Friday, May 29, 2009

The Compleat Aussie Academic

I've been contemplating writing a guide for the American academic who takes up a position at an Australian University. It would include the kinds of things that don't appear in other guides to the country--the 'unadvertised' stuff. A few that come to mind today:
  • Australian students (certainly those who study psychology) don't like to buy books after the first year of uni, and often their instructors merely suggest books, rather than require them for the final exam. A couple of reps from academic publishers told me that it is really difficult to sell textbooks here (compared to the States), even though there isn't really a huge difference in price (maybe 5-10% higher here).
  • Three-hole punch loose-leaf notebooks are available here, but the two-hole paper punch and notebook are much more the norm. Why anyone prefers just to keep their papers in such a notebook (the two holes are near the center of the page, leaving the tops and bottoms hanging around pretty loosely) is a mystery to me. Of course, this mystery goes in both directions. I once asked a student to use my American three-hole punch with a three-hole notebook for a lab project, and she responded, "Why?"
  • They're called brackets, not parentheses, here. I don't think there is a way to differentiate between () and [] in normal Aussie speech, although perhaps you could say "square brackets" when referring to the latter.  And, quotes (' ') are referred to as "inverted commas."
  • If you don't have the rank of Professor, be happy being addressed as "Dr." Of course, the students will probably call you by your first name anyway. In fact, the only people who don't use my first name when they first meet me are usually international students from Canada or the U.S. Back in Atlanta, where much of the etiquette is full of strong Southern tones, I worked with a PhD student who called me "Dr. Vanman" the entire five years I knew her--even though I repeatedly insisted that she call me "Eric."
  • The document created by a Master's student here is called a "dissertation" and the one produced by a PhD student is called a "thesis." That's exactly opposite of the American convention.
  • PhD students here don't normally have to defend their thesis orally.  In fact, the examiners of the thesis don't even come from one's own university.  When the student submits his or her thesis, it's sent to two examiners with an international reputation who have 6-8 weeks to write a report about the thesis. The student then responds to any suggestions/criticisms when the reports come back. Back in the States, a student gives an oral presentation of their dissertation, followed by questions from their dissertation committee and the audience. Then, they continue with another 1-2 hours of interviews with the 4-5 members of the dissertation committee. The dissertation committee is made up entirely of faculty members from the university, unless there is a need to have someone outside the university with special expertise. Finally, after the defense, there's usually a celebration with champagne and nibbles. Here, because the examination process carries on over several months, it's much harder to feel like one is done at some particular point.
  • Australian academics like really, really long PhD theses. I was the examiner for one that was nearly 400 pages long. By contrast, my own PhD dissertation was about 50 pages long.  This norm appears to be changing, as international assessors of Aussie theses often refuse to examine such long documents.
  • Australian universities like forms. There's a specific form for any activity here that a student undertakes. It's driving me nuts.
  • Australian undergraduate students like to focus on their "Assignments" during the semester (they can usually tell you exactly how many they have across all their subjects), and then, and only then, do they start to think about the final exam when they have heard the last lecture.
  • School (or Department) governance is more often run like an oligarchy or is even completely concentrated in the all-powerful Head of School. This is changing in my school, where input from staff members (i.e., "the faculty" in U.S. parlance) about major decisions is increasingly welcome. Back in Atlanta we spent countless hours discussing nearly every matter as an entire faculty group.  More democracy occurred there, but it was also a lot of wasted time. I am much happier with the benevolent (and competent) dictator model here.
Of course, the list largely reflects my limited experience in this one department at this one university. Perhaps I will find other North American academics to contribute to it...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hog Heaven

Kahneman and Tversky published a series of influential psychology articles in the 1970s about heuristics--the mental shortcuts that we all take when processing the constant bombardment of information that is inflicted on us during every waking moment. One of these is the availability heuristic, which, according to the Wikipedia entry, is a cognitive bias "in which people base their prediction of the frequency of an event or the proportion of the population based on how easily an example can be brought to mind." I've been lecturing about the availability heuristic for years in my social psychology courses. One example I always mention was how a friend of mine in graduate school refused to fly on DC-10s after just one high-profile crash in Iowa, even though DC-10s at the time had one of the best safety records of all aircraft.

Well, right now I'm suffering from the power of the availability heuristic as it pertains to the swine flu "pandemic." And I'm not the only one--emergency rooms in New York City are full of people who think they have the swine flu:  “The consensus among these physicians,” said Dr. Steven J. Davidson, the chairman of the hospital’s emergency medicine department, “is that the influenza is mild but the patients are unusually scared.”  Here in Australia the frequency of swine flu stories in the news has noticeably increased in the past week.  Some newspapers give daily Australian "swine flu tolls," as if they were counting deaths from the flu, although no one here has actually died in the over 170 cases that have been reported. Today's Courier-Mail included several pages of coverage to the swine flu, which included a major story about a cruise ship that has been sort of quarantined at the Great Barrier Reef (but the passengers continue to "party on," as one Brisbane bloke told a reporter). Another story was about the fact that the state and federal governments are now requiring that all children who travel to countries with high rates of swine flu (e.g., the United States) must stay at home for seven days when they return to Oz.

Why is this causing me a problem? Well, we are scheduled to leave next Thursday for the U.S. with our 3-year-old in tow (who looked very much like that boy in the picture above when he was younger!). V. and I have thought seriously about cancelling our trip, and waiting until next year to try to travel again.  We would lose lots of money if we did so, and we (and my family members) would be very disappointed.  But, you know, it's our son that we're talking about here.

But, alas, we have decided to stick to the facts. The fatality rate from the swine flu is about the same as any strain of influenza, and, our chances of getting the flu (of any strain) are probably no greater when going to the U.S. now than staying around here where it seems our colleagues and friends are coming down with all sorts of viruses (remember, the flu season has just begun in the southern hemisphere).  I had a flu "jab" a few weeks ago that is supposed to inoculate me from both Brisbane strands of the virus (dubbed last year as "more deadly than any seen in the past two decades in Britain"). 

Damn you, availability heuristic, I'm going to stick to the facts this time when estimating the probability...

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Romantic

We watched "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" on Saturday night with Will (his first time). Call me an unrepentant romantic, but I just can't get enough of this song:

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Star Was Born (Somewhere Else)

I got up early this morning and headed off to the Seven television studios on Mt. Coot-ha to do a live "cross-over" for 'Sunrise,' the top-rated morning show in Australia. I have written in this blog before about the hosts of this show, Mel and Kochie, who have a style that would be considered completely inappropriate in the States. I adore them! Anyway, a few minutes before they cut to me, I got to speak briefly to Kochie via an earpiece. Then, following the news of a foiled terrorist plot in New York and torrentials rains in NSW, Mel went to me for an explanation of a recent article about the possible brain mechanisms that underlie love.  If I appear stiff and awkward in this video, it's because I was.  I was worried about fidgeting, talking too loud, and lifting my head too high to avoid a reflection on my glasses, all while I worried whether I was going to say something stupid on a one-second delay that appeared on the large television below the camera.  You can watch it for yourself:

Poor Will was watching this live at home, and when I disappeared from the screen, he ran to the front door, opened it (for the first time!), and began screaming for me.  Perhaps he sensed the quick fall from stardom that I now faced...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Would You Hire This Guy?

There must be a real shortage of quality executives out there because the guy in this picture, Sol Trujillo, an American businessman who recently returned to the States, actually thinks he's going to get hired by another American corporation because he's good at "fixing" broken companies.

For any non-Australian readers, Trujillo's name probably won't ring a bell. But, here in Oz, Trujillo had, until a few weeks ago, been running Telstra, the largest telecommunications company in the land.  It's Telstra that takes at least $300 a month from my pocket in return for a somewhat crappy iPhone service, our meager home telephone service (we pay for every phone call in addition to a $30 monthly fee), and providing internet service at a premium price. This is also the same company that had its Board of Directors meeting in Las Vegas last summer, while the current financial crisis finally started to have an impact here.  And Telstra is the company whose shares have dropped nearly 38 percent during Trujillo's tenure.  If Telstra had any real competition in this country (like the kind that goes on in the U.S., for example), I am certain it would be out of business by now.

Yes, Trujillo was recently forced to leave Telstra after breaking it (maybe this is why he's an expert on fixing broken companies?). During the four years he ran Telstra, however, he earned more than $30 million (US$21 million).  Now he's back in America, and according to an article in today's Australian, he's trying to defend his record at the company: "I don't know if you noticed that there is a global recession going on and we have outperformed the ASX [the Australian stock exchange] in total shareholder return."

Geoff Elliott, who wrote the article, then points out in the next paragraph: 
From the day Mr Trujillo started on July 1, 2005, to the day of his departure last Thursday, Telstra shares have fallen 37.8 per cent compared with a 13 per cent fall by the benchmark S&P/ASX 200 index. Based on total shareholder returns, which takes into account dividend payments, Telstra shares have underperformed the wider market by 18 per cent, according to Bloomberg data.

Since the peak of the stock market in late 2007, the S&P/ASX 200 is off about 44 per cent, while Telstra shares are down just 32 per cent. Still, Telstra shares never moved more than a few cents past the $5.06 mark when Mr Trujillo joined the company and closed yesterday at $3.21.

And this is how someone earns $30 million in four years?  Running a sub-standard company that doesn't even benefit its shareholders, let alone its customers? Fortunately for Trujillo's successor, most Australians don't seem to know how substandard their telecommunication services are compared to the rest of the industrialised world, and therefore expectations are pretty low that it's ever going to get better here.

After digging around a bit, I discovered that before he came to Australia in 2005, Trujillo was the CEO of US West until a hostile takeover by Qwest in 2000. Then he became the CEO of Orange, the French telecom, which has an infamous reputation as an ISP provider in the UK. He's still on the Board of Directors of Orange today.  Gee, I sure hope that someone asks to see Trujillo's resume before he's allowed to "fix" his next company.  

Monday, May 18, 2009

Herding Ducks

We had an early start on Sunday morning so that we could attend the Brookfield Show in NW Brisbane. After driving only 15 minutes from our home, we found ourselves in the middle of a beautiful valley that felt far away from the Brisbane metro area. Here, next to the Brookfield State School, was a country-fair (an agricultural "show" in Australia) with all sorts of attractions for our 3-year-old and his two pre-school friends (who met us there with their parents) to enjoy. Our first stop was the sideshow alley, where the kids boarded three kiddie rides. I was relieved that this time Will didn't try to climb out while his ride was still moving. He did, however, try (unsuccessfully) to convince me to take him on the adult rides. And when I ordered a Diet Coke at the refreshment stand, he cheekily added to the order: "and a red lolly!" We later saw various water fowl in the poultry pavilion, a stuffed dingo, several snakes, a group of piglets taking a nap between races, a camel caravan that wandered among the crowds (seen in the picture on the right), and some beautiful border collies who demonstrated their herding skills on a trio of ducks in an obstacle course. Will and his friends also enjoyed the petting area, which seemed packed with mischievous children who cheerily pulled the tails of the baby animals. I think Will's favourite part of the show was the huge display of cakes, cookies, and brownies up for competition in the cookery pavilion. In his sweetest voice, he gently repeated, "please, Daddy, can I have that one?" We took a pass on the $50 'chopper' rides, which involved a dinky helicopter that looked like it was put together as a kit in someone's garage. Finally, we cheered the horses jumping obstacles in the Arena, although I really didn't understand what was happening in the competition.  By the time we left 3 hours later, Will and his friends (and their parents) were exhausted.

I really love 
these Australian agricultural shows. The granddaddy of them all, the EkkA, is just three months away... 

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Croc Bait

I saw this picture in a gallery of photos titled 'Croc Bait' on the Northern Territory News website. Territorians seem to be the ultimate thrill-seekers, and perhaps a good research population for my next study.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


Next month we will celebrate our two-year anniversary in Australia, and that's made me think about how I'm starting to lose some of my American ways.  Examples:
  • I no longer know what time it is back in the States (in any time zone). I used to think about it constantly, but now depend on my computer to figure it out.
  • I no longer need to convert the temperature to Fahrenheit.  In fact, I know that a max of 25 C is 'perfect,' and that anything below 12 C will require a jacket. I don't even know what those temps are in F, but I could compute them if you want me to.
  • Occasionally we come across some celebrity gossip from the States, and I am surprised about how many of the new 'celebs' are people I have never heard of.  I am not sure what "The Hills" is all about, for example.
  • I phoned a friend today back in the States and accidentally slipped into the conversation "nappies," "cot," and a few other Aussie words for which I momentarily forgot the American equivalent.
  • I now pronounce 'tomatoes' the Aussie way when I order a sandwich at Subway.
  • I regularly use my $1 and $2 coins these days.  This took a long time to master.
  • When the seasons occur (e.g., referring to winter in June) is starting to make sense.
  • I was listening to our voice messages from our American number, and was startled when I heard someone with a Georgia accent. That's one I now rarely hear, if ever, here.
  • I am starting to greet co-workers and friends by name when I see them--this is one of those amazing aspects of Australian hospitality that has taken me way too long to reciprocate.
I still diligently follow the news from America (probably better than I follow Australian news). I don't know if that will ever change. And we still subscribe (via iTunes) to three or four American TV shows, including "The Daily Show," so I haven't completely forgotten my cultural roots. But, who knows. Maybe a year from now I will actually care about who wins the Logies.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Small Country

I received the following email today (FYI: the intended recipients are Australians):

The population of this country is 20 million.

11 million are retired.

That leaves 9 million to do the work.

There are 5 million in school

Which leaves 4 million to do the work.

Of this there are 2 million employed by the federal government.

Leaving 2 million to do the work.

0.1 million are in the armed forces preoccupied with killing Osama  Bin-Laden.

Which leaves 1.9 million to do the work.

Take from that total the 1.5 million people who
work for state and  city Governments. And that leaves 0.4 million to do the work.

At any given time there are 18,800 people in hospitals.

Leaving 381,200 to do the work.

Now, there are 381,198 people in prisons.

That leaves just two people to do the work.

You and me.

And there you are,

Sitting on your ass,

At your computer, reading jokes.

Nice. Real nice.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

At a Minimum

I was talking to one of my honours students the other day. She told me that she would soon have more time for her thesis project because she was losing her job as a waitress. I asked why. She said, "oh, you know, I'm turning 21." As if that explained everything! I reminded her that I am an American eager to know more about Australia. Well, it turns out that when she turns 21 the employer must pay her more, and because of that, they will make up the excuse that slower business means that she is no longer needed. The student didn't seem particularly bothered by this. Indeed, when I checked with other students, as well as some Aussie colleagues, they all gave me a look of "well, of course!"

So, I did a little research and discovered that there are in effect several minimum wages in Australia. With the exception of certain professions and union agreements (and that covers quite a few people), the standard Federal Minimum Wage (FMW) is $14.31 per hour, or $543.78 per week. [As a comparison, on July 24th this year, the U.S. minimum wage will increase to $7.25 per hour, or $9.82 per hour in Aussie dollars].  However, people under 21 are considered 'junior employees' in Oz, and thus are not entitled to the full FMW:
A junior is any employee who is younger than the age set down in an award, or in other industrial instruments, defining adult (or senior) employment status - typically this can be an age between 18 and 21 years. Most awards and agreements set different wage rates for each age group up to senior status.  Usually a junior would receive a percentage of the appropriate minimum adult rate. source here
An example of these percentages from the Queensland web site are: 
  • 17 years and under or 1st year of experience as an apprentice: 55% of FMW
  • 18 years or 2nd year of experience: 65% of FMW
  • 19 years but less than 3rd year of experience: 75% of FMW, etc.
I find this all a bit strange.  Why should a 20 year old who starts working at a coffee shop on the same day as an 18 year old be paid $4-5 more an hour, simply because she is older? (By the way, "years of experience" only apply to special apprenticeships).  And, surely the common practice of sacking people when they turn 21 must raise some eyebrows in union and government offices?

I think being a small business owner in Australia must involve a lot of bureaucratic frustration. And I belong to a union!  (More on that later).

Friday, May 1, 2009

Big Hit

When I first visited Australia in 1975 (I turned 12 during our stay), the biggest record in Oz when we left was "January" by Pilot. Lucky for me, I bought the 45 before we headed home, as this song never made it very big back in the States (although "Magic" was a big hit there). I have only heard it once or twice in the past 30 years. And then along came YouTube, and my discovery today of the very video I remember watching on Aussie TV all those years ago: