Google Analytics

Friday, 11 October 2019

Rewriting Rewritten Writing

One of my first university jobs was as a research assistant to a very eminent professor. He was well known in his subject to students and academics both at home and abroad, and to the interested public through magazines such as New Scientist. He was the author of a large number of academic papers and editor of a best-selling textbook that had been translated into other languages including Japanese. I was elated to be offered the job and jumped at it, but that feeling did not last long. 

“Goodness! It must be fantastic working with him,” an envious researcher from another university told me. “He’s published lots of papers.”

“Well not really,” cynics in his own university would have said, “but he has published the same paper lots of times.”

You could say there was an element of truth in that: he did a lot of repetition, but the project on which I had been working produced an entirely new paper. It was to be submitted for possible publication to a leading American academic journal. As I had carried out the work he asked me to write a first draft. I doubted I could do it. It took me weeks: weeks of agony. When, at last, I had something not too awful to let someone else see, I left it with him.

He didn’t like it. He called me in to help rewrite it. I watched as he re-drafted one of the paragraphs.

It was laboured, tortuous, painful. He changed the main subject, he changed the emphasis. He tried it active, he tried it passive. He joined two sentences together with “and”, altered it to “but”, then split them back into two sentences in reverse order. He modified some of the terminology, thought of different wording and modified it again. Some of us by then were using the Unix vi text editor but he still used scraps of paper, pencil, rubber and more scraps of paper, with an excruciating running commentary to which I occasionally nodded. More than an hour went by and he still wasn’t satisfied. And that was just one paragraph. 

“Well,” I thought after going home and leaving him to it, “if it takes all that time and trouble for him to write something, someone of his reputation, then I’ve got absolutely nothing at all to worry about.”

*                   *                  *

That flippant ending is what I had in mind in starting this piece, but then more came out: buried resentment resurfacing. The thing was that the finished paper was not much different from the draft I had initially given him. It seemed that the main change was that, when the paper was published, his name was down as sole author and I was at the end of a list of people thanked for their assistance, some with hardly any involvement at all.

All too many power career academics are like that: very quick to claim all the credit for themselves. Some are workaholic, self-centred, self-justifying obsessives. They think they are infallible. They can be outright psychopaths. Universities seem to reward that sort of behaviour. There can be a pernicious culture of bullying. It happens in other places too, of course.

On first acquaintance, this guy seemed caring, thoughtful and softly-spoken, but soon revealed himself as the control-freak he was. Hints that sounded like promises never came to pass. Women, in particular, had the greatest difficulties, although I don’t know of any research staff that stayed longer than two or three years. One person took him to an employment tribunal claiming to have been misled about the nature of her role. My successors and predecessors had many similar stories (it was inevitable we would come across each other in the academic Small World). It put me off universities and I got a job elsewhere.

Resentment, yes, and ungrateful too, because the spell there didn’t half look good on the cv.

“We’re all difficult to work with here,” he said after I had infuriated him by handing in my notice. “We couldn’t survive anywhere else because we’re all eccentric.” He included me in that. He turned out to be right, probably on all three counts.

Thankfully, there are a lot of nice people in universities too.

12 comments:

  1. Patently unfair, yet it seems to mirror my own experiences, albeit in the more mundane realm of the civil service rather than the halls of academe.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Those halls aren't what they're cracked up to be these days.

      Delete
  2. Oh yes, such is academia and, as JayCee notes, the civil service as well. I spent my career working as a researcher and writer in both. There's another old saying -- "In the private sector, you spend your working life putting money in someone else's pocket. In the public sector, you spend your working life making someone else look good so they move up the ladder, not you."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've not heard that saying, but so true - I heard it described as people who build their careers on others' efforts. I suppose they think of themselves as "managers" but that wouldn't be what I'd call them.

      Delete
  3. After a spell in academia, and then one in manufacturing, I took my experience and went to work for myself!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I worked both public and private too, and don't blame you. I think Debra's phrase above is absolutely right.

      Delete
  4. I recognise paragraph nine very much but thankfully also your final sentence. These days I’m happy being a smallholder.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm happy being retired. You had me counting paragraphs there. No. 9 is the one with the link to the Guardian article, earlier instances of which reassured me I was not alone, so was able to get on with things.

      Delete
  5. I managed to track Professor Asshole down and asked him about past research assistants. He said, "Dunham? Oh you mean Young Tasker Dunham? Quite diligent but hypersensitive. I recall he was forever giving teapots to female academics. He even gave my wife one when I was at a conference in Copenhagen."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. All names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this blog post are entirely fictitious, and no tea pots or invalid cups were harmed during its writing.

      Delete
  6. I suppose theft of someone else's work could qualify as 'difficult to work with'. Indeed as others have said, this sort of behavior from people in positions of power is not uncommon.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I suppose he considered his research employees' work his own intellectual property. It wasn't just that though, some career-damaging things others had to endure were way out of order (on a par with the Guardian article). Might try to write about them if they can be sufficiently anonymised.

      Delete

I welcome comments and usually respond the same day (unless it looks like you are trying to advertise something).