Yet, what is academia?
Quite a few years ago, at about the same time as my book on agricultural origins came out, I was at an Archaeological Congress. I had received my degree only a few months earlier. I was now Dr Rindos. It sounded even sillier back then than it does now.
The first evening of the Congress I found myself invited to dinner by Richard "Scotty" MacNeish. I was overwhelmed, not to mention decidedly nervous, at the prospect. This name, as one of the founders of modern archaeology, was well known to me albeit solely as a long series of exceedingly important, exceedingly influential, exceedingly exciting, contributions to the literature -- very important entries in my bibliographies. And now I was to speak to this name. Apparently as a person who ate dinner and who was to be met at 5pm in the Hotel Bar.
It was not what I had expected at all. Nor was he. I arrived promptly at the bar at 5pm. He was already there. We had a few drinks. He was a person. He was wearing shorts and a t-shirt that read "Beam me up, Scotty. There's no intelligent life on this planet." Bibliographic entries never wear shorts, no less t-shirts with silly slogans on them. And they certainly don't sit around talking archaeology. Drinking beer. Telling stories. Funny ones, too. And having another drink. And going on still more, with excitement and love, about archaeology, to me the most exciting pursuit of all. And having just a few drinks more.
For one moment, the discussion moved, very briefly, from our archaeology to our sudden recognition that we had yet to eat dinner as planned. Yet we were also discussing, at that same moment, aspects of a manuscript that Professor MacNeish was finishing. It was on agricultural origins. We reached a simple solution to the problem of food and, walking across the road from the hotel, picked up Big Macs and Fries To Go.
Returning to his room, the conversation continued unabated. We looked over parts of the manuscript. I recall that it was written using a typewriter and that corrections had been made with a fountain pen! It was almost archaeological, itself.
The evening went along, a wonderful blur, at least for me not so much alcoholic as intellectual. Those words are written by people. The thought kept running through my head, a backdrop to an exciting discussion of interests deeply shared. No doubt I was very innocent, and not thinking all that clearly. But I was still astonished by the idea that people write those books so important to me. And I must have expressed it. Scotty laughed and said
"Well, I think you did one hell of job on me."
"Excuse me?" I guess I was trying to be polite, and at the same time covering for a good deal of worry. Bibliographic entries shouldn't speak back like that. And I guess I hadn't really thought about the authorship of my own book in the same terms I used for all other books.
"Yea. You gave it to me hard. Called me."
I knew he was talking about my discussion of his work. Important work, groundbreaking work done over thirty years, or more. I guess I had been pretty hard on him, at least in some ways, but that was when he was only a bibliographic entry.
"Well, I felt I had to review . . . "
"Crap! You trashed us all."
Silence. Total silence on my end. But he was smiling. The smile edged towards a grin.
"Listen Dave, you're that Young Turk who had to come along and give the rest of us just what we had dished out to others thirty years ago."
"I tried to be balanced in my review." There was doubtless an edge of nerves to the statement. Apology perhaps. Scotty wasn't impressed. Not at all.
"Yea, that's what made it so wonderfully devastating. You gave all of us proper credit for whatever we got right."
I was feeling a lot better. This wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. I guess I must have smiled. Scotty responded with a laugh: "But then, and that's the best part of all, you showed no mercy when we were wrong. And you were right. We were wrong. Hell, I was wrong. And you made that fact very very clear. Even I could see it."
I must have looked awfully confused. Maybe even a bit nervous. About the only thing I knew about Scotty the person, not R. S. MacNeish the bibliographic entry, was that he had put himself through Harvard many many years ago by means of a boxing scholarship. This fact, right or not, was widely known -- even by PhD students.
He clearly sensed my confusion, nervousness, innocence, whatever it was, and raising his glass seriously stated
"I want to propose a toast to you."
At least I knew how to respond to that comment.
"I never drink to myself."
"Hell, why not? You did a damn good job." His smile was getting broader.
"Nope." My self-assurance was returning. I do have my standards for good behaviour, even when half drunk.
"Fine," he grinned, "Then, let's drink to the damn good trashing you gave me in your book."
"You're splitting hairs. No go." I was clearly feeling quite self-assured by now, and sounding it too, no doubt.
Scotty looked at me, paused a moment, and, as a huge almost silly grin plastered itself on his face, he raised his glass towards me and proclaimed in a broad, formal, tone
"I hereby propose a toast . . ." he paused and looked almost serious
"to that son of a bitch who comes along and does to you just what you did to me."
I was caught. I knew it. I raised my glass to his.
With the sound of the glasses touching, an image rose. I can see it even today. It was barber-shop mirrors. Behind Scotty, behind Professor R. S. MacNeish, behind a scholar nearing the end of his career, I could see an indistinct line of scholars and academics. They stretched back, seemingly to eternity. Behind me, behind a young man just beginning his career, I could almost feel a hand on my shoulder -- ghosts in the future, a matching academic procession of those yet to come. It stretched out to form another eternity. But, I could see this only as reflected in Scotty's eyes. And through him, indeed, because of him, I saw it too.
At that moment, for the first time, I met The Academy. I felt it deeply. And it is still alive in me.
It's about as close to religion as I have ever come.
To be denied tenure was for me the ultimate academic punishment. Am I to be denied the right to participate in the proceedings of the Academy? To be denied my place, my home? To suffer a forceable, possibly final, removal from those eternal reflections of the academic stream? Has that vision of one half-drunk night many years ago been shattered? Perhaps irrevocably?
Yet, what if the judgement is false, based upon expedient lies? Is then an injury done to the academic soul of the true scholar? I think not. And now I know the judgement of me was false.
An irony arose when first my tenure was denied, because I was thereby provided with a rare opportunity to be judged by a large number of my peers. And dozens of scholars from around the world spoke, loudly, even unsolicted, kind and supportive words on my behalf. They spoke words on behalf of my words. They were using the only armament the scholar has ever had. Those academics I most respect, those same names that hold pride of place in my bibliographies, have written to me. As humans. They have written to the University. As Academics. And in doing so, they have reassured me beyond my wildest expectations, that, yes indeed, I have contributed to the building of The Academy. That I am, no matter what UWA may say, and no matter what the future may hold, already an integral part of that stream.
Therefore, I am tempted to assume it is of no great consequence to Academia that I have been denied tenure on false and harmful grounds. I am certain that I, at least, am not guilty of crimes that can bring my most valued institution into disrepute. I am innocent. It brings me no small joy.
Still, I have been denied tenure. I have been judged guilty by this University of Western Australia, and held to be wanting. Judged unfit to participate in the institution to which I have dedicated my life. How can I be both guilty and innocent at once? It is a problem in logic, at the very least.
Is it not the case that to be falsely found guilty is to have one's innocence loudly proclaimed? And that the judgement, therefore, is on they who judge, not me? Is it not true that if I am innocent by testimony of my true academic peers, then does not guilt rest only upon those who have falsely accused and improperly found me at fault? That the guilt is theirs, not mine?
But is that not worse, far worse, than the mere denial of my tenure? Is it not possible that they have committed a far greater crime? By their actions and, worse, by their misuse of words, the words from which everything we value is constructed, have they not threatened The Academy itself?
I worry, and this worry is well-founded, indeed. For now, it seems I must be concerned about something much greater, and far more significant, than even my own career.
If I accept, as I must, the proper judgement of my academic peers, then UWA's judgement of me, of necessity, is at fault. But the real crime, then, is not what they have done to me. Instead, it lies in the consequences of such an action for academia as a whole. The cynical demeaning of proper academic standards in the name of crass expediency is a far far worse a crime than any unjust dismissal ever could be. Without good faith, academia cannot exist. Without open and free discourse, discussion cannot occur at all. And without the honest application of true academic standards, fairly applied, Academia must suffer a painful death indeed.
It would seem we must worry that, at least at the University of Western Australia, The Academy itself has been placed on trial. And now it appears that the very people who produced a defective judgement of me, thereby removing me from the stream of academic tradition, may well have control over the outcome of this far more serious matter as well.
I tried, for the sake of my students and the institution itself, to do what was right. In this, I apparently failed. The Academy, God save it, will need a far more powerful advocate than me.
20 Herdsman's Parade