Beware the academic with "gravitas", writes Philip Davis; all it means is that he can make a ten-second banality last ten minutes. He is a bore in the meeting-room, a real menace in the classroom ...


There is a type of academic who positively enjoys sitting in meetings, delivering an opinion with what may be called gravitas. In this context, that Latin noun (pronounced with a long final 'a' or a short one) really means: "I expect to be heard with serious attention; this is my air-space and may it last for ever. I intend to make a ten-second banality last ten minutes." Gravitas characteristically, and for various evolutionary purposes, has a fat backside that gets bigger and bigger as speech at the other end goes on and on.

Only please note: Gravitas is gender-free, because sex doesn't come into it, whereas pomposity can enter anywhere. Academics commonly act as though they expect the adult world to feel like being Head Boy and Head Girl in Little School. (I myself as a pupil was only given responsibility for lavatories and libraries. But then I went to school with Harold Shipman, who later became a doctor and a mass-murderer. And he was only a sub-prefect.)

I remember once a specimen of the species Gravitas telling us that he sat on a national committee that was conducting a confidential review into the very matter we were discussing at this merely local level. "I cannot fully divulge the nature of our discussions," said Gravitas, "but I think I can show you half a hand here." I suppose the metaphor was to do with cards, poker or whist. But I have never lost the image of the creature brandishing an articulated deformity. And two fingers to you too, my friend.

Then there's another who always begins her lengthy interventions by saying, "I am still trying to formulate my thoughts here." That's great, sister. We will just sit around patiently, while you get that massive Delphic brain of yours into gear. Some day soon, as she shares with us her scrupulous syntax and deliberative tone, I swear I am going to say it: "Come on now: shit, or get off the pot." It's apt.

I used to be much angrier in meetings than I am now. Once I so annoyed a Gravitas that he snapped his pencil. Yes, it is a tough and wild world in university committees, not unlike Shakespeare's brawls between Capulet and Montague. "Do you snap your pencil at me, sir?" "No sir, but I do snap my pencil." Exit, pursued by a neo-Freudian.

But now meetings seem more like asylums of impotence, where Gravitas can do little harm. This is less the case in the classroom. The other day, Gravitas wrote at the end of an undergraduate essay that the student--a good and lively young woman--had "insufficiently established her conceptual parameters". That is to say: Gravitas doesn't like unruly thoughts--thoughts that arise in the act of writing and don't yet seem to have a framework into which they can easily be fitted. (I think such thoughts are poetry, are thoughts. But Gravitas is really a social scientist, not a literature-lover, and the student hadn't read sufficient theoretical material.) Gravitas has all the inner life of a bicycle pump.

What is more, wrote Gravitas: "You really should eschew the use of the word 'I'. It tempts you into over-emotional expression." The student, confidence devastated, came to see me. She showed me the essay-comments. It was my fault: I taught her last year. "Why do you always ask us to choose the passages that move us most?" she had asked me then. "The other tutors don't." I warned her (in confidence) last year that many of my colleagues were seriously handicapped. And I told her (again in confidence) last week that Gravitas was suffering from an acute psychological condition. Academica nervosa. It's fatal to life, and it's killing students.

So I shall knock at the door of Gravitas next week, on behalf of students who might wish to think and to feel. I shall speak of conceptual parameters. And I will sing two songs: first, "Don't fence me in" by Cole Porter (in the style of Bing Crosby); followed by "Let my people go", as composed by Michael Tippett (in the style of Moses). I will report back on the results.

[I hasten to add that such a type as Gravitas has no resemblance to any living person. This is not an insincere disclaimer: these people really are not alive.]

Philip Davis: "Bernard Malamud: A Writer's Life"(Philip Davis, author of "Bernard Malamud: A Writer's Life", is a professor of English literature at Liverpool University and editor of The Reader magazine.)