A couple of hours in a University cafe

Observation by a 29 year old Phd student from Glasgow on September 30th 2010.

I spent a couple of hours in a university cafe usually frequented by staff and postgrad students

I’m sitting in a University cafeteria/café. This one positions itself as slightly upmarket compared to the student unions etc. It caters more to faculty, postgrads, university staff, and visitors. Although it is a nice enough place, the emphasis is on functionality over atmosphere. It’s in one of the older parts of the uni and has grand fireplaces, huge doorways and arches, old windows with wrought iron. But all this is superimposed with modern white-backed chairs and light veneer-topped tables. It’s brightly lit with high ceilings, very open feeling, echoey. \tI find it an interesting space because lots of different kinds of university life intermingles here. People come because of its location, not because it’s popular with a certain crowd, or serves a certain kind of food, or has a certain atmosphere. So in some ways it’s something of a leveller. Right now there is a well-to-do looking middle-aged man wearing a pink tie and matching pink pocket handkerchief sitting on a couch. At a nearby table sit a couple of young female students. One has bright green hair and various piercings. \tIt’s still noisy as the staff are clearing up after lunch service. It’ll get quieter soon as the cafeteria will close, while the coffee counter will stay open until around 4 o’clock. The woman at the coffee counter is there every day. She’s a friendly woman who knows everyone who comes in regularly. I have a couple of running jokes with her. The different kinds of people who come here are quite easy to spot. Not many undergrads come in, preferring some of the other eateries more geared towards students. Faculty staff are easily distinguished from the admin and corporate staff. Not only in their clothing but also in their demeanour. Maybe not to ‘outsiders’, but to uni people, I’d say definitely. Faculty staff look just a bit at odds, different. Some are full blown eccentrics, others perhaps just look a bit individualistic in some way. They have an air of ‘thinking about important things’. Some of the men are a bit scruffier than their administrative counterparts, with a few days of facial hair or a bushy moustache, or slightly unkempt hair. Some are dressed very smartly, in tweeds and ties. Others are in faded black jeans, a tad too short. Either way they look different from the standardised ‘office wear’ that the admin staff sport. With them there’s a sense of uniform; smart suit trousers and a striped shirt, usually open at the neck, no tie. The women are also in typical office wear; sharp skirts and blouses. Female academics tend to wear a wider array of clothes; long, flowing skirts, dresses, jeans, cords, boots, trainers. \tPostgrad students are easy to spot in the milieu. They tend to bridge a gap between trendy student days and a descent into slightly crumpled academia. But there’s also the air about them that they’re coming into their own, the bright young things, gaining confidence. \tWhen I come here it is quite likely for me to see someone I know, whether friend, acquaintance, former student. As a PhD student working on lesbian literature and lesbian history, I am out at work (as I am in every other aspect of my life). If people know my research field they know I am gay. I’m also guessing that people who see me in passing might also assume I’m gay. Which I’m more than happy for them to do. And so I feel comfortable here as an identified/identifiable LGBT person. The university is, generally, a liberal environment. My sexuality is the whole basis for my work and my career. It can be an asset, not an issue. I also feel confident here as a young academic. I have been at the university for a long time. This is my turf. It’s familiar and so am I. \tA woman has just walked in. I’ve never seen her before but I recognise her immediately as a lesbian. She is probably in her 30s, short hair, biker jacket, motorcycle helmet. She sits down and pulls out a huge book, a pen and some paper. Like many other people here, she is here to do some work, presumably taking a break from her office. Although this is technically a leisure space, for rest, relaxation, refreshment, really it is still a place of work. Admin staff meet here to discuss proposals, meetings, policy documents. Faculty meet here to discuss syllabi, conferences, their latest publications. Grad students meet here to discuss theory, teaching tips, their latest trip to the archive. Everyone meets to discuss politics. Office politics, departmental politics, institutional politics. This is one of the best places to hear the latest uni gossip. To my left two middle-aged women and a middle-aged man are discussing trade unions, tribunals and legislation (all three words in one sentence!). I also overhear ‘jurisdiction’, ‘directive’, ‘mandate’. It could be a discussion in a boardroom. Their manner is assured, professional, direct. A couple of couches away a group of five people are discussing an academic project. I’d guess they are postgrads. There are three men (a middle-aged white man, a 20-something white man, and a 20-something black man) and two women (both white, in their 20s). Both women are slightly bohemian looking, but also professional and ‘sensible’ looking at the same time. One has a long flowing skirt and cardigan, the other has cropped hair and over-sized earrings. I overhear the word ‘symposium’, which confirms my initial guess that they are academics. Most of them look too young to be faculty but more importantly they don’t have that ‘established academic’ air about them. The woman in the flowing skirt seems to be chairing the meeting. \tI realise sitting here that there are two very different kinds of performances of confidence and legitimacy that go on here. And both employ their own language and jargon as part of that performance. It’s very hard to define them but the administrative staff seem action driven. They brandish documents and talk about who has done or will do what. I overhear several anecdotes beginning, ‘So I just said to him…’ \tThe academics, both staff and postgrads, display a cerebral confidence. They are used to presenting themselves in an intellectualised environment. They gesticulate, smile wryly at intellectual ‘in-jokes’. They nod earnestly at each other and look skywards to ponder conundrums. \tBoth of these performances are learned over time; on the job training of a sort. You are recognisable as a valid and legitimate member of your group through the quality of your performance. I realise I recognise many of the academic traits in myself. And so I suddenly understand more clearly why I feel comfortable here.