I’m repeating the serialisation of my first novel for those readers who didn’t catch it the first time around — here’s the first section:
Ren Christopher, a new member of the Philosophy department at Grayvington University, gradually becomes aware of the glare directed at him by Millicent Bartonella, herself a new member of the English department. He glares back at her, as if to say, ‘I am aware of your glare. Your glare has been noted. It has also been assessed, and found wanting.’
Millicent turns her glare instead to Miles Honeywell, Ren’s new buddy from Psychology, who returns fire, so Millicent looks down her long nose at him. Millicent’s new colleague Lenora Helminth, whose mouth corners haven’t turned upwards in a long time, decides to help her out with a disapproving look at Ren and Miles. Lenora is good at disapproving looks because as a budding sociologist she does them a lot. After she passed her PhD viva voce examination at Lancaster her external examiner remarked to the internal examiner on the quality of her facial expressions, which had succeeded in making him feel that the questions he was asking her were the very essence of stupidity. (Which they were, although not for the reasons Lenora thought.)
Ren, however, is not fazed by Lenora’s attempt at browbeating by eyebrow. Glare at me all you like, he thinks, I’m not backing down. Didn’t anyone tell you that disapproving scowls don’t work on philosophers? Try some arguments instead.
Lily Richmond from Economics, a resolute young women who isn’t going to let two creeps from English and Sociology stare down her fellow group members, curls her lip at Lenora and her group. Adrian Vespula from Law, a more conciliatory character who is already attempting to establish himself as a well-known wit, tries to smile back and twinkle his eyes, as if that produces magic dust that floats him up above the fray. Which, despite his rat-like features, it does, and so Lily’s lip-curl passes instead to Malcom Ascaris from Politics, the fourth member of the other group.
Ascaris, a bearded and bespectacled man with a facial expression of eternal righteous fury, is sure his group, The Panopticon, is in the right, but is somewhat less confident of the arguments being produced by his fellow group members in the face of the onslaught produced by The Fabulous Lorenzos, and so he chooses to look sternly instead at the baby-faced physicist, Douglas Oram, who seems a less belligerent character than the other three.
The course director, Creighton Balderstone, a largish red-haired man with fleshy lips, like L. Ron Hubbard with a beard, pitches in, to Ascaris’ relief, because Balderstone is of course on their side. Although Ascaris can’t help noticing that Balderstone, who initially struck him in their first class last week as intelligent and knowledgeable, comes across as rather more foolish today when up against The Fabulous Lorenzo’s assailment.
The Lorenzos are exasperated with the bear-like course director, who seems to them an unhappy, overweight blusterer with a barely disguised fear that his course and his career are about to come rightfully crashing down around his ears. (Ren can’t help picturing him with a Navy cap, like Hubbard used to wear. Perhaps he’ll mail him one.) Balderstone had instructed the groups to do a project each, from a list of topics concerning teaching that he had put together. Each group was to choose one of the topics and gather together some relevant data by either collecting some data themselves, or finding some previous research. The Lorenzos had chosen the topic ‘Gender discrimination in teaching’ – the other topics were no better – and had presented some thorough studies of UK high school teaching which showed that modern high school teachers were spending more time paying attention to the girls in their class than the boys. Miles, who as a psychologist knows a lot about real research into educational practises, knew where to find this material. They had expected that this research would merely be the starting-point for some healthy debate; it’s not supposed to be the final word on anything. But Balderstone and the four Panopticon clowns have been outraged far beyond what the Lorenzos had expected.
What they are outraged about, it turns out, isn’t just that this research supports conclusions that the Panopticons think just have to be lies. They are also angry that the Lorenzos have resorted to using empirical evidence. Empirical evidence, according to Millicent Bartonella, is a grand narrative, and like all grand narratives it exits to promote a point of view, which is not necessarily more valid than other points of view. Empirical evidence, according to Malcom Ascaris, who Ren has dubbed ‘Voroshilov’, is a tool of oppression, being used in this case to suppress women. Lenora Helminth said that all scientific data is just a construct of its cultural context and should be treated like any other cultural pronouncement. Adrian Vespula, who considers his views more nuanced and less nakedly relativistic than his dogmatic colleagues, said that the underlying power structures at work here should make us sceptical of any such research.
Vespula is definitely Beria, Ren thought. He even looks like Beria. The same rodent-type features. And, unlike the other three, he’s not a true believer. He’s spouting the official jargon in order to look after number one, much like the NKVD man had.
The argument has at this point turned back onto the presentation the Panopticons made earlier. Ren is already struggling to remember what exactly it was that the Panops had said. That lot had also chosen ‘Gender discrimination in teaching’ as their topic, but their presentation definitely veered more towards the jumbled-stream-of-consciousness-using-plenty-of-the-latest-Sociology-buzzwords side of things. Clear presentation of real data: not so much. The Panopticons’ idea of gathering relevant ‘data’ was just to write what they felt, in the latest postmodern style, with the occasional handwaving quote from a Continental luminary as a supposed back-up. But this did seem to be what the course director meant by gathering data. Everything seemed to come back to what he called ‘critical reflection’, which so far had involved plenty of reflection, in the sense of reflecting back Balderstone’s own views, but not much in the way of criticism.
The Panopticons had talked about ‘hegemonic practises’ (a term not clearly explained), and ‘normative culture’ (also not clearly explained) and ‘exclusive cleavances’ (not explained even one little bit). Academics and teachers operate uncritically from within ideological frameworks, and these must be constantly challenged with reference to equality and disability issues. At least, that is the best Ren can come up with a translation of what the Panops said. A less charitable interpretation might read, ‘Translation unavailable’. Or ‘Input empty of coherent content’. Lenora had gone on about ‘othering’ and ‘normatising’ – or is it ‘normalizing’? – and sometimes even ‘alienation’, though Ren got the sense that that word had to be carefully handled now that it’s getting a bit out of date.
Ren is acquainted with this sort of stuff from his days as a Philosophy graduate student. The others in his group have had much less experience of it, and are shell-shocked. Especially Douglas, the physicist, who is completely gobsmacked. A young man greatly sympathetic to the arts, he had assumed that the attacks that had been made on the Humanities and Social Sciences in recent years had been greatly overblown and exaggerated. Now he is seeing first-hand that those attacks had, if anything, understated the situation. Here’s the latest generation of English, Law, Social Science and Politics academics, and they’re repeating almost meaningless catechisms, and refusing to engage in anything that could be called critical discussion.
The second half of the ‘Tuesday, Week 3, Semester 1, 2000-01’ chapter will be continued in part 2 of the serialisation of The Biscuit Factory Vol. I: Days of Wine and Cheese, so stay tuned.