Dreams of Ivory, part 2: ‘Nought but grief an’ pain’

The temptation to ink a personal motto on my body has never troubled me, but if ever a drunken state of folly lands me in a tattoo parlour then the following would serve well as a permanently etched reminder of lived reality:

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley, / An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, / For promis’d joy!

At the risk of insulting the literary knowledge of my readers, the lines are from Robert Burns’ 1785 poem ‘To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough’. A field mouse has laboriously and carefully constructed a nest in order to stay warm and secure through the winter. Unfortunately, along comes Mr Burns with his plough, accidentally destroying the creature’s home. Burns does what any of us would do: he decides to write a poem, reflecting philosophically on how the poor mouse’s calamity reveals the universal truth that (to Anglicize the lines) ‘the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry and leave us with nothing other than grief and pain instead of the expected joy’.

Like the mouse and her nest, I regarded my Cambridge application as a fine plan with prospects of security and joy. My hopes were boosted by the fact that Cambridge were seeking two researchers: since I’ve hardly ever come first in any application process, but have been second a few times, it was reassuring to know that my perennial runner-up status would be enough for Cambridge. Then, the day after the application expiry, Cambridge decided to extend the deadline. Aside from reflecting that I needn’t have gone through all the stress of meeting the original deadline after all, I inferred positive signs from this development: of course, I reasoned, Cambridge desired a little more competition for my own obviously outstanding application. (What was it again, according to the proverb, that comes before a fall?)

In the meantime I learnt that I had been shortlisted for a couple of small teaching roles, interviews for which took place the week before Cambridge’s own proposed interview day. At the very least they would provide some practice before Cambridge, but my sights were set higher on a run of success that would mark a resounding academic comeback. The two interviews went well: I came out of each with a good feeling about my chances. I was runner-up in both.

This setback was a pinprick to my optimism in relation to Cambridge. On the day when Cambridge had promised to contact shortlisted applicants a few ripples of pessimism were lapping at my hopes. The ripples gradually expanded into waves as my inbox remained devoid of the hoped for invitation to interview. Each new email alert on my phone was a ping of promise, only to be followed by the disappointing discovery that it was merely a new notification on Facebook or a suggestion of someone to follow on Twitter. By early afternoon I reasoned that, doubtless because of the extended deadline, the selection committee had to work into the afternoon to finalize the shortlist. This line of reasoning became increasingly unconvincing as each hour passed. By late evening I was clinging to an irrational notion that the selection process had got bogged down for some unforeseen reason. Over the next few days, however much I knew the game was up and that I had been unsuccessful, vestiges of hope refused to disappear entirely. It is perhaps not surprising that having poured so much into believing something I was unable entirely to let go of that belief. Even on the scheduled day for interviews I momentarily imagined that Cambridge had had to postpone the process and that perhaps my application was still in the running. It probably took another week before I completely resigned myself to the certainty that I had been unsuccessful.

And so my application concluded not in appointment, not even in a tragi-comic tale of a disastrously bizarre interview performance, but in the short journey from receipt to the rejection pile and the bin. A close friend reckoned that this was ‘Cambridge’s loss’. Yet I doubt that. I may have been deluded all along about the merits of my application, but not even I think that Cambridge has made a grave error of judgement that will cast a long shadow over its future. I am not (yet) mad: the academic job market is incredibly tough, and I’m realistic that my CV does not make me especially competitive. I also know that you can’t lose something you never had in the first place. So I lost nothing… apart of course from two f***ing weeks of my life, and a whole load of hopes and dreams…

However, I am not interested in organizing a pity party but rather in having a really good rant making constructive criticism about the application process. First, consider what I wrote in the first part of this post, about the hours, days and weeks, the effort and energy invested in the application, the accompanying hopes and stresses, and the time given freely and generously by my referees. Now consider this: the University of Cambridge did not bother to acknowledge receipt of the application, and their policy is not to inform unsuccessful candidates of the outcome of their application.

Every job application is in part a direction of focus and interest towards the potential employer. For sure my primary concern lay with my own career prospects, but inevitably this involved considerable attention to how Cambridge would benefit from employing me. I was not expecting a bespoke token of gratitude for these futile efforts: a handwritten and courier-delivered letter, stained with tears of appreciation and regret, is not numbered among my fantasies. But some sort of communication might have been decent. I’m well-versed in job applications and almost equally well-versed in the experience of rejection, and it is usual that applications are acknowledged and rejected applicants are informed. Of course, all of this is done by automated email and prefab rejection templates, hardly sublime examples of the human touch. But they are better than nothing: somebody somewhere thought it might be good to keep all applicants informed; perhaps they thought that the efforts and interest of the applicants deserved a small return on their side.

I can only guess at why Cambridge adopted this approach. It can hardly be due to stretched resources: the University of Cambridge is among the wealthiest in the world, and to employ someone to prepare email templates, set up automated replies, batch applicants and press ‘send’ is not likely to bring their entire administration to a grinding halt. Maybe it reflects a culture of arrogance specific to Cambridge, a reluctance to engage in contact with the many common failures who dare to wish to work for them. Possibly Cambridge regards the arduous process of applying to work for them as such a privilege in itself that any communication from them would lead to applicants feeling spoiled. Or perhaps it is part of a deeper malaise of dehumanization in academia, in which a cold wind of bureaucratic indifference blasts away simple human niceties. For while I accept that my complaint is essentially trivial, the point is that what is most human is frequently what is most trivial: the polite acknowledgements, the unnecessary yet kind words, the myriad tiny ways in which we show recognition and mutual appreciation of one another as human beings.

Still, I must be honest. Would I have felt better had Cambridge kept me informed of the progress of my application? Not really. It would have spared me anxiety and uncertainty, but it would have made no difference to my disappointment. Indeed, I should be grateful to the Cambridge application process. For I can now console myself with things I do not actually believe, such as that ‘I would not want to work for an institution that treats people like that’. It means that rather than focus on the shortcomings of my application I can wrap myself in indignation at the way Cambridge goes about things.

But I suspect that a cloak of indignation was not going to keep Robert Burns’ mouse sheltered and warm over the months ahead. Burns concludes his poem, however, by arguing that the mouse has an advantage over humans: whereas the mouse is concerned only with the present moment, doubtless laying down another ‘scheme’ without worrying whether it will go ‘agley’, Burns cannot avoid dwelling gloomily on past and future. In difficult circumstances we may sometimes challenge ourselves whether we are ‘man or mouse’. Burns’ poem suggests that ‘mouse’ may well be the better answer.

So I have woken from my dream of ivory with thoughts only of new plans. Oh, okay, mostly of new plans. But I spend no more than an hour or two each day panicking about the uncertainty of my future, no more than a few minutes feeling resentful about the University of Cambridge application process, and merely a second or two dwelling on the words ‘cold arrogant f***ers’.


When a butterfly flaps its wings in Seoul: UCL and the Tim Hunt affair

In chaos theory the butterfly effect goes something like this: A butterfly flaps its wings in Seoul and venerable scientific institutions in London fall over themselves to end the career of a Nobel laureate scientist.

Sir Tim Hunt made the following remarks at a world conference of science journalists in Seoul: ‘Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry.’ Hunt claims that what he said was ‘totally jocular [and] ironic’, and that it was uttered while feeling ‘nervous’ about speaking before the conference. The remarks certainly come across as the sort of nervy attempt to get an audience onside and engaged through an insider’s joke, and like many such attempts they are neither obviously funny nor well-considered. They are indeed sexist (which is not the same thing as saying that Hunt is sexist). It seems that Hunt didn’t think much had gone awry, but some of his audience were sufficiently unimpressed to start tweeting his remark. Escalation was rapid: strong condemnation appeared across social media, newspaper columnists quickly began intoning about problems of sexism in science, Hunt was labelled, among other things, ‘a clueless, sexist jerk’ and ‘a misogynist dude scientist’, and before Hunt’s plane had even landed back in England he had been forced to resign his honorary position at University College London. Subsequently he also resigned from the European Research Council and from his role at the Royal Society.

As to Hunt’s remarks themselves, they deserved a clarification and an apology—both of which Hunt provided. But it is a peculiarly modern phenomenon that 37 words can have the consequence of ending a distinguished career. I’m sure that among the many thousands of words I have spoken in lectures there might have been a few which, upon reflection, I might regret having said or would wish to have rephrased; there might also have been a few which, taken out of the specific context of the lecture itself and the tone in which I made them, would appear in isolation to be worthy of condemnation. One of my best jokes in my lectures (and, given it rarely raised a laugh from more than three students, evidence of my limited prospects as a comedian) was: ‘Let’s move from the delights of Balinese cocks to talk about French pussies.’ (The context was a discussion of Clifford Geertz’s essay on ‘Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight’ and Robert Darnton’s ‘The Great Cat Massacre’.) Another of my favourite jokes involved me showing a slide of a bikini-clad Elle ‘The Body’ Macpherson (that one always got more laughs, but as a visual joke it would be difficult to explain it here). There was always a slight risk that such jokes might backfire or take on a life of their own in this age of Twitter and Facebook, and that I could have been caught up in a maelstrom of impassioned discussion about ‘appropriate’ language or the problem with white male historians. (My career would probably have benefited from that sort of thing, so I rather regret that my students were sufficiently sensible to understand or ignore or not laugh at my jokes; I could have done with the occasional hothead in my audience, full of unintelligent righteous indignation and with a massive following on Twitter.)

None of which is to defend Hunt’s ‘joke’. I merely make the point that we live in a time in which a career can easily be pegged onto a single sentence—and a sentence which may be misunderstood or misrepresented, and, even if neither of those, may amount to no more than the sort of ill-considered poorly expressed comment that we all make from time to time.

The really interesting feature of Hunt’s case seems to me less the lynching mentality amid the social media wildfire and more the response of UCL, the ERC and the Royal Society. Imagine you’re an eminent academic with a distinguished career, probably not well-versed in social media and likely with little or no media training; you make a rather crass remark, but one you hadn’t given much thought to at the time; once it has been brought to your attention you issue an apology and a retraction, sincerely admitting your error and folly; nevertheless, you discover that your initial remark is now being discussed with varying degrees of outrage all over the world. What would you expect your college—your employer and the institution which supposedly supports and nurtures your work from which they benefit—to do? It is understandable that they would wish to distance themselves from the remark, but you might reasonably expect that they would also wish to discuss the matter with you, to seek clarification, and not to rush to judgement. You are likely to hope that they would offer support and protection against the media lynch mob, and that they would use their expertise to help find a way through the storm. Sure, you may have to issue yet further apologies, and you are going to have to put up with a battering for a while, but assuming your initial remark was not totally beyond the pale and your subsequent apology is sincere, then you might reasonably expect that your college would stand by you and find ways of repairing your (and their) reputation.

Instead of speaking to Hunt about his comments in Seoul, UCL decided to tell his wife (Mary Collins, also a scientist at the college) that her husband should resign immediately or that he would be sacked. Hunt duly resigned as soon as he returned to England. UCL softened this ultimatum by saying it would be ‘a low-key affair’, but then proceeded to trumpet on their website and Twitter how they had got rid of him. Hunt’s positions at the ERC and the Royal Society became untenable as a result, so he resigned from them too. His long scientific career was over. As he has said: ‘I am finished. I had hoped to do a lot more to help promote science in this country and in Europe, but I cannot see how that can happen. I have become toxic. I have been hung to dry by academic institutes who have not even bothered to ask me for my side of affairs.’ Whatever the wrongs of his remarks in Seoul—foolish and crass, but surely not remotely near to being at the most offensive end of the spectrum, and over which he has been genuinely contrite—Hunt appears to be right: he has been hung out to dry by UCL.

Yet perhaps we should not be surprised at this outcome. Collins, who has described her husband’s remarks as ‘unbelievably stupid’ but utterly rejected the idea that he is sexist, has commented: ‘They [UCL] have let Tim and I down badly. They cared only for their reputation and not about the wellbeing of their staff.’ But such is the modern academy. The days when a university was collegiate—when academics were nurtured and supported through both good times and bad—are rapidly fading. The modern academic institution increasingly resembles a brand and a business: any inkling that the brand may be damaged, any indication that an academic’s output may fall short financial targets, then, no matter how dedicated or hard-working or distinguished the academic, the institution is likely to abandon rather than support the individual. Sometimes an entire department, if it has failed to ‘game’ the ridiculous REF exercise, faces the brutal axe; and in their different ways the experiences of Tim Hunt, Stefan Grimm and Marina Warner all point to a dispiritingly corporate and inhuman culture that pervades the academy today.

One way of looking at this is to see it as an example of a wonderful bureaucratic rationalism: as long as you meet all the performance targets and are careful to stay consistently ‘on message’, then you’ll be fine; fail to do either of those, then you’re out. Some would say this is the only way to maintain excellence. But in fact sober reason has nothing to do with this. If, on the basis of a single remark such as that of Tim Hunt, a long career is summarily terminated, then the world we live in is not rational; rather, it is a world of chaos.

Dreams of Ivory, part 1: ‘Promis’d joy’

Recently, amid an aberration of high hopes, I applied for a research position at the University of Cambridge. The project to which the researcher would contribute looked exciting and interesting. It combined several areas of inquiry that related closely to my own academic background and knowledge, and, in a happy rarity, I could actually tick all the boxes on the person specification without having to resort to mental casuistry. Clearly oblivious to the concept of hubris, I concluded that the position was ‘made for me’ and began envisaging all the fine research I would be doing. Then I remembered that I needed to apply for the job first, so I set about the task of making my application heroic and formidable.

Obviously the place for me…

The application process presented more than the usual range of hoops to jump through. Cambridge wanted a completed application form and a CV; a sample piece of writing; a 2,000-word statement of research aims; and two references to be submitted by the deadline. Expecting applicants to assume responsibility for chasing up and supplying references seems to be a common characteristic of Oxbridge positions. Presumably it is a tactic to deter applications from chancers and non-entities and general riff-raff. On several occasions in the past I have judged that I probably fell into at least one, and often all three, of those categories and thus had been appropriately discouraged from attempting an application; after all, there is a risk of annoying potential academic supporters by pestering them to write references for applications whose chances of success are long odds against. But this time I assessed my chances as moderate to good (and ‘near dead cert’ in my more deluded moments), and so was reassured that I would not be annoyingly encumbering two busy academics with a pointless addition to their workload. I proceeded to discuss the application with potential referees and thankfully two excellent and eminent scholars agreed to supply references.

Meanwhile I was carefully researching the project and its personnel. I downloaded for a small cost a book by the project’s director, and then read it closely while taking copious notes. I located a few relevant journal articles and read those too. I risked giving myself a hernia by transporting home a dozen weighty library books relevant to the project, all of which I browsed, and some of which I actually read, mining them for ideas. My own bookshelves supplied several more books; and I scoured the internet, looking at images and early books, journal articles and, er, Wikipedia. Eventually, with several pages of notes and plans, I was ready to write the 2,000-word research statement (indeed, I felt capable of writing a 20,000-word statement had Cambridge wanted that). I settled down one early evening to turn the crystalline statement that had formed in my mind into real words on a page; six hours later I had one abandoned statement of 250 words, and a new beginning of about 50 words. And so I had to bed down for the long Easter weekend, toiling for hour after hour over the four days, neglecting to deliver chocolate to my children, until, in a fitting memorial to the risen Christ, I had produced a delicately crafted proposal, exquisitely calibrated to convey my knowledge, experience, enthusiasm and potential. Unfortunately, when I pasted the statement into the relevant text box on the website I discovered that what Cambridge really meant by a 2,000-word limit was in fact a 10,000-character limit. My word count was fine; but crucially my character count was not. So another couple of hours was spent chipping away at the statement while half-wondering whether I was about to have a stroke.

Next I updated and beautified my CV, applying delicate final touches with the loving attention of a High Renaissance sculptor. I completed the standard application form; I located after a convoluted search among memory sticks and email attachments an article I had once written which would serve as my sample of writing; I converted all the files into PDF (which, for some reason, was the only file format Cambridge was prepared to accept) and uploaded them; I irrationally and unnecessarily panicked over whether my referees would upload their references by the deadline; and, at last, I clicked the ‘Submit application’ button. Pondering whether to offer a prayer for divine assistance, I concluded that my lack of belief in God might make such a prayer ineffective; even then I wondered whether to make some sort of divine deal just in case He exists, before finally and forcefully pulling myself together. Evidently the fact that I had probably spent in total two full working weeks on the sundry tasks associated with this application had played havoc with my capacity for rational thought. But not so much that I wasn’t able to take a moment to congratulate myself on having got it all done, which then eased into several hours of daydreaming about all the clever and impressive things I would say in the interview. I performed brilliantly, bringing repeated appreciative nods from the panel; I speculated whether I would choose Prosecco or go all out for Champagne to celebrate being offered the position; I then reminded myself that Cambridge probably hadn’t even got round to shortlisting me yet in the three hours since I submitted my application. So I steeled myself for the weeks of waiting, optimism, uncertainty, dreams and fears to come.