Jillian Dellit responds to Andrew Riemer’s memoirs
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I have yet another perspective on Andrew Riemer’s Sandstone Gothic.
I was a student in the English Faculty of Sydney University from 1964-67. I did a double English major in Early English Literature and Language and in English Literature. As a teachers’ college scholarship student, I had to fight quite hard to be allowed to do an honours year in English, which meant an extension on my scholarship. I was not alone in this. Probably half the honours class had to do the same.
Our honours course was plagued by changes of program. Subjects in the third and fourth years which were meant to follow from subjects in the second and third were changed without notice, leaving students to take subjects and units they did not want and without subjects or units they had planned. There were some stimulating lectures and a wide range of seminar and tutorial quality. There were wry comments and justifications of positions, but I remember no debate of the issues that were being played out in the faculty, no attempt to deal publicly and intellectually with the issues of difference, no community of scholarship into which we were drawn.
In retrospect, as students none of us should have accepted this. We deserved better. We directed our protests to more general social issues. What I find most astonishing about Riemer’s account is the lack of connection with and concern for the students who were the justification for the employment of staff in the faculty, the failure to analyse the impact of those years on our development. While Riemer was trying to serve high English culture, the students, who might have shaped the debates, developing through them critical understanding and honing of our language skill, have no presence, no claim on our teachers who were paid from the public purse. We were subjugated to the egos and sterile power plays of those jockeying for position in whatever academic sun penetrated the sandstone gothic.
I went on to complete my Dip Ed and to a career in teaching and educational administration within the schooling sector. Fortunately for me, my schooling had given me a rich foundation in analysis, language and learning. I could take enough from the courses at Uni to keep me growing. Even though I have subsequently studied in other disciplines I have continued to follow from a distance the debates of literary criticism. I found myself, in the early eighties, from a sense of the history of which I was part, unable to see a complete set of Scrutiny weeded from a high school library and I still have it on my shelves.
I have read with interest and sympathy all Andrew Riemer’s published books, and anything I come across by other staff who taught me in those days. I found Sandstone Gothic sad and not a little pathetic. Many of us studying English in that time were the first of our families to attend university. Many of us were the children of migrants or refugees. We were not consistently offered an English course or teaching that was good enough either for our intellect or for the future we were building. However, most of us were grateful for the chance. We did not think of acting as victims and waiting for the world, or the faculty or an authority to fix it for us. We knew the world needed changing, that university was a tool that enabled us to change the world and also conferred power and responsibility. We struggled to gain our foothold, and that struggle equipped us for change.
Riemer couldn’t break away, because he couldn’t face the alternative. (Could I endure a life teaching resentful adolescents in schools I asked myself? P156). His verbs are longsuffering. His prose style reflecting his attitude is infuriatingly passive. If only he would take an initiative, use his education to good effect, make his own way — go for it. His account is devoid of any sense that sustained initiative is required. He still appears to be standing, if not laying, back and thinking of England.
Many books could be written about what Sydney University English Department gave or failed to give (perhaps even took away from) those of us who were privileged to be there in the sixties. I suspect however, that many of us would write without Riemer’s sense of defeat and that the one thing those years did give us, our ingrained habit of literary analysis, would ensure we provided comment on our own sub-text.
Jillian Dellit is currently working for Education.Au Limited, a company owned by all the Ministers of Education and Training in Australia with a brief to manage Education Network Australia (EdNA).
Both Stephen Knight and Melissa Hardie have reviewed the work for Australian Humanities Review; and there has been a response to both the book and the reviews by Lisbet de Castro Lopo.