John Brin­namoor on age­ing and the age of lib­erty

While he once dis­dained older schol­ars, hav­ing now be­come one, John Brin­namoor is em­brac­ing the free­dom that comes with age

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - John Brin­namoor is a pseudony­mous writer who lurks on the fringes of the UK aca­demic com­mu­nity.

When I first worked in academia, I de­vel­oped strong, in­dig­nant views about some of the se­nior – by which I mean very much older – mem­bers of the de­part­ment that I’d joined. I was full of ideas and des­per­ate – re­ally des­per­ate – to start carving out a niche and take the world by storm. From my blink­ered and, frankly, big­oted stance, th­ese an­cient and ir­rel­e­vant old stagers were just clut­ter­ing up the place – oc­cu­py­ing the very of­fices that I viewed as my po­ten­tial fief­dom. Such was the bizarrely ex­treme ar­ro­gance of youth, en­cased in layer upon layer of as­sump­tion, mis­un­der­stand­ing and cliché.

Analysing this sorry set of feel­ings many years later, I sus­pect that it stemmed from a piv­otal job interview at a well-known pro­vin­cial univer­sity. Af­ter the interview board, an en­thu­si­as­tic fel­low youth was as­signed to show me round the cam­pus – in­clud­ing the se­nior com­mon room. Wood pan­elled and brim­ming with stained leather arm­chairs, this tired brown space, gen­tly il­lu­mi­nated by shafts of light soft­ened by a thin veil of pipe smoke, seemed to me to in­di­cate ev­ery­thing that was wrong with uni­ver­si­ties.

It was af­ter lunch on a Thurs­day, and many chairs were oc­cu­pied by el­derly ladies and gen­tle­men in at­ti­tudes of deep re­flec­tion or re­pose. In sev­eral spots, small groups mut­tered to each other, break­ing off at our ap­proach to glare at us, har­rumph and go back to their dis­cus­sions. They were, I rea­soned, par­a­sites who should have been booted out years ago – out­dated and out­gunned by the ris­ing tide of folk such as me, with new skills, new ideas and the en­ergy to put them into prac­tice.

I spent much of the next decade learn­ing that those grey fig­ures knew and un­der­stood a great deal more than I did. But they were keen and ea­ger to share the ben­e­fit of their ac­cu­mu­lated knowl­edge. This ma­te­rial wasn’t just raw data, it was closely ar­gued – and much de­bated – in­for­ma­tion about sub­jects, tech­niques and prin­ci­ples that they cared deeply about. Sup­port­ive and en­thused, they helped me put flesh on my un­der­stand­ing of the sub­ject in a way that built on cur­rent think­ing at a time when I felt the urge to re­ject it. At the same time, they en­cour­aged me to break out of my rapidly hard­en­ing at­ti­tudes and in­ves­ti­gate new skills and ad­di­tional threads of devel­op­ment. This, I now re­alise, was men­tor­ing of the high­est or­der – and es­tab­lished a debt that I’ve tried hard to re­pay since.

It came as a shock when I re­alised that

I was el­i­gi­ble to ap­ply for my bus pass, but, as some­one whose ca­reer suc­cess never ex­tended to hav­ing a re­served park­ing space, I took up the of­fer with alacrity.

With age has come many things, some of which firmly place me in grumpy old man ter­ri­tory. Th­ese in­clude the con­stant sub­clin­i­cal com­plaints from body parts that have been mal­treated in the name of both sci­ence and recre­ation; the in­abil­ity to find an in­for­ma­tion sys­tem that doesn’t change its lay­out and de­faults ev­ery five min­utes; and the sense that ridicu­lously com­plex new forms of tech­nol­ogy have been in­stalled with the ex­press in­ten­tion of catch­ing me out (I only want to pho­to­copy a page of A4 for God’s sake, why do I need to scan it to my email first?).

But al­though I am now of­fi­cially old, I still view my­self as a youth­ful thir­tysome­thing with ev­ery­thing to play for, much to do and a wealth of ideas to in­ves­ti­gate. That has the po­ten­tial to be problematic given that a bald­ing, bloated, bearded fig­ure such as me is never go­ing to be of­fered an­other proper job (trust me, I’ve tried). Yet I have got be­yond the depression that recog­ni­tion would have caused me even just a few years ago, and em­braced the lib­er­a­tion that it brings. It turns out that know­ing that you are no longer in com­pe­ti­tion for the next post, con­tract or grant re­ally takes the pres­sure off and al­lows you to fo­cus on the things that you feel are im­por­tant.

The nice folk who I’ve worked with dur­ing the years leading up to my most re­cent re­tire­ment are rea­son­ably happy to pay me a few quid here and there to fill in on cour­ses that are use­ful for the stu­dents but are not some­thing that the ris­ing stars of the de­part­ment are go­ing to de­rive any ca­reer ben­e­fit from. But I am also free of the ca­reer anx­i­eties that con­strain those stars from speak­ing out about in­sti­tu­tional matters. I can fi­nally speak my mind about is­sues that re­ally con­cern me – with­out hav­ing to bite my tongue when it comes to ar­eas where I and my adop­tive univer­sity sig­nif­i­cantly dis­agree.

I con­fess that field­work now wipes me out to such an ex­tent that I re­cently found my­self nod­ding off in the se­nior com­mon room af­ter lunch. But such weak­ness re­mains rel­a­tively rare. My time in that hal­lowed space is mostly spent con­spir­ing in its darker cor­ners with fel­low stroppy old buf­fers. And in th­ese days of aca­demic mi­cro-man­age­ment, with its ex­pec­ta­tion that staff sing the com­pany song and ac­qui­esce on things that de­serve to be chal­lenged, that seems an in­creas­ingly im­por­tant func­tion to ful­fil.

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