Monday, October 16, 2006

Universities as Left, elitist hot-beds

Ken Parish’s take on former legal academic James McConvill’s latest incarnation – as a straight attack-dog of the Right – is curious for what it doesn’t say. After less than one year as senior lecturer at the La Trobe University law school, ~28 y.o. James has parted ways with his employer, presumably on less than sweet terms. Obviously – or at least I think so – this recent event may affect his current judgment when it comes to his ex cathedra opinionating on academia’s woes. But Ken Parish, and a bevy of commenters, nonetheless choose to play James with a straight bat.

Before I go on, I need to insert a disclosure: I was a work colleague of James McConvill at Deakin University law school in 2005-05. But more about that soon.

James’ latest thoughts on academia admittedly could be perhaps mistaken as just a shriller version of this (from mid-2005):

As a young academic, I have been frustrated by the resistance to fresh and challenging ideas in my discipline of law. There is a clear and positioned elite who dare not to depart from their conservative views”.

But I think that James has made a clear category leap from this sort of view. He is no longer playing the “young” card, which if he was slightly older, would be called playing the “baby boomer” card (the latter is of course played negatively, the former positively).

In addition, there is the fact of James’ odd move to La Trobe law school at the end of 2005; I say “odd” because probably more so than any other law school in Australia, La Trobe is homogenously boomer-Left. As to why La Trobe offered James a quite senior role is a mystery indeed, then, given the on-the-public-record lack of “cultural fit”. James’ reasons for accepting the La Trobe job, OTOH, are not hard to guess: it was a quantum promotion from his Deakin role, and even if he had reservations about the La Trobe law school culture, other considerations presumably tipped the balance in favour of tipped the balance in favour of taking the job.

So am I saying that James’ pique stems from his ill-judged (mutually so) and short-lived “marriage” with La Trobe law school? Actually, no. Having worked at La Trobe law school relatively recently (2002) myself, I simply don’t regard (at the time or in hindsight) its boomer-Left homogeneity as a particularly prominent feature of it. It is/was there, sure enough, but my main experience of 2002 is/was the school's desperate under-funding, which meant that daily life as an academic within it was dominated by two-bit whoredom (or three-bit pimpdom, at more senior levels) – chasing, and pandering, to the overseas student dollar.

This whoredom and pimpdom, BTW, is endemic at almost all Australian law schools (and universities, more generally), so I’m not singling out La Trobe in this respect (if anything, Deakin is far worse). What I am trying to do is point out that, during my own time at La Trobe law school, I had more pressing things to occupy me than the career road-block of boomer-Left groupthink within the school. Here’s one anecdote from my time there (previously recounted in a mid-2003 post).

In a law subject I tutored at La Trobe University in 2002, one item of assessment was basically the same as the 2001 version – the names of the problem’s “characters” had been changed, but the legal basics were the same. (I wasn’t aware of this fact at the time the assignment was set. If I had been responsible for setting the assignment, I would have made it all-new.)

One of the assignments I marked – from a NESB overseas student – was, although unremarkable for its semi-literacy, particularly odd because the names of the characters changed midway through. As you may have guessed, it turned out that this student had copied part of another student’s (or possibly her own) prior-year answer into her 2002 assignment answer.

Clearly, this was a case of plagiarism. More importantly, perhaps, it was a case of such supine dumbness that surely the offending student had no business being in the higher education system, period. I can’t remember the penalty, if any, the student received for this, but it certainly wasn’t course-threatening. Nor, as I have since discovered, was this one-two scenario – of mind-bendingly stupid cheating, followed by a lack of any meaningful penalty, unprecedented.

For whatever reason, these sorts of incident seem to not even register on James McConvill’s radar, when it comes to the woes of modern academia. But anyway, back to Deakin law school – with an anecdote that doesn’t involve James, actually, but does rather fit within modern academia’s woes, nonetheless.

In 2nd semester 2005, I lectured and tutored in a new (for me) law subject. I was paid for this sessionally (= by the teaching hour). Under the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement in place at the time, sessional/casual teaching staff could not teach more than 60% of a typical full-time load, unless they were actually paid as full-time staff. My teaching load of five hours per week plainly exceeded this 60% threshold (a typical full-time load was/is 7.5 hours/week), and from early in the semester, I attempted to get this recognized, and paid accordingly (which meant an extra $15,000 or so (gross) for me).

Deakin law school managers (and university HR) were, to put it mildly, reluctant to obey the law here. By repeatedly putting bizarre new twists on the unassailable maths at centre, the teaching semester ended with no resolution in sight. Unfortunately, my union support also ended at this time (as the 60%-rule was omitted in a new EBA, then just starting operation, my case would have no value as a future precedent). Nor was going on my own to the Federal Magistrates Court (where EBAs are enforced) a viable option. The unrecoverable costs of chasing $15,000 make such a move futile, even if a win is virtually guaranteed.

So if there’s one thing to take away from reading this folks, it’s that Deakin University law school is a gutter, criminal operation. James McConvill is well to be free of them, although the irony is that his latest outpourings sound more and more “Deakin” – that is to say, uncivilised and steam-rolling over the basic law-and-justice concepts that one ostensibly professes and respects.

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