The permanent panic…

Pretty much how it seems to me as I read yet another story in today’s Sydey Morning Herald: ‘We can use the word illiterate’: The writing crisis in Australian schools. Perhaps aside from being a CRISIS it is UNPRECEDENTED?

Most year 9 students are structuring sentences at a level expected of those two years their junior and are using punctuation like children in year 3, which leaves them struggling to meet curriculum standards and unprepared for senior high school or life beyond it….

Punctuation standards

Year 3: Students should use capital letters to start a sentence and a full stop or question mark at the end. They may be able to use commas and apostrophes.

Year 9: Students should be able to use complex punctuation such as colons, semicolons and dashes to clarify meaning.

Students were better at punctuation in pen-and-paper tests and better at paragraphing in online tests.

I have never been a fan of the nitpicking that passes for writing assessment in NAPLAN and similar bureaucratic pursuits of the measurable. For example in my South Sydney Herald days I wrote:

Former Rosebery resident Jim Belshaw draws in his blog on his years high up in the Australian public service at the level of policy and administration. Jim notes: “One major sub-text in the My School debate is the old question of performance measurement and the linked question of key performance indicators. I have been banging away at this one for a number of years in both my public policy and management writing. Indicators are not bad in themselves, but they can become quite pernicious when they become the central objective, crowding out other things.”

How true!

Be honest; when did you last use a semicolon? And was my use of one just then correct or not? Does this make me more or less literate in any meaningful way? How about looking at what I wrote? Is it perfectly punctuated crap, with really cool paragraphs, and does it matter what I said?

I have been banging on about literacy and the teaching of writing for decades now — at least five of them! As I said in this 1998 essay I submitted as part of my Grad Cert TESOL at UTS:


My mind and my teaching practice are archaeological sites. Some exploration of those sites seems a good way to focus the development of my present approach to literacy education, primarily but not exclusively in English in secondary schools. So far as this article has a thesis it is this: that, despite the sometimes combative rhetoric of those advocating one model or pedagogy or another (as when Martin [1993:159] pillories whole language approaches as ‘benevolent neglect’), an informed, dynamic eclecticism is a viable stance. (Compare Anstey and Bull 1996:52-53, Brock 1998:11 on the ‘either/or myth’.)

Thirty years have deposited approaches beginning with the very traditional mainstream English teaching of 1966, not much changed from the 1950s.


Throughout these thirty years literacy has apparently been in a state of crisis. In the late 1950s and early 60s certain Science professors at the University of Sydney lamented the ‘illiteracy’ of their students. In the 1970s, even before any rational person could have detected any impact on school leavers of the various ‘progressive’ developments of the early 70s, many commentators (such as Professor Crisp of the Australian National University) discerned a rapid decline in literacy and numeracy between 1970 and 1975 (Watson 1994:1).

And see also this 2011 post: “NAPLAN risks ‘repeating US mistakes’”–The Australian. And this one also from 2011: Everything old is new again.

Perhaps a sure sign one is getting old is when the latest debates – in this case on education – are so eerily similar to the debates of thirty and forty years ago that one constantly experiences deja vu!

In 1979 I was the main organiser of a residential conference at Ranelagh House in Robertson. The topic was “English into the 80s!”

Now of course we didn’t anticipate IT, about which see this: “Australia and New Zealand have come equal second to Korea in digital literacy among 15-year-olds, according to a new Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report examining how students use computers and the internet to learn…”  But we were contemplating CCTV as a teaching tool, and video, and of course OHP – overhead projectors, in case you’ve forgotten already….

So there was an outbreak on my Facebook feed in the past few days, starting on Sunday night. in response to a proposal to alleviate teacher workloads through a bank of resources, or as one report put it “shared lesson plans”. I bridled somewhat at that:

To quote one of my first mentors at Cronulla High in 1965 when I was a student teacher: “I take professional pride in my unplanned lessons!” And I will confess — I would put a lot of time into prepping a unit of work but extremely rarely in all my years teaching ever did a detailed lesson plan. Too many variables to predict. Sure I would have my materials — text, handouts, and so on — but the lesson was always something of a happening.

What happened was not just dependent on me after all. Up to 30 other people were (hopefully) involved. And if they were not I would goad them one way or another until they were, Or I would employ group work — often did.

I always had a hard time conforming to requirements to write up lesson or unit plans, or keep lesson registers. I am afraid they were ofren works of fiction really, though lessons did in fact take place and quite a lot of the time kids learned and even passed exams…

I am not sure about the ideas proposed here. There is something just a bit chilling and neat about it.

Some of my best lesson ideas at SBHS came to me while smoking a cigarette or two (sadly) out in Moore Park, or while half-awake in the morning…. Or even in dreams…

That still applies (but not the cigarette part) to blogging, come to think of it…

The next day I softened a little when I read another report on The Conversation: ‘I feel guilty about not being good enough’: why all Australian schools need teaching material banks. My Facebook comment led to an interesting dialogue with 1970s colleague Rosemary.

Me: I posted at some length on this last night and should point out that it applied to native speaker English classes mostly where over-prescriptiveness and zany definitions of accountability can be a curse! Freewheeling and bouncing off one another is often the best pedagogy there. But in my experience not only there but in other subjects. And in ESL/EFL situations too.

However a BANK of teaching materials would indeed be useful…. As long as what the teacher does with them is open.

Rosemary: I can see some merit in a bank of teaching materials as a potential resource. However I have real concerns and reservations about formulaic lesson plans even though the pressures, the expectations and demands have all increased exponentially in recent years and teachers are finding less time to devote their energy and enthusiasm to accessing and sourcing materials. I always had difficulty with the idea of formalised lesson plans as much I struggled with the writing up of registers at the end of each term. Ideas for lessons were gleaned from staff room chats,random thoughts, dreams, a walk on the beach, whilst cooking dinner, watching tv…….and even then actual lessons could take a direction tangential to a plan but end up in some wonderful incidental learnings and insights enjoyed by both students and teacher. Whilst there can be benefits from a commonality of materials available to schools unless there is a dynamic connection between a teacherand a class lessons from a teaching materials bank are not worth a hill of beans. Such lesson plans and materials cannot be prescriptive. To be of value they should remain as a resource that teachers can modify or adapt to meet the diverse needs of their students.

Me: Pretty much what I said last night. I may make a blog post of all this tomorrow, Too tired or too much Shiraz at the moment….

I had lunch at the Club yesterday you see….

PS or P.S. if you prefer

Twitter has been active. This one attracted my notice:

When was the last time you or your students submitted an unedited, unproofed, 1st attempt at writing created in a limited amount of time ANYWHERE? A: Never.We always revise.

‘We can use the word illiterate’: The writing crisis in Australian schools

That is by Katina Zammit, Deputy Dean and a Senior Lecturer in English K-6 pedagogy and curriculum with research interests in creation of texts – written and multimodal, using a rap get of technologies to support student engagement in learning and improve literacy outcomes for students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. She is on a number of editorial boards for international journals. She has worked in primary schools, as a literacy consultant and provided advice on literacy and mulitliteracies to ACARA.

See this 2017 post: NAPLAN only tells part of the story of student achievement.

NAPLAN cannot measure creativity or engagement

Despite all that NAPLAN can measure, it only tells part of the story of literacy and numeracy achievement. Results may not show growth of learning in schools with students from low socio-economic backgrounds or culturally and linguistically diverse students, because it only measures a narrow skill set on one particular day of the year. It does not represent student achievements across the year, nor across the breadth of the curriculum which schools use to evaluate their programs.

BTW this is the 18th revision of this post, mostly correcting typos….

Now I take you back 20 years to March 2002!

Thanks to the Internet Archive where such ancient blog entries go in the end… I hope the first choice is not some kind of omen.

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Waking at about 5 am (Daylight Saving has just ended) I turned on the radio and heard the Queen Mother had just died. Not unexpected. I offer this as a tribute.

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

I was searching for information about Moises Kaufman and Gross Indecency, as PK, Colin, Sirdan, the Model and I will be seeing it on Saturday in Newtown. On the same bill is an all-male production of The Importance of Being Ernest.

Gross Indecency is a dramatisation of the trial of Oscar Wilde. The mode of presentation is somewhat Brechtian or even post-modern, I am told. One point worth thinking about is made by Kaufman in an interview:

QSF:The play makes obvious that the birth of a new art form is what is at stake and on trial in Victorian England, much more so than one man’s homosexuality. Homosexuality was just a vehicle through which the state could attack Wilde and his philosophy.

KAUFMAN: Absolutely. Wilde was not tried for being gay as much as for being a threat to the way in which Victorian culture operated. Wilde was saying in Victorian times that a man did not have to be the cold Imperialist; rather, he was putting forth this discourse of sensitivity and beauty–to humanize the world, not conquer it. This was, of course, very radical. Many times, the act of being gay calls into question society’s values–and this is a good thing, but it is also why queer culture is so very threatening.

(No, you will not be required to write one thousand words on that after the performance!)

Reviewers (this sample is from the UK) have had various views on the play, as one might expect. A friend whose theatrical judgment I respect tells me he has read it and it reads well. The Sydney Morning Herald reviewer was kind to Gross Indecency (the production we will see) but thought the Ernest very bad. Still, we have tickets to both, so I will let you know later what we felt.

Thursday, March 21, 2002

Cecily. Well, I know, of course, how important it is not to keep a business engagement, if one wants to retain any sense of the beauty of life, but still I think you had better wait till Uncle Jack arrives. I know he wants to speak to you about your emigrating.
Algernon. About my what?
Cecily. Your emigrating. He has gone up to buy your outfit.
Algernon. I certainly wouldn’t let Jack buy my outfit. He has no taste in neckties at all.
Cecily. I don’t think you will require neckties. Uncle Jack is sending you to Australia.
Algernon. Australia! I’d sooner die.
Cecily. Well, he said at dinner on Wednesday night, that you would have to choose between this world, the next world, and Australia.
Algernon. Oh, well! The accounts I have received of Australia and the next world, are not particularly encouraging. This world is good enough for me, cousin Cecily.
Cecily. Yes, but are you good enough for it?

That is of course from Act II of The Importance of Being Ernest and still got a good laugh from an Australian audience on a warm night when there was hardly a neck tie in sight!

Particularly when Cecily was played by a six foot tall Australian male in a fetching Edwardian summer frock.

Yesterday was a sheer delight. I met the Model for lunch where we discussed some matters of mutual interest. We then remembered that a rather important horse race was being run that day, or at least the Model did, so we went in search of a betting shop, managing to walk straight past the nearest one. However, we found another and the Model made a small investment on our behalf, which (it turned out) confirmed my ambivalence about gambling…

Then to the New Theatre where we met up with PK, Sirdan and Colin. The first play, Gross Indecency was Moises Kaufmann’s docudrama on the trials of Oscar Wilde, and is quite a splendid play. Peter Flett as Wilde was convincing in appearance and I was moved, I have to say, particularly by the speeches of Wilde towards the end as his life descended into chaos and the prison house beckoned. The Marquess of Queensberry, on the other hand, was just a bit too caricatured. There was a delightful sequence where Queen Victoria was literally wheeled in to sign into law the Act forbidding “Gross Indecency” (except between women).

One could not but be struck by echoes of the past week in Australia (the Justice Kirby issue).

The Sydney Morning Herald reviewer had damned the second play, The Importance of Being Ernest out of hand. It is, admittedly, Barry Lowe’s transformation of the text: we find ourselves at the beginning in Reading Gaol, the prisoners (including Wilde) circling in the exercise yard. Then we move to Wilde’s memory of the performance of The Importance of Being Ernest with Wilde sitting to one side of the stage. Twice he appears within the play; after the interval we enter the theatre and see Wilde talking to Cecily, who addresses her first lines to him. Then near the end, Wilde makes a short speech just before the last few speeches of the play. I thought it worked very well, particularly when you had just seen Gross Indecency.

The play itself was fresh, funny, well-paced, and the audience loved it. Sirdan had never read the play before or ever seen it, and he really enjoyed himself. The fact all parts were played by men was not at all disturbing. In fact it added to it, in my view. They did not camp it up outrageously but stayed in character and respected the text; the disjunctions, when they occurred, were delicious. I loved it. So did the Model, and PK, who is a bit of a purist when it comes to theatre.

We concluded the Herald reviewer must have been to another play!

Between plays we had the most delicious African food in a restaurant in King Street.

It was a really beautiful afternoon/evening.


I had fun rereading The Importance of Being Ernest at various times during the day.

Then, this evening at 7.30 SBS showed the first episode of the PBS series on the reign of Queen Victoria. I certainly learned something from it. Next week it deals with India–must watch.

On suffering at university?

05 Mar 2002

My own apprenticeship is the field of literary theory (semiotics, post-modernism, post-colonialism and so on) began twenty years ago when I was sharing the editorship of Neos, a young writers’ magazine,with younger people who were studying such things. In a way that time was the high-water mark of Theory in the English-speaking world and it was either worshipped or desperately rejected as barbaric twaddle. My initial response was to regard it as barbaric twaddle.

I began to write an article for The Teaching of English in order to demonstrate what twaddle it was. Naturally I had to read what I was refuting, and indeed I had few problems finding barbaric twaddle enough and jargon fit to make anyone with any love of language throw up.

But that is not all I found; I found some of it actually made sense, and raised questions that needed to be raised.

Today’s students are marginally luckier, since there exist a number of introductory texts that cut through the jargon and make things much plainer. One such text is Beginning Theory by Peter Barry (Manchester University Press, 1995, new edition 2002); another is The English Studies Book by Rob Pope (Routledge 1998, with a second edition in process right now.)

It would bore my readers to go into depth, but I quote a little advice from Peter Barry:

…I want to assure you at the outset that the doubts and uncertainties you will have about this material are probably not due to:

1. any supposed mental incapacity of your own…or not possessing the kind of X-ray intellect which can penetrate jargon and see the sense beneath, or
2. the fact that your schooling did not include intensive tuition in, say, linguistics or philosophy, or
3. the innate and irreducible difficulty of the material itself…

Rather, nearly all the difficulties you will have will be the direct result of the way theory is written, and the way it is written about. For literary theory, it must be emphasised, is not innately difficult. …On the contrary, the whole body known collectively as ‘theory’ is based upon some dozen or so ideas, none of which are themselves difficult…

But the frame of mind I would recommend at the outset is threefold. Firstly, we must have some initial patience with the difficult surface of the writing. We must avoid too-ready conclusion that literary theory is just meaningless, pretentious jargon (that is, that the theory is at fault). Secondly, on the other hand, we must, for obvious reasons, resist the view that we ourselves are intellectually incapable of coping with it (that is, that we are at fault). Thirdly, and crucially, we must not assume that the difficulty of theoretical writing is always the dress of profound ideas-only that it might sometimes be, which leaves the onus of discrimination on us… Do not, then, be endlessly patient with theory. Require it to be clear, and expect it, in the longer term, to deliver something solid. Don’t be content, as many seem to be, just to see it as ‘challenging’ conventional practice or ‘putting it in question’ in some never quite specified way. Challenges are fine, but they have to amount to something in the end.

I should add that, on another front, I am finding reading Ulysses does ‘amount to something in the end,’ though it is cruel to expect students to process it in a semester, especially when there is much more material to read in the course.

I have also bought Following the Rabbit-Proof Fence (on which the movie is based), and can now see very clearly through Peirs Akerman’s game last Sunday; he is right from a pedantic viewpoint, and the film-makers have been disingenuous; but there is nothing to aid and comfort Akerman in the book, so far as I can see at the moment. Probably the reverse.

Ten to fifteen years ago — my English/ESL blog

It began on Angelfire, Tripod and Geocities as the Sydney Boys High English and ESL pages, but on moving to WordPress it became, on my retirement, Neil Whitfield’s etc. In fact that was pretty much how I told the Boss, Dr Jaggar, that I was retiring! It continued supporting my Chinatown coachees through to the 2010 HSC, and was of interest to teachers and others, not only in Australia. “A great resource for all students and teachers…” — Frances M, N.S.W. English Teachers Association Bulletin Board, Mar 25, 2005.

As you can see, it was well visited between 2007 and 2012 — still attracts some visitors.

This blog has retired — read this for more

18 January 2010

After eight years at my various addresses, beginning on Angelfire then Tripod as my class page and then morphing into the Sydney Boys High School English/ESL site (to 2005) and then on my retirement to its current mode, I am at last ceasing to update this blog, though I will be back to update some of the existing posts and pages and to deal with comments. Thanks to all for the support over the years.

Now some samples from 15 years ago!

NSW school visitors, welcome back!

29 JAN 2007

Yes, a new school year has just started here in NSW, my 41st since becoming a teacher!

If you go to Workshops you will see that all the workshopped essays have now moved over from Tripod, most to this site, but two to Geocities, because formatting issues prevented their being hosted here. At least on Geocities they tend to appear more quickly than they do on Tripod.

The site has been redesigned for the new year too. I hope you find it useful, and keep coming back as new content is added.

I do take requests, so if there is something you would like me to post about, let me know via comment (provided I haven’t closed it against spam), the guestbook, or email.

Tutoring, reality, and results

12 FEB 2007

I have written on coaching before. As you will see if you check the “About” page, I do tuition in Chinatown here in Sydney — one-to-one only — and have for some time. Tuition is meant, in my opinion, to supplement what the school might be doing; it certainly does not substitute for the school, nor does it circumvent the student’s own work. There is no magic about it. The tutor tries to tune into where the student currently sits, tests formally or informally for the student’s weaknesses, and attempts to lift the student’s performance accordingly through carefully chosen practices and explanations. “Anything happening at school you are not sure about?” is always a good opening question. I have sometimes been in the happy position of being able to coordinate my tuition with what the student is doing at school because I have been able to talk to the student’s teacher.

What tutoring must never do is replace the student’s own authentic efforts. Doing a student’s homework for them or drafting their essays is not tuition: it is cheating.

The outcomes of tutoring therefore vary. Without wishing to appear rude, no tutor can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but a tutor can enable a student to progress more than he or she may have done without tuition.

Last year I had five HSC candidates, and currently know the results of three of them. The fourth, I imagine, got a respectable result in Standard English: I must try to find out. The fifth dropped out of tuition after August; the problem there was doing the wrong course — forced to do Standard when ESL was the most viable option. One candidate I do know about would have been disappointed as the band result was not the hoped for outcome, although only one or two marks short. In that case tuition began a bit too late. It is always best to begin at least in Year 11. Nonetheless, that student did make substantial improvements, but was not what I would call a natural humanities student. The student’s approach tended to rely too much on memorisation, and consequently lacked the flexibility needed to rework what was known to suit new circumstances. The other two, by contrast, did really well. In one case the aim was to achieve Band 6 (the top range) and that was achieved (92%). Of course the student had the potential already, but tuition helped to ensure that Band 6 as the student was able to develop examination and study skills more effectively through the practices and through our reflections together on how the system works. The other was an interesting case, as the student’s language skills were behind the one who ended up disappointed. This student achieved Band 5 (and a UAI of around 93), but would almost certainly have attained Band 4 or even less without tuition. However, the student was a more natural humanities student, able to make the necessary adjustments and critical decisions. As a tutor I can enhance that, but I can never teach it.

So I am afraid that paying the money does not in itself guarantee a result, but then that extends to all private education, doesn’t it? Students are not blank slates on which anything may be written.

I should add that all my students are of East Asian background, mostly Chinese, and English is their second language.

All your own work

01 MAR 2007

Student Guide to Avoiding Plagiarism

I posted that on the old Tripod blog on Friday, 10 June 2005.

New writing workshop page

26 FEB 2007

I am building a new page in the Writing Workshop and you can join in. See Creative writing Year 10 age level, six months in Australia.

You may for the next little while read the original essay and make comments or suggestions. In a week or two I will complete the workshop with an annotated version of the essay and a final draft. If any of your suggestions have helped, you will be acknowledged.

Some reposts on teaching — 11 — my English teachers

Again, Sydney University 1964 — and two posts on Bill Maidment who Sam Goldberg, according to Michael Wilding, was “not sure of.”

Not used for commercial purposes. “This collection of Honi Soit has been made available with the permission of the publisher, the Students’ Representative Council of the University of Sydney, and it may only be used, with full acknowledgement, for your personal research or study. It may not be used for commercial purposes without prior permission from the publisher.” Source

I may have read that at the time, but I was also spending much time with the Evangelical Union! But back to Bill Maidment.

8/11/2007: I am not a great fan of the right-wing magazine Quadrant, particularly in recent years, but there are good things in it — the poetry, for example, and most things written by Neil McDonald, so it is frustrating to find the Quadrant site seems to have been hacked just as I tried to track down what Neil McDonald said about Bill Maidment in the March 2005 issue. All I have is this fragment on eNotes:

ON APRIL 4, 2005, the former Associate Professor of English at the University of Sydney, W.M. Maidment, died shortly after receiving chemotherapy. Bill was a major influence on nearly four generations of students, scholars, teachers, historians, writers and artists of all kinds. His special areas of research and teaching were eighteenth-century literature, seventeenth-century poetry and the early twentieth-century novel. But Maidment never wrote a line of film criticism–so why am I beginning a film column with a tribute to his life and achievements?

His wide-ranging…

If I were a student still or a full-time teacher, by the way, I would subscribe to eNotes; it looks very useful.

So I was sad to read of Bill Maidment’s passing. We have already seen how, according to Michael Wilding, Maidment was “one of the old guard, the unreconstructed” in the eyes of Professor Sam Goldberg back in the early 1960s, and he was indeed in that position during my Honours year in 1964.

Bill Maidment was an Andersonian:

Anderson retired from the Challis Chair [of Philosophy] in 1958 having educated some of the most influential philosophers of the second half of the 20th century. He died in July 1962.

“Anderson stood for everything to which the Christian Idealists had been opposed. That he was prepared to describe himself as a materialist, a positivist, an empiricist, a realist, was sufficiently startling, for in Australian academic philosophy these had been terms of abuse. But even more disconcerting was the fact that he did not fit into the picture which Australian Idealists had constructed of their opponents – as in the fortress at Singapore, their guns were pointing in the wrong direction.”…

Studying philosophy under John Anderson inspired many students to become professional philosophers. Although the most famous of these were John Passmore, David Armstrong, John Mackie and Eugene Kamenka there were many who were less well known. These include Perce Partridge, Jim Baker, Ruth Walker, Tom Rose, George Molnar, etc. Apart from these professional philosophers, there were many who took a major degree in philosophy under Anderson and went on to pursue careers in the academic and non academic workplace. These include Frank Fowler, Harry Eddy, Bill Morison, Harry Nicolson, Bill Maidment, Margaret Mackie and many others. A full list of the `Andersonians’ would run to several hundred.

See also John Anderson remembered by Emeritus Professor David Armstrong (2005):

He is, arguably, the most important philosopher who has worked in Australia. Certainly he was the most important in both the breadth and depth of influence. Among the philosophers who got their original intellectual formation from Anderson are John Passmore, John Mackie, A.J. (‘Jim’) Baker, David Stove and myself. There are lots more. But for every student who became a philosopher there were far, far, more in the law, in medicine, in journalism, in other academic disciplines, that were profoundly influenced by him. I am inclined to think that, especially in the thirties and forties of the last century, Anderson was the person who set the agenda, and set the tone, for intellectual discussion in Sydney.

Anderson had philosophical views on almost everything. He tried to carry through his realist and empiricist views through metaphysics (the general nature of what there is), logic, epistemology, morality, political philosophy, theory of culture, aesthetics: there hardly seemed any serious intellectual topic on which he did not have a ‘line’.

The line always involved a great deal of debunking, the critique of illusions was central to it. In this he resembled what have been called the ‘masters of suspicion’: Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. One interesting thing about his thought, though, was that, while arguing that these thinkers had important points to make, he argued that they were themselves to be suspected. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that there was only one thinker that he did not treat with much suspicion: himself. That was a weakness.

He found it hard to come to terms with what most philosophers learn to live with: that other philosophers do not wholly agree with them. In a subject where decision procedures are so difficult to find and agree upon, living with disagreement seems the only rational course.

But this critique of illusions, always based on the same realist and empiricist principles, applied over a very wide field, and, it has to said, by an extremely intelligent thinker, was very attractive to intelligent students (compare Socrates’ following among the youth of Athens.) Sydney was a provincial town then (perhaps still is?) and you could learn from him a critique that would carry you through a wide range of topics and give you an education of quite a wide sort. It was a wonderful way to be introduced to philosophy. It gave many, including myself, their intellectual formation…

Bill often spoke of the Sydney Push. That great photo by Brian Bird of the Lincoln Coffee Lounge in Rowe Street was one of their haunts in the early days.

In keeping with that, I remember being bemused in 1962, I think it was, when our Distinction group had a session we thought quite odd on “Theory of Criticism” — or that may have been 1964 in my Honours Year! (Senior moment!) What I do know is that no-one had ever asked us before if a literary work was in the same order of reality as a packet of cornflakes! It isn’t such a damned fool question as we first thought either.

He also questioned, with some irony at the time, the idea we rather hugged to our bosoms that students of English were bearers of civilisation. That of course correctly challenged the whole Matthew Arnold tradition, and even more pertinently Leavisism.  Was he himself not a fake, he asked, since he had never read Shakespeare’s King John? And didn’t the fact that there were all those engineering students out there who couldn’t care less about what the English Department was up to make you wonder whether they might have a point? (A touch unfair to some engineers I have met, but we knew what he meant.) He never told us THE answers either… But he did make us think.

Yes, he had a dry sense of humour too, and many a tale of the Sydney Push.

In my early years of English he lectured us on the eighteenth century novel, around 500 of us packed into the Wallace Theatre. One of Bill’s difficulties was a dreadful stammer which stress made worse. One lecture he just could not get the next word out, flushing and stressing for all to see. The audience broke into spontaneous applause. Thanking us for the vote of confidence he carried on at last, finishing the lecture without another stammer. This was one of the most moving moments I ever had at Sydney University, and I am sure Bill would have remembered it too.

Astronaut Frank Borman speaks to an audience in the Wallace Theatre at the University of Sydney 1966.

Back to Goldberg as well as Maidment: there is a review in Australian Humanities Review of Andrew Riemer’s memoir Sandstone Gothic, which I read with interest, by Stephen Knight (1998).

Andrew Riemer relates how a clever young man from Budapest strolled slowly into the monstrous cave of the Sydney University English Department, to emerge some forty years later with his body bruised by Leavisites, hair singed by the breath of theorists, clothing ripped by urgent feminists.

The faith that sustained him was learnt on the hard benches of the old quad from donnish men and one prima donna, Thelma Herring. They instructed him in the dates, biographies, sources and rhyme schemes of the major English authors, a litany of fetishised fact which amounted, they thought, and Andrew was persuaded, to civilisation…

The Leavisite brigades from Melbourne moved in, but were driven off after a few year’s academic trench warfare. Then came more assaults on civilised scholarship, from Australian Literature led by the charming menace of Countess Kramer; other figures move in the gathering gloom of Andrew’s nightmare — theorists with cries far from wordless, feminists imposing rights (and a few lefts), the politically correct with their always incorrect demands, and worst of all those who insist on giving students wide choice, and so weaken the defences of Castle Canonical, that bastion of the best that was ever thought and footnoted.

It’s a sad story in that Andrew really felt and lived this melodramatic misery. The witty and cultivated man who joined the department six months ahead of me did indeed like others grow psychic scar tissue from the antics of clever, intelligent, but rarely sensible man Sam Goldberg. Sadder yet is that the Sydney department’s only response to the Leavisite assault was to recoil into unargued faith in the old scholarship school of civilisation, a system actually out of date even at Oxford by the mid 1930s, as Brian Doyle (of Cardiff) outlines in his excellent book English and Englishness.

Not only a curriculum turned to stone. This book is the longest complaint I’ve read since Piers Plowman, and not as well written: Andrew’s usually rather elegant footwork often becomes a shuffle of semi-cliché. The Latinate old dons would have called this a liber querulus; they weren’t always wrong.

But the book also suffers from what is left out. Andrew’s account of thirty teaching years at Sydney lacks almost all the colour and vigour, indeed the contribution to civilisation, made by that members of that department. Staff and student involvement in the Vietnam debates, the Women’s Course strike, the bustling development of new local voices in poetry and prose. Charismatic — and sometimes eccentric — teachers were at work like Bill Maidment, Bernard Martin, Terry Sturm, Terry Threadgold, Jim Tulip.

True, some of the department’s electricity was somewhat negative, and lively people could be repelled into other more positive spheres like David Malouf, Nick Enright, David Marr, Dorothy Porter. But publishing, reviewing and a whole range of cultural carry-on was enlivened by campus identities like Michael Wilding, Don Anderson, Rosemary Creswell, Judy Barbour. From Vadims to the Hotel London, English staff helped cultures grow, subsidised Frank Moorhouse’s champagne, foresaw the future over flounder sandwiches at the Forest Lodge…

Ah, the Forest Lodge! I lived next door to it for a year in 1987! Saw a bit of it too a decade earlier when I was working at Sydney U myself…

16/11/2007: I mentioned a problem with the Quadrant site. This is now fixed, and “Men Without Borders” by Neil McDonald is back online.

It was Maidment’s ability to analyse every nuance of an individual passage of literature, elucidating the rhythm, symbolism and allusions, then to place it in the context of the work as a whole—all the while keeping us aware of the period when it was written—that was of special value to us all as film critics and teachers. In addition, there was his deep understanding of imagery, traditional emblems, heraldry and associations with the paintings of the period of the work being examined. Unlike many contemporary critics, Maidment was particularly good at defining a genre, exploring precisely how it related to other literary forms…

I learnt from Bill to ask these questions about any film or literary work I was examining: What does it mean? What did it mean when it was first released or published? What is it about? What is it really about? What does it assume? What does it assert? And what does it imply? …

Bill Maidment’s influence on my work was, I believe, more extensive. I first encountered him when I enrolled in his Eighteenth-Century Literature option in 1963. It was a small group, and we soon became friends. Even after I began to write Shakespearean criticism, Bill continued as mentor and friend. When my first article on Macbeth was rejected in 1964, he was there with encouragement and advice: “Certainly it has some rough edges, but it deserves to be published.” And it was, by Frank Moorhouse no less.

OFTEN OVERLOOKED by even his warmest admirers was how good a Shakespearean critic Maidment was. Only very recently he pointed out to me how the breaking of even the most trivial of oaths had a religious significance in Elizabethan England—very difficult to convey to a modern mainstream audience. Consequently when Kenneth Branagh adapted Love’s Labour’s Lost to the screen, he needed the wartime setting to create an appropriately serious modern equivalent to explain the lovers’ partings. When I was teaching Shakespeare using the Elizabethan theatre models made by my father, it was Maidment who pointed out that the playhouse itself was part of the play’s imagery. This coupling of imagery and form became vital when I worked on Shakespearean film. It was Bill who alerted me to the way Orson Welles played cinematic variations on Shakespeare’s imagery as well as enhancing the word pictures with visual equivalents…

The intellectual rigour and sceptical tolerance Bill instilled in his students gave us the confidence to see through, refute and ultimately systematically ignore the jargon-infested discourse theorists, open and covert Marxists and dogmatic gender-studies experts—who have come close to destroying film studies in recent years. There was really no debate: their want of elementary film scholarship made them easy game whenever they wrote or spoke to anyone but each other. There would be lots of eye-rolling, heavy sighs and throat clearing, but rarely any argument. Quadrant readers have, in a way, experienced this phenomenon for themselves. I have only to raise a political issue for the letters column to be filled with missives of dissent. I have even taken issue with our editor! And this is as it should be: a journal of ideas like ours is no place for unquestioned opinion. But when I accused the New South Wales Board of Studies of compelling students to misrepresent their set films for ideological reasons in my article “How Not to Teach Film”, and attacked jargon-ridden film criticism in “Screen Studies and Lantana”, the silence was deafening…

AS A MAN Bill Maidment was gentlemanly and unassuming to a fault. In his prime he was very handsome, but dressed down as if he feared any sartorial display would distract from his teaching. All Bill’s students know of his battle with his stammer, which, in the early 1960s, threatened to destroy his career as a teacher. By the way—who, today, would hire a lecturer with a stammer? Professor Wesley Milgate did, and gave the English department at the University of Sydney one of its greatest scholars and teachers of the last century. So how did Bill survive as a lecturer? He had Milgate’s support, and the students didn’t want to forgo what this unassuming, brilliant man had to offer. I remember vividly how we would simply sit there, willing him to keep going so we could make our notes and read or re-read the text he was discussing, knowing we were getting insights that few other lecturers could provide.

The stammer too was the basis of some of the best Maidment stories. No one dared so much as move during his lectures for fear it would put him off! So when, during a lecture on D.H. Lawrence, Bill mentioned that the writer’s sexual problems were rooted in his relationship with his mother, there was dead silence. The class remained quiet when he added that Lawrence’s sexuality was also rooted in the English Puritan tradition, and continued to be silent as Bill used the same word to describe a whole range of other influences in which D.H. Lawrence was rooted. The joke that went around campus the next day was that Maidment had managed to root Lawrence fifteen times! When I mentioned the story to Bill, he couldn’t remember the incident, but added, “I’m sure there was some deep-seated Freudian significance.”

Interwoven with Bill’s battle with his stammer were the triumphs. These were the occasions when it was heard around campus that Bill Maidment was about to lecture on one of his many specialties, and it would be standing room only. These lectures would be received in hushed silence, followed by a rousing ovation at the conclusion. Ultimately Bill overcame his stammer by deciding that it simply didn’t matter…

Confirming and extending my own memories of this remarkable teacher.

Some reposts on teaching — 10 — my English teachers

But first a sad note on that first HSC Class at Cronulla High, which I mentioned on 28 November. Those former students are now, or have recently turned, 70. You may recall the pictures of Paul Herlinger’s production of Hamlet in which Robert Graves’s grandson played the Prince. Claudius, the murderous King, was played by Frank Stoffels (to judge from those production photos) with whom just recently I established through a Facebook Cronulla High group a FB friendship.

News came yesterday via Facebook that Frank, who was being treated for cancer, passed away on 8 December.

Now to Sydney University some sixty years ago — my Honours year, 1964. We would wait by that jacaranda to climb the stairs to Sam Goldberg’s office and the next dose of 17th century poetry — thirteen or so women, that is, and myself.

Do read the excellent account of Sam Goldberg in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

In October 2007 I wrote:

You will find I have mentioned S L Goldberg (1926-1991) before: on Lines from a Floating Life. Back in 1964 he was just coming into his own as Challis Professor of English at the University of Sydney, having taken up his duties during 1963 when I had a year out working at the MLC Insurance Company in Martin Place where they vainly tried to seduce me into a business or legal career. The next few years were to see the English Department split in two, and by decade’s end Goldberg had gone. When I returned to Sydney University for a temporary secondment as a lecturer in 1977 he was just a memory, albeit with a few acolytes still hanging on, and a cricket team named in his honour, or in honour of his mentor the Downing College Cambridge literary critic F R Leavis.

In a 1999 article in The Australian Book Review Terry Collits recalls:

…migrating Leavisism first touched these shores at Perth, with the professorial appointment of a veritable ‘Scrutineer’, Allan Edwards. The word was brought across to Melbourne by Jock Tomlinson in the early 1950s, and Leavis was more or less the sign under which the brilliant younger brigade of the department (Goldberg himself, Maggie Tomlinson, David Moody and Vincent Buckley) set about revamping its pedagogy. The purists, the ‘true believers’, of the group were Goldberg and the Tomlinsons, and it was they who carried most influence with the honours students. Buckley was a special case: he himself had written a book on Leavis, but would not call himself a Leavisite; his personal influence, in Irish and Catholic circles, extended well beyond the English department and has been well recorded.

Goldberg was the rising star in academic English in Australia at this time. This was his hey-day as a teacher, attested by Germaine Greer and others who gravitated to English Honours at Melbourne in the ’50s. From the start his teaching took in wider agendas: he set up a ‘Lit. Club’ for staff and students to discuss books and issues and it was from papers presented in that forum that a serious critical journal, The Melbourne Critical Review, was established. Despite the worrying repetition of the name of Leavis, early numbers of the journal reflected the liberal pluralism of the department of Ian Maxwell, and included critics as diverse as A.D. Hope, Leonie Kramer, Andrew Taylor and Chris Wallace-Crabbe. Undergraduates, many like Wilbur Sanders and Ian Donaldson to go on to distinguished academic careers abroad, found space for their first publications in the Review, an astonishing fact in an otherwise strictly hierarchised Australian academy. Further, as the recalling of these names might indicate, English at Melbourne was by no means cut off from the literary community of the 1950s: the department housed, as it has right up to the present time, many a ‘creative writer’.

All this might suggest that one of the collective errors of judgment in those halcyon days was the abortive attempt to translate Australian Leavisism to Sydney, where for the Sydney natives it had all the appearance of a violent act of colonial appropriation. In Melbourne, Goldberg and the other Leavisites could live in a state of civilised friction within the greater department while achieving a high degree of hegemonic authority; in Sydney, they were greeted with a mistrust that quickly degenerated into collective paranoia. Besides, the overlooking of Wilkes for the Challis Professorship (the real Chair) while simultaneously appointing him to the newly-established Chair of Australian Literature laid the foundations for the struggle to the death that ensued.

When Gerry Wilkes, with the support of the Administration at Sydney, set up a rival course to the one Goldberg thought he had sole authority over, the move to split the department was defended in the name of pluralism, a corrective to the proselytising rigidities of Goldbergism. Once Goldberg had returned to Melbourne, less than four years after his arrival at Sydney, this pluralism was abandoned and a new/old monolithic course set in place. All traces of Goldberg’s values were expunged. Thus Andrew Riemer could finally settle down to enjoy his rightful inheritance, complete with a room in the old sandstone building that is the impressive quadrangle of Sydney University. Academic English at Sydney, to adopt Terry Eagleton’s favourite description of Oxford, would revert to a state of ‘pre-Leavisian’ innocence. But only as long as the world allowed, and the inhabitants of Sydney English could go on forgetting…

We, the class of 1964, were the meat in the sandwich. None of us attained First Class Honours, but a year or two later the first ranks of the Goldberg-educated were showered with them.

That could be interpreted as my being resentful, but the fact is Goldberg was a brilliant, if at times ruthless, tutor. My love of seventeenth century English poetry owes much to him. Then too there are memories of tutorial groups so stimulating that they would go hours over time! All this apart from my being the one male in a class of fourteen, with happy memories of my “harem” and I lying under trees in Centennial Park reading seventeenth century poetry to one another. (I have heard about Joy Phillips since, so if you read this, Joy, know that I remember, and also that you later taught my cousin, now a teacher.)

Michael Wilding, a prominent writer of short stories and former Reader in English at Sydney, tells a fascinating tale in Southerly (March 1999):

“So what do you want to teach?” Sam asked me.
I had no idea. I had just taken finals. It was all literature, all accessible, at least up to 1870 when the Oxford syllabus had ended.
“I don’t mind,” I said. I tried to be more specific. “Anything except Milton,” I said.
Milton had been a compulsory author in my first year, and compulsion rarely endears.
“That’s it then,” he said. “Milton it is. I don’t want some Miltonist teaching Milton.”
Perhaps I had expected to gain merit from my proposed exclusion. Milton was a particular bugbear of the Leavisites. Perhaps I had expected a complicit smirk at my correct taste, my gesture of avoidance. I had certainly not expected this new compulsion. Compulsion it was. I demurred. But I got nowhere…

Apart from Milton I chose, or agreed to the suggestion of, the novel course. That was why I had come to Sydney, after all, the path of the novelist. It would be sensible to learn something of the novelist’s art. And whereas the Oxford syllabus had ended in 1870, this course included the moderns: Conrad, James, Lawrence, Faulkner: what passed for the modern at that time, books too modern for Oxford, even if written some fifty years earlier. I was to teach it together with a lecturer Sam had inherited when he had taken over the department. Most of the lecturers he had inherited. He was trying to stock the place with new talent, Leavisites he had taught or taught with in Melbourne, or recent graduates with a seal of approval from Cambridge or, at a pinch, Oxford. But Bill Maidment, with whom I was to teach, was one of the old guard, the unreconstructed.
“I want you to keep an eye on Bill,” Sam said. “I’m not sure about him.”
I was twenty-one. I had never taught before. I felt uneasy about this instruction…

Bill Maidment will be #5 in my English teachers.


Go to My English teachers, a supplementary post on my WordPress English/ESL blog, where you will find two PDF files illustrating Sam Goldberg’s teaching. One is an extract from his last book; the other is an extract on King Lear. [Still there!]