A reassuring presence (no bullshit)

Posted on | September 1, 2012 | 1 Comment

My first encounter with Graeme Turner, which he is unlikely to remember, was in 1999, as an Honours student working at the University of Tasmania. After a year of turbulence, in which the main priority was to get out of small town Hobart, Graeme was one of the people I contacted in the hope of acquiring a PhD supervisor. The topic, as I recall, was vague. Something like: “The politics of the alternative”. I was completing my Honours thesis on what had become known as “grunge” literature. Feeling isolated in a place with few friends remaining, music and books were both compass and horizon (in retrospect, not much has changed). For some reason, Graeme saw some potential in my ideas. In the email that followed, he explained that he was about to move out of the Department of English, Media Studies and Art History to lead a new research centre. This wouldn’t prevent him from supervising; he just wanted to make me aware of the situation. It was a set of characteristics I would come to identify with Graeme in years to come: an immediate welcome, a quick-draw response when needed, and a willingness to share insider knowledge. He regularly makes us feel equipped with more information than would otherwise be possible.

The next significant moment came about 4 years later, as I was finishing my PhD at the University of Sydney. Graeme was on the interview panel for a job I applied for to work here at UQ. There’s not much I remember from that afternoon, washed away in adrenaline and outfit insecurity. The bookends were a text message from Elspeth wishing me luck and a phone call from Richard Fotheringham offering me a job. It wasn’t the one I applied for – it sounded better, actually. I suspect it is Graeme’s presence that day that gave me a bright and privileged future, and I am forever grateful.

I’m not alone in this. In one way or another, Graeme has created a home for many of us in the academy. These are just three of the contributions I’ve witnessed in the past decade:

• his writing and teaching legacy, which is truly phenomenal. How many undergraduate courses in cultural studies in Australia would not include Graeme’s work? Surely there is no stronger indication of impact. As his latest book shows, Graeme’s generation fought to secure cultural studies’ apparent radicalism in studying the popular and ordinary facets of everyday life. This is something many of us can now take for granted, even though it is the result of long-term battles.

• his advocacy in government and university settings: the ARC, the Academy of the Humanities, the Prime Minister’s Innovation Council, the Arts Faculty. Working as a postdoctoral fellow here at UQ, Graeme was the best kind of boss in the way that he protected us. He kept us removed from the debilitating institutional logistics and pressures that actually governed our existence. To provide a safe space away from such realities, to let us get on with what we were more excited by and capable of at the beginning of a research career, is a rare and true gift.

• his reassuring presence. The comfort Graeme provides is his willingness to talk but also to listen. This combination of traits tends to be rare as professors move up the university hierarchy and come under an increasing array of pressures. Graeme is a friend and an anchor in what are often stormy seas.

The clearest and most widely felt example of Graeme’s unique mentoring role was his stewardship of the Cultural Research Network, which ran from 2004-9. For those involved, this was not some exclusive club, fixated on outcomes and excellence. As Emily Potter explains:

the opportunities for mentoring and professional development offered by GT and the CRN initiative extended way beyond the actual members of the CRN. The State of the Industry conference [2009] was indicative of this, but it was also realised in the many ‘outreach’ programs such as the masterclasses, workshops and the ‘open door’ events that the CRN enabled. The spirit of the CRN was fundamentally inclusive despite it being pragmatically membership based, and to me this is reflective of GT’s ethos. GT also offered personal mentoring to members of the CRN, and also ECR and MCR academics outside it. He made/makes himself available in the best kind of way, not just as a source of knowledge and advice, but also as an advocate for those who sought his counsel and for the next generation of scholars in general.

Another representative for early career scholars during the CRN’s life, Susan Luckman, describes Graeme as “a generous, collegial and ‘lift all boats’ scholar, in what can otherwise be a fairly competitive and cut-throat world.”

Graeme is living proof that you can be a highly successful, indeed leading academic, and a nice guy too. He genuinely walks the talk of supporting young scholars, both in terms of contacts and opportunities, but also in terms of self-belief and understanding one’s role within the scholarly community, and responsibilities back to it (and their rewards).

In his recent book, What’s Become of Cultural Studies?, Graeme shows a particular concern for the conditions faced by junior scholars entering the academy today. “From what I see around me,” he writes:

there is much greater professional pressure on these young people than I faced at the beginning of my career: there are high expectations for their professional performance, more intrusive and bureaucratized scrutiny in the workplace, a shrinking division between their work and their private lives, and more just plain angst about their careers… (6).

As someone who feels addressed by these concerns, indeed, as one of those most guilty of perpetuating this angst, I want to assure Graeme of the important role he has played in rectifying this situation. His legacy here at UQ – the CCCS and the CRN in particular – has mobilized a large group of scholars who have experienced the pleasures of collegiality and solidarity intimately. This is no small accomplishment given the individualizing forces of neoliberal auditing and productivity that haunt our working lives.

The CRN created dynamic intergenerational and interdisciplinary relationships that continue to generate exciting, world-leading research. It also delivered training, skills and opportunities that were otherwise missing at a national level. The central role Graeme played in this was one of facilitation, rather than direction. Reflecting on the impact of the CRN on his professional development, Clif Evers explains how Graeme:

welcomed people in ways that left them with the freedom to get what they needed out of a project instead of imposing on it his own goals & agenda. He was willing to take the back seat and be the support act, which is what some of us ECRs and PGs need. This enabled us to become more confident, comfortable and creative in the university and our service to the community more broadly. An empathetic mentor/scholar. Some of the initiatives he supported, through untiring hands-on participation and very real enthusiasm, have now become part of the CS landscape – the open door mentoring scheme (that we ran nationally), ECR/PG driven workshops where a senior scholar would listen all day and offer only commentary at the end.

And while some of these initiatives continue, there needs to be a re-invigoration of this work as it is by no means widespread or systematic across the industry. As another active leader in the CRN’s outreach agenda, Clif is like many of us inspired to consolidate the feelings of responsibility to others we learned from Graeme.

In this sense, and as a number of these reflections attest, Graeme has illustrated the importance of leading by example. At a time when the university can seem like an unenviable place to inhabit, Graeme shows the value of being – in the words of my colleague, Ruth Barcan – “consciously contagious”. Ruth’s latest book, Emotions, Ethics and Politics in University Teaching and Research: Hope and Other Choices, is an excellent complement to Graeme’s recent challenge to the field. Her project analyses the competing obligations academics navigate in today’s “palimsestic university”. Ruth identifies the need for senior scholars “to be aware of the power of what they embody. They need to recognize that their mode of professional being in the world is itself a tacit pedagogy and they are therefore obliged to use it reflexively and ethically”.

What people appreciate in Graeme, I think, is the relief that there can be sanity and level-headedness at the highest level of professorial practice. His ability to cut through the grandeur, the cruelty and the lunacy of things, both in the university and beyond, makes him an inestimable presence in my life, and many others. As Clif put it to me, writing earlier in the week, in addition to the material help he has given us, it is “his humour and groundedness” that stands out. With Graeme there’s “no bullshit”.

The university, as we know, has religious origins. In the absence of other guiding beliefs, it is an institution in which I have sought refuge on many occasions. The Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies was a home away from home, for me – just as the CRN helped in the transition to other places since. Like any affiliation, however, there is always a need for guidance and solace along the way. When I feel confused, I have to confess that I no longer turn to the church, or even the university. In fact, I am often known to mutter to myself “What would Graeme do?” 🙂 If I am no longer religious, it is at least partly because I have been lucky to have the wisdom of elders who make me – as I said – reassured that there is a right way to proceed. I know a lot of people have been wondering what the field of cultural studies, indeed what the Humanities in Australia will do without Graeme. In this we should feel confident that there are many who are well equipped and inspired to carry on his work. I am also sure his involvement and investment in the field will only continue free from the labour of administration. But on a personal note, I do want to take this occasion to say to Graeme thank you for everything you have done for me, and on my behalf. I certainly mean it quite literally when I say: I don’t know what to do without you. So please keep taking my calls!

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One Response to “A reassuring presence (no bullshit)”

  1. Zombie solidarity | Flat 7
    September 28th, 2012 @ 10:30 pm

    […] on the ‘contract careers’ of newer university workers as cultural workers (see also her quotation from Ruth Barcan’s forthcoming book on “the need for senior scholars “to be …). Projects like Review my Review and UWSDissenter. ‘Means-based’ fees for academic […]

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