catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Almost a community of scholars

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Taking up the theme of university colleges that came up in the Alice Garner review, to elaborate on the claim that Hytten Hall in Hobart offered a hint of a community of scholars and engagement with the life of the campus at large.

We are talking early to mid 1960s when about 3% of people went on to uni. The Uni of Tasmania had less than 2000 students and a little over 100 academic staff. There were three colleges for men, Christ College (C of E), John Fisher (RC) and Hytten Hall (no fixed religious address) and one for women named after Jane Franklin.

HH was a stones throw up the hill from the Union, with CC and JF a good five to ten minutes (walking) further up the hill. HH had over 100 residents, CC and Jane Franklin about 50 each and JF less than that. The Uni of Tasmania is attractively located on the slopes of Mount Nelson above Sandy Bay, though the attraction was less for students of Agriculture in Christ College and John Fisher because Ag was in old army huts at the very bottom of the hill on Sandy Bay Road.

The tone of the Hall was set to some extent by the leadership, namely George Wilson the Warden and Mike Vertigan, the President of the resident body, a graduate in economics, previously a prefect at Launceston Grammar and currently the Chancellor of Tas Uni , after a period of public service high in the Victorian Treasury during the Kennet administration.

George Wilson was a big man in a small body. A kiwi with the silver-haired appearance of Einstein and Albert Schwietzer he coached the Uni rugby team and actually played for Tasmania at half back, aged 37 when he first arrived in town. Later it transpired that he had been friendly with Popper and Colin Simkin in Christchurch. Simkin was Popper’s closest friend from NZ and when we became friends (some decades after Hobart) he reported that during the war George was trying to organise militia groups with food and weapons hidden in the hills to fight on after the impending Japanese invasion. Popper told me that he worked with George on a committee to push for representation of academic staff at the University Council or perhaps the Senate. The Registrar grumbled “You will want the college porter on the Council next”.

There were two or three “Tutors in residence” but I can’t recall their official status beyond having single rooms (unlike the common herd). One of them was doing a PhD in Agriculture and he told us that we should not think of the degree as a meal ticket. He went on to become warden of a college in Perth.

George wanted his boys to work hard and play hard which we generally did, at least in the third term when everyone went into examination mode. Not that George or anyone else was in a position to force people to do much, apart from abiding by the reasonably relaxed rules of the college.

There was not a lot of organised college activity apart from a formal dinner dance each term and the annual game of football and cricket against the combined forces of Christ College and John Fisher. That hardly compared with the hectic roster of multiple sports played between the multiple colleges at some universities, notably Sydney. One year we put on a play, The Admirable Crichton, “What is natural is right“,  performed in the dining room using sets home-made in the warden’s garage. That was in partnership with Jane Franklin, a great ice-breaker in social relations between the two camps. I played second servant and third sailor in different acts, with about one line in each part.

Once in the early evening we raided Jane Franklin, what would have been called a ‘panty raid’ in US parlance but not knowing better we just threw a lot of bedding down the stairs and carried some back to the Hall. The warden of Jane Franklin did not enter into the spirt of the occasion and told George that she had notified the police, so he felt obliged to read the riot act and tell us not to do it again.

About a quarter of the men in Hall were Asian students on the Columbo Plan, some of the cream of their generation who came to Australian universities to do engineering, economics and commerce. They tended to be studious and somewhat withdrawn from most activities, though many joined the campus badminton clubs and they provided the overwhelming majority of players at badminton intervarsities.

The badminton club became the centre of my social life because the club secretary was in Hall and he knocked on my door and invited me to join. In second year I was forced onto the committee (with some arm twisting) and the process was repeated to make me the President in third year. The badminton club was mixed because the teams consisted of three men and two women, so with the women and the Asians the social life of the badminton club was very different from the oafish beer-swilling that characterised the single gender clubs.

The common life of the Hall revolved around the common room and the dining room which gave off the entrance foyer to left and right respectively. People sat around in the common room to smoke and take tea or coffee after meals, play bridge, discuss the state of the world and generally avoid their room-mates and the work that they might otherwise have to confront in their rooms. I overheard some engrossing chat by overseas post-grads talking about their projects, politics, comparison of Australia and the US, etc.

Beyond the common room was a room with tables and chairs where people on the deadline for an assignment could get a break from noisy or distracting room-mates, and beyond that was a reasonably well-stocked library where George had decanted the bulk of his own collection. There I discovered Barzun “The House of Intellect”, Graham Greene, Arthur Koestler, some Bertrand Russell and many more. Also a well-thumbed copy of Balzac’s “Droll Stories”.

There were telephones in the common room and a PA system to summon people to take incoming calls (“its only your mother”, “how long have you been seeing Myrtle Pecksmith?”) and for other announcements of common interest or concern (“Hey everyone, we beat the bastards” from the hockey players coming in at 2.30 am).

One day there was a call at lunchtime call to get down to the Union building and vote to support Dennis Altman and block a move to have the student body ask the professional philosophers to lift their ban from the Tas Uni chair. This was a result of the Orr case that commenced some years earlier when Orr was dismissed from his lectureship in philosophy for alleged misconduct with a female student. It was widely believed that he was unfairly treated and the union of philosophers placed a ban on the chair of the department. A motion was before the student union that the ban be lifted, in the interests of students who might want to major in philosophy. Altman was speaking against the motion, in the interests of the Truth and High Principle, and with the support of fifteen or twenty men from the Hall the motion was lost by a narrow margin. I am pleased to report that I actually listened to the arguments for and against and almost voted the other way, while at least one of our contingent disobeyed our marching orders and did vote to lift the ban.

Getting back to the key point about the community of scholars, this was not planned or engineered, it was just there for anyone who was prepared to be interested in the work that other people were doing. The most obvious place to start was the room-mate, you could hardly ignore what they were doing, although often enough it was the same course because friends and course-mates obviously tended to room together. As it happened I mostly roomed with Arts men, and also talked a lot with other people doing non-science subjects. One of them showed me some offprints from a Geography journal, articles on location theory that alerted me to some of the problems of explanation in the social sciences.

In fact I found the assignments in English more interesting than mine and I toyed with the idea of a change of direction after first year but my Agricultural Council scholarship was too good to give up.

The level of discussion in the Hall was no doubt helped by the fairly high level of ability of most students, practically all would have been on Commonwealth Scholarships, Ed Department scholarships or industry cadetships. Just about all were first generation uni students so there was not much family tradition of scholarship, but interest and ability made up for that.

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Written by Admin

November 3, 2006 at 1:41 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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