On the table beside me lies an essay. Age spots on the smooth ivory surface, the faded red ink of a date stamp, and the tell-tale black marks impressed on paper by the typebars of an old manual typewriter indicate originality. In the upper left corner, staples stitch the leaves, and every second surface bears the grey pencilled record of the responses of the first reader.
Well, technically, those of the second reader. In March 1986 I had just drifted from boarding school into the strange new world of tertiary education. This document was the first essay I produced as a virgin humanities student at Griffith University in suburban Brisbane. In those days the University embraced interdisciplinary learning, and the first of three years of a humanities degree was delivered through a common Foundation Program, with three streams of teaching over two semesters. My first essay was for the Society Strand, the others being Individualism and Communication.
First-year lectures were for me a foreign country. I had no prior exposure to sociological theories, next to no experience of the social world such theory was meant to critique, and limited ability to retain anything entering my consciousness through my ear canals. I have always learned fairly well by reading and writing, but I had read none of the set texts for first-year, and my lecture notes, which I have kept all these years, display damning evidence of my aural deficiency. I am not exaggerating. In a later essay marked by the same lecturer, Dr Linda Weiss, my mistranslation of one of her excellent lectures is memorialised by her marginal scrawl, “Hard of hearing?” I can only answer, preferably in writing, in the affirmative.
Dr Weiss was known as Linda to her students, a seemingly universal convention at Griffith which, among other qualities, distinguished our institution from That Other One Across the River, where presumably the tenured teachers were haloed in laurel and addressed in hushed voices as “Your Excellency.” I like to think that Griffith in the awful eighties would have been right at home in a Malcolm Bradbury or David Lodge novel, though as far as I know none of the academic staff bore close resemblance to the fictional Stuart Treece or Philip Swallow in terms of character or work ethic.
Linda, or “LW” as she is identified in the essay comments, happened to obtain her first degree from Griffith University, and then a PhD from London University. She went on, post-Griffith, to build a remarkable career culminating in her current post as Professor Emeritus in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and as Honorary Professor of Political Science at Aarhus University in Denmark.
I can only imagine her dismay, in 1986, at having been obliged to read yet another piece of pedestrian prose from yet another self-assured Queenslander, and I suspect it is far too long a bow to draw to suggest that her subsequent academic success was helped on its way, in ever so minuscule a manner, by the coincidence of teaching students such as myself in the subtropical hinterland now fondly called Brisvegas.
That first essay was in one sense an unofficial assessment of the quality of the Queensland high school curriculum toward the end of the Bjelke-Petersen years, a period not well known for its commitment to social change, social justice, or for that matter liberal democracy. Still, we had successfully escaped the school system, uni was free (thanks, Gough!), and we had three or more years of leisure before we had to think seriously about getting a real job. The price of our noble lifestyle choice was getting at least a passing grade twice a year.
For this particular essay, all 309 wide-eyed, pastel-clad and mostly pale-skinned first-year students were required to comment on the impact of European ways upon Australian Aboriginal communities. Or at least that is the question I essayed. There may or may not have been alternative questions; I did not keep a copy of the assessment task.
The largest lecture theatre on the campus held 250 seats, and with natural attrition of at least nineteen per cent to the beaches of the Gold Coast and the the cafe kitchens of Fortitude Valley, the university could probably hope to comply with fire regulations by about Easter. In the meantime, we were reminded to make use of the library, look for references to industrialisation and urbanism, and be sure to capitalise all instances of the Indigenous adjective.
I seem to recall enjoying the task of thinking and writing on such a practical subject. I was enthused. I was inspired. My bibliography attests that I perused five books. For my troubles I scored an “S” for satisfactory, which I thought was quite satisfactory and a whole lot better than failure. Thirty-three years later, with two Bachelor’s degrees, two Master’s degrees and almost a PhD degree under my belt, I have to admit that the essay doesn’t read well. On page one, for example, I was at pains to point out that
Although we first see clearly that the Industrial Revolution began in the eighteenth century, there was not an overnight change from a rural to an urban society. Over the preceding millennium, the Middle Ages, small changes had been occurring randomly, on their own, which by themselves heralded no basic changes in society but together did.
I was, however, writing in complete sentences with correct punctuation and very few spelling errors. And it is apparent that there were few typing errors requiring the application of a coat of that marvellous product Tipp-ex which rendered even the most crimson drafting error white as snow and ripe again for the typebar’s blow.
My major scholarly weaknesses were a failure to cite sources, a tendency to waffle, the irrelevance of entire paragraphs to the topic, poorly crafted paragraph structure, a complete misreading of convergence theory, a failure to recognise Aboriginal Dreamtime myths as a form of totemic religion, occasional contradictions of earlier statements, a failure to italicise (that is, to underline) book titles, and the presence of cliches.
Those are my reflective comments on reading the essay today; at the time, Linda was more gracious. I hope she won’t be offended as I quote her entire concluding comment:
Not a bad effort for your first essay. Its main weakness I think stems from its overly descriptive nature. The material needs more analysis: your opening section on industrialisation/urbanism bears no relation at all to your subsequent observations. Similarly, the final section on theories of social change is too brief (and confused) to admit any serious assessment.
I shudder to think what some of my fellow students may have written, or attempted to write, between sessions at the cinema and basking at the beach. Those pointers, though — the need to focus on analysis rather than description, to build an argument on consecutive premises supported by evidence, and to meaningfully discuss theories of social change — were not only instructive but prescient.
British essayist Aldous Huxley was right: the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything; and it is impossible to give all things full play within the limits of a single essay. As for me, I was still standing by Easter 1986, or rather sitting since the attrition matrix thinned the crop according to plan. And, not having cause to frequent the cinema or the beach, and despite my aural pedagogical challenges, I must have successfully appropriated some course content. Life went on, as it often does, and eventually, after many trials and snares, I graduated in that degree with first class honours.
I have kept every essay I submitted, and it is true to say, speaking analytically if not theoretically, that much of my foundation year at Griffith University was spent demonstrating my consistent capacity to say almost nothing about almost nothing. So thank you, Linda Weiss and others, for keeping the door ajar, enabling me to slip through, and helping me to gain the necessary skills not only to write a good essay but to make a good life.
Rod Benson teaches theological students in Sydney how to write essays, buys the books for Moore College Library, and hopes to have his PhD thesis marked soon. This is his first personal essay.