‘The Dream Team’. A daily account of strategy week

Strategy week kicked off with a formal debate that argued that the future was too uncertain, our strategy as a university was doomed, why bother trying. The VC was convenor. Stakes were high. My team was up against 2 outstanding comedians and a futurist AKA futurologist. Game on! I had the dream team. Rachel and Renee. Rachel Wilson, a stellar member of our teaching staff who is leading the Belonging Project, and Renee Peterson, a master’s student who has had a career as a TV and radio presenter. She could have regaled the 300 people in the Strategy Week audience with fascinating tales of interviewing film stars – Tom (Cruise, and Hanks), Russell (Crowe, and Brand), but also Cameron (Diaz not David) and the venerable Nicole Kidman – but she led with a brilliant anecdote about falling flat on her face when about to interview Sir Ben Kingsley in London. With only 4 minutes allotted to her interview and working to a tight deadline to get the film back for national broadcast, she picked herself up (literally), adjusted her hair and drew on everything she’d learned as a student and did the interview with a charming Sir Ben.

We won the debate hands down, or actually hands together, as it was done by a rather unscientific (but of course entirely accurate) survey of audience applause. First time I’ve ever been on the ‘Negative Team’ though! More on this blog from the trenches of Strategy Week every day….

Making my face up

When did you last take a selfie? Within the past 7 days I imagine, in fact, I can almost guarantee it. 24 billion selfies were uploaded to google last year alone; a mere 200 million a month. I know this from that paragon of precision Daily Mail Online or was it Wikipedia (citation required).  I’ve no idea who counts these mugshots. All that pouting and posturing. Apparently, 13.4 petabytes were chewed up by that self-styled sovereign of selfies, Kim Kardashian. (Question: what’s a petabyte? Is that when you’re bitten by your own labradoodle?) And did you know there’s a sub-species of selfies taken by librarians standing in front of rows of books? They’re known in the trade as ‘shelfies’.

I resist the urge to take ‘selfies’ of any sort. Clothed or otherwise. After all, it’s such a vulgar word. Just as I try to desist from bellowing into a hands-free ‘phone or using the word ‘got’ (isn’t ‘fetch’ a much finer phrase?). But I’ve no objection at all to having a photograph taken or portrait painted of my features, my ‘physiog’ – the ‘face’, as it was termed by 18th century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who definitely used a walking stick, but never ever would have been seen with a ‘selfie stick’.

I had two portraits taken last month. Not one but two. Instructions for the first were somewhat specific, if a tad severe: no glasses (tick), no averted gaze (check ‘averted’ in dictionary, tick); eyes at the required height (adjust eyebrows, tick); no nudity (put clothes back on, tick); no smiling (assume rictus grin, tick), place five gold coins in the little slot…. Tick, tack, flash. But then, alas, a strong winter wind wafted the curtain in front of my gurning physiog. The final result looked like a still from the shower scene in ‘Psycho’.

I had to be very still for the other portrait. There I was sat sitting on a rather low stool in the middle of a sun-blessed green park in some foreign field. Forty minutes with my knees up by my chin. It was like being in the naughty chair.

I had chosen my artist at complete random. He looked pleasant, attentive even. He even wore a beret (the hallmark of a true artist). He displayed his completed portraits with confidence: clearly, Paul Newman, Raquel Welch and even M and M had passed by and sat in the very same stool earlier that afternoon. Why they had not purchased their fine charcoal portrait? Dissatisfied perhaps? Tight fisted even? Surely the master of white rap has a spare 20 dollars? Anyway, he’d kept the seat nice and warm for me.

It took a fulsome forty-five minutes. Me in a fixed grin: him in a focussed stare. Passers-by would stop, look at the drawing, then they’d look at me, then back to the drawing, then at me, then they’d pull an inscrutable impression. Some would laugh, some even holding their sides (which was concerning). Others (a few) would put up their thumb in reassuring affirmation.  I sat there in a paroxysm of doubt and anticipation, my knees bent, my wallet emptying, my jaw aching from holding my most fetching expression.

I can now share the result. Most portrait painters start with the telling triangle of the eyes and the tip of the nose. Get that right and the rest falls into place. My man started with the tip of my hair and worked his way methodically down to my Adam’s  apple, like someone painting emulsion onto a kitchen wall. No complaints though. As you can see, the eyes are above the nose: my lips face forward; the ears protrude sideways from the skull as is the norm.

Do I recognise myself in these studious scribbles and cheapish charcoal smudges? Not sure. Jury still out. All I can tell you is that the rather serious Border Guard in the oversize uniform, festooned with baubles, badges, and buttons, was impressed. I had to fold it up to fit it into my new passport but it did the trick. I’m back in the country.

Have you heard the one about the librarian…?

As Heidegger might have said, it’s a well-known fact that there are only three decent jokes about libraries. Well four if you count the feeble play on words about the frog (see * below) and Heidegger may have struggled with that one because it’s just anthropomorphic phonetics.

But incredibly, I discovered another joke about a library, and a good one at that, last week. It’s visual. So being a fine artist imbued with the core tenets of critical theory I’ll describe it in words. A man approaches the counter of a library; the shelves behind are empty and bereft of books; he’s obviously just asked the librarian a question, because she’s answering him: ‘I’m sorry the kindle is out on loan at the moment’. There is a nonplussed, slightly resigned look to the man’s face.

Well it made me laugh. Or to be true, grin a little. Not for long, but just a little. It neatly augments the other three jokes which, for the price of an overdue book fine, I can share with you. You see I still take books out the library. Even if it does take one helpful librarian in the vast mansion-like halls of the new Swanston Library to show me how to take it out [pin number, swipe card, print receipt… take the exit over there … actually I think it’s over there…] and then another helpful librarian to point to the hole in the wall where I insert the book that I’ve taken out – and may have even read. So sparkling, so spanking new is our lovely library,  that the letterbox in the wall is still a mere dotted line yet to be cut away. There was even a symbol of a pair of scissors pasted there to remind the sub-contractors that it had yet to be done.

You simply can’t get enough of books. Especially those colouring-in ones. I’m becoming a dab hand at keeping within the lines. But I like book launches even better. I’ve had a brace of them lately. Perhaps I’ve become one of those ‘lads that launches’, as distinct from those ‘ladies that lunch’. Six of my brilliant new media staff invited me to the wonderful Brunswick bookshop to launch their new book on screen ecologies – what a title! It was fab. I even wore the wrong jacket with the wrong trousers, or it could have been the wrong trousers with the wrong jacket.

Last month I launched a couple of my very own books. Yes, books full of words, texts, even footnotes on some pages, and lots of pictures, sometimes bought at exorbitant and extortionate cost from copyright houses, whom I fear will drive arts publishing out of business.

There’s a picture of me launching a book on the 20th century British painter Sir Stanley Spencer. It tells the vexatious tales of three intrepid people in the 1920s – a patron who put the money up to house Spencer’s war memorial murals; an architect who tried in vain to build the right building for the paintings; and the artist who more often than not disagreed with them both. It’s the stuff of Shakespeare. Without the rhyming couplets. Both Spencer’s daughters were there, now aged 90 and 85 – what an honour. Five years in the making, the event was simply wonderful. The book may have been a labour of love, but after five years hard graft it felt at times more like hard bloody labour than love.

Then onto the deepest reaches of Cornwall, that obscure but sublimely inspirational tip of olde England.  It is said that the UK is shaped like some gigantic sock, actually like one of those Christmas stockings in which all the nuts fall down to the very end. Cornwall can be a bit like that. All the nuts tumbling to the very end. I think it’s meant light-heartedly. Hope so. In the cathedral city of Truro I launched a different book with the brilliantly talented painter Paul Lewin. He painted the pictures: I wrote the text. We both felt rather pleased to bring back into the English language a word not used often enough, I’ll leave you to look it up – it’s at the end of the dictionary – Zawn.

And sadly, or maybe gladly, it’s not yet, nor likely ever, to be on kindle.

*Frog flicking through a pile of books, says after discarding each one: ‘Reditt, reditt, reditt….’ Gettit?

 

Head in the Clouds

So, answer me this: what happens when the language of citizen science collides with the edicts of senior management? You guessed it. We look to the heavens for inspiration.

Top of the clichés is ‘blue sky thinking’ – or BST to those in the know (or is that something to do with Mad Cow Disease?). After a few moments of ‘research’ – i.e. skimming through the Ladybird Book of Cognitive Enquiry – it transpires that not long ago BST was actually understood as ‘not grounded or in touch with the realities of the present’. However, through overuse, misuse and executive-usage it has been fundamentally reframed to mean a ‘creative activity for trying to find completely new ideas’. Knock me down with a cirrus stratus. It may not surprise you to hear that BST was recently ranked as the 5th most irritating phrase used by business leaders. I’ll leave you to guess the other four.

My favourite senior management leadership phrase at present is ‘sky to ground’. I use it at the drop of a parachute. I think it means taking an idea from strategy to tactics, from vision to implementation, from the nebulous to the now.

So while riffing on the imagery of fluffy cumulus and beribboned contrails you’ll be pleased to know that a new addition has been added to the already voluminous International Cloud Atlas. What’s that? You mean you didn’t know there was such an atlas? To be honest, me neither. But all your favourites are there – nimbus stratus, alto cumulus, muchas gracias, and so on. The most recent addition is the rather inelegantly termed Volutus – a ‘tube-shaped mass that rotates slowly around a horizontal axis’. If you are struggling to visualise this phenomenon, just think of the miracle that is candy floss, the extraordinary way it is coiled and whisked into shape around those rather feeble but essential wooden sticks.

While Volutus is a newcomer, Asperitas was identified as long ago as 1896 and is a rather fetching cloud formation with a richly rough-ish rounded bottom. Though incredibly, it has only just found its way into the Atlas. I hear you gasp with surprise and, dear reader, I share your incredulity. Happily, its acceptance into the elite typology of cloud forms has been celebrated by the British Cloud Appreciation Society who have been earnestly campaigning on its behalf for decades. Yes, really. A Cloud Appreciation Society. It could only be an institution created in Britain.

According to my impeccable scientific source, the venerable Clive Cookson, Volutus is a perfect example of ‘an undular bore’, which surely must be the point where clouds, management and academia come together in perfect aerial alignment?

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Witness Littering or Witless Twittering?

What’s not to enjoy about driving along the arrow-straight roads of rural Victoria. There may not be much to look at but there’s so much to read. Indeed, some of the signage is rather helpful, even instructional – ‘Drinking. Driving. They’re better a part!’ (D’you think they got the letter spacing wrong there?) Other signs are a little more puzzling – ‘Water Over Road!’ or ‘Animal Help Line’. On the other hand some are handily topical, if somewhat time-limited: ‘Don’t Drive and Pokemon!’ But my favourite is a paradigm of concision, indeed Trumpian in its double-barrelled impact: ‘Witness Littering?’ it exclaimed, followed by a long mobile number that I singularly failed to hold in my memory as I tossed another coke can out of the car window. (Not really, I only said that for dramatic effect).

On the other hand, it may indeed have been Trumpian. Perhaps it really said: ‘Witless Twittering?’ Who knows. Should we care? Reality has gone make-believe. Life, as Woody Allen once said, doesn’t just imitate art, it now imitates bad television. And bad daytime television at that. The novelist Lionel Shriver recently confessed that the new Resident President could never appear in one of her novels, as he would read as too far-fetched, a farce. She agreed with the writer Malcolm Gladwell that we are locked in an era of the lowest common denominator, a time of broken language, senseless repetition, (I said senseless repetition!), and stuttering incomplete phrases that makes previous incumbents such as Dubya Bush seem, by comparison, almost Shakespearian.

Gladwell offers another angle by suggesting that not only should one retain a sense of humour amidst the slow car crash meant to resemble emerging US policy, but trust the future. Play the long game, he suggests. Surely the Chinese will do so. Indeed, he compares the feverish pace and frenzied excitement around the White House today with the McCarthy anti-Communist Witch Hunts of the 1950s. Sure, there will be crazy short-term followers, zealots and addicts but – like McCarthyism – the whole artifice will be rumbled, exposed and then roundly ridiculed. Trump’s rhetorical strategy (if it can be termed such), argues double Pulitzer prize-winner Marilynne Robinson, has a limited lifespan. Best to let its inherent contradictions, its off-the-cuff, on-the-hoof ‘thinking’, spiral out of control and be revealed for what it really is.

Meanwhile, we can just stare agog at the witless twittering, or perhaps that’s twitless wittering:

Donald J.Trump @realDonaldTrump
Chinese total losers! Who’d name their country after a dinner service?

Donald J.Trump @realDonaldTrump
Just tried watching Sound of Music. Weak! Julie Andrews doesn’t do it for me. Sack that hair stylist, fashion adviser!

Donald J.Trump @realDonaldTrump
Of course that goatherd is lonely! Quit that horrid yodelling! Total loser! Get a  life!” *

(Note: I am grateful for various quotes and ideas borrowed here with appreciation from Marilynne Robinson, Lionel Shriver, Robert McCrum, Craig Brown*, and I’d like to give a call out to the student representatives, and to M&C colleague Alex Wake, whose statements at Academic Board were an important contribution in the first of two timely debates about academic freedom. She argues for openness, civility and a shared awareness of the welfare of others especially our students and fellow staff. Well said Alex! Firm leadership!)

In Praise of Mortar Boards and Muttonbirds

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There are few more life-affirming events than the graduation ceremonies at Etihad Stadium. Colourful, brash, bizarre… but that’s enough about my academic gown… the event itself was tumultuous at times, but always joyous, with a touch of the necessary solemnity and dignity.

At the December 2016 event in Melbourne, there was some seriously impressive indigenous dancing, plenty of drumming, and even a rather rollocking rock band. It was on a par with our spectacular Saigon ceremony, although this event was punctuated by a very loud and unexpected bang. At first, we thought it was an almighty firecracker ignited by an exuberant graduand. Alas, it was nothing so bold. More prosaically, it was a massive power outage across the entire of District 9. The bang was impressive though and startled us all. It was rather astonishing to see a grown man leaping  into the arms of his wife. Oh yes, nothing as impressive as a gowned graduation ceremony.

Actually, another impressive sight springs to mind. On Philip Island last Saturday evening, twenty minutes after a tepid sunset over Pinnacle Rocks, I watched a skyfull of Muttonbirds (aka Short Tailed Shearwaters, also known as the Slender Billed Shearwaters, or sometimes the Yolla, or indeed the Moonbird, and even Puffinus Tenuirostris to any ornithological readers who might still be tuned in) circle above me.

If these fine creatures have an identity issue borne of their uncertain name, they certainly don’t show it. Each and every dusk they circle lower and lower, then bomb dive into their sandy burrows. It must be one of the most spectacular natural events on the planet. Who needs cute waddling penguins when you have half a million birds just a few feet over your head performing elegant arabesques punctuated by sandy thuds, as they drill nervelessly into the soft ground.

And as the Muttonbirds circulated wildly overhead, I was reminded of the delirious moment at graduation when several hundred mortar boards are tossed into the air.

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Left-of-Red-Centre

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I’ve been at the centre. Not any old centre, but THE centre. Now you may ask – as our esteemed leader, shouldn’t you always be at the centre? Of course, and with my history of pinkish-red politics, I’m usually a little left-of-centre, but recently, I’ve been in the centre of the New Academic Street.

That’s me in the picture above. For those with colour tellies, you’ll see I’m in a rather fetching hi-viz tabard and hard hat. My steel-toe-capped boots were about two sizes too large, which left me shuffling around the immense building site like an extra in that zombie film shot in Brunswick. What a treat though: a 90 minute guided tour by the inestimable architect Carey Lyons and his team, who pointed out all the impressive innovations, the vast and cavernous voids that would soon be a-filled with studious students, the new roof gardens that will reach out to ‘greenify’ Bowen Street, and all the mod-cons of the media precinct. To my unfettered joy, dramatic and chasmic diagonal slices have been made through the existing building, cut by a gigantic blade at 27 degrees through floor upon floor. Light will pour into the gunnels of the building, illuminating the grey cliffs off Swanston Street, bringing new life to the basements and backwaters. Goodness me, it was like something from the Old Testament.

Talking of bringing new life to the gunnels, I’ve also been in another centre, the Red Centre. I took a few days leave to steer a chunky 4WD land rover across the MacDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs and down to Uluru-Kata Tjuta. Camping under the stars, cooking over an open fire, and listening to the distant dingoes by night (at least I bloody hope they were distant) made for a remarkable adventure – by my British standards anyway.

How could you not fall for this deeply spiritual and colour saturated landscape? Rocks rusty red by day, crimson in the evening; sacred boulders the pale buff colour of sandpaper; ironbark, dogwood, witchetty grubs a calcified and sombre grey and black. Outwardly it appears a stilled, static, even dead landscape, but it’s not. Everything moves – from the infinite columns of ants at your feet to the shifting shadows ‘as sharp as knife blades’. It is a terrain, says Elspeth Huxley, ‘of no compromise’.

It was hard to come back to chilly Melbourne but return I did, and glad I was. For we are in the season of student shows, runways, graduate exhibitions, prize-giving and partying. More of that in my next blog, meanwhile I revel in being at the heart of so much student-centred creative energy.

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