I am back from a week or so of conferences and work in the archives at Harvard. I am not a proper historian, skilled in the dark arts of the archive, so I always experience a slight trepidation when fronting up to the circulation desk, pencils and laptop in tow. One thing I discovered is that the sound of ripping paper in a rare books room has the same effect (I imagine) that a particularly loud door slam must have in a police station or army barracks: People don’t exactly drop to the floor and reach for their guns, but for a split second the archivist looked ready to spring over her desk and snap the precious texts from my table, all the while binding my wrists with plastic handcuffs and calling security. [The ripping sound, by the way, was not the hand-written draft of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, but rather my New York Times somehow getting caught on the side of my laptop.]
Upon my return we find ourselves, unbelievably, in the last quarter of the year and thus thoughts turn to future plans and ambitions (no doubt given the realization of how little we’ve been able to accomplish this year…) ‘Strategic vision’ is one of those by now hopelessly debased phrases that appears in just about every institution’s means of representing itself to the world. The University has recently refreshed its strategic plan and now it’s the Faculty’s turn to do the same. A series of workshops is being planned over the next few weeks towards this end that many of you will be invited to participate in – and I hope you will. Humanities academics are probably the worst lot to try and cajole into thinking about these kinds of things, given our general predilection to gloominess about the future and an inherent antipathy to collective action of any kind. But at the very least we must be aware of what others are planning for us. One big issue on the table is the future shape of this university. We certainly can’t keep taking on even more students each year, given our capacity constraints. So the mix will change. The University is signaling that a greater proportion of our student body in the future will be postgraduate as opposed to undergraduate. And this will have interesting consequences for Arts, and especially SOPHI. As I have been repeatedly emphasizing over the past 18 months, we have to find ways to translate our stellar research reputation into increased student load – which doesn’t, at the same time, undermine that hard won research success! We can’t ignore our undergraduates (they pay our salaries, and we should never forget that), but we need to find ways of attracting and retaining more high quality postgraduate coursework, MPhil and PhD students. And since we can’t do everything, this means there will be some tough choices about how we allocate precious resources. There are other interesting moves afoot, including a big push on improving ‘research intensity’ (ie. more high performing staff, more PhDs, better infrastructure…believe that when you see it), more focus on ‘choices’ for students in academic programs and clearer pathways to graduate programs, and yet also a strong emphasis on generic skills etc…So get your future vision goggles on; we need all the help we can get.