On a recent trip to the UK, I visited a friend who works at the University of Birmingham. She took me on a tour of its really quite beautiful campus, ending at the Muirhead Tower, a brutalist monstrosity built in 1971. Its recent renovation has smoothed over some of the worst features of the original design, including the shards of concrete which had begun to fall off its exterior.
For such an unpleasant building, it has an unusually significant literary pedigree: as a plaque on a nearby building commemorates, it is one of the key sites in David Lodge’s Changing Places (1975). The first in a trilogy of consistently popular campus novels set in the fictional University of Rummidge, a barely-disguised version of Birmingham, the novel describes what happens when two lecturers in English literature, one British and the other American, take up visiting positions at each other’s universities. Hilarity and profundity ensue.
It’s in the Arts Building – the Muirhead Tower, in other words – that the American academic Morris Zapp, who usually lectures at Plotinus University (the novel’s take on UC Berkeley), discovers and is fascinated by the Paternoster, a kind of ever-scrolling, open-faced lift or elevator between floors of a building:
Morris … loved the Paternoster. … he…found it a profoundly poetic machine, especially if one stayed on for the round trip, disappearing into darkness at the top and bottom and rising or dropping into the light again, perpetual motion readily symbolising all systems and cosmologies based on the principle of eternal recurrence, vegetation myths, death and rebirth archetypes, cyclic theories of history, metempsychosis and Northrop Frye’s theory of literary modes.
Zapp’s ability to move from mode of transport – the lift – to a rumination on life, death, and literary theory is echoed in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), when a discussion between Jack Gladney and Murray J. Siskind moves from Elvis to Hitler, and then death. Indeed, a Paternoster also appears in AS Byatt’s Possession (1990), another campus novel, where it’s used to underscore the differences between two academics: poised, precise, and successful Maude who steps easily on to its steps, and shambling, struggling Roland, who almost falls off it.
I thought a great deal about these and other campus novels as I visited several universities during my stay. What struck me forcibly was the creeping managerialism in so many of these institutions. At one, someone mused about the ‘career management strategies’ of young academics. I have never – and hope never to have – a ‘career management strategy’. I have a fairly good idea of how I would like my career to progress, but I’m not going to try to predict what I’ll be researching in ten or twenty years time.
Much has been written about the implications of this managerialism for academic research and teaching. As universities have come under increasing pressure to demonstrate the ‘value’ (whatever we may mean by that) of their teaching and research, so lecturers have had to account for their time more carefully, plan their research often to a ludicrous degree (how many of us apply for funding only after we’ve finished the research project?), collect and respond to student feedback, and do ever-increasing amounts of administrative tasks. Every good academic in my acquaintance – who publishes, teaches, and does administrative work – is chronically over-worked, and seems to be in battle with a fundamentally unfair system.
I had coffee with a friend who had worked ten hours that day, and was about to put in another two. A friend’s research unit was threatened with closure unless he could raise enough funding – the amount unspecified by management – to prove its value to his university. Another friend was told to ignore her students if she ever wanted to be promoted. The members of an acquaintance’s lab competed to be the researcher who sacrificed the most weekends for work. And on and on and on.
Changing Places and White Noise satirise the kind of fairly pointless research that academics in retreat from the world occasionally produce. I am not about to call for a return of the Paternoster – I am not so starry-eyed as to appeal to a return to the academia of the 1970s and early 1980s – but what these novels, including Possession, remind us, is that academia used to be humane, that it was an environment that allowed academics the freedom and the time to pursue research and to teach, without falling into bed at 1am and being in the office six hours later. And without having negotiate a system which seems to be designed to never allow us to win. Academia was a space in which the apparently inefficient and – indeed – dangerous Paternoster could inspire a train of thought in a lecturer in English Literature. It was a place that was conducive to playful thinking. I am not sure that the managed, efficient, corporatised university of the future will be a space for similar contemplation.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed