Saturday, 3 March 2007

The natural order

Two friends and colleagues (lettori: if you don’t know what they are click on the label below) were summoned a few days ago to the office of a professor in their faculty, head of department and died-in-the-wool barone (ditto).

He showed them a 60-page wodge of text and tables and said that he needed the English translation within a week. You can share it out among yourselves, he added, with unexpected munificence. My colleagues glanced at each other, surprised. And with reason. This isn’t the place to provide a detailed job description of a lettore post, so I’ll simply say that the translation of university documents at the drop of a hat isn’t included.

One of my colleagues pointed out that each page would take at least an hour and a half and asked if the time they spent on the work, assuming they agreed to do it, would be taken out of their annual tot of hours. Barone bristled. I’m sorry? he said, looking up. Otherwise, how would we be paid? I beg your pardon? he said.

My other colleague, in her turn, pointed out that teaching was starting this week, so that, in any case, they would have no time. I also teach, said Barone. Yes, but not quite as much as we do, my colleague reminded him. (The ratio is something like 1:6, entirely in Barone’s favour.) She might as well have added, And nowhere near as well.

Deeply offended by such insolence, Barone swept them from his room. If you aren’t prepared to do it, he announced, I’ll find someone else. Rome is full of English people. His last words, as he closed the door in their faces with that subtle irony only years of professorship can forge, were: Grazie per la preziosa collaborazione.

They behave like this because they’ve been allowed to. Italian universities work on a fagging system Flashman would have recognised immediately. It’s perfectly normal for people to work for nothing for years: typing, baby-sitting, writing humdrum pseudo-research for non-peer-assessed publication and seeing their own names appear behind their sponsors, who’ve glanced at the paper once, if that.

Finally, their spirits broken, the first few crumbs are thrown their way (a doctorate, some contract teaching, an unpaid place on an exam commission) and the rise begins. No more toast-making at dawn, no more shoe-polishing. Research! They’re still expected to earn their keep, of course, but at least they’re being paid. At least they have tenure. And look, beneath them, a lower order of creature awaits to ease their load.

Our problem, as lettori, is that we don’t perceive ourselves as a lower order. We see ourselves as equals (and often, with justification, betters). They see us as serfs. It’s a cultural problem (which means it’s also, implicitly, racist) of incommensurability and I don’t see any way round it.

Oh yes, the document they were told to translate contained evaluations of the teaching staff (a category from which we’re officially excluded), conducted, apparently, by themselves.

This is how Italian structures do accountability. (Otherwise known as trasparenza.) Aaahh.

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