Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Belshaw’s World – Barratt’s story: can the academic present measure up to its past?

For those who haven’t come across my train reading yet, these are the books I read two and from work. Each is just plucked from the shelves, and they vary greatly. This week my training reading is P E H Barratt, Psychology at New England: An autobiographical history of the first forty years (University of New England Publishing Unit, Armidale, 1983)

Paul Barrett Snr, we have to call him Snr because his son Paul Barratt Jnr is another very well known New Englander, was the first student to be enrolled at the newly established New England University College in 1938 and later the University’s third professor of psychology. The book is part reminiscence; part an overview of the author’s evolving interest in the discipline and teaching of psychology.

I suppose it could be a boring book to those who know nothing about the people, nothing about the history, nothing about the discipline itself. However, it is quite fascinating to me.

One if the big issues today in academe is the split between teaching and research. We need, or so it is argued, establish a clear division between the two. Staff and institutions must specialise in either. We can’t have both. That was not the view of early staff at either the College or subsequent University.

By the nature of the times in a small, newly established institution, teaching had to come first. Library resources were limited, courses had to be written or upgraded, students had to be guided and examined. There was neither the time nor the resources required for full or even intensive research, something that cost the staff members in question in career terms. And yet, none of them appeared to mind.

Not all the early staff were good teachers. Still, in total they did a pretty good job, aided by small class sizes and an intense academically oriented residential atmosphere. Pound for pound, their early students had lower entry qualifications than students entering Sydney, the mother university. Despite that, pound for pound, their students achieved relatively better results even when marked by Sydney staff.

While teaching came first, the ideal of the academy was deeply embedded: you had to ensure that your students had access to the range of the discipline; you had to do some research to extend your knowledge; and for many, applied research was critical to the areas that the College and University served. One result was that, relative to size, the College and University had a good research output measures by those standards so beloved by our current university funders.

Professor Barratt’s book charts the challenges involved in developing a new institution, in teaching, in trying to balance research and teaching where research had to come second. But it is also an exploration of his evolving ideas about his own discipline. In that sense, it’s a very academic book.

Paul Barratt Snr admits that he did not write as much as he should, that he didn’t carry the formulation of his ideas to the point that he should. Like many New England academics, he taught and revised certain courses year after year without ever publishing the results. Like a number of New England academics, he thought that too much was being published to the point that quantity totally outweighed content – and the budgets required to buy the ever-expanding volume of publications.

I regret his failure to publish the course material, as I regret my father’s failure to publish his history of economic thought material This was constantly being re-researched, rewritten, re-tested with students and then rewritten again.

When, at the request of some of his ex students, I tried to get him to publish, he simply said that there was too much written. In reality, I suppose, he just enjoyed the personal research and its representation to students via teaching. I was that that interested him.

It is just this point that pulls me up in my tracks about current approaches.

Do we really expect those university people designated as “teachers” with the heavy loads now expected of them to maintain currency in their subject areas, let alone pursue the intellectual curiosity (call it research; it is) required to improve? I think that we are being unrealistic and short sighted. But then, I accept that I am old fashioned.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Four New England New State questions

Over on the New England New State Movement Facebook page, new members have raised a number of questions. I thought that I would answer four of them here.

How do we create a new state of New England?

This one deserves a full response. However, the short answer is this. The Australian constitution provides for the subdivision of existing states and the admission of new states. The provisions are there, but just very difficult to use.

If its all so hard, why do you bother?

We know from experience that the only way to attract attention, to gain the things that we want. is to force existing power structures to respond. In 1967 just before the plebiscite, UNE geography professor Eric Woolmington said that anyone who voted no had rocks in their head.

Eric was not a new stater. He thought that the constitutional barriers were to great to be overcome. His point was that the new state cause was the only thing forcing the existing system to respond to our needs.

People look at me blankly. they think that I am strange, when I talk new states. How do I respond?

Keep it simple. Say that after 150 years, the New England or Northern New State movement is Australia's oldest political movement. It survives because we have our own history, because the needs that created the movement in the first place, still exist. We feel that we would do better if we governed ourselves.

We haven't been successful to this point, although we have forced the creation of two NSW and one Commonwealth Royal Commissions, a  major Commonwealth Parliamentary constitution enquiry, a plebiscite. national parks, Australia's first country tertiary institutions. encouraged decentralisation.

We are a democratic reform movement that has had significant national impact. But most of all, we just want to govern ourselves.

How do I help?

Learn about our shared history. Join the New England New State Movement Facebook group. Join the Association. Look to form new branches. Most of all, just talk about the cause. 

Change doesn't happen over night. It comes inch by inch.       

Thursday, July 25, 2013

New England Passings - death of Mike Morwood

Mike Morwood

The untimely death of the archaeologist Professor Mike Morwood will, I hope, be properly recorded. The UNE coverage is here, although other places have claimed him too.

Mike's best known work was leadership of a team that in 2003 discovered a possible new human species, Homo floresiensis, nicknamed ‘the Hobbit’, on the island of Flores in East Indonesia, UNE VC James Barber notes that the discovery of the skeleton of a tiny woman, who died about 18,000 years ago, has been hailed as one of the most important finds in human evolution since the discovery of the Neandertals in the middle of the nineteenth century. "

I think that there is still debate on this point, but it was a remarkable discovery. During his 32 years association with UNE, Professor Morwood worked as a Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Associate Professor, Professor of Archaeology, and Adjunct Professor, a position he stood down from earlier this year. His long and outstanding contribution to scholarship included research in the fields of human dispersal and evolution, culture contact and change, Aboriginal rock art, and ethnoarchaeology.

Since Isabel McBryde came to UNE as the first lecturer in archeology and prehistory, the University has established a proud tradition in these fields. It is also one that I can claim a tiny part as a member of Isabel's first prehistory honours group. All these years later, I am still writing in the area although as an amateur historian.

Necessarily, the University's focus broadened beyond Northern New South Wales, my main area of interest. That has actually left a gap. But I can take great pride in Mike's work and the contribution he made to students. That was very much in the UNE tradition.    

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Belshaw’s World – memories of a Port Macquarie far past.

Most children growing up in inland New England had vivid memories of the places on the sea coast where their parents used to take them for holidays. Many camped, others stayed in little holiday homes or small blocks of flats. Some were lucky enough to have parents who actually owned their own holiday home.

New England has a big coastline. The places varied depending on proximity, where friends went and, in some cases, just the need for variety. Some went to Port Macquarie, some to Urunga or Coffs Habour, some to Byron Bay, some into nearby Queensland to the Gold Coast.

To many of those coastal centres, the tourist trade from the inland was a central source of income. To some it still is, although population shifts mean that many inland centers now seek to attract tourist from the coast instead of seeing the coast as their own playgrounds.

One year, we went to Port Macquarie for our holiday. I remember the trip clearly because while we were away Rover, our Red Kelpie pet who was boarding on an Aunt and Uncle’s property, was bitten by a black snake and died. Rover was an energetic and inquisitive dog, not really suited to a town environment. Very few Kelpies are.

Traveling to Port Macquarie was unusual for us because it was just so far away. Well, at least it seemed that way. To get there, we drove south from Armidale where we were living to Uralla and then turned south east to Walcha. From Walcha, we veered further east and then plunged down the Great Dividing Range along the Oxley Highway.

None of the roads to the coast were then sealed. The road to Port passed through absolutely beautiful country, but was narrow, winding and dusty. The big timber jinkers carrying huge logs to the mills were a constant problem, for it was hard to get past.

Port Macquarie was then a small sleepy coastal settlement, far removed from today’s large tourist centre. The scale difference is actually astonishing. At the time I am talking about, Armidale’s population was perhaps three times that of Port. Today, Port’s population is twice that of Armidale.

At Port, we played and swam on the small local beaches. I learned of Rover’s death on one of those beaches, so it stands out in my mind.

I was reminded of all this by a book I have been reading, Annabella Boswell’s Journal (Angus & Robertson 1965, reprinted 1981). Before going on, I need to give you a little history.

Port Macquarie was founded in 1821 as a penal settlement. In 1830 Major Archibald Clunes Innes (1800-1857) became police magistrate at Port Macquarie and was granted 2568 acres (1039 ha) and contracts to supply the convict population with food. Working with convict labour, he transformed the wilderness into the fabled Lake Innes, the greatest pastoral property north of Sydney. There he built a grand home. From this point he built a web of pastoral interests. The town of Glen Innes is named after him.

Annabella was his niece. In 1839, her father took the family to stay at Lake Innes, hoping to improve his health. That hope was to be unsuccessful, for he died a few years later. Annabella loved the life at Lake Innes and recorded it all faithfully in her diary, republishing it all in later books.

The result is actually very Jane Austen, a story of domestic life and manners of an upper class NSW country family in a still relatively new colony. We have dear mamma, our dear uncle, the gentlemen callers, the first NSW election campaign in which the women gathered to make favours, the piper and the dances.

The last part of the book records the decline of Port Macquarie as families leave for other climes. It also contains references to her uncle’s growing problems. The end result is not clear to Annabella, for these things happen slowly. Finally, Lake Innes can no longer be maintained.

Today, Lake Innes and all its surrounds have been recaptured by bush, the house itself finally destroyed by fire. The tracks that the gentlemen and ladies of the house used to ride along to the beach or Port no longer exist. Yet the memory lingers quite intensely in Annabella’s writing. We can see the flowers, the gardens, the people, the lifestyle, memories that would stay with Annabella for the rest of her life.

Note to readers: Belshaw's World began as  a column in the Armidale Express. I have resumed writing the column because I  enjoy it. You can see all the Belshaw World  columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013