Were universities ever quiet?

For the last few months I’ve been regularly coming into my department to work on Sundays. It’s quite a conducive environment for working on my soon to be completed book, as well as for catching up on ad hoc tasks. My desktop at home has been broken for a while and I sometimes find it helpful to switch from my laptop to my office PC. This is all in contrast to my continued inability to ever get any serious work done on the campus during the week. It’s usually devoid of people on a Sunday and yet it’s nonetheless often very noisy. I’m writing this post as the noise of the endless building work reverberates around my office in a way that leaves me relying on the radio in the background to block it out. On those rare occasions when the creative destruction of the accelerated academy has temporarily ceased, I’m always surprised by quite how much traffic there is in the background on this leafy campus on the outskirts of a medium sized city. During the week there’s noise everywhere. It’s a state of affairs I’ve got used to and I only notice it on a Sunday because its relative absence carries within it the unrealised promise of potential tranquillity

I’m struck by the thought that this noise could be understood as an important marker of institutional acceleration. The ‘slow academy’ which we inevitably imagine when we consider the ‘accelerated academy’ is inevitably richly symbolic, mediated through nostalgic narratives of what we have lost and a pained awareness of what we cannot or will not adapt to about present circumstances. With that caveat out of the way, I think it’s interesting to consider how I imagine the ‘slow academy’ as very quiet. I’m sure I’m not alone in this but I may be wrong. Here’s the image of slow academia which I’ve recently been preoccupied by:

When questioned by a friend in 1980 as to whether he was happy at Princeton, the philosopher Richard Rorty replied that he was “delighted that I lucked into a university which pays me to make up stories and tell them”. He went on to suggest that “Universities permit one to read books and report what one thinks about them, and get paid for it” and that this is why he saw himself first and foremost as a writer, in spite of his already entrenched antipathy towards the philosophical profession which would grow with time. It’s a lovely idea, isn’t it?

The image Rorty presents us with of scholarship is idealistic. It reflects his own privilege. It’s an artefact of a higher education system that in the 1980s Ivy League was substantially different to what we see in 2015 in the UK. Most strikingly of all: the image is of a slow life. It suggests Rorty dreamily ambling through his days, going for long morning walks through the Gothic splendour of Princeton’s campus and spending long afternoons reading books in front of a fire place, occasionally putting pen to paper to record what thoughts they have provoked within him.

Now I realise that there are universities which are quiet. The time I spent in Trinity Cambridge (staying with my ex-partner rather than in any academic capacity) left me captivated by how quiet it could (sometimes) be, as much as I felt profoundly uncomfortable there on an interpersonal level. On my one experience of visiting Princeton it seemed remarkably quiet and the IAS there seemed designed to amplify this character of the campus: though the fact it was a freezing Sunday afternoon and evening probably contributed as well.

In contrast my present university has a blaring big screen in the piazza. Don’t get me wrong, I see nothing intrinsically problematic about this. But I remember a weird evening, soon before handing in my thesis, when I walked through the piazza at 3am in the morning on my way home after an evening spent drowning my pre-completion sorrows with friends. An old Arnold Schwarzenegger was playing on ITV with full volume as I stood there, alone, in the court yard in the middle of the night. At the time this seemed simultaneously absurd, disturbing and hilarious to me and I find it hard not to think back to it when considering how loud the accelerated academy is.

Considering this in a less impressionistic way, I think a plausible case can be made about noise as a marker of institutional acceleration: for instance the endless extensions of campus and new buildings, the increasing circulation of people as a function of desynchronised schedules and the crude but I think not inaccurate generalisation that people in a rush tend to make more noise while going about their day. Don’t even get me started on open plan office which is something I’d be utterly unable to cope with. I struggle to work on the occasions my various shared office have in fact been shared, instead talking endlessly to whoever else is physically present as a way of displacing my inability to concentrate without solitude.

Were universities ever quiet? I suspect the reality is more uneven than a simplified juxtaposition between the ‘slow academy’ and the ‘accelerated academy’ would allow for. But I think a sensory perspective on these questions is a really interesting facet to my ongoing work which until a couple of hours ago had never occurred to me. I’ve had a project in mind for a while about recording ‘soundscapes’ to capture the texture of different university campuses and I’m now extremely keen to actually do this.

Categories: Accelerated Academy, Higher Education

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