Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My teaching is done here

'What is necessary for the public realm is to shield it from the private interests which have intruded upon it in the most brutal and aggressive way'
--Hannah Arendt, c. 1973 

Oh, that Hannah Arendt were alive today and enduring the 21st century tertiary education sector. The above quote is attributed to a speech she gave at a Columbia University conference on the topic of 'Private Rights and Public Good' (see 'Quote of the Week', Hannah Arendt Center, Bard College, 1 October 2012). As 2013 closes and 2014 approaches, I am 'retiring' from teaching and aspects of that decision are tinged with regret while in other ways it comes with huge relief. 

Closing the office door, December 2013
For me, 2014 will largely be a year away from the classroom, for the first time in about fifteen years in this instance, and a career that began in the English conversation classes in Japan in 1984. There is a family legend that at the end of my first year of Harbord Public School in Sydney I sat down with my grandmother and decided then at the age of five going on six, that I would become a teacher. I recall my grandmother's encouraging words about my decision, mainly for the holidays and pay. In the intervening years, everything I did was directed towards that goal: my choice of university was based on an innovative (for then) joint Bachelors/DipEd program over four years. 

As I completed each level of education so too did my aspirations of teaching level: in primary school I wanted to be a primary school teacher like Mrs Day or Miss Turner; at high school I imagined myself teaching my two passions, Japanese and biology; at university I learnt the state education department had rather strict guidelines about teaching combinations and Japanese and biology didn't fit into the pro forma arts/humanities OR science/maths requirements. At the entry point to university, I had to choose between Science and Japanese...we know which way that choice went. 

I surprised myself in the mid-1980s when the first thoughts of becoming an 'academic' began to emerge. Not ever really the done thing for a kid from my side of the tracks...'bit above yer station isn't it?' as some were wont to say. But pursue an academic road (albeit rocky at times) I did and here I be...(as some are wont to say). 

I have gained far more than I could have ever imagined from what seems to be a life of teaching. There are no greater rewards than seeing students have their 'light bulb' moment. I've been privileged witness to students who eyes have seemingly lit up upon 'getting it'; guiding them through those 'big questions' of politics and philosophical prognostications. As with most 'teachers', my students have remained constant sources of inspiration and learning for me too. 

1. Teaching and knowledge gathering could be collegial
Cai Guo-Qiang, Heritage, 2013; QAGOMA. Author pic
However, as Arendt identified forty years earlier, the intrusions on the public education sector are such that I can no longer be the teacher I want to be nor can I be the teacher I know I can and should be. The moments of 'dread', though few, outweigh the magic moments to the point that it is better I take off my teacher's mask. The autonomy of the academic has been under attack for some time. The 'value' of academic contribution is now determined by quantitative formulae which privilege big prestigious grants; it is determined by a demeaning competitive race for 'tier one' journals and publishers regardless of the genuine merit. The collegial approach of the academy which once sought to pursue knowledge for knowledge's sake, to question, to ponder, to think, is now condemned by and large, to compete against each other to earn a faux prestige...as a number of sincere colleagues have noted, the emperor truly has no clothes. Or, as some might see it, there seems to be a privileging of mediocrity in the academy (and I am simply not sufficiently mediocre).

2. But now feels like this...a pack of wolves
Cai Guo-Qiang, Head On, 2006; QAGOMA.
Author pic, 2013.
We are therefore made to contrive research projects which become complex and complicated and expensive beyond all necessity. In recent years, as I have reluctantly given in to 'playing the game', I have tried individually and in an even more contrived 'research group' to get on the funding merry-go-round. Inevitably I fall off because my research consists largely of sitting, reading, thinking, translating and writing. It is not the the sort of research which requires annual funding of five or six figures on high rotation. Indeed, I have estimated that my annual research budget would require less than the fortnightly salary of a typical vice-chancellor. There is much waste in research funding and distribution...a courageous education minister would stand on the brakes to purge the sector of the neoliberalism which has poisoned our path to expanding our knowledge universe. A redistribution of funding according to need and not ambition could in fact result in far greater knowledge outcomes than our contrived system extrudes. Counterintuitive to the bean counters I guess. 

I am taking time out in 2014 to research, write and think. I have the safety net of a teaching-free semester followed by long service leave, and I am grateful that I am in that position to do so (though it has come as a result of too many hours teaching...it's a kind of performance management thing in fact so it is imperative I 'perform' in other ways next year). 

But I see this as the end of teaching in any formal way for me. As I reach the half-century with no prospect of career advancement, I have made that decision, as difficult as it is for me to do so; as difficult as it has been for one who has envisioned a career of teaching and learning for most of my life. There is disappointment but also anticipation of what might be ahead. I have much to write about: on Australia-Japan relations, on Northeast Asian security, on Japanese adventurers of 120 years ago and on Hannah Arendt, a new project for 2014 which will explore evil, brutality and our human condition. I have wanted to return to Arendt's work since being introduced to her thought as a wide-eyed undergraduate some 30 years ago by a lecturer whose key tool was passion...what goes around... Arendt's work has been on my shelf ever since, bubbling away in the subconscious, knowing but not knowing; one day seeking understanding. 

I think I may have found a way to understand the emotions emergent in the Thai-Burma railway experiences as exemplified in two recent interpretations: the movie The Railway Man and the novel by Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It won't cost much financially, but hopefully it will add to our understanding of who we are and why we, as humanity, do what we do. It is a timely confluence of events, and decades of research and thinking I've done on various topics, nothing more. It may be the one 'big work' that, as a naive undergraduate, I once imagined that was what one did. 

I look forward with eagerness and trepidation to the challenge as I step outside the formal institutional structure. Outside that structure there remains a space where these things an be explored and discussed and I am grateful for the opportunities provided through the blog and twitterspheres...and other media. I will have more time for this blog and I look forward to that.

Arguably, the public university is effectively dead...we need to see it for what it is, quasi-public-private 'partnership' with the authority weighted heavily in the wrong elements. The public realm remains, just not at the university. I remain committed to upholding the value of the public realm, but for now, my teaching here is done. 

See you in the new year. Cheers, and thanks for being interested.