Nottingham has the reputation of being a gritty kind of city. It’s got some big estates as well as two universities and it’s the mere existence of these estates that has earned the city a somewhat undeserved reputation as being rough and hard. You see it’s actually often very polite and kind.
One of its more endearing habits is that people invariably thank bus drivers when they get off the bus. Even though the drivers are just doing their job, the culture of the city is to thank them. And it’s quite common for people to stop and let other people into traffic queues, none of this I-was-here-first-and-you-can–just wait-for-however-long-it-takes. In fact it’s really unusual for someone not to let others in, even though the traffic is often terrible. This considerate travel behaviour is a local cultural idiosyncrasy, probably not exclusive to Nottingham, but certainly one of the things that you notice when you move here.
I was musing about this peculiarity in relation to academic cultures the other day, and thinking about how it is that the university organisational equivalents to Nottingham traffic behaviour work. All occupations seem to have their own distinctive little conventions and ours is no different and when someone does something out of the ordinary it’s really obvious… just as being an oink travelling down my very narrow street is. Break the hidden rule and everyone notices.
For example I’ve observed that it’s really not acceptable in my institution to be immodest in public. It’s absolutely necessary of course when writing job and grant applications to big yourself up, but it’s really not OK to rush around the corridor with your latest article or book – even though these are a cause for celebration. Very little beats the pleasure of seeing your hard won words in print but you must whoop whoop in private. It’s even less acceptable to tell people if you’ve had some kind of award. Your colleagues have to read about it in the Times Higher, rather than hear it from you, and only then can they can congratulate you.
I’m not talking about going on some kind of maniacal ego trip here – something seriously over the top where success is shoved down everyone’s throat at every opportunity. No, I’m simply suggesting that something past a secret conversation in the loo with your bestie might be permitted – that some kind of public marking of meaningful events might be a good thing.
I’ve come to think that this lack of recognition is actually symptomatic of greedy institutional cultures – and so I’m dead keen to try to disrupt them. This is why we’ve instituted an annual book celebration for our arts and social sciences faculties. Once a year we get all the books together and have a knees-up. And because the celebration is collective, it turns out that it’s actually a better-than-OK thing to do … It feels like an institutional pat on the back for the hard work that people have put in, in order to get their work out there.
So I’m wondering – do other institutions have better ways of acknowledging success and achievement, or is keeping quiet at all costs a global academic convention?
What do you think? Does your university or alt-academic office have non-cheesy ways of acknowledging the things that everyone must do but are hard work and a real achievement?
After I’d written this blog post I saw that thesis whisperer had a post on the same issue calling for a gong for PhDs, you might like to check that out too if you haven’t already. So clearly the practice of keeping schtum about achievements is not just the case here in England!!