In the late Sixties, when I first became an academic, I was one of dozens of 20-odd-year-old innocents. "Where are the frontiers of knowledge?", we asked, clutching our new brooms, "We've just been hired to push them back". Nowadays we would be on one-year contracts, standing in the queue for a loan of our department's solitary communal broom, awaiting a decision of the resources committee on whether to repair its ancient, gnarled bristles.
There are good and bad consequences of having an ageing profession. The positive side is that there is an immense accumulation of knowledge and experience. The major reason why universities have coped with increased pressures in teaching and research, and burgeoning bureaucracy, is because there have been more seasoned campaigners than rookies.
There are, however, negative effects. It is not just that Phyllosan has become the favourite drink in the staff club, or that more people have to be winched on to the platform on degree day. Teaching and research involve thousands of repeats of favoured strategies. After many years these become deep structures, not always amenable to change.
It becomes harder to disinter and modify these embedded patterns, because any suggestion about change can easily be seen as an oblique criticism of the person. "You ought to have spotted this yourself after all these years", seems to be the accompanying message.
Erik Erikson, the influential psychoanalyst, saw human development as a progression through eight periods of crisis. Each stage was summarised by pairs of conflicting terms, such as "industry versus inferiority" (age six up to puberty). Erikson described middle age as "generativity versus stagnation". "Generativity" involved people using their knowledge and experience to guide the next generation, something that academics actually do for a living.
I have reservations about Erikson's theories, not the least of which is his view that childless people find it harder to achieve generativity, which is tosh. Nonetheless there is, in middle life, a tension between wanting to carry on achieving something positive, and being tempted to stagnate. This dilemma becomes acute for academics when their work is underfunded, undervalued, and, from time to time, scourged by politicians.
I remember being infuriated, when I first came into university life, by Stone Age obstructionists who rejected every idea from newcomers with the sort of deft footwork that would have been the envy of Victor Sylvester at the time. (If you're too young to remember the elegant dance supremo, then I can't help you. Oops! Mustn't slip into "bitter stagnation" mode.)
The tactics for repelling youthful boarders have been unchanged for years. The best have a huge drag coefficient. I always found the most infuriating to be the "not that old chestnut" put-down: "Let me see, we did that in 1963, 1964 and 1969, I think it was. It went quite well in 1969."
The cleverest stagnaters employed a cunning variation. This was to suggest that the proponent's idea was splendid, but its time had not yet come. This brilliant tactic had the devastating effect of appearing to give support, but ensuring that the proposal would not enter the statute book for years.
Part of my own determination to avoid stagnation involves trying risky innovations in my teaching and research each year, and also attempting some novel skill that has nothing to do with my job. Examples from over the years include pottery - which was a total disaster, as every ambitious would-be pot collapsed and had to be made into a small candlestick - and throwing the hammer, which was slightly more successful (I came third in the county championships, which sounds good, but there were only four competitors, and the fourth one fouled on all three throws).
One key element for me, in the desperate attempt to maintain generativity, is my morning run. A few years ago cold water was poured even on this valiant effort. I was visiting my parents in Sheffield on the way to a conference and had been writing since the early hours. I ran four miles up and down the hills of that great city.
It was pension day at the post office near my parents' flat. In this part of Sheffield, to put on an overcoat, or indeed insert your false teeth, is the mark of a cissy. As I ran the length of the queue of golden oldies waiting in line, one 80-year-old gaffer looked me up and down and then neatly summed up in three words the futility of middle-aged academics battling against the odds to remain generative. "Tha daft bugger," he curled. It said it alln
The author is professor of education at the University of Exeter.Reuse content