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...

2 comments:

Mr. Radio said...

Wow...that's crazy about the 400 page thesis! I didn't know that Australian PhD candidates love to write things that long.

And the structure of the uni out there seems a bit odd too. In the US it's all willy nilly.

Audra said...

Someday, I am going to have a nice long whinge about those two-hole punch binders! It's like they don't want to waste a hole or something...