Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sunday Morning Snippets - Jiawei Shen, bogans and social change, our universities and the pleasure of positive responses

Neil's response to my post Saturday Morning Musings - the art of Jiawei Shen included a link to the National Portrait Gallery. There I found this painting, Guo Jian and Elly 1998, Collection of the Artist.

I thought that this painting was great. The Gallery has this to say about Jiawe Shen's work:

Jiawei Shen’s portraits demonstrate a masterly realism. in all his work, he brings traditional skills to bear in the rendering surfaces, the effects of light and the appearance of depth. Clothes, jewellery, hairstyles and the setting all tell something about the subject of a portrait, their social standing or job. Shen aspires to represent the sitter’s inner life, their essential character and virtues, but appreciates the difficulty of depicting more than just surface appearance. Thus, while his portraits are as realistic as a photograph, he inserts symbolic objects in his paintings that inform the viewer about the subject’s identity.

Over on skepticslawyer Legal Eagle has a rather good post, Snobbery and class. Here I want to comment on just one point, the continued use of the word bogan and what it says about Australian society.

Legal Eagle found about this word when she was 13. I was a lot older - I first heard some of my daughters' friends use it a few years ago and had to ask what it meant.

I have come to really detest this word. Use it in my presence and you are likely to get a very tart response.

Social class and snobbery has always existed in this country. However, in the past it was in some ways more benign than the current version.

To begin with, the strong egalitarianism that marked our language - what Hurst has called a democracy of manners - provided a natural control because it effectively rejected more extreme pretensions. Then, too, social structures had linkages to elements of our past and carried their own responsibilities.

No more I fear. I cannot put this really clearly because I do not properly understand it. However, as best I can, the old social structures have been replaced by new ones less tolerant of differences, more coercive, more complacent, structures now based on behaviour and brand.

I explored social change in Sydney a little in an earlier post, Saturday Morning Musings - everchanging Sydney. In a funny way the new Sydney social structures are based on evolving tribes that mix less, understand less of each other, than was the case in a world where social stratifications were in some ways more clearly defined.

I still mix with a reasonable range of groups. In doing so, I am constantly struck by the differences between them, by the absence of cross-linkages of the type that I have known in the past.

Still on social change, last night I went to a Sydney University alumni dinner, a gathering of different alumni groups. I am not a Sydney University person of course, I was there as handbag.

It was an interesting and enjoyable evening. Very well organised, even slick. My immediate dinner companion who was also there as a hand bag came from Grafton and had studied at UNE, so we had plenty to talk about.

A few things stood out from the evening.

Chatting with some of the academics including a dentistry group really highlighted the way in which social change is now affecting our ability to meet national needs.

We all know that we need more health professionals. The starting point here is the number of people in training. To increase this, you need to increase the number of teachers. Yet SU is struggling to find them. In fact, the whole system rests on an aging cohort still prepared to participate in teaching.

The usual answer to this is pay. Pay more, get more. This is the modern market approach. However, to my mind the real problem lies in the declining attractions of academic life independent of pay.

Academic life used to combine a substantial degree of social prestige with somewhat above average income. Academic salaries have declined in relative terms, but the social prestige has declined far more. Further, we have removed many of the trappings of academic life, while increasing performance pressures.

Less pay, more pressure, lower prestige, fewer trappings means fewer interested in teaching and research. This feeds through into the training of professionals we need for our national future.

In this context, Sydney's new VC had some interesting and very frank things to say about the modern university. It would be unfair to quote him directly, he was speaking to the broader SU family and I need to respect that. However, I can approach the matters he raised indirectly by linking them to things that I have said.

In many ways, we are milking our universities, living off our past investments. We have created a situation where universities are forced to battery farm some students for cash in order to try to cross-subsidise other activities.

I have spoken of the effects of this in the context of the University of New South Wales. There was another example of this last night, not from the VC, where a former student of another university commented on the low standard of the MBA he had done.

When asked if this had affected the market standing of his degree he said no. Just having the MBA on his CV met his needs. However, he was disappointed at a personal level.

This is the crux of the issue. In the beginning, you can get away with battery farming. However, sooner or later the decline in the total value of the university experience will follow through to market reactions. The MBA university in question has lost this former student for ever.

On a completely different matter, Kangaroo Valley David and I have been having an interesting email exchange on a couple of my stories. As part of this he wrote:

I forgot to pass on my thanks for another of your posts - about the poet-traveller Hugh Frewen.

I was fascinated by your comments, and your quotes of his words, so I Googled for more info re the book you were quoting from and ended up on the website of (New Jersey USA) and hence in email contact re "a near fine first edition with slight bumping and wear to corners".

(aside: this bookseller description could very easily be attached to myself!)

Anyway, no more than four days later it arrived, and was presented to my business partner of many years who has since told me it is one of the most interesting little books he has read, and how he particularly loved the verse.

This post has got a very good response, including a comment from someone who used to live in Brede near the old Frewen Home.

Getting positive responses is always nice. As I said to KVD, I do try to write for my known readers, not just the google search engine algorithms!


Anonymous said...

Great post, Jim. I think one of the things which turns people off academia these days is the sheer volume of administrative tasks and the constant pressure to get grants and publish papers (when one is overwhelmed by administration!). Also I'm sure you're right that the pay puts some people off when they can make far more in private practice.

As you rightly say, creating some kind of academic "factory" where students are churned through is ultimately unproductive. It doesn't result in student satisfaction. Indeed, when students are paying such a high price for a service, they rightly demand that it be a quality experience.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear yes, Jim. I am also fractious when the word "bogan" surfaces, though I have to concede I have been known to over-react. Those who use the word are not always being malicious -- but it does connote self-satisfaction on the part of the user, doesn't it?

But I grew up among "bogans", when I come to think about it.

Back in September 2005 I blogged on More of the same; on bogans present and past.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, LE. There are a few nuances in your comment that are worthy of a post response. But not tonight!

Jim Belshaw said...

No, Neil, some of those who use the word are indeed not being thoughtless. I'm not sure that this isn't worse! I had forgotten your earlier post!