay through a long and narrow passage, so that even as the Southern Ocean crashes and roars against the headland, the waters of the bay remain calm.

Iser looks out of the window at storm-swept SOU Central. He had not taken up Carmelina’s suggestion that they get a cab and now the car is parked hundreds of metres away. He watches as a few bent figures force a path across the plaza and disappear into a fluorescent-lit doorway. The functionalist aesthetic of Hilltops, of concrete and cream brick, is again at one with the bleak skies and crashing rain. But Iser is ambivalent about the move. He is nostalgic for Hilltops, bleak though he knows it can be. It has been his campus for his entire career, and he loves it, loves it in the way you can only love something that keeps no secrets from you.

Iser declines the offer of a second champagne, knowing he has to drive, but Carmelina is under no such constraints. She looks remarkably relaxed now for someone who hadn’t wanted to be there. But that is the mood of the spectacle, Iser records in his notebook. Because the guests are not mere observers of the spectacle, they are participants in it. And their role as participants is heightened indulgence. So they talk loudly, with exaggerated gestures, jewellery and teeth flashing under the bright lights, and the canapés keep appearing as they wolf them down, and the champagne flows like a sparkling river of pale lemon. Only Iser looks out of place, scribbling away in his notebook like some old-fashioned reporter.

So much has been eaten and drunk by the time the Vice-Chancellor begins his speech, that serious efforts are required to maintain decorum. For some, (Alain Iser declines to note who), the efforts prove fruitless. But the Vice-Chancellor’s enthusiasm soars above the indiscretions. It is a speech peppered with analogies and exhortations, the lessons of history and the courage of the individual’s bold vision. Sparkes-Orr University has now come of age, he declares; this is what a university can dream of being.

Afterwards, after the effects of the champagne have receded, and a solid night’s sleep has separated the launch of the Waterfront Campus from the wet weekend that follows, the Deans of Faculty and Heads of Section are confronted by a sobering reality. Nowhere in his speech did the Vice-Chancellor mention who exactly would be moving to the sparkling new campus, and who exactly would be left behind in the barren landscape of Hilltops. As they marvelled at the canals and the glistening water, as they swooned over the sleek glass structures, they had neglected to ask themselves the only really important question. Is that us there? Or is that them?

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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, and 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 fifteen.

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, like he might be frightened of girls, 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 White finds herself thinking about God. Is Language sort of like God?, Li-Li 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, the 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 as good as any.

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