Bad readers

I began university in 1996, attending what could be considered an ‘elite’ US institution. It was not Ivy League, but it was regularly listed among the top thirty universities in the country. The fee for one year was just over $33,000, including room and board. My family had been comfortably middle class for most of my childhood, but my father had quit his job and taken another at much lower pay while I was in high school. I was only able to attend the university because I received direct scholarships, alongside a complex array of government-subsidised loans and grants.

I worked fifteen to twenty hours per week throughout my degree. This, again, was subsidised through a ‘work-study’ scheme that encouraged the university to give small administrative jobs to students at good pay rates. After a short stint batch-processing payments for a paediatric hospital, I acquired a job in the library’s audiovisual department that I kept for the remainder of my degree. This was still the early days of the internet and so everything had to be done manually. Between classes, I would deliver videotapes or overhead projectors to classrooms and make sure everything was set up to run. It was easy work, and there was nothing to do in between class times; I worked ten to fifteen minutes per hour, and spent the remaining time studying.

Back then, few of my classes were run by casually employed lecturers, and most of my teachers had gone to even more prestigious universities (Cornell, Yale, Berkeley, Harvard, Columbia and so on). The class sizes were variable. I had a few very large subjects, but most of my classes hovered between twenty and forty students. Two smaller subjects I took now seem inconceivable.

In my first year, I was accepted into a ‘selective’ liberal arts seminar. It comprised 80 per cent of my classes that year, and each semester was team-taught by two (male) professors, both of whom attended every class. The first semester focused on literature and history of the nineteenth century. This was followed by a semester on modern philosophy and theology, in a survey that moved from Descartes to Nietzsche. At the end of each term, we had comprehensive one-on-one oral exams with each professor in his office. It was our major grade for the semester and there were no rubrics or marking criteria.

In my second year, I took a course that was simply known as the ‘poetry seminar’. Part of the class was a weekly workshop with a poet on staff, but the remainder involved poetry readings on campus and at a well-known cultural institution. Before the readings, we had a seminar and then dinner with the readers, all of whom were well-known US poets, such as Charles Wright, Gary Snyder, Frank Bidart and Leslie Scalapino.

I am not telling these stories to glorify the US system, or to offer nostalgia for my education. I could not reasonably describe my undergraduate years as a particularly happy time. Like many of my peers, I did enough to do well, but was often distracted from my studies. I often did not finish books I was assigned to read, but quickly learned how to bluff my way intelligently through a seminar. I went out too much and, even at home, often studied with divided attention in front of the television. I may not have had fast internet, but I didn’t need the web for distraction – I could find it on my own just fine.

I certainly did not make the most of the opportunities I had. Nor, being young, did I even realise what opportunities they were. One of my classmates from the poetry seminar had a single burning ambition for poetic excellence and he pursued it methodically, perhaps even ruthlessly. He established connections with the famous poets, many of whom were – rightly, I should add – impressed by the talent his undergraduate poetry already displayed. I was not surprised to discover his name listed as a recipient of a famous multi-artform fellowship last year. One of my flatmates, now also an academic, used to tape up every assignment of his that had not received top marks under a sign that read ‘Look at this and be reminded why you suck!’ I could not match these ambitions, or even imagine being driven to do so.

As of 2018, the fees for this same university are over $72,000, including room and board. I have many friends educated in Australia who idealise US universities, but the reality is that they are playgrounds for the very rich, occasionally offering entry to the lucky middle classes. When I think back on it, I am shocked by the incredible wealth of so many of those around me. Ivanka Trump was a few years bellow me. Another acquaintance, now a famous comedian who had his own television show, was the son of a billionaire financier. Another friend was related to the Bush family. Yet another invited me and several others to fly to Florida one weekend on his father’s personal jet. After a party one night, a student I had never met before invited me and several friends back to his house: he lived in not one but two penthouses atop a famous hotel. A young man on my first-year dorm would regularly tell me about his polo ponies.

Of course, the children of Australian elites hobnob at Group of Eight universities in similar ways – at least up to a point. But there are also systemic differences. Australia, since the 1960s at least, has focused more on mass education (albeit aimed at the middle and upper-middle classes) than elite education. This is a good thing. While systems of prestige still operate at secondary private schools, in tertiary colleges and, yes, in the distinction between a handful of urban research-focused institutions and all of the other universities, they are not nearly as stark as they are in the US, where a degree from the right university will open doors that otherwise remain closed. The Australian focus on mass education, while hardly sufficient, is still superior to the US system – and this is a point that too often gets sidelined in debates around massification. It was also noticeably absent in discussions around the uncapping of admissions by the Gillard government.

There is much to criticise about the neoliberalisation of higher education and the various unintended consequences thrown up by this policy. But the idea that education should be available to everyone – in other words, that increased access is inherently good – needs to be staunchly defended, even if its particular manifestation deserves critique. The current government’s obsessive focus on limiting access for low-ATAR students, for example, is simply against equity. It is probably based on the knowledge that those who attend university are far more likely to vote for left-wing parties than for right-wing ones; as Professor David Runciman and others have noted, university attendance is the best predictor of voting intention.

Regardless, ATARs are not a good predictor of academic success. I have heard many people in university admissions claim ATARs can more or less be mapped against suburbs in relation to their relative affluence. What ATARs signal is the risk related to a student – that is, the likelihood they will drop out or fail – but the differences between low- and high-ATAR students are not as great as this might lead one to believe. Many low-ATAR students have great success at university and later in life. Many high-ATAR students do not. A better question is to ask why there are entry scores at all (except perhaps in the case of very specific degrees such as medicine).


In a recent essay for The Guardian entitled ‘The difficulty is the point: Teaching spoon-fed students how to really read’, Tegan Bennett Daylight discusses her experience of teaching literature to prospective teachers in regional New South Wales. The class she teaches is particularly important in that students must pass it in order to receive their qualification. In the essay, Bennett Daylight signals her allegiance to the left in various ways: she quotes Mark Fisher and criticises universities as neoliberal, while still clearly stating a belief in mass education. As someone who shares many of these same beliefs, and who has taught at both a Group of Eight and a regional university, I was surprised to discover that, rather than identifying with the essay, several moments in it left me deeply uncomfortable. At one point, for example, after noting how her students struggle with Australian literature, she asks: ‘But if you have never read anything more difficult than a Harry Potter book, how are you meant to proceed?’

I understand what Bennett Daylight is trying to say here, and appreciate that her comment is meant to clarify the particular bind her students are in. But much of her essay is a defence of literature and literary forms of reading and so the above statement is absolutely a value judgement that needs to be situated in this context. It implicitly asserts both the value and superiority of literary forms of reading over and above other kinds of reading (which are positioned here almost as junk food). I am not particularly interested in intervening in a debate about the relative merits of literature and genre fiction – my answer would always be that I grew up reading, and still read, both – but, in this case, it strikes me as an odd dismissal of the experience that such students bring to the classroom.

Rather than identifying with Bennett Daylight in the essay, I found myself identifying with her students. Part of this involved thinking back to the younger version of me who could always find something better to do than schoolwork, who half-read books and studied with the television on. I also felt that, if my future suitability for an occupation were being decided by my capacity to read and decode Helen Garner and Les Murray, then I, too, might prove a resistant learner. But I also found myself identifying with the students’ likely confused, perhaps even bemused, reaction to someone like Bennett Daylight (and, of course, me) who has had such different cultural and social experiences.

Recent work undertaken as part of the Australian Cultural Fields project has mapped the consumption patterns of readers in relation to class. In ‘Rare books? The divided field of reading and book culture in contemporary Australia’, Michelle Kelly, Modesto Gayo and David Carter identify an Australian variant of what Wendy Griswold calls the ‘reading class’: the small subset of the population who reads extensively and has a variety of shared class and position characteristics. The reading class likes all genres of fiction, but has a preference for ‘“literary” genres, “serious” non-fiction, particularly historical, and Australian content’. This reading class is composed almost entirely of highly educated people who hold white-collar or professional positions; they are ‘not necessarily among the wealthiest Australians, but among those where educational and professional qualifications (and urban residence) are defining’.

Australian literature – although important – is absolutely the province of a very small section of the population. These are the same people who are mostly involved in literary activities, such as public readings, book festivals and so forth. One of the things this study makes clear is how few genres even subsist outside of this particular class of readers. Books about sport and Australian history and culture have a broad readership. There is also a dedicated class of (mostly female) romance readers, as well as another group of younger readers who almost solely consume fantasy and sci-fi. But beyond this, reading basically occurs in the reading class. Almost 40 per cent of the population does not appear to read any fiction, which causes the paper’s authors to wonder if the term ‘popular fiction’ is really an appropriate one.

The obvious point here – and it is one that Bennett Daylight never articulates – is that any subject assessing students on their capacity to understand Australian literature alone is already going to have issues with equity. The authors of such courses (myself included) make a variety of cultural assumptions based on their own experiences, but these are not generalisable across a mass of students. This does not undermine the importance or value of literature. Something need not be embraced by everyone for it to be important, but acknowledging the cultural processes in which literature is transmitted and in which literary tastes circulate also leads, from my view, to very different conclusions than those Bennett Daylight reaches. For one, it might cause you to question the subject itself, the curriculum designers, or the argument for literature’s inherent value, rather than the students.

But for Bennett Daylight, the key issue is difficulty. She argues that students often struggle to understand Garner (and, again, I am with them) and then notes that they are entirely thrown by Randolph Stow: ‘The difficulty is Stow. The difficulty is the point.’ I think this is a bad reading, both of Stow and of the way students outside of the reading class engage with literature. I understand what Bennett Daylight is trying to say: students need to persist with, and even embrace, difficulty. But there is a paternalistic, even condescending attitude in her argument that is deeply conservative. To me, this conservative disposition becomes clear late in the essay:

Spoon-fed, I hear you say? Don’t make me laugh. This is a feast of force-feeding, a Roman orgy of information and assistance, with students helpless and lolling while academics assist them in opening their mouths so the food can be tipped in, and then hold their jaws and help them masticate until it goes down. We keep asking ourselves why this generation are so anxious. They are anxious because nobody lets them do things alone: we intervene before they have had a chance to try, let alone succeed or fail. They never get to feel the limits, or the limitlessness, of their real selves.

Her students are literally cast as infants, only to have this infantilisation then held against them. While there is an implicit critique of the institution here, it is underpinned by a belief that students are sheltered from difficulty or failure. But these claims are wrapped up in a series of lazy, incorrect and counterproductive clichés about younger Australians.

I see few if any correspondences between Bennett Daylight’s experiences of teaching and my own. Indeed, students at regional and certain urban universities – in other words, those profiled as ‘low-ATAR’ students – are often stereotyped in ways that do not square with my experience. Before leaving a Group of Eight university for a regional one, several friends and colleagues warned me to prepare for a drop-off in the quality of students. The implication was also that my teaching would be less rewarding, that I would spend all of my time dealing with repetitive problems, rather than more intellectually stimulating issues. But this is not at all what I experienced.

Rather, I found that my students were capable of the same level of complex thought and analysis. Where they tended to fall down was in their ‘linguistic capital’: their writing and speaking were not habituated to the formal modes of presentation required for tertiary study. It was not that they lacked the capacity for intellectual thought. Rather, they had never been taught the niceties of formal communication within a bourgeois institution.

There are many things I came to love about these students. For one, I found them much more likely to question authority, or to ask why things were done in a certain way. Such questions might never be voiced at urban institutions, where students would be afraid of appearing naive or foolish. Often, this forced me to confront my own fixed ideas in refreshing ways.

I also found that adopting a hierarchal position in the classroom and relying on my ‘expertise’ was counterproductive. This meant that there were, perhaps, fewer opportunities for ‘stand and deliver’ moments, but it also meant that I could focus on facilitating discussions, on being conversational and open, on getting a better sense of who my students are as people, and on presenting myself as an ally whose job was to assist students in learning rather than being a taskmaster who would find them either adequate or wanting. Increasingly, I feel like this is the only ethical way to do my job: to present a caring and empathetic face in an education system that can often be alienating. Yes, I want them to learn – and most of them do – but I also want students to know that I do not think badly of them if they do not do well in my class.

When I teach Gertrude Stein or James Joyce, I tell my students that it is okay not to understand the text. That the difficulty is not the point, but rather a technique that unsettles everyone who encounters it. No-one understand Ulysses on the first reading, and anyone who claims otherwise is lying. If you do not understand it, then you are understanding it. And that is fine. It is also fine to decide you do not want to read such works.

I will also note another surprising discovery: my students, for whatever reason, always seem to like avant-garde poetry and are eager to engage with it. It is often twentieth-century literary realism they struggle with most intensely. Maybe difficulty is not the problem, after all.

And this is the thing: the students I have taught do not need to learn a thing about difficulty. Most of them have had a lifetime of difficulty, and far more of it than I ever had. Australia may provide access in terms of HECS, but basic living expenses are higher than ever. The incessant rise of Australian house prices has also made rents exorbitant, even in regional areas. It is not uncommon for my students to be juggling multiple casual jobs in service positions that are both demanding and thankless. They do not have funded sinecures or sufficient government support to live and study. Moreover, many are first-in-family students with little understanding of how a university ‘works’ before arriving on campus, and spend most of their first year (or longer) figuring it out. Many of these same students have families who either do not understand or do not support their decision to go to university. Others struggle with ongoing problems like mental illness, domestic violence or homelessness – which their often-strained financial situations only exacerbate.

I understand the frustrations that many academics have about students not turning up to class or having what appears to be – from the perspective of those of us who went through an earlier system – a less meaningful engagement with study. I have often heard, and continue to hear, these complaints from colleagues across institutions. I get it. But I also think it is worth thinking this through from the perspective of the students engaging with a neoliberal university. Students today have a million things working against them. The only certain prospect they have is that they will not be as well off as their parents were: a shift that the vast majority of older Australians cannot imagine based on their lived experience. Who can blame students for having a transactional relationship with tertiary institutions under such conditions?

I do not want to argue for the current manifestation of Australian universities as the best of all possible worlds. It certainly is not. I would like to see a variety of systemic changes, including free tuition, mass access, stable employment for academics, research cultures that do not encourage unnecessary overproduction, a focus on student learning over international rankings, an end to multiplying performance indicators, and the development of reasonable teaching-focused positions that allow the best teachers (who are not always the best researchers, and vice versa) to do good work without getting burnt out. These changes are worth advocating for, and it is why new organisations like the National Alliance for Public Universities (NAPU) are important for putting radical agendas back on the table, when many established organisations are either too afraid or too self-interested to do so.

But it is also hard to see the mechanisms for these changes in the current environment. Both the major political parties have been clear in wanting universities to do more with less funding per student when adjusted in real dollars. While the deregulation of university fees has thus far been staved off – despite the LNP’s best efforts – other aspects of privitisation remain central tenets of both parties’ policies. Moreover, the reality is that international students are a huge business – often said to be Australia’s third-largest economic export. That is a huge amount of money for education that any government would otherwise have to find internally, either through higher taxes or cutting services. For these reasons, substantive changes to the university sector will probably be part of a broader political change, rather than separate from it.

In the meantime, however, students still have to go to university, and academics like me still have to teach them. The process of negotiating with flawed institutions is a complex one and everyone develops their own responses for how to behave ethically in an unethical system. There is no purity, and there is no being outside of the situation. My suggestion is that we, as teachers – particularly those of us on the left – begin by more strongly identifying with students, understanding the specific difficulties they have and will face, and accepting that they are not responsible for the systems they have inherited. This means setting aside our own experiences, which will often be incommensurate, and avoiding the kind of lazy clichés that we would not let our own students get away with.





Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Emmett Stinson is a writer and academic who has taught at several Australian universities. His most recent book is Satirizing Modernism (Bloomsbury, 2017).

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