Friday, October 5, 2012

Memoir Leaves 7-9, Hooning, Teaching & Presenting

At the moment the memoir consists of a series of leaves or postcards that slip between time periods without following a chronology or trying to tell a structured story.
 Appreciate feedback, reactions and suggestions.
 Blue Echo
Cover art: with kind permission of Rachel-Ireland-Meyers (see

 The Memoir - a work in progress

Background see Working on a Memoir
Leaves 2-6 Ireland, Launceston, Cape Town, Whyalla, Cambodia
Leaves 7-9 Hooning, Teaching & Presenting
Leaves 10-11 Bookseller, Vexatious FOI applicants and shaky start to an academic career
Leaves 12-14 Car crash, Launceston early 1960s, A Road Not Taken

Leaf 7  “My last hooning on a Friday night in Queenstown” December 1980
It was a warm Friday night in Queenstown. Part of me relished the surge of adrenalin and the thrill of being with my childhood mates. I even made the link with the antics of my favourite Beat authors and envisaged how this was like a scene from On The Road. Yet the law student and political science major in me was thinking “what shit have you got yourself into”? I was 22 and John Lennon had just died. I was back home working underground in the Mt Lyell mine during my university holidays. I was in the back seat of a station wagon with a carton of beer cans on my lap. Massive sparks were rising up from the back of the car as it hurtled dangerously around corners. There were eight or more young men and boys in the car, three or four of them in the back hurling cans, empty I hoped, at a pursuing police car. In a mining town like Queenstown, police, doctors, teachers and mine management were always treated as outsiders and at times enemies, at best they were tolerated in a very uneasy relationship.
I was thinking of that Dylan lyric, “They got him on conspiracy, they were never sure who with” and that there would be no doubt this time.  Some of the guys in the car were old school mates, some relatives and other younger ones were like I was at fifteen - full of grog on a Friday night and so filled to the brim with excitement there was little room for foresight. At one point, the wheels on one side of the car left the ground as we drifted through the tight roundabout on Driffield Street designed for a much slower speed. We had a good driver, a veteran of many hair-raising episodes like this, but everything rests on fate. Our destination was the Webster’s old house on Robertson Street, a couple of houses from my old family home. We skidded to a halt, everyone vacated the car and spread themselves around the lounge room pretending to have been there all night long. The cops grabbed the driver took him outside and gave him a bit of a belting for being another Queenie smart arse. Later that night, we engaged repeatedly in several very drunken and heartfelt full renditions of American Pie.
Over the next few hours and sometimes over the following years I played this night through a series of lenses. One lens is that of the lucky survivor of a ‘What if’ scenario. What if the car had rolled on that roundabout? The headlines would have read, like many headlines over the years in small country towns, ‘Tragedy and heartbreak as young men die in accident’. Another lens is that of a young man inexorably drifting away from his childhood mates and hometown. In another lens I converted the experience, almost as it is happening, into a poem, novel or a piece of reflective narrative rather than a simple story of hell raising that is quickly forgotten among the episodes of every day life or wild nights in a mining town. No one else in that car had by their bed a copy of, or echoing in their head parts of, Yevgeny Yevushenko’s Zima Station:
I had been thinking, and I wondered whether
I would see any changes when I got in.
I figured if it wasn"t any better
at least it wasn"t worse than it had been.
But everything appeared to be small,
the chemist"s shop, the city park and all.
It seemed that things had shrunk and therefore
were smaller than had been nine years before.
As  I was circling around the vicinity
I gradually came to realise
that it was not the streets that had become diminutive,
it was my steps that now were big in size.

Simply having the options of playing with my thoughts branded me in my own mind as an intruder. If the thoughts had been given a voice or shared on paper I would have been branded an outsider. This was my last summer in Queenstown, a summer working underground with my cousins, catching the mine bus to work with my uncles, staying with my Nan, listening to the direct and caustic wisdom of my aunties, trying to remember all the names of the various tribes of my younger cousins, watching girls I had hopeless school crushes on push their second or third babies around town. After this I rarely returned and the gaps started to stretch into years and decades. I no longer fitted comfortably within my home town.
Leaf 8 “Not another brick in the wall” Hobart May 1997
In the front row of the assembled academics at law graduation, I had tears in my eyes
Sitting in an upper balcony, my parents, Esther and our two young children looked down on this created ritual with medieval overtones that explicitly and symbolically distanced the graduates from their past. That was the first and last exposure of my parents, both diverted from their own education journeys, to university life and the annual pomp, colour and ceremony of university graduation. I had skipped my previous two graduation ceremonies not realising that the events were more for family than for the student. The tears were caused by a spontaneous standing ovation from the law graduates as my name was read out as the recipient of a Vice Chancellor’s Teaching Excellence Award.

Receiving the award was a needed capstone to a long and difficult 6 year journey as a law teacher: a journey filled with uncertainty about employment; a journey where my teaching methods had been viewed as abnormal; and a journey in which my young family  too often came second behind teaching, a masters thesis in political science and attempts to build a profile as a legal researcher. In my journey as a new teacher. I had rejected mainstream approaches to law teaching but the replacements I was testing were largely untried, intuitive and assembled from a multitude of ‘unorthodox” sources. Every class, every new technique or different type of assessment was launched with the prospect that failure or a mistake would see the end of a new career, and the fragile and uncertain indicators of success (testimonials from students) were regarded by many of my superiors and colleagues around me as at best, generally unreliable or at worst, just plain not worth the paper they were written on.

In 1990, after a couple of years of teaching a handful of political science tutorials part time, I had taken the gamble of forging a new career. Leaving behind the two years of developing a tutor’s surface level expertise in Australian, American and South Pacific politics and political philosophy, I made the switch to Law. Over the next few years, I struggled to complete my left over Masters in Political Science (including a complete topic switch – from Industrial Democracy in Australia to Politics in Western Samoa) whilst building up expertise in Property Law (a subject failed as an undergraduate LLB student.  Indeed, I have a rare distinction among Australian law academics of failing two undergraduate units and having no honours degree in law), Constitutional Law (rarely attended as an undergraduate) Administrative Law (vaguely recalled) and Advanced Administrative Law.  In addition to my teaching and research, I had two small children and a market stall at Salamanca Market where I sold ‘pre-loved’ books on Saturdays.
From 1990 to 1993 I struggled to win a ‘permanent’ position, and was employed on a year to year basis (albeit with a safety net of a position remaining open for me at the Tax Office). However in 1993, that safety net disappeared and for several months I was in limbo as the Law School delayed confirming if I had successfully gained a tenured position. This was a tough period for me: two young children, Lance, who was 7 years old and Elise ,just over 2, and a wife who I had vowed, never to place in the financially precarious position her family had faced when she was young, when her father took his own life leaving behind a young wife and two young girls to put back the pieces. Every time I took a risk, each time I failed to get shortlisted for a contract position, every time I riled my Head of Department, a judge, a student or a Premier, I was confronted with a growing temptation to simply turn aside and settle for the security of a low level position in the Tax Office.
In the face of this employment uncertainty, I was coming to grips with the hard core knowledge of several law subjects and my publishing efforts were still in the early stages. In most academic disciplines, staff are recruited because of their expertise in particular niche areas yet in Law no second thoughts are given to pitching a legal academic into any number of new areas. 
I had taught myself to teach and the ceremony in 1997 was a vindication, in part for the hard choices, struggles and the risks associated with wanting to offer students a better learning experience than I had generally encountered in my university days. The award and ceremony was also a point where I started to be much more systematic and professional about understanding and improving the learning processes associated with my teaching. The experience of others in most universities reflected my own introduction into the ‘profession’ of higher education teaching – the sink or swim method.  The award confirmed I had learned to swim! The award also gave me a degree of immunity to continue to explore and develop my teaching practices.
 “Prelude to Leaf 8  - Just another brick in the wall….” Political Science Department UTAS 1988
Desperate to escape the confines of a low level clerical job in the Tax Office, I enrolled in a Masters of Political Science degree in early 1988. The original plan of doing this while being a full time parent to a 6 month old in late 1987 quickly evaporated in the reality of nappies, washing and 100% focus on a small, often uncooperative, human. The following year I became the first male to go part-time in the Hobart Tax Office and commenced my political science thesis. My Political Science mentor felt the best way to dust off my mental cobwebs was to do some part time teaching.
I knocked nervously on the door. My postgraduate supervisor had arranged an appointment with the coordinator of first year political science. Ironically, but true to form, I had skipped most of my lectures in first year pol sci – to sit on the grass and look at girls, listen to music and read books that were not listed on my reading lists – Gunter Grass, Camus, books about revolutionary priests in Latin America and mercenaries in Africa. I didn’t know what to expect behind the door. In the public service where I was still employed, every job vacancy required applications and the extensive addressing of numerous selection criteria, interviews and reference checks. I was flying blind with this ‘job’. Teaching at university was a serious business wasn’t it?  Although I then recalled a number of the abysmal tutors inflicted on students in my undergraduate degree and was totally uncertain about what awaited me behind that door.
A strong voice boomed “enter”. Before me was a distracted, bearded academic who clearly had no idea why I was there. The floor was covered with newspaper and two large puppies were busy staining and smearing the newspapers. On the surrounding walls, hundreds of thick tomes on communism in Russia, China and elsewhere appeared to be in the process of tumbling off the shelves. In desperation I tried to recall some vague points about communist politics and failed. After a few stops and starts we realised why I was there – “Room 536 Tuesday at 9am and Wednesday at 10am. See Bev.”  Who was Bev? Bev was the departmental secretary and my major teaching point of contact and leadership for the next two years. There was no hand over of notes, course details or any further discussion about the course. I left the room a fully licensed tutor with an open permit to play with the minds of first year political science students. My university teaching career was underway and I never looked back. Twenty plus years later the support and training of casual tutors has generally improved yet there are still far more tutors than there should be who still start in the same fashion as I did.

Leaf 9 “Fast Talking” and “my short life as a spy” March 2003 Jakarta, Indonesia

I was inside a large assembly hall within the Indonesian Parliament building, speaking to a gathering of Indonesian parliamentarians, civil society activists, military personnel, journalists and a handful of other international experts. Earlier on, the entire conference had been bussed to the Presidential Palace and the five international speakers had been presented to President Megawati at a very elaborate and formal ceremony. As I shook the President’s hand my thoughts went back 20 years to writing endless papers on Indonesian politics and history at uni and how I could not have envisaged the path from that small classroom in Tasmania to the Presidential Palace in Jakarta.
My talk, after we were returned to the Parliament, had a few small hiccups.  At the start, a frantic representative from the translators interrupted my talk after a couple of sentences saying, “Mr Rick, Mr Rick you talk even faster than Mr Toby (the previous speaker Toby Mendel a Canadian had been asked to slow down about 15 minutes into his talk) please slow down and can you confirm you are speaking English?” My lingering speech problems had emerged yet again. Later in the Question and Answer period an Indonesian gentleman accused me of being an agent of the Australian intelligence services attempting to undermine Indonesian security by allowing access to sensitive secrets. Later that night I was in a Muslim nightclub, swept up in the beat and for the first time to enjoy the bonding of Muslim men dancing together.
The invitation to speak had been organised through Article 19, an international non-government organisation focused on freedom of expression and speech issues. The five day trip involved a whirlwind round of talks and events in Jakarta and Manila to promote and assist with the development of FOI in those two countries. I had managed to organise my teaching schedule to make the journey, but the striking contrast between these two versions of my working life was palpable. On one hand, I left behind, and was shortly returning to, a group of students who struggled to be moved by what I was trying to teach them and always left the lectures and seminars seemingly unimpressed with what they had endured. I was simply another boring academic paid to disrupt their far more interesting social and work lives. On the other hand, my short 10-15 minute talks to several hundred politicians, activists, lawyers and others were considered, debated and applauded.
‘On tour’, my days were filled by all expenses paid airfares, accommodation and meals and opportunities to meet and spend time with interesting people who were working hard to make a difference in their homelands. At a meeting in Manila, the next leg of the tour, I sat next to a beautiful young woman, one of a handful of truly breathtaking people I have encountered. She had just graduated from film school and had recently returned from the civil conflict on Mindanao where she had been travelling alone creating a film about social justice. During our meeting, she exploded in frustration and railed against the old lawyers (including me) in the room who were debating the meaning of technical words in legislation thereby excluding the likes of her and many other ordinary people from making the law do what they needed it to do.
Every meeting since, every time when I am invited to assist in the law reform process in another country, or the rarer times in my own country, my thoughts go back to that fiery outburst and the young Filipina’s passion. I try and make that extra effort to include the non-lawyer, non-expert voice into the process and to make the technical words work for them rather than cut down their hopes and aspirations for the law.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

"Demise of Hollydene Hostel"

 Published as  “Demise of Hollydene,” Weekend Extra, The Advocate, 15 November 2003, 34

An opportunity that, in retrospect, was so fragile. It needed many ingredients.  Teachers to plant the seed that there was a road that led beyond my beloved hills. Parents ready to struggle to find money in an already tight budget. Most important it needed a place to stay. Hollydene Hostel.

In the mid 1970s Hollydene served as a safe base in Hobart for country boys to step onto the road to higher education. Few made it through to successful completion of year 12 but without Hollydene many more would have fallen by the wayside. That would have caused the early and unnecessary  termination in the careers of a number of very good engineers, teachers, scientists and the odd outspoken academic.

Hollydene was, even in the 1970s, rundown but it  provided a place my parents knew they could entrust the care of their son. A 16 year old  who lacked experience, maturity and the finances to survive in a flat or shared private accommodation with other young country kids in a strange city.  Hollydene, located in Campbell Street, was not a paradise and we all struggled against its curfews, hostel rules and restrictions on heating in winter time. Yet it provided a sense of community and day to day stability. It wasn’t a home but that was a major part of its attraction.

The sale of Hollydene raises a simple question. What is there now to replace it? In a letter dated 27 October 2003 to the Mountain Heights School Council (Queenstown) Paula Wriedt, the Minister for Education suggests that there is a trend away from the “more structured and supervised hostel accommodation” . Therefore West Coast parents wanting to send their children on to Year 11 should “liaise with the senior secondary colleges to establish networks of home-stay accommodation within the individual college communities”.

Simply not good enough Minister.

When you close a major accommodation hostel and fail to replace it there will definitely be a trend towards private board or rental accommodation. There are no other alternatives if students wish to study in Hobart. The direct retention rates (never very good) of Year 10 to full time Year 11 in 2003 from Mountain Heights dropped from 68% in 2002 to a dismal 43-47% (if you count students who have moved interstate). In today’s information age this is tantamount to slamming shut the doors of opportunity on kids who out of choice or necessity went to school on the West Coast.

Yes at sixteen I briefly toyed with the idea of sharing a flat with one of my mates until the reality of the search for accommodation, rents, furniture, cooking and cleaning changed my mind. The hit or miss of home stay accommodation (in terms of compatibility, reliability and availability) was easily outweighed by the benefits of structured and supervised hostel accommodation. The privacy of your own room, the availability of food, laundry and scheduled study periods and a base to explore a new city and lifestyle with a degree of independence.

The closure of Hollydene and the refusal to provide country kids (and the resulting parental peace of mind) with a replacement, state of the art  hostel accommodation (designed for the needs of 16-17 year olds) borders on absolute neglect. Yes it would be costly but what price are we prepared to pay to allow all our children equality of participation in further education be it going onto University, VET or other paths such as apprenticeships.

I never returned to visit Hollydene but I would be surprised if successive governments did much to maintain or improve the hostel from the late 1970s too its closure. From time to time it falls to particular Ministers and Governments to lay down the costly foundations and invest for future generations. The rebuilding of Reece High School was an opportunity to improve education in the North West. The replacement of Hollydene would be an opportunity to improve the educational prospects of the best and brightest from many small country schools around this state who would like to study in Hobart. It is unfeasible and simply too limiting to rely on all West Coast students (and students from country/remote areas) to move only to Launceston or Burnie.

Without a Hollydene Hostel in Hobart  my life would have been far different. I now have a life beyond the imagining of a young boy thirty years ago. I still remember a family relative driving me to Hobart in a Mini Moke with my bags in the back. As I stepped onto the footpath to walk through those famous heavy doors of Hollydene I had no hint about the career or life I would discover. Yet Hollydene gave me the opportunity to find out.   I am troubled that 30 years later that fragile opportunity given to me is now even more fragile and problematic.

Providing secure and good quality accommodation will  improve retention rates. Yet why are these retention rates for Mountain Heights students falling? More importantly what is the Education Department doing about the problem? By all means travel the world beating the drum to entice parents from other countries to send their children to study in Tasmania.  But don’t neglect our own backyard.