18 February 2010

The Last Professor

A guest post from the Green Bean Counter:

Professor Khipu was intently examining the small clay tablet on the desk. There was a knock at the door. “Come in” he said, without looking up. Behind him a hooded, cloaked figure with a sickle entered. “Professor Khipu?” “Yes, yes, come and look at this.”

The visitor slid across the room and peered at the tablet. Khipu said breathlessly “it’s a Mesopotamian clay writing tablet. This is a record, written in cuneiform, of workers’ beer rations. It’s one of the earliest examples of state records that have ever been found. This is a bit like the Cabinet Secretary’s notebook. The early origins of state formation are represented here.”

“Fascinating” said the visitor, pushing back his hood to have a closer look at the wedge-shaped writing. “You specialise in this sort of thing don’t you, palaeography?”

“Yes” said Khipu, “I’m the last professor of palaeography in the UK. It’s vital work – we read the texts of the ancient world. I work a lot for the British Museum and what I’m doing here” gesturing towards the tablet, “is for a Radio 4 programme called A History of the World in 100 Objects. They’re going to have an object a day and discuss its significance to human civilisation, development and history. This is the first time that this tablet has been read – it’s quite a knotty problem.”

Khipu turned to his visitor, remembering his manners. “Can I help you dear boy? Are you a student?” The visitor smiled smugly, “err, noooo.” He pulled his hood back up and twirled his sickle idly in his hand.

Khipu blanched. “Oh, but I have so much work to do. I can’t die. The British Museum has thousands of these tablets alone that have to be read...”

The visitor sniggered. “No, I’m not the Grim Reaper. My name is Peter, an outsourced worker for the Department of Business, Information and Skills, we control English universities.”

“But why is the trade ministry in charge of universities?” quizzed the puzzled Khipu, “and why are you here?” Peter the Reaper grinned and said “I’m here because your university, following a careful decision to enact efficiency savings in the higher education sector, has decided upon a strategic disinvestment programme which encompasses your particular employment category.”

Khipu, the master of ancient runes, was confused by modern ones. Grim Peter leaned over and hissed “you are being made redundant. The university will replace you with a junior lecturer in entrepreneurship. Your subject generates insufficient business revenue to justify its continuation. The university needs to strategically re-focus its investment portfolio into revenue generating fields. Palaeography is not part of that business picture, going forward. We need dynamic and low cost deliverers of business-facing learning materials.”

Khipu stared at the beer tablet. “But what I do holds the threads of civilised life together. When I read these texts I’m reaching into the past to explain the essence of our presence, here in 2010. This is where we come from, we must understand our contexts or we stop being human.”

“Yes, Professor Khipu. But nobody pays to go into the British Museum and nobody pays for Radio 4. Your work doesn’t contribute a penny,” he hissed, “to Britain Plc and has no measurable impact. Come along now.”

A khipu is a knotted string used by ancient Inca civilisations to record matters of state, such as taxes.

You can hear and read about the Mesopotamian beer tablet at bbc.co.uk/ahistoryofthe world/

King’s College London has recently announced that it is to make Professor David Ganz, the last UK professor of palaeography, redundant on 31 August as part of a strategic disinvestment process.

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