Dangerous Things

Controversial, radical, adventurous: the first university to be named after scholars, the first to have a marketing slogan, the first to abolish exams. This was to be a university in perpetual motion, a university that would never succumb to complacency, that would never 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, the marginal student battling through a Bachelor of Arts, Godwin, the Englishman downunder, juggling his passion for History with disastrous relationships, and the philosopher Alain, who philosophises his way through the leadership of their dysfunctional faculty. 

Dangerous Things is a novel of ideas: big ideas, novel ideas, old ideas, ideas that defy reason, others that seem to defy gravity. A stunning new campus is planned, a radical restructure proposed, internationalisation is heralded as the make-or-break future as Sparkes-Orr struggles to re-establish for itself some sense of contemporary identity. And there are those who still yearn for the freedom of the ‘Golden Age’…

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extracts from chapters 1, 2 & 3

Godwin Godfree looks out of the train window at the farmland flashing past and draws comfort from it. In its anonymity and transience, he sees an analogy for his own situation. He has suffered two bewildering interviews, in which indifferent academics rambled on about ‘diversity’ and ‘pathways’ and ‘workloads’ and ‘equity’ and the doctrine of ‘continuous improvement’, and he has nothing to show for it. He has tried to impress them with his University of Edinburgh credentials and he has failed. They showed barely a flicker of interest in the University of Edinburgh; what they were really interested in was his teaching experience. He doesn’t have much. So that’s it: short-listed for the university medal, a doctorate and a post-doc at the University of Edinburgh, but Downunder, that all counts for nothing.

The self-indulgence of the slighted scholar doesn’t last though, and by the time he arrives at the Hilltops Campus of Sparkes-Orr University, he has recovered his earlier optimism. It seems to be a better university than the others, so he imagines a rather different situation: an interview in which he will give a accomplished account of himself before a group of thoughtful and intelligent academics and be rewarded, (justly, he is tempted to think), with the offer of a Lectureship in History. This unwarranted optimism now makes him anxious.

He looks at his watch. They are late. He has looked at his watch several times already. He has even opened the letter of advice just to make sure that the time and place are exactly as he remembers. But they are late and their lateness deepens his anxiety. In the foyer of the McManus Building, glossy displays proclaim Sparkes-Orr University to the world, and Godwin turns to them now, pretending to examine them conscientiously, all he can think to do with this parcel of time that has unexpectedly arrived.

Veritas Omnia Vincit. Truth conquers all. There is a certain nineteen-twenties flavour to the university crest. Two stylised figures in academic gowns, Art Deco-like, tall and slim, hands touching as their outstretched arms rest on the top of a shield that depicts a book open against the backdrop of a rural landscape, two hills with three trees on the horizon. They look languid, these two scholars, gazing dreamily into the distance, and, despite their gowns and trenchers, they are less suggestive of academia than of the leisure class. Godwin imagines them with long cigarette holders in place of their rolled-up testamurs.

Beneath the crest, the contemporary university asserts itself. In large bold font, it declares its commitment to Excellence, Lifelong Learning and Sustainability, and holds out the promise for students of a Global Learning Experience. Underneath, in much smaller text, the university acknowledges the the Wada Wurrung people, the traditional owners of the land on which it sits.

On the next panel, Godwin discovers that Sparkes-Orr had twice been awarded University of the Year; that it is ranked fourteenth out of forty for Overall Student Satisfaction; that, in the latest research rankings, it is World Standard for a dozen fields, (including Philosophy and History!), and that it has just been awarded a grant to develop a ‘Happiness Profile of Regional Australia’. The Minister for Regional Affairs is scheduled to visit as a consequence.

Then a soft voice starts calling his name, Dr Peta Starc has arrived to rescue him.

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Back in the Faculty of Arts, the newly-annointed 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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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 played a crucial role.

There will be no bleak skies to tarnish the Waterfront Campus, though. 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 that way you can 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 Alain 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, 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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