So we had a few failures. Was that the end of university?
The proper role of universities is endlessly debated. There are the competing demands of teaching and research, sources of funding, the shifting status of disciplines within the academy, and so on. Nothing is more contentious than who is suitable to be a university student. Should it be a matter of privilege, a question of sheer academic brilliance, an issue of national employment requirements, an attempt to offer the maximum opportunity to the maximum number of citizens … ? As with so many human questions, some fortunate individuals will benefit under almost any access regime. Difficult decisions arise at the margins, and the policy choices which are made there can have long term consequences.
Thor May, 1972 – Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
Appeal against academic exclusion
Background: Although an Australian, in 1966 I took the cheapest boat fare out of Australia, to New Zealand, and after working for a while as a laundryman was admitted as an undergraduate to Victoria University of Wellington on a “90% bursary”, a concession that gave me access for $30 a year to the university education I could not afford in Australia. This was a leap into the dark for me. I had done well in high school (dux on one occasion) but my working class birth family had no understanding of or interest in tertiary education, and no other connections, mentors or friends were around to offer advice. For years after leaving high school I had drifted through a series of mind-destroying unskilled jobs, wondering if this was all life had to offer.
University culture was an unknown quantity for me, my future was unclear, and from 1966 to 1969 at VUW I “tasted” many courses, looking for a direction, and earning bare C or B passes. I survived financially by doing commercial cleaning for 75 cents an hour. At the end of 1969, dispirited, I did not even wait to do the exams, and simply left the country. Back in Australia I found various kinds of unskilled work again, and saved a bit of money. Then in 1971 I made a life changing backpacking trip, sleeping rough on the decks of cargo boats through S.E. Asia, and from India travelled on local transport through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, and eventually through to England where I arrived with five pounds left in my pocket. Some time later, back in Australia, I made a decision to complete my undergraduate degree at VUW. However, new regulations excluded me as an academically unsuitable student. I appealed this exclusion, was re-admitted, and from 1973-74 completed the degree with straight ‘A’ passes. This was followed by a graduate diploma of teaching from Auckland. I had found a vocation, which made all the difference to academic success.
15 July 1972
Academic Exclusion Review Committee
Thank you for your letter of 11 July 1972 in which you indicate that I am now subject to exclusion regulations.
I note that the faculty dean and the Exclusion Review Committee intend to be consistent in their application of criteria to appeals. With no knowledge of precedent, I have tried to make a commonsense estimate of where those criteria should lie.
I have assumed that the dean must satisfy himself of a) the student’s potential, and b) his motivation. He will balance this against the more objective evidence of previous success or failure.
Mr S. Johnston, who I understand is acting dean of the English Department, was my tutor in 1967. Since distance precludes a personal interview at the moment, I have enclosed a photograph to aid his memory.
My basic abilities, though not outstanding, are above average. I usually adopted a leading and sometimes critically destructive role in tutorials (the tendency has mellowed). Tutors, including Mr Johnston, Professor Joan Metge, and Mr C. Kernot may recall this. For what it is worth, in 1966 at a University of Sydney venue my measured IQ was 137.
My academic record is more descriptive of motives than of ability. Three trends seem clear:
1. An eclectic selection of units. Although all arts oriented, the study choices were basically experimental and unrelated - “let’s see what this is all about … “. Hence the absence of familiar (but no less interesting) school subjects such as history, geography or economics. English is a single exception.
2. A tendency to drop subjects at the last moment: German Reading Knowledge in 1967, English II in 1968, Anthropology II and Psychology II in 1969. This is behaviour driven less from faintness of heart than a refusal to put on the record bare pass levels so far short of supposed ability. Well, that kind of pride invites its own hubris.
3. Mediocre to basic pass levels.
There is overall evidence of superficial curiosity and a fundamental lack of purpose. The attempt to escape from a narrow working class background led to diffuse enquiries in many directions. Without acquiring the intensive knowledge that gives a specialist infinite fascination in his own subject, the new and arbitrary areas of interest quickly lost any pressing relevance to my own situation. This in turn encouraged scrappy preparation, poor memory work, and dilettante excursions.
My present objective is quite specific: to teach English as a foreign language.
Teaching, as I came to understand rather late, has nothing to do with talking at a captive audience. It has more to do with the insidious cunning, the temptation and subtle deception that it takes to persuade someone that they desperately need a piece of information or a technique. It also implies skill in rendering information accessible from many perspectives without, however, becoming diffuse. In general I suffer less remorse from true teaching than from a cynical job like selling encyclopaedias for a quick profit.
Language as the medium, as well as the message, has engaged an escalating quota of my attention for several years now. It began with the attempt to master German at VUW, later at night school in London, now privately, and eventually turned back upon the structure of English itself when I encountered Bright & McGregor’s Teaching English as a Foreign Language.
The linguistic preoccupation was heightened by a trip I made overland last year through Timor, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, and thence to Europe. The prestige of a Timorese villager with his scattered collection of English phrases, the offhand contempt of Singaporeans for the language, the exquisite diction of poverty-stricken Anglo-Indians in Calcutta, the hilarious haughty Oxford tones of a Pakistani eulogising English cricket, his bare feet tucked neatly under his bottom on the boards of a 3rd class railway carriage … all helped to show me the intimate and often poignant part that language can play in a lifestyle. One’s own stumbling excursions into any language always provide the first real clues to local attitudes and assumptions. Your innocent sentence may provoke approval, or gales of laughter, but someone is always ready to help. You are no longer a tourist, but a pupil, and an incipient teacher.
Though we sometimes feel ourselves drowning in oceans of turgid prose, at least the demand for English as a living language is worldwide. Those teaching skills which can make English learning vital are scarce enough at home or abroad to give me a clear sense of purpose.
Exclusion from VUW at this stage would be a grave obstacle to my engagement as a teacher. It would certainly mean starting from scratch somewhere else, which seems unnecessary and wasteful. I hope that the dean, or the Exclusion Review Committee, can feel justified in re-admitting me to the university.
So we had a few failures. Was that the end of university? © Thor May 2014