The Godfather: Peter Corris on a year in Gippsland
In 1974 I held a one-year lectureship in History at the University of Melbourne. I hated it, from the physical setting to the teaching itself.
When I was an undergraduate ten or so years before, the History Department had been housed in the imposing Victorian Old Arts Building with its impressive stairs and hallways, and banked lecture theatres that bespoke tradition and intellectual solidity. Now it was in a soulless structure with offices like those of bankers or accountants. The professor I was to work with was Greg Dening, a fine scholar but deeply interested in historical theory, about which I knew little and cared less. Times had changed; instead of the final examination being the determinate of students’ performance, ‘progressive assessment’ held sway. Continual essay writing, in my view, was a tyranny that prevented students from reading widely and exploratively. For humanities subjects, I regarded the examination, in a supervised room where you were required to bring the information you had absorbed to bear on a hitherto unseen question and construct an argument, as the only true and incorruptible test of industry and acumen.
I was not a success in the job and was glad when it was over, but I still had no thought of anything but an academic career and when Peter Kerr, whom I’d met through a mutual friend, Don Watson, told me of a job being advertised at the Gippsland Institute of Advanced Education (now a campus of Monash University) where he worked, I expressed interest and was encouraged to apply.
‘A tenured lectureship at a provincial college,’ folklorist and academic Edgar Waters said, ‘Ideal!’ I knew a bit about Gippsland – the conflicts between the Indigenous people and the intruders, the land-clearing rapacity of the early Scots settlers – but not nearly as much as Don Watson, himself a Gippslander, who was later to write so eloquently about the area in The Bush. Don drove me to the interview in Churchill, the La Trobe Valley town where the GIAE was situated. As we went through the country towns Don said, ‘Do you see the big bums on most of the blokes?’ I hadn’t remarked on it but I assented. ‘It comes from generations of plucking gum boots up from the mud.’
I’d bought a suit for the interview – a denim suit, halfway between conformist and alternative. I was virtually a certainty to get the job. The head of the School of Politics (more signs of the times – there were no more History or English departments, it was all Politics and Cultural Studies) was John Milton-Smith, whom I’d known as a fellow tutor at Monash. I had Peter Kerr’s endorsement; I’d published my MA and PhD theses, several substantial articles and had teaching experience. I was at work on a book about Solomon Islands history and a history of boxing in Australia. The interview was a breeze. Oddly, one of the other applicants I glimpsed was someone I had known at school. I remembered that he’d been good at French, at which I was very poor. I knew nothing about his subsequent studies but French was of no use at the GIAE.
I was appointed at a very good salary level to devise a course in ‘The Politics of Ethnic Minorities‘, which I conceived of – but could not say, with history out of favour – as a history of the relations between settlers and indigenes in North America and Canada, Australia and the Pacific.
I don’t propose to write about my period as a teacher at the GIAE. I disliked it even more than my time at Melbourne and didn’t last long in the job. But for Jean and myself our Gippsland sojourn provided some interesting experiences – some amusing, some good, some not so good – and, in a way, it launched my writing career.