I think of this post as a bit of a salve for what we are going through right now. It is a bit different to what we normally post. I think the closest thing that we’ve posted in the past was The Perfect Project.
I’d stayed back late to go to a seminar in an area that I wasn’t familiar with. When I left, evening was closing in so I took a short cut to my bus stop. I ended up in an area of the campus that I didn’t know at all. It was a bit wilder than I was used to.
There weren’t many buildings about, so I knocked where I saw some lights on. It was a funny little place – cottage-like, really. Part of the old campus, I guess. It had a sign on the door that said ‘Faculty Studies’. There were ducks grazing by a pond nearby.
The first thing that the woman said when she answered was, “Hello. Are you lost?” I certainly was.
She didn’t invite me in. She spoke to someone back in the room, grabbed a coat and came out with me. “I’ll take you back. I need to go to the library anyway.” She seemed in a bit of hurry, which I didn’t mind. I didn’t want to miss my bus.
It was almost dark as we walked, and the wind had picked up. Her voice came to me in snatches as she explained that I’d wandered into the Lost Campus.
“In every restructure, every cut-back, there’s always someone who is left out. Their position isn’t in the new structure, but their name isn’t on the list of people to be let go. My partner and I were on sabbatical when it happened. They abolished our whole Department. The Head of School was on extended sick leave and the person filling in just didn’t realise we were there, you see.” I didn’t quite.
“Its not a bad life” she said as we hurried down a path through thick trees. “A bit like being emeritus – same passion, less paperwork.” She smiled through the gloom.
“Something similar happens with bits of buildings, occasionally. Our little place was a portable up on the top of Building 8 before the refurbishment. They relocated it, and then…” – a bit of a shrug. “We don’t really understand how the actual transformation happens. Things just change over time. Elle over in Theoretical Cosmology thinks that it has something to do with how we perceive things. But then they’re a physicist –always with the theories.”
She walked quickly, as someone who knows her way. I stumbled. “Careful here – there are stairs”, she said. “We call this ‘Jacob’s Ladder’” and laughed. I didn’t understand.
“I mean,” she continued, “it’s all an invisible college anyway, right? We’re just more invisible than most.” She stopped and turned to me. We seemed to be beside a steep embankment or a cliff. It was dark. “How many of the people in your School do you work with closely? None, right? All the important ones are somewhere else – interstate or overseas. They’re the ones that really matter.” I thought of the row I’d had with Kay yesterday. I wouldn’t really miss them if they were gone, or if I was.
Now we were rushing past a strange bit of abstract sculpture. I’m sure I’d remember that if I had seen it before. “We’ve solved the two-body problem, too. We just transfer partners in as honoraries or visiting fellows. Do that often enough, or for long enough, and sometimes their home universities lose track of them as well. Of course, sometimes their pay cheque just stops coming, which can be a problem. Still, if you are living on Campus then you don’t have a mortgage, so it usually balances out. We manage.”
“It is the physical scientists that have the worst time of it. It isn’t hard to get lab time – there’s always someone who works later than you, isn’t there? Or starts earlier? Or that person just far enough down the hall that you don’t quite remember their name? Sometimes, they are just other colleagues. Sometimes they’re from the Lost Campus”. I could have sworn I saw her eyes twinkle.
“No, the tricky thing is their equipment. It’s pretty rare that a bit of kit worth half a million smackers falls through the cracks. And you need a good technician to make some of the really specialised stuff. Those ones often go back or into industry. ‘Rejoining the main’, we call it. Fair enough, too. It’s OK for us in humanities and the theoreticians. Give us a whiteboard and some quiet time and we are happy, mostly. But if you need specialised equipment, it is tough.”
“No post-grads, either, which can be both a blessing and a curse. We do occasionally get post grads slip through. Their supervisors get made redundant, transfer out, or sometimes just die. Nobody realises for a while – they get ghosted – then they end up here. There is hardly ever anyone who can supervise them, so we hire them on as casual RAs and then quietly make them part of the staff, if they want to stay.
“The other tricky thing is the administration, of course.” She was hurrying on ahead of me, this time through a cleft between two huge rocks. “More admin people end up here than us, but hardly any of them stay. Those that do are worth their weight. It takes some skill to get things approved, to know who will sign for what, to really make the system work. I was on an exchange to East Virginia U last year and they had no admin at all. It was a mess!”
“Here we are.” We had emerged from between East and West Arts, two building I’d never been into. “You should be good from here. I’ve got to get over to the library.” I must have looked quizzical, as she continued, “There’s one on every Lost Campus. You know, nothing embodies the ethos of a university more than librarians, but they are always the first to go. Them and the grounds staff. Go quickly now – you don’t want to miss your bus.”
I’ve tried a few times since to get back to the Lost Campus. But that walkway between East and West Arts just leads to a loading bay and some dumpsters. Still, I think of ‘Faculty Studies’ a lot right now. We are going through a restructure and I’m thinking of taking some leave.
Jonathan, thank you for this post. Insightful and so well-written. I found myself fully immersed in the story.
Well done, Jonathan. This is truly beautiful, in so many ways.