Saturday May 9th, 2009. Posted by Alex:

The Australian Club

The one in Sydney. Hard to find on Google, though it has a short Wikipedia page. It does have a website though, named not after itself but after its address at 165 Macquarie Street. The front page says no more than the address, offering no public options – you can log in if you are a member, but otherwise you can go away.

One might be forgiven for thinking that one had stumbled on a very, very exclusive brothel. Not, apparently, so. Behind the 60’s exterior* we find what is modelled on the gentlemen’s clubs of London and New York. Our meeting of old members was to take place in a library on the third floor. Women were allowed to attend, though they cannot join this club.

I must explain that I am an old member of the House. Marpa House? No. Well, I am a life member there, but I refer in this post to my academic alma mater, Christ Church, Oxford. I was, clearly, very lucky to be given the education I was. One of the best of those of England’s schools (or see Wikipedia) that are open to the real public led on to one of the best colleges of one of the world’s best universities.

So where did it all go wrong?

First of all, of course, I must ask – did it really go wrong? I did get my first degree – just. The experience was hugely enjoyable. The perspective it gave on life, the stimulus of other undergraduates, even just spending that formative time immersed in the immense history and tradition of the place – wonderful. One of the best experiences I could have had. Altogether it was resoundingly half-successful.

Two factors, however, combined to pull my academic performance so low: me and them. The “me” part is that I didn’t work, and the “them” part is that my tutors didn’t give a toss. After I first left the university I spent some years blaming myself. It was, after all, me, myself, I, that did not work. Later, after I myself had trained and worked in education, as a schoolteacher and FE lecturer at Sandwell College, I came to see another factor, namely that the standard of tutoring I had received was appalling. Yes, I don’t doubt the academic abilities of those concerned, but in terms of education, their performance was, by the standards to which I had been trained, the standards expected, for instance, of a BTEC lecturer, nothing short of laughable. In more recent years I have rather got over blaming the College. It was a partnership, and both sides failed. We can therefore be friends. Which brings us back to the Australian Club.

Marek Kwiatkowski, picture from Christ Church website

Marek Kwiatkowski from the Development and Alumni Office at Christ Church was here in Sydney to meet old members. The ultimate motivation for the exercise is probably raising money, but that was not the focus of the meeting, most of which was given over to socializing over wine and nibbles, during which Marek praised the tutorial system. He described it as the “Oxford brand”, one of the keys to the university’s greatness, and asked us what we thought. I answered. I do in fact accept that, when it works well, the tutorial system can be extraordinarily helpful. It’s expensive, but it provides an opportunity for an engagement in the intellectual endeavour far, far beyond that achieved through lectures and term papers. But it is very private. There were, for instance, I am sure, no weekly staff meetings to discuss students’ progress, no inspections as far as I know of the tutors’ records of their tutorials. Were such records even made, let alone perused by anyone higher up the responisbility tree? I doubt it. So when the system is allowed to drift rudderless, as it did in my case, it can go a very long way off its intended route without anyone being at all aware. In essence, my three year technique was as follows.

  1. Don’t really work
  2. Spend half an hour shortly before any given tutorial spotting some question to do with the topic.
  3. Take this fig-leaf to the tutorial and ask it within the first few minutes.
    (So far I am to blame. But…)
  4. Watch the tutor sieze this question with relief – now he can ramble on about this for most of the next hour without engaging with questions such as whether the student has worked, whether he has learnt anything, whether he has understood anything, whether he is coming to terms with his studies in general or with university life, or even whether he has worked through the week’s assigned problems properly. Heaven forfend that matters such as whether the student is motivated or happy should be the subject of whispers!

There is an argument that I may have been fairly clever when on the hunt for a fig-leaf. Possibly. But was I the first clever undergraduate to have a wobbly motivation? Hardly. Did the tutor not have at least some responsibility for monitoring our progress? Assuredly. But that task was left entirely neglected.

These criticisms have little importance now, of course, as the water long ago passed under the bridge and down to the briny pool. It was nice, nevertheless, to be able to express these criticisms in an open way and to feel that they were understood by someone representing “the House”.

(PS Masculine gender pronouns above are true to the period.)

* The scale from 0 to 10 of 60’s architecture extends, of course, from the merely boring (10) down to the hideous (0). I’d give this place a score of 8 or so.

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