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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

After the Students, the Diggers

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

There is a philosophical riddle which asks ""If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" At the end of the academic year, I wonder whether departing undergraduates (philosophy students or otherwise), ever pause to consider a variant of that question: when the students leave, does a university continue to exist? 

The answer is that it does, though in a somewhat reduced form. Although academics potter around, conferences are held, laboratories whirr into life with intense Summer research projects, a sense of vacancy pervades a university and its town. Pubs and libraries alike become emptier, lonelier places. Libraries and department offices close at five o'clock, instead of at ungodly hours into the evening. Mrs. Morris's flowerpots suddenly seem less prone to vacate her front garden and move to number 32 up the road. Traffic cones appear more rooted to their roadworks, rather than being alternatively employed as loudhailers.

Yet even as the last student crams his duvet into an overburdened car, or shuts the door of his halls of residence for the final time, even as a hush begins to descend, other noises and movements take the stage. As if they have been waiting in the wings for exams to finish, suddenly bright yellow diggers charge onto campus; traffic and pedestrian diversion signs redirect you from your accustomed routes to work; scaffolds scale the sides of buildings for painters and window cleaners to remove grime; the buzz of drills and the hum of electric generators takes over the air from the chatter of students.

Pinned to those tall, temporary builder's fences across campus, glossy boards appear with promising computer images of new lecture halls, extended libraries, bigger sports halls. These are, the vice-chancellor explains in his thrusting, visionary emails, all enhancements to that ephemeral but vital thing in the tuition-fee era, the "student experience."

But what of the experience of those of us left behind? Through thin walls in the library, strange bangings and clatterings can be heard, sounds which would never be allowed to disrupt the silence of revision time. Signs appear on the ends of book stacks, forcing one to decipher the cryptic rearrangements of shelfmarks that are suddenly taking place. Computers get taken away without warning, for upgrades and repairs. It would be tempting to grumble about academics being less important than the student body during this three-month summer programme of refurbishment, rebuilding, rearranging. On the other hand, it is one more reason to take advantage of one of the special privileges of academic life, and work from home (preferably in the garden, under a July sun).

But today I have to make a rare trip in. As I walk past a drab, concrete, 1960s lecture hall, a secretary wheels a trolley overburdened with files, which topples onto the pavement. Helping her collect the strewn papers, it appears that they are being removed because a ceiling has just collapsed in the Modern Languages Department. This is, I would like to imagine, a post-Browneian implosion, as the building reacts to the government's abrupt withdrawal of funding support for the arts and humanities from next year. More realistically, however, this concrete monolith has breathed a sigh of relief that during this three month hiatus it can reveal its true, mouldering age, safe in the knowledge that a lick of paint and fresh plasterboard will restore its respectability in time for the new cohort of students in October.

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Posted by Alistair at 11:23 am


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