By the time this column is published, I will have no telephone in my office. It turns out that phones are really expensive, and with so many alternatives—from iPads to Blackberries and email to social media —there was no sense holding on to anachronistic nineteenth century technologies.
So don’t expect any heroic resistance from me. I’m not about to chain myself to my telephone, singing Woody Guthrie songs and quoting Martin Luther King while campus police try to talk me down. The fact is that these decisions always get made by reasonable people in real binds: fiscal crises may be socially constructed, but they produce real political and financial constraints nonetheless.
I mean, I have bigger things to worry about than telephones. Universities are under attack. Declining funding, academic reform, commercialization, contingent labour—these are the watchwords of higher education nowadays. Every week, the columns of the Globe and Mail are filled with testaments to our irrelevancy—something that didn’t worry me until plagiarism-checking bloggers suggested that such articles might represent (quite literally) the opinions of a great many people. And don’t get me started on the latest canon of academic non-debate— differentiation, where a few universities will be “research intensive” while the others will presumably spend their time organizing bake sales. If you remain unsure which institutions will get those plum research dollars, I invite you to call me to enquire.
So, in this political context, there are just so many good reasons to pull the plug on telephones. Mine hardly ever rings anymore, and when it does it’s invariably someone asking me to do more work (like, say, the editor of Academic Matters reminding me that my column is three weeks late). Besides, since—contra those Globe columnists—we are all overworked, why not just welcome any development that promises to make us harder to reach? That’s the kind of academic reform that I suspect we can all embrace. And since my first act of apathetic semi-resistance was to whine on Facebook (the existence of which is precisely why I don’t need my phone), that’s point, set, and match to the dial tone silencers.
To be fair and precise, they did tell us we could pay for an office phone from our professorial funds— the sort of bake-sale government that is longstanding at the public school level, where formerly core services are financed by, er, empowered local communities taking ownership of their own resources. My daughters seem to spend half their school days hawking burnt muffins to parents who pretend to be hungry, no doubt learning important entrepreneurial skills that will serve them well in the neoliberal millennium. “Work those long eyelashes, little girl, it’ll sell more muffins and maybe land you a tenure-track job.”
But right now, at a far-off differentiated university where they still teach undergraduates, some historian is telling students that perfectly reasonable short-term decisions can often lead to highly irrational long-term consequences. I mean, how else do you explain World War One, hula hoops, or an unelected Senate? Our forebears just needed to keep some big crowd busy for a few minutes, and look where we ended up.
And there’s the rub. Telephones are certainly expensive and there are, of course, numerous alternatives. But Globe columnists will eventually make the same arguments about everything, from tutorials to toilets, what with podcasts, catheters, and that alley behind the cafeteria. I’m happy to abandon Mr. Bell’s infernal machine, but someone tell me this – how do we stay focused on that long path to irrationality while we’re so busy excusing these small semi-reasonable steps? Damned if I know, but if I see you out behind the cafeteria with your pants down, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Steve Penfold is Academic Matters’ humour columnist. He moonlights as an Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto.