The magic word

As posted on Facebook by a friend, a recent issue of the LSE students’ union newspaper (I have no doubt it delights in its name, which is The Beaver) included the following advice from the Agony Uncle: “Always remember: it’s not rape if you shout surprise.”[1] There then followed a play on words, resting on the superficial similarity between  ‘feisty’ and ‘fisty’, which I can’t bear to repeat.

Of the many observations that occur to me, I will content myself with two. Firstly, I have recently taken on a new student. He is thirteen and has great difficulty in spelling words correctly. He does, however, have an excellent grasp of basic grammar, and would be among the first to spot that the magic word ‘surprise!’ should be in inverted commas to indicate direct speech. He is also of mixed heritage: his father, grandmother and extended family came to this country as refugees to escape the war in Somalia. I would very much like to see what would happen to the LSE student Agony Uncle were he to make jokes about rape there. Secondly, the word ‘feisty’ is a real word, from the Middle English fysten. ‘Fisty’, however, is entirely made up. My usual course of action with customers who invent words is to circle the word with my big red pen[2] and write ‘not a real word. Suggest ‘. In this case, however, I can’t think of an alternative. Growing up, perhaps?

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[1] I was going to seek out the article, but the horrible pun ‘pre-dick-ament’ was too much for me to bear. My eyes!

[2] Steady, Agony boy. This is no metaphor.

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Exemplum Docet

Today I want to talk about the misuse of words. Today is also my last day of official employment at the university.[1] After much soul-searching, I have decided not to say which university. This is firstly because I suspect that most of my readership are former colleagues and/or friends who already only too aware which university I am referring to, and that I no longer work there. Secondly, while teaching in Shanghai this year, I was asked by a sixth-former whether my former employer and alma mater deserves its (apparently international) reputation as ‘arsey’ and ‘really disorganised’. This is a student from Suzhou, who has never left his country and only knows a handful of white people. Thirdly, I was told off recently for ‘bringing the University into disrepute’[2] after I posted various statements on my Facebook page that ‘implied’[3] various derogatory things. Obviously this is my Goddamn blog and so I can say whatever the hell I like on it. Indeed, one would have thought that the same could be said of my Facebook page. However, since I still have friends, colleagues and a husband that need the university to continue to pay them, let us be coy. It is a university. I worked there.

Before we go any further, gentle reader, let me explain something about the university to you. Holding onto something solid? I ask because I’m about to shake the foundations of common sense (or, rather, I’m going to tell you something that shakes the foundations of common sense. The shaking has already been done by a group of people that definitely does not include me). Are you ready? Imagine, if you will, a sixteenth-century sailing vessel, bound for a destination that nobody can agree on, but which probably involves words like ‘learning’, ‘discovery’ and ‘enterprise’. The ship represents the university; the crew represent university management; the students are the passengers; and the academics are the chickens, pigs and other assorted livestock brought on board to sustain everyone else throughout their voyage into the unknown. There is also the sea itself, which we might see as higher education itself, HEFCE or the government of the day; and a number of rats, which represent support staff such as myself, who are able for a few years to sneak around, eating just enough to stay alive and painfully conscious that any squeaks of protest will be dealt with ruthlessly via mousetraps and suchlike (i.e. Human Resources).

As soon as the ship gets far enough from the shore for it to be impossible for anyone to swim back to port (remember the doomed pig in A High Wind in Jamaica?), apropos of nothing, the crew turn to the animals and explain that they have become so good at being animals that it has become necessary for them to sail the ship the rest of the way. The livestock are greatly puzzled by this announcement. How can they possibly sail the ship? They already have a job, which they are very good at, and which takes up all their time. How will the passengers sustain themselves if the animals are busy sailing the ship? What will the crew be doing? And how can they possibly sail a ship anyway, what with their general lack of opposable thumbs and no nautical knowledge? Surely, they grunt/cluck/bleat/moo to each other, this spells disaster for the entire ship? While the assorted farm animals wrestle with this conundrum, the crew keep themselves busy by setting the ship on fire and flinging things such as the wheel, sails and navigational equipment into the flames, along with any passenger or animal trying to continue to perform the function he or she was brought onto the ship to perform (they probably also organise seminars with titles like Rigging Awareness, What To Do If Suddenly Plunged Into Shark-Infested Waters and Coping With Change, at which attendance will be compulsory for all rats, passengers and livestock). The rats try to warn the passengers and livestock of impending doom, but they’re only rats and their squeaks go unheard. So the rats look on, appalled and singed, as the ship and all who sail in her grow ever closer to a fiery/watery grave. In short, it is not a good place to work.

There were two specific comments that got me into trouble. Firstly, I was told that the following status update implied that I had been asked to work for no money, which is against university policy[4]:

– Dear <literacystrumpet>, would you like to work for free? Love, the university.
– Dear university, working for you in exchange for actual money has been a baffling experience, and therefore I must confess that the idea of continuing to do so *without* any form of financial recompense is not attractive. Also, as I believe I may have said to at least one tedious boyfriend, I object to your misuse of the word ‘love’.[5]

Secondly, I offended a colleague with a status update about our Head of School. I should be clear that it was not the Head of School who was offended, since he had no idea I had written it: someone else took it upon themselves to get offended on his behalf. Then, rather than speaking to me like an adult and suggesting I be more careful since the Thought Police were watching my every move, this colleague then went to my line manager and said that he/she had ‘concerns’ that I ‘may have given the impression’ that the Head of School was ‘a bit of a buffoon’, that I had done so ‘in a public forum’ and that I was ‘misusing’ that deadliest of weapons, Facebook. He or she also requested that they remain anonymous as they ‘feared repercussions’. Judge for yourselves whether or not the following statement constitutes a disciplinary matter:

Just saw my Head of School knock a cup full of teaspoons down the back of the filing cabinet. He then smacked himself on the fridge whilst trying to extract the spoons, before tangling himself in a coat on his way out of the room. Walking Around Fail.

Scathing, no? When I made the argument in the ensuing dressing down that it wasn’t obvious who I was referring to (my own husband didn’t know who my Head of School was when I asked him), and that, regardless of that, Facebook was not a professional environment and therefore I was perfectly entitled to be unprofessional when not at work, I was told that she was ‘glad’ I had used the word ‘unprofessional’ and gave me a meaningful look. I leant across the room and smacked her silly face. No, not really: only in my mind. Into a stony silence, she went on to say that the university ‘expects its staff to be professional at all times’. This puzzled me greatly. In the office, while at work and being paid actual money, I am professional. When not in the office (i.e. not at work, and not being paid), I am not professional. When not in the office, I do all sorts of unprofessional things. I sleep. I read. I go to church. I sing, cook, write, make things, and God help me, I even express opinions. I do all these things, blissfully unaware that this has anything whatsoever to do with the university. I said, “in that case I should tell you that, in what I mistakenly thought was my own time, I’ve been having sex with a colleague. I’m so sorry. I had no idea it wasn’t allowed” (I was referring to my husband of eleven years, who also works at the university). It shows how little effort my line manager of four years had put into getting to know me that her face stiffened into a mask of horror.

This sounds like a small thing, and you may wonder why it made me so angry. Here’s why: words are important. Being precise in what you say and write, and being allowed to say and write whatever you like is important. In Azerbaijan, a student called Jabbar Savalan has recently been thrown into gaol for using Facebook to call for anti-government protests. Notice that he wasn’t actually attempting to organise anything (I think he did little more than post ‘Jabbar thinks a protest would be a good idea’ or similar). So I suppose the excruciatingly pointless conversation that I experienced was both a small thing (when compared to being imprisoned and beaten), and a big thing (when considered as part of a larger trend, perhaps).

To mark the occasion of no longer being under surveillance, I have been back through all my Facebook status updates that relate to work from the last twelve months[6], to give a flavour of the sea-faring life. These are comments that would no doubt have involved an even more witless discussion of whether Facebook constitutes a professional environment or not, had my former colleagues bothered to scroll down a little further (we can only assume their fingers have atrophied).

(February 10th) The university should employ an eight-year-old child to sit quietly in a room. Every so often, someone should come to the child with the latest new idea for massive, root-and-branch change to the university. If the eight-year-old child is unable to find an obvious and stupid flaw within five minutes, it may go ahead.[7]

(March 9th) One of my bosses (and I’ll leave you to guess which one) has given me a list of people he has asked to review a book. The first chap said no and provided no suggestions for alternatives, and my boss was so incensed he has written ‘TOSSER’ in the margin (with an arrow pointing at his name in case I wasn’t clear)

(March 14th) A short tale that illustrates what the university does to people. BOSS: You’re very summery today (I assume he was referring to my dress); ME: Yes, it’s sunny outside; BOSS: What’s ‘outside’?

(March 30th) Had to throw a pen-lid at my boss to wake him up in time for a seminar.

(April 23rd) Got a cross email from one of my bosses today. The relevant sentence read ‘perhaps you could attend to this when you get back from your holiday’. He is under the impression that, in need of a rest, I simply conjured Easter from the air and decided to have it now.

(July 8th) Latest interview feedback: ‘We weren’t sure why you kept saying ‘as I said on my application’.’ To point out that maybe you should have read it, morons.

(August 1st) Trying to be helpful, cheerful and competent is not the correct strategy for long-term employment. Clearly, I have been going about this all wrong.

(August 16th) University Unnecessarily Officious. Staff Stunned. Apparently, we now have to fill out a form if we want to use a caterer that might actually provide real food, explaining why the university caterers’ offerings won’t do.[8] Hopefully it’s a free text box.[9]

(August 18th) 33% Of Students Dissatisfied With Assessment Procedures. University Declares This Excellent.

(August 18th) It’s not so long ago that the university sent me an email containing the profoundly enraging statement ‘and just over 61% of staff said overwork was not a major concern for them. We put this success down to the positive working environment agenda’. I wanted to print it off in order to circle the word ‘success’ with my big red proofreading pen and write ‘Misuse. Suggest ‘debacle” in the margin.

(August 27th) ‘Dear <literacystrumpet>, we notice that you’ve been made redundant. This is to let you know that we will also be sending you a cheque for an insulting amount, just to make sure there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the university considers you worthless. PS. You don’t have a pension any more.’

(October 31st) My newest student is thirteen and after an hour of teaching already has a better grasp of basic grammar than many former colleagues.

(November 10th) Tomorrow is my last official day at the university. My way of expressing to the university what I think of it was to go in yesterday and clear my desk (although I was strongly tempted to follow the example of a toddler that was in Senate House last time I was there and do a monstrous and foul poo in the foyer).[10]

Even reading through these now, the thing that continues to offend me more than anything is the persistent misuse of words (particularly the words ‘consultancy period’, which actually mean ‘fannying around’). Anyhow: now I’m sitting at home, peacefully writing my blog. Hubert Parry’s ‘I was glad is playing and there is the prospect of lunch, a cup of tea and an exciting trip to the post office in the afternoon. Churchill defined success as ‘the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm’, but for now I am going to define it as being free to be unprofessional when I’m not at work.


[1] Observant readers will note that, despite it being my last day, I’m clearly not in my office. That’s right. I’m not. I’m at home, having cleared out my desk two days earlier, moved all my files into an online resource and left the building without so much as a card. It’s fine, though: I’ve only worked there for ten years.

[2] Their words. As was pointed out to me by a sympathetic colleague, there is a difference between bringing the University into disrepute, and the University being disreputable, a fact which its employees subsequently state out loud.

[3] Their word. I would have used ‘said’.

[4] My defence of ‘but I was asked to work for no money. By you, among other people’ was greeted with the non-sequitur ‘that’s not the point.’  When I asked what the point was, I was met with a furious glare and the observation that she didn’t like my tone.

[5] Obviously they didn’t write to me as ‘literacystrumpet’. They wrote to me as ‘Miss’ and with my surname spelt incorrectly (prior to being in their employ for ten years, I was an undergraduate at the same institution, so you would have thought there had been plenty of time to get to grips with all six letters).

[6] Exactly a year ago today, I posted ‘I am a manta ray’, but this was a passing fad brought on by a nature video I watched while unexpectedly elevated to business class on a flight back from China. Interesting Fact: this splendid film introduced me to the word ‘moustache’ when used as a verb. The manta rays form themselves into an approximation of a moustache shape and then whizz up and down along the seabed frightening things out of the sand, which they then eat. Presumably, fear improves both the chances of finding something to eat and the flavour.

[7] There then ensued a discussion as to whether an eight-year-old was overqualified for the role. One friend suggested her own daughter for the role with the comment that ‘the mind of a four-year-old is painfully logical’.

[8] I once narrowly avoided poisoning Professor Sir Richard Doll with some elderly sandwiches that I insisted on returning to the university caterers (I had only been at the university a few months and was therefore unaware that this was Not Done). On explaining to them that the sandwiches appeared to be of a similar age to the speaker, the person on the other end of the telephone replied, ‘that doesn’t sound so bad. How old is your speaker?’. My response covered the following areas: i. since when do departments invite newborns to give guest lectures? And ii. Professor Sir Richard Doll was born in 1912.

[9] A former colleague commented underneath ‘is it permissible just to staple a sandwich to the form and suggest that the reader experience the explanation for him or herself? There are times when words won’t do.’

[10] I can only assume these were the ‘repercussions’ that my traitorous co-worker had in mind.