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Posted on 27 Dec 2013 in The Godfather: Peter Corris |

The Godfather: Peter Corris on teaching

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Peter Corris, AuthorI never liked teaching and unlike the people mentioned in a previous column I was no good at it. As a young man I was shy and self-conscious. These are not good attributes for a teacher. A teacher should be confident and know when to exercise authority and when to let it slide and so engage students.

My first teaching assignment was at Monash University, where what were called tutors at other universities were termed Teaching Fellows. In a way it was a specially difficult job because I was appointed to teach British Constitutional History to mostly law students.

‘British’ was an obligatory subject for the would-be lawyers and most of them resented it. They were keen to get on with the nitty gritty of their chosen profession – Torts, Liability, Contract Law and such. Only a few, and the couple of Arts students who’d elected to do the subject, were interested in the historical underpinnings of the law.

Luckily, the lecturer in charge, a man with the evocative name of John du Voisin Conwell Morgan, was interesting, charming and became a friend. A Cambridge graduate, John had served in the British army near the end of World War II when one of his tasks was to take Italian POWs back to their home towns and villages, where they were welcomed. As can be imagined, he had stories to tell.

I suppose I gained in confidence in my second and third years on the job but the tutorials never sparkled. My first lecture (Teaching Fellows were obliged to give three lectures per year) was a terrifying experience. Wearing a gown, as was de rigeur in those days, I staggered my way through a lecture on the reform of the English civil service, a topic I found as dull as did the 200 or so students. John fell ill with mumps in the third year and I had to deliver his lectures, which was no easy task as his handwriting was eccentric.

I was writing a Master’s thesis at the time, which was well-received and convinced me that writing, rather than teaching, was my metier. For the next few years at the ANU I was a researcher and writer. My record as a supervisor of doctoral students was patchy.

Back in Melbourne, I had a one-year appointment in the History department as a lecturer. The professor was ex-priest Greg Dening who was a Pacific history exponent like me, but, unlike me, keen on theory. Theory was never my bag and the structure of the course didn’t suit me.

Also, tertiary education had changed. Make-or-break annual examinations at which I had thrived had given way to progressive assessment, which I found unappealing. My no doubt conservative take on university study was to absorb and retain information on a subject and, under pressure and in competition, demonstrate a command of it. This had become unfashionable and my poor performance at that job could be partly attributed to indifference.

Still worse was my next, and almost last, teaching job at a CAE in Gippsland. The place had soaked up the available local talent in its first few years and by my time was dealing with the aimless young, filling in time after school without motivation. More progressive assessment, more indifference. I resigned, resolving never to teach again. I knew that other people, with different personalities and commitments taught well and effectively, but it wasn’t for me.

I had a last fling for one semester at the Gold Coast campus of Griffith University. I needed the money and signed on to teach a course on crime fiction. It was based more on films and television than texts, as was the modern way, and I simply struggled to find anything to say. After a lecture where I talked about my own writing, not, I hope, immodestly, I overheard a student say, ‘All he did was talk about himself’.

That was it. Adapting George Bernard Shaw, Woody Allen quipped, ‘Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.’ I couldn’t even teach gym.