Misc //

Pot Luck

Peter Walsh reviews a controversial course that was cancelled before it was even taught.

English Professor Euthanises A Dog

Each November, in the dull arrhythmia between the end of lectures and the start of exams, senior academics from the English faculty descend upon the John Woolley Building to hold a lottery. A hangover from an earlier time,[1] academics are invited to enter their names into a hat, where the person drawn is given free rein to teach a subject on whatever they want the following year.[2]

All that’s required to enter is a course outline, which, on entry, is folded-twice and placed in a brown newsboy cap that resembles what a depression-era dockworker would wear. When I attended in 2014, I sat next to a department old hand who was thankfully uninvested, having chosen not to enter after wins in 2009 and 1994. “I come to watch the room”, he says, “the politics of the faculty kitchen for the next twelve months are founded here.”[3]

Once the room is at capacity—the hat brimming[4]—the faculty chair takes to a makeshift pulpit for a few words. He laughs nervously on mentioning he also entered and the audience greets this with the kind of benign malice you’d expect on learning the executor of your late mother’s estate was also fucking her. The draw, now imminent, prompted a significant thinning of air—a roomful of deep breaths and clenched muscles. When the lottery is finally drawn, there’s a gradual succession of sad exhales—people who realise the paper stock or the font isn’t theirs. The convener steps to the pulpit and announces the winner, Disgrace in Parallel, and begins to read the outline. Three lines in, a portion of the room leaves in protest, and by the time the name of the winning academic is announced, I’m one of three people in the room.

The subject that won—and here, I remind you, that the unspoken convention is that the winner of the lottery has a no-holds barred freedom with respect to content but also an obligation to see their subject through, which is thought of as both a mode of keeping the faculty cutting edge while also weeding out the joke entries that would end a lecturer’s career if they were to seriously teach them[5]—anyway, the subject that won, was a comparative study of two texts: J.M Coetzee’s seminal novel, Disgrace, and the collected email correspondence of Warm Corpse, Professor Barry Spurr.

It didn’t take long for everyone to understand the ‘comparative’ part of the study. Disgrace is a novel about a conservative Romantic Poetry professor in South Africa who, after an inappropriate interaction with a student, is fired and subsequently exiled to rural South Africa. Barry Spurr’s emails are written by a Romantic Poetry professor in Sydney who, after inappropriately sharing a student’s assessment adjustment request with friends and penning “whimsical” racist meditations, resigns and subsequently exiles himself to Woolloomooloo. The protagonist of Disgrace, David Lurie, is an animal rights proponent who has difficulty adjusting to a new life. Barry Spurr sponsors Not The Melbourne Cup, spruiks essay competitions on animal rights, and was reluctant to give my girlfriend an essay extension when her father was hospitalised with heart disease.

In the immediate aftermath of the lottery, the bureaucrats of the department scattered to their respective offices, presumably to wring their hands and type circular emails, while the dregs passed together to the pub. I followed the latter and ended up in a scrum of tech-illiterate oldsters stroking smartphones with thumbs and index fingers, texting with unabridged prose and full punctuation messages along the line of “what the fuck was that?” Spurr—who had only cleaned his desk out a week prior—was obviously not informed, but the lottery winner, well-respected anonymous member of the department, eventually sauntered into the pub with the Mark of Cain etched into his moleskin. They no longer teach at this University. Nor was there a second prize draw. Some weeks later, I was contacted by the lecturer who sent me as their proxy on Facebook, and after a stilted run of messages, they segued a “haha I’m good thanks 8)” into “hey, just so we’re clear, please don’t mention the lottery to anyone and especially not my name as there’s an AP position going and I’m in with half a chance”.

There’s a sense in the department—uncorroborated, but a vibe—that there will be no lottery in 2015. In a blanket statement, the department refused to answer my questions for this article. Already, they’ve removed access to faculty papers from the late 80s, presumably the ones that most openly reveal the stream of half-baked academic passion-pieces that have, more recently, been massaged into the unit of study outline with weasel words like “guest lecturer” and “one time only”. Some think it marks the end of a department that, once a year, would entertain the intellectual equivalent of the clowns you feed balls to at Luna Park, an indiscriminate game of chance, an academic consolation prize for people who would otherwise remain unemployed. My interpretation of the department’s silence is different. If you ask me, it’s because none of this article was true.

[1] Pre-1980, the practice of holding course lotteries was common across faculties, and while it is considered not-done to discuss them in public (for fear of trivialising academia more than postmodernism did), an oft-repeated rumour suggests the first Philosophy unit on Marxism—the Franz Ferdinand that split the faculty in two for twenty years—was the product of a particularly unruly junior lecturer winning the lottery.

[2] Career advancement is difficult in academia, so young PhD candidates see the lottery as an opportunity to streamline entry into lecturing fulltime, but they’re competing with the lifetimers desperately trying to rediscover their passion in teaching. The result is an ambience that can only be described as ‘testy’. I didn’t win the lottery, which was relieving. Such was the intensity of the stares and the cruelty of the banter in the lead-up to the draw.

[3] The departments of English and Philosophy are the only two departments in the Arts faculty that can chart a clear succession of staff to inception; that is, someone teaching now taught with someone who taught with someone (etc obviously), back to 1850.

[4] Desperate associate lecturers mill about outside the room, wanting to enter late so their outline rests favourably on the top, but the lottery’s convener[4a] shoves the lollygaggers’ entries deep into the hat.

[4a] Who is an emeritus from another campus (this is how seriously tampering is taken, and cross-campus liaisons prior to the lottery are monitored with an impunity that would make ASIO blush).

[5] People are genuinely quiet about what they’re proposing until the postmortem drinks. To put what won into context, I can tell you what I know of the losers. Someone proposed an entire subject on the topic of voyeurism, which he described while unapologetically looking down a peer’s shirt. Another person wanted to focus a subject entirely on texts in translation, as the faculty has previously had a possibly racist reluctance to teach translations, to avoid the dicey problem of authorial intention across languages. Someone else wanted to do a subject about texts featuring clocks.