Thursday, January 20, 2011

Working on a Memoir


Working Title: Postcards from the Past to the Future – Snapshots from an unfinished journey

Cover art: with kind permission of Rachel-Ireland-Meyers (see http://www.redbubble.com/people/grace4)

It will be the painting titled Blue Echo


After some encouragement from Professor Gary Meyers, who teaches Introduction to Law with me, I have started to write a memoir.

My recent promotion to Associate Professor was the final release moment of something I had been struggling with for a while ie what am I doing in a place like a law school (given my roots, erratic track record as a student, a stop and start progress in the lowest echelons of the public service) teaching law? My economics/law graduate son puts it a little more starkly when he asks “How did you smuggle an Arts subject (the way and what I teach in Administrative Law) into the law school”? What is a young boy who grew up in a mining town, with an underwhelming secondary school record, doing engaging in public debate and tussles with elected officials? How did I gain an international profile in FOI yet have no, or no orthodox, traditional publication or research foundation and especially as after matriculation college I was ready to give away any further education and head back to work in the mines?

Gary’s proposal was simple
“You have an interesting story to tell – tell it”.
In part I think his aim was to provide a point of reference for a growing cohort of students that Australian government policy is sweeping into Universities – namely first in family and more students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and/or from regional areas. First, they have few reference points to relate their experiences to and secondly there are only a few places/authors that are able to share their sense of loss and even feelings betrayal of the family, friends and community you abandon on a higher education journey.


Furthermore after being awarded the Australasian Law Teacher of the Year Award in 2009 (and given my age - early 50s) I started to think of what could I leave as a legacy in terms of my approach/skills as a teacher that is something other than the "me"? Was there something in the method and process of my teaching, that clearly strikes a chord with many students and committees overseeing teaching awards, that could be useful to other teachers?

I only started writing in December, so very early formative stages, but have written 25,000 words and more are impatiently lining up. I have decided to adopt Richard Delgado’s motto, shared with me in an email, of
“write fast, edit slowly”.
I have yet to work out a structure, a real conception of an audience or readership (and at the moment it is more simply for me and family/friends although the “in-house” readership is growing). In the first few words, and before it became clear it was to be a memoir, the writing project had rammed me up against a number of unresolved issues about who I was and my past. Exposure to an early draft of Humeirah Fasq by Sabah Carrim
(http://www.authonomy.com/books/28188/humeirah-fasq-edited-and-updated-/) encouraged me to tackle my own relationship to my past.

A reader, of an early draft, noted some similarity to Obama's Dreams from My Father which I had not read until three weeks ago. A great book. Like Obama, the search/construction of my story then sets up other actions (travelling home to talk with my mother about my birth father. A subject I had not raised for the last 48 years).


In part the effort has been (and still is) to find my voice/tune, to recall/reconstruct fragments and like Obama deal with unknown/uncertain family history. As I write I have also started to read more and very different memoirs including Hemingway’s A Movable Feast, Bob Ellis Goodbye Jerusalem: Night thoughts of a Labour Outsider. Patricia William’s The Alchemy of Race and Rights, Helene Chung’s Ching Chong China Girl and recall other ones I have previously read like Clive James Unreliable Memoirs and Dylan’s masterpiece Chronicles: Volume 1.


Now I am starting to explore in more depth, and tease out, some of the themes - academic as activist and my engagement with the law as an outsider. The other major theme I want to tackle is my journey as a university lecturer and the style of teaching that gives the subjects I teach a hallmark among UTAS law students as “a Rick subject”. The hallmark indicates, for those in the know, that this subject will be a far different experience than most of their other law subjects and indeed most of their UTAS learning experiences.

In the back of my mind the format I would like to try and emulate, to a degree, is The Rough Guide series ie like The Rough Guide to Bob Dylan (http://www.penguin.com.au/products/9781843537182/rough-guide-bob-dylan) in terms of the storytelling, the use of colour, boxes and photographs (or drawings). At the moment the writing is simply text but I have been collecting old photographs and often writing segments with a photo in mind to accompany the final text.

I have also started to reread, especially Richard Delgado (http://www.law.seattleu.edu/Faculty/Faculty_Profiles/Richard_Delgado.xml), about the use, and/or application, of narrative and the personal experience in law scholarship. Patricia Williams has been heavily criticised for both of these approaches and as a consequence she finds many of her articles rejected by law reviews because they rely too heavily on her first hand accounts. Richard had sparked my interest in weaving personal narrative into my scholarship during a very brief visit he and Jean Stefancic (http://www.law.seattleu.edu/Faculty/Faculty_Profiles/Jean_Stefancic.xml) had made to Tasmania in December 1995 after a short series of lectures in Melbourne. In preparation for his visit I had read some of his work including “Storytelling for Oppositions and Others: A Plea for Narrative”, 87 Michigan Law Review 2411 (1987). We had a brief conversation about writing from the perspective of difference or the outsider in law (gender, race, ethnicity) and I had speculated whether the voice of a marginal/regional/working class perspective could also be an approach. From about that period a more personal and polemic tone started to appear in my academic writings.

A theme in the memoir will be the exploration of my feeling/concept of being an outsider to the LAW and the paradox of being a respected and award winning teacher of the law. At the moment this theme is implicit and has only just started to bubble to the surface - still raw and rambling in its appearance – in the writing or more accurately in the writing waiting to be done in the next few days.

In part, until my promotion, I felt that a lot of my activity including my teaching approach, written scholarship and public engagement in law reform, policy debates and discussion was in some sense illegitimate/unorthodox or of lesser value/respectability or status than the more traditional activities of my peers. A friend, now a Law School Dean, emailed me on hearing of the promotion and stated “You must feel incredibly validated for all your hard work over the years”. This was an eureka moment/comment for me. Yes I did. I had lodged an application, with the extremely strong backing of my new Dean, that asked for my efforts to be judged against the normal criteria but not in reference to the usual benchmarks (A1 refereed journals, competitive research grants, formal university teaching surveys). Another colleague wrote
“You are a star! One of the few real teachers that made it in the research encrusted world - so not only congratulations on a promotion so very well earned, but thanks from the rest of us for whom teaching is the goal.”

This memoir owes part of its existence to my recent long and slow slog back to better levels of health and fitness. Not only do I feel much better with myself, more comfortable in the world around me but I also have the energy to divert to this activity.

I have started to try and tell a story about some of my journey that has meaning not only for me but for those who I have encountered on the way. I have already discovered that a memoir and a personal narrative can have a deep impact on others and that ‘my story’ is also in parts a story of other people who may not want any version of that story told.

I haven’t decided wherever to, or when, post excerpts from the memoir on this blog. In the short term probably not and may restrict it to unwanted reflections or by-products of the process (the next proposed blog entry on the book Teaching as a Subversive Activity is an example of this – a piece too long and/or out of tune with the project).

I remember seeing on an ABC Book Club segment a discussion about the Great Gatsby. Someone commented how Fitzgerald had developed a deep and multilayered background for every character, event, relationship but had pared it all down to a minimalist presence on the actual page. In A Movable Feast Hemmingway wrote about a crowd scene a poet had worked on for a year to reduce down to a sparse few words. At the moment I am just trying to capture events, memories, flashbacks and to explore feelings and reactions by just letting the words flow out.

One thing I am discovering is how fragile and unreliable memories can be. One example around 1980 I read a second hand copy of Teaching as a Subversive Activity. It left a big impression on me but as I was thinking in the last 5 weeks about the influences/inputs into my teaching journey it didn’t come to mind. Yet when I went back and reread the book I was staggered by the extent to which my teaching fits onto their template. Any student taught by me who looks at the Wikipedia page on Inquiry Education http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquiry_education would say I simply replicated their methods. Yet at no time in the last 22 years have I looked again at the book. Yet most of the elements I have chosen – deep learning, constructive alignment, action learning, avoiding teaching inert or dead material – for my teaching from various authors fit almost as modules or snap lock parts to this central framework.

Whether this memoir is finally published or in what form who knows but already I have reaped dividends in my family and personal relationships, in my sense of self and in my understanding of my teaching. At the very least it has provided enough renewed passion to get me through at least one more semester of teaching.

1st Leaf - Mexico 

3 comments:

gary said...

I am delighted to post the first comment. Yes, I encouraged Rick to write his story, in part for the reasons he indicates and in part, for the fact that it is an amazing story, rich in experience and rich in inspiration for those who currently teach or study in unversity or elsewhere.
Like Rick, I'm a first generation university graduate and until recently when my neice graduated, the only one in the family to do so. Despite coming from two different hemispheres/continents, we share many experieices but there are significant differences. I had advantages Rick did not, which makes his story all the more important to tell and to be read.
One theme I think will come through for all readers is the role of luck, fate, god -- whatever one choses to call that which is unknown -- in directing our lives. The choices we make are our own and we need to own them but we are only part creator of our lives as the choices we are presented with afe often not of our own making. The response -- the road taken and not taken -- therein lies the making of the person.
I look forward to reading Rick's story!
Gary

Carla said...

Wonderful task!! And the hard part is done...you have the cover, all you need do is fill it.
Rick, the bottom line is that you are interesting--a character--you dance (not march) to a different drummer and it works for you and inspires others. Leap and the net shall appear.
I am looking forward to not only the book, but to watching the documented journey.
If I might be bold, don't get totally lost in the teacher part, You are truly multi-dimensional and the world needs to embrace you as an amazing whole, as we your friends have!
This is exciting...now where did I put that lovely photo of you at Peggy's Cove?
- Carla

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