01 November 2016

Mind the Gap: Research and Schools

Image by Mikel Ortega at https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikelo/217048717

Last week I attended the AIS Education Research Symposium.  When I worked at Oakhill College I was part of the team that created and implemented REAL (Relevant Engaging, Active Learning) and then we researched its impact.  Unfortunately I left Oakhill before the end of the two year research project but thankfully I remained involved to an extent.  We designed REAL to create a paradigm shift in the teaching and learning environment at the school through a transparent curriculum in a detailed but clear (student-friendly) format, structured for students to know each lesson or week:
  • What is to be learned
  • How it is to be learned, and
  • The evidence of successful learning
The research project examined the impact of REAL on student outcomes but effectively discovered the effect it had on teachers too.  The research revealed REAL as a significantly successful program, although teachers found it hard to adapt their practices, and I’m proud to have been associated with it.
But this post is about the symposium.  The main participants at the symposium are from schools that have received a research grant from AIS and are at the start, middle or end of a two year research project.  It is also for any other teachers who are keen to make stronger links between research and teaching practice.  And the first keynote speaker, Dr Stacey Waters, was exactly on this topic.

It is extremely hard to make a cultural shift in any institution, let alone a school which has so many entrenched perceptions of what it should be like.  Nearly everyone in the world experiences school and our experiences are reinforced by pop culture’s representation of it, this image being a teacher up the front instructing students sitting in rows, resisting the learning process (except when they have a superstar teacher like Michelle Pfeiffer or Robin Williams).

This is not the one best way to learn.  Academic research has indicated this repeatedly, yet many schools resist changing (much like their students resist learning).  I think part of it is the conflicting voices dominating the discourse of how schools should operate. As mentioned before, there is the entertainment industry image but there is also the political viewpoint that schools must do better, meaning better at publicly published score achievement (PISA, NAPLAN, HSC).  In education conference circles there are a few (mainly men) who have a certain popularity, often stringing out their one concept stories for decades (I’m thinking the hole-in-the-wall story and the idea that schools kill creativity).

The academic voice is often lost in all this.  There are some who are picked up by politicians and/or the media. For example, John Hattie and his Visible Learning ideal is lauded by politicians and the media.  However, even the John Hatties often remain ignored in the day-to-day classroom, for a number of reasons.

Personally I think it stems from a dominating need of isolated teachers in their classrooms to have control and order.  Control and order is easier if learning is considered to be the mere accumulation of knowledge.  It casts a dark shadow on education.  Teaching is better if it is collaborative, learning is better if it is collaborative, but it is much harder to maintain control and order in a collaborative environment when there isn’t a desire to learn in the first place, by teachers or students.  It is harder to know what individual students are doing in a collaborative environment and if it is known that they are not participating in the learning process, it is hard to know what to do about them.  There are plenty of theories, methods and systems that can be put in place but really, it all comes to dealing with individual motivations and desires to learn.  And to be honest, the better learning environments take more time and energy to plan and monitor.  I love an active collaborative learning environment in my classrooms but boy, it’s hard work a lot of the time.  

Prof Ruth Deakin Crick shared this quote as part of her presentation about the use of technology to change school culture from exam-driven teaching to a learning culture with dynamic pedagogy and engagement (image, however, was clipped from elsewhere):


Teachers are so busy and comfortable with what they know well and what they’ve been rewarded for in the past, they don’t want to become even busier and take risks that result in lost control and disapproval.

So now we can see why some resistance to change exists, let’s return to the academic voice and other reasons why it is difficult to implement research findings into school practice.

To be able to research in a detailed, scientifically credible manner, academics focus on narrow areas to reduce multiple confounding factors in their study. They generally want to discover a cause and effect, and the size of that effect, but to be specific and certain they can only concentrate on one cause and one effect at a time, whereas education is much much more complicated than that.  It is like reducing economic modelling to two products in the market.  It illustrates a concept but an economy with just two products is not real life.  This is why Hattie’s study is so appealing, it throws hundreds of studies into the mix and calculates which causes have the most effect.  However, one point worth noting, is how long this all takes.  A research project can take years, and then months to write and publish in an academic journal, and then even longer to garner the attention of those who it really affects, people in schools.  I’m not sure of the age of the studies Hattie includes in his meta-analysis.  Due to the narrow focus and time-lags the question was raised at the conference as to whether the academic rigour should be sacrificed, to an extent, to allow more pertinent and practical studies be undertaken in a more timely manner.  I don’t know the answer.

The publish or perish pressure on academics is a significant factor too.  The money associated with grants often comes with a proviso of what must be researched. Dr Stacey Waters also referred to the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) system which awards points according to the category of grants.  To be published, it helps if the research is something new and different, rather than going deeper into something that has already been examined.  The dream situation for an academic though, is selling books.  And books sell if they have something novel and easy to implement.  We all know how hard change management is, but just how many books advocate just ‘x’ number of steps (eg Kotter’s 8 steps) like it is a simple linear process?  It’s not.

Even if academics find something that is commonly considered important to implement in schools, the process is slow and usually ineffectual. Researchers are already balancing teaching and research and then they need to market their findings so that schools will take their ideas on board, when so many ideas are already present.  Dr Stacey Waters says that publishing and even training people is not enough. One of her presentation slides said:

Implementation is most successful when…
  • Practitioners receive training and coaching
  • The organisation provides the necessary infrastructure for training and coaching and regularly evaluates
  • The community is fully involved in the selection and evaluation of programs
(Fixsen, Naoom, Blasé, Friedman & Wallace, 2005)

She argued that schools should build relationships with universities and establish a research culture by providing easy access to academic journals and having a forum to discuss what these journals have to say.

Before Oakhill obtained the research grant from AIS we asked some universities to help us perform academic research.  We discovered that not only did they want to be paid consultation fees, that some even wanted to virtually take over the whole process.  We backed away quickly and were relieved and grateful to receive the AIS grant.  As part of the inaugural recipients of the grants there was only minimal guidance but still, some important structural requirements, including an academic advisor.  However, we ended up only spending 50% of the budgeted amount we allocated for the advisor. He was extremely helpful for implementing research that produced quantifiable data and how that data could be used, but partly due to how late we were and partly due to the lack of need, we didn’t use as much of his services for the writing part as we thought we would.

So here we were at a conference that was bringing together academics and teachers, albeit those already interested in research. As Terrie Jones tweeted, “Teacher practitioner researchers in partnership with academics bridging the research practice divide? This room. #AISRandD16”.  One of the sessions I enjoyed the most was about Case Study as a form of research.  From what little I have been involved in research at a tertiary level, I have found case study methods frowned upon because it is not appropriate to extrapolate something that works in one circumstance as being applicable to a wider range of circumstances.  Dr Kimberley Pressick-Kilborn argued that yes, three case studies are better than one, but much can be learned from them and proceeded to demonstrate how powerful they could be but also recognising their limitations.  I tweeted that I’d love to work on a case study with Dr Kimberley and she responded with a “Let’s talk” which I will probably take her up on some time next year (see screen grab below).  However, I’m not looking to do research like this until at least 2018.  I started a Master of Research (MRES) at Macquarie University this year but stopped just a few weeks in due to lack of time. I’m currently not working full-time so I can help my son through his HSC (he has autism and anxiety issues).  I considered studying also during this year ‘off’ but I need to make him the priority, not my own work. After that I’ll be open to all sorts of projects!


The people at this conference are the core people of their organisations interested in learning and continuous improvement.  What we we actually need to learn as researchers within schools, is how to gather-in colleagues to a learning mindset and join with us.

When we first attempted researching the REAL project ourselves, we applied to present at academic conferences in Seville, Spain, and New York, USA, and were approved for both based on our ‘abstracts’.  This was before the AIS grant even existed and we were without any support from universities.  We then had to write papers for these conferences, the New York paper being subject to a peer review.  It failed one reviewer but the other advised us to change the format significantly, which we did, and it was then published <http://shanihartley.cgpublisher.com/product/pub.264/prod.58>*.  We also had to review other papers which was a great learning experience for us.  At these conferences there was much said about education at all levels but over 90% of the presenters were from universities.  Universities seem to take a more hit-and-run approach instead of working in tandem with the schools they research.  It would be nice to see or even experience more collaboration between schools and universities in the research process at academic conferences.  Perhaps we were better off without a university’s own agenda. We were unusual in being school teachers conducting and presenting our own research.  There should be more of it.  
* Despite numerous emails to the publishers, the bios of the authors were not corrected.
* This post is also found at http://shartley.edublogs.org/2016/11/01/mind-the-gap-research-and-schools/

20 October 2016

TeachMeet: Solve For x

Phillip taking a selfie before presenting.
I'm the one waving up the back.

I have been to several TeachMeets.  This particular TeachMeet was held at Google headquarters in Sydney which was one of the main attractions for me.  I missed out on one two years earlier and as I searched for the Twitter hashtag for this evening I found an exchange that occurred about the use of #TMGoogle - the issue being that TeachMeets are supposed to be teacher ran and teachers as presenters, no sponsorship.  However, to host a TeachMeet in a cool location such as Google HQ there is a trade-off.  Tonight I felt the trade to be rather unequal.  The hashtag was not #TMGoogle but perhaps it should have been. It seemed every second speaker represented Google and was promoting something, useful somethings, but advertisements nevertheless. An extra grating factor was that teacher presenters were held to their time limits, albeit poorly, speakers not being deterred by soft Star Wars toys being thrown at them when their time had expired, yet Google presenters had limitless time.  And trust me, the teachers were much more interesting than the Google employees.

The stated theme of this TeachMeet was ‘Solve for x’, thereby promoting problem solving in education, that students solve whatever issue ‘x’ represented for teachers and/or students. The evening was officially launched by Kimberley Sutton through a YouTube video to explain the concept: Moonshot Thinking: Solve for x @ Tribeca Film Festival. Our first teacher presenter linked a goal to this theme nicely.

I have known Phillip Cooke through TeachMeets and Twitter for many years.  He is a passionate secondary school educator and declared this evening that his moonshot concept is teaching for life instead of for exams, a policy I am also passionate about.  I have enjoyed seeing Phillip present on this theme in many variations before. He is always interesting because not only does he and his colleagues come up with the ideas but they actually implement them, although I’m sure he wish he could implement more.  Phillip was intricately involved in the complete rebuild of his school, a school often seen in the industry as an alternative option for the misfits in our education system and thus had a poor reputation for a long time for drugs and disruptive behaviour. However, its hands-on practical approach to education is becoming more dominant in industry discourse and it has featured on a TV show for doing things a little differently.  

Phillip’s attitude towards authentic learning is borne out by some of the initiatives he has shared:
  • Establishing an annual Creative Careers Day where the future implications of their learning come to life through the people operating in creative enterprises
  • Implementing cross-curricular activities, such as Design and Technology with English and Drama to create wearable art costumes for a production of Othello, "Students didn’t just read Othello – they lived it"
  • Printing art designs of students on tea towels and selling them, simple but effective (also make great thank you presents at Teach Meets)

If I was to give my own moonshot for teaching and learning is that I desperately want students to be thinking for themselves. As a senior school teacher, I hate how much teaching is about preparing for HSC exams, such as artificial artifice that it diminishes authentic learning.  This is why I always like what Phillip has to say.

Dominic Hearne set the tone of his talk by quoting Gary Stager, “Schools have a sacred obligation to introduce children to things they don’t yet know they love”. In line with this philosophy, Dominic’s school has introduced a series of compulsory critical thinking courses, which I absolutely applaud. These include:
  • Future Problem Solving
  • Visions of Leadership
  • The Art of War / The Ethics of Peace
  • Epistemology (how do we think, why do we think, what influences our thinking and perception)

My daughter is currently studying International Relations and Human Rights at university. She would have loved the opportunity to examine some of these topics at school.  Her response being:
Screen Shot 2016-10-20 at 3.03.05 PM.png

One of the students undertaking this course used several sources to investigate the Jewish holocaust and, as might be expected, referred to movie representations of the holocaust such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. He also had access to his grandmother’s letters and other documents depicting her time as a Jew interned by Hitler.  The result was not just a well researched product but the rest of the class had a new insight into the atrocities.

Nick Brierley hooked me by not only emphasising the thinking skill of problem solving but linking to the TV show Stranger Things, where the children in the show are constantly having to solve problems, not always successfully. He advocated the use of BreakoutEDU, a resource for creating engaging problem-solving games in classrooms. This is definitely a tool I will investigate further.
Technology definitely has a role to play in developing students’ critical thinking skills. A primary school teacher, Alfina Jackson commenced with the statement that she hasn’t heard students say they need PD before they can use technology, so if they can do it, teachers can do it too.  Glib, but mostly true. I have come across many teachers who are so ingrained in teaching the same way, with the same worksheets, year after year, that they truly struggle with making more than the occasional change to their regular modus of operation.

Alfina has her own YouTube Channel, mainly consisting of videos made by K-2 students.  These videos demonstrate learning in an authentic and meaningful way for our modern age.  Without many of us realising it, children are learning all the time through YouTube.  Actually many adults too.  I recently used YouTube to learn how to cast-off my knitting.  Alfina is therefore not only teaching students a particular topic, she is teaching digital responsibility.  Creating public videos also motivates students through the hands-on activity and real audience feedback.  All of this requires several higher-order thinking processes.

Another initiative Alfino implemented was Year 1 completing book reviews on Google Slides. For the content, the teacher taught students to use three simple sentence word-starters:
  • I liked the part…
  • I disliked the part…
  • I would change…
However, after a quick introduction to using Google Slides, the students worked out for themselves and taught each other the various creative features of using the slides.  After the first drafts were completed the teacher provided feedback through the comment feature which prompted students to comment on each other’s reviews, leading to a discussion of how to write positively, particularly in a public domain.

On the other hand, I don’t believe technology should be used for simply its own sake.  Alfino showed how students learning to write could trace the letter on an iPad.  I’m not sure how this particularly improves on the pen and paper version except simply for the hook that it is on an iPad.

The highlight of the evening was the dynamic Kathleen O’Rourke. Kathleen is learning to become a Primary School teacher at Macquarie University after a decade or so in the workforce. She is passionate about many things and her LinkedIn profile reveals she is not only an advocate for education and the marginalised but she walks the talk.  At first I thought she was also going to emphasise technology due to her tagline, “Is it OK to ask students to do something that we are not comfortable to do ourselves?” Instead, Kathleen answered that question with, “If we don’t pursue our x’s how can we expect our students to?”

As part of being a pre-service teacher, Kathleen decided there wasn’t enough professional development on offer, beyond the regular uni courses and practicum experience so out together some events and now the concept has exploded.  As a full-time carer for her grandmother, Kathleen found it difficult to access working disabled toilets, particularly in medical institutions.  Consequently, she has an aim to develop an app that lists and user-rates them. I spoke to Kathleen at the end of the evening and found just how determined she is to put theory into action. Earlier that day she had been at a school presenting to teachers and discussing with them a university assignment. This was not part of the set work.  She has also tutored primary-aged students who are newly settled refugees on a volunteer basis.

I was not the only one who thought Kathleen was amazing. This was the reaction on Twitter:

Screen Shot 2016-10-20 at 6.25.15 PM.png

All in all it was worthwhile attending this TeachMeet.  I learned about some new Google products and enjoyed hearing how other teachers are implementing problem solving and other critical thinking activities.  However, I’d prefer it if future TeachMeets adhered to the no sponsorship ideal, even (especially?) if it means returning to the pubs and clubs where they began.

17 October 2016

The Drover's Wife - Review

The short story of The Drover’s Wife by Henry Lawson was a favourite of mine as a child, my mother often reading it aloud upon request.  Its depiction of a woman facing isolated rural existence with four young ones and an absent husband added to my eternal fear of snakes and tapped into my loneliness.  It introduced me to new phrases with my young mind puzzling over “castles in the air” for so long it now feels etched into my brain.  I worshipped the strong and stoic woman, and her dog, Alligator, his name conjuring up a graphic image of a gnarly beast.

Leah Purcell has taken this story as inspiration for her own version of a drover’s wife.  In Henry Lawson’s tale a handful of dramatic events were reminisced over during the night of waiting for the snake to appear.  Due to the sameness of the land and its days, these occasions were rare, perhaps years apart.  Well, they were all jam-packed into the Belvoir Theatre in the hour and a half experience, the busiest three days a drover’s wife has ever seen. There were numerous visitors (partially based on characters from the original drover’s wife’s reminiscences), the coming and going of her son (Danny), a birth, and a few deaths.  This frenetic activity was necessary to cover the multiple feminist and indigenous issues addressed by the play but detracted from the plausibility of the story.  

The feminist issues were most confronting in their physicality.  There was audience laughter at labour pains as the drover’s wife swung her gun around at unwanted visitors, weaker laughter as her waters break, and a mixture of laughter and horror at the declaration that one foot had already popped out. Later her breast milk leaks down the front of her clothes and is visible for the remaining time.  As the play reached its climax, there was a rape scene where the perpetrator took time reaching his. An audience member walked out.

The drover’s wife has a name in this version, Molly.  No other women were seen on stage but they were talked about. Two white women performed treachery upon Molly but black female characters were represented with more affection.

A raft of indigenous issues were covered, starting with a wrongful arrest, featuring an iron collar digging into the prisoner’s neck, and concluding with taking the children away.  Likewise, Molly started trapped in the mentality that all Aboriginal people are trouble, her opening sentence ending with “you black bastard” but ended with all her prejudices taken away, embracing the culture.  Since this radical transformation occurred over a mere three days it was difficult to believe, despite all the drama that had entailed over this time.

The set was simple and stark and thus worked well. A hessian curtain hung parallel to the back wall, acting as the hut wall and protecting the audience from witnessing the birth, a chopping stump and axe was placed centre stage, a substantial branch laid on the ground on one side and a gun was constantly on hand. Sand covered the floor depicting the action upon it until Molly swept it away.

The acting was superb. Despite just two actors playing the five white adult male roles, they were each distinct, yet equally reviled. Leah Purcell, on stage the entire time, embodied the character she wrote with passion and depth. This drover’s wife aligned quite comfortably with the strong and robust woman I had pictured decades ago.  I attended on a Sunday evening, and even though I had issues with the pacing of the action, it provided a powerful punch to end an otherwise slow weekend.

29 June 2013

Talbingo Tales

Extensive research went into choosing a place for my teenaged children to ski for the first time.  The Snowy Mountains was the closest and Selwyn Snowfields the cheapest, particularly since my fifteen year old still counted as a child whereas at Perisher and Thredbo she did not.

The next choice was where to stay.  From trawling the Internet it narrowed to a house in Adaminaby, various places in Talbingo and a country cottage in Dalgety.

The Dalgety cottage was my personal favourite due to its isolation and modern facilities.  The pictures provided on the website matched my plan to write all day and sip red wine by a fire in peace and quiet.  However, the other three members of my family would have had to travel 1.5 hours each way to ski.  With a sigh I relinquished my dream.
The house in Adaminaby, Swansborough Cottage, a mere thirty minutes from Selwyn, was also on a small parcel of land but when we made enquiries via TakeABreak the owners did not respond and TakeABreak kindly issued an unprompted apology for the inconvenience.

That left Talbingo.  Talbingo had a few places listed to rent but some weren’t available for the period we wanted and some were too expensive.  It had to be somewhere I could picture as my cave for four days straight so the rooms had to be aesthetically pleasing and comfortable, warmth being the number one priority. ‘The Cabin’ had heaters listed and I was impressed by the plural form.  It was also convenient to shops.  The photos showed stylish but stark living areas.  It claimed to be pet friendly but upon enquiry it turned out this was for outside dogs only.  My dog sleeps on the bed at night and was never going to cope with the cold of Talbingo.  We had him looked after at home instead.

The mistake I made, realised soon upon arrival, was that I didn’t think about what hadn’t been mentioned or pictured on the website.  The photos were an exact replica of reality but I hadn’t noticed the absence of bedside tables and lamps or side tables in the lounge room.  The bathroom hadn’t been pictured at all.  It was still the original 1960’s bath, basin and shower.  The one and only toilet was in the laundry where another equally old shower existed with no grate over the drain.  It scared my daughter as she imagined snakes and spiders coming up through it.  There was no washing machine, no toaster and nowhere to hang clothes.  My husband had a business meeting in Gundagai at the end of the week but was unable to iron his shirt.  The only cooking utensil I was willing to use was an electric frypan.  It made excellent eggs and bacon.

The cabin was located within a short walking distance half way between the two places where you could eat at night.  The first and last night we had Chinese at the Talbingo Country Club, both times being the only people eating in.  It was typical Australian Chinese eating without the flair of our local Sydney establishment but it was fresh, hot and yummy.  A beautiful addition was the managers’ cute little boy who waved and blew kisses before he left for bed each evening. 

The other eating joint we visited twice was the Talbingo Lodge.  The first time was for Tuesday's All You Can Eat Pizza Night and the second was the night of the second State of Origin match and when Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister again.  The Talbingo Lodge had been locked up for about a year, looking for someone to love and care for her.  Three months before our visit a new owner came along, a regular holiday maker in Talbingo, originating from Cootamundra where he has a similar establishment.  The bar and grill is eclectic with various paraphernalia stuck around, like caps and hats hanging above the bar, skis and golf clubs stuck on the walls and ceiling, a games room for the kids, including an X Box with a car racing game which won my son over.  As per my penchant for heat, both nights we selected the table nearest the wood heater which also happened to have the best view of the large screen TV.  A bottle of Merlot just added to the warmth and glow.

As we walked to dinner each night we were amazed by the dozens of kangaroos roaming freely in our little street and how they leapt from residential yards and down the road.  They were camera shy though.  This is the best I could manage:

The snow wasn’t plenty but it was enough for my learner family.  My son is in love, skiing now only comes second, behind cycling, in his list of favourite sports.  My daughter now feels ready for her French exchange student program in the dark depths of their winter with a family who is passionate about snow sports.
I’m a teacher by trade and passion.  I marked 45 essays, I researched for a report about technology in education and I dabbled with different writing projects.  It was peaceful, productive and very importantly, warm.  It was almost the perfect holiday.

26 September 2012

Out, damned spot! out, I say!

 If you could change one part of your body what would it be?  Whenever I read that question in a magazine I mentally answer, “My skin”.

I’m holed up for these beautiful spring school holidays.  I have what feels like a massive gouge on my face so I’m in hiding.  It was self-inflicted.  Not by my hand but by the hand of my dermatologist.  

I met this dermatologist after the birth of my second child.  During my first pregnancy I had a small red patch on my forehead and thought it was just one of those odd pregnancy things and figured I was proven right because it diminished once the baby was born.  The spot returned for the second pregnancy and never went away.  After a biopsy proved my little red patch was actually a basal cell carcinoma (BCC) the dermatologist sent me to a cosmetic surgeon.  It was over a centimetre in diameter.

I arrived quite nervous for my initial consultation with the cosmetic surgeon which wasn’t made any better by the exclamation, “What big pores you have” upon initial inspection of my face.  I’d grown up with similar remarks about my ears so now I felt like the Big Bad Wolf.  It turned out I didn’t have frown lines which one would normally consider to be a good thing but it meant there was nowhere to hide the scar that would result from the surgery.

A few weeks later I came out of surgery looking like a car accident victim with a bandage wrapped several times around my head and grogged up on Mersyndol.  I think they had to dig deeper than originally intended.  

Ten years later I still have a capital T on my forehead despite the frown lines now present.  I have had quite a few BCCs removed and several ‘sun spots’ frozen off my face by being blasted with liquid nitrogen (cryotherapy), mainly around my hairline and on my nose.  ‘What a big nose you have’ I think every time I inspect its large pores for sun damage.  I commented recently to the dermatologist that ‘sun spots’ was a rather generic term so what did he mean?  Sun spots are actinic keratoses which commonly result in BCCs or the more dangerous squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and are characterised by a small pink and scaly mark on the skin.

In the last few years I have developed little lumps around my right cheekbone, like warts.  Apparently it is a sign of my middle-aged status.  These bumps are an enlargement of the skin’s oil glands called sebaceous hyperplasia.  They aren’t dangerous but they’re ugly.  In a weak moment my dermatologist offered to remove my more pronounced one.  I say ‘weak moment’ because he’s always been against any action for purely cosmetic purposes. He even refuses to give advice on beauty creams beyond sunscreen.

This was a tough decision for me.  I am vehemently against face-lifts, collagen implants and the like.  I believe we should just accept our appearances and those of others.  I hope I don’t judge people on their looks, well not too much anyway.  Yet I spend a fortune on beauty products and won’t leave the house without makeup on.  By allowing my dermatologist to take a scalpel to my face for the sake of appearance only I feel I have blurred that line I swore I wouldn’t cross.

So here I sit, less than 48 hours later, with a bloody blotch on my face, hoping the scar won’t be worse than the lump, remembering the cosmetic surgeon saying big pores result in big scars.  I am petrified it won’t heal, guilty that I acted out of ego and miserable at feeling trapped in my own home.  I should be out frolicking in the sun…with a big hat and sunscreen on, of course.

[Title of this post comes from Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare's Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 1]

20 October 2010

Cultural Cringe in Reviews

Is there a cultural cringe in Australian film and literature reviews? An investigation into reviews of The Slap (book) and Samson and Delilah (film).

The term cultural cringe appears to stem from Arthur Phillip’s Meanjin essay in 1950 (Rickard 2002, 43).  Generally it has come to refer to aspects of Australian culture deemed embarrassing, often with colonial overtones to England and a notion that Australia is in some way inferior to other countries in the Western world, particularly the USA (Rickard 2002, 44).  Frank Moorhouse once joked that Meanjin was an Aboriginal word meaning "rejected by The New Yorker” (Johnson 2010).  It is an Aboriginal word, but it merely refers to “the finger of land on which central Brisbane sits” (Meanjin n.d.).  Meanjin is one of several literary magazines in Australia that regularly includes reviews in its pages.  Newspapers such as the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian also include reviews of books and film in their publications.  The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas is a book that has been reviewed by several journals and newspapers around the world.  They are examined here for evidence of cultural cringe.

Australian films are generally more present in wider society than literary works.  It is commonly recognised that Australians have an element of cultural cringe regarding films that represent themselves.  In a review in the Sydney Morning Herald of Look Both Ways, it was claimed:

It is widely acknowledged and readily accepted that there is a most discernible cultural cringe factor in relation to the local film industry and its sporadic output. Over the past few years the Australian film industry and its product have taken a consistent battering from critics and the public alike and the apathetic disdain from Oz audiences (who are annually engulfed by and then heartily embrace big budget Hollywood fare) has meant paltry domestic box office grosses. (Bond 2005) 

Samson and Delilah, directed by Warwick Thornton, is a film about Aboriginal people that was reviewed both within Australia and overseas.  Australia is often subject to criticism of its treatment of its first people, including in reports by the United Nations.  Is there thus a cultural cringe regarding Aboriginal people revealed in the reviews of Samson and Delilah?  Does Bilal, a character in The Slap, cause cultural cringe in reviewers?  Perhaps the biggest cringe remaining in Australia is about its Aboriginal people and reviews of film and literature are not immune.

On the surface The Slap appears to have been reviewed quite consistently in both Australian and foreign journals and newspapers.  It is universally lauded as a fine piece of writing.  However, on closer examination it is more what isn’t said than what is said that reveals an element of cultural cringe in the Australian reviews.  Australian newspapers focused on the physical disciplining of children and the political environment of the book’s setting.  For instance, Armanno (2008) claims “It's a perfect social document of what Australia is today.”  He also says in his review for The Australian that:

His book is distinctly Australian: from the idiom to the blended families to the multi-multi-multicultural lives of its protagonists. 

Gerard Windsor (2008) of the Sydney Morning Herald introduces his review of the book with:

In the first 37 pages of The Slap we're introduced to 31 active characters. In Tolstoy we'd have the chamberlain announcing "Prince and Princess Oblonsky, Miss Natasha Rostov" and so on as they arrive at the ball. Christos Tsiolkas has his characters swarming through an open front door to a suburban Melbourne barbecue.

Do these quotes represent a form of cultural cringe?   Are Australian reviewers embarrassed that the Australian books they review contain distinctly Australian idioms, blended families and multiculturalism and such suburban culture as barbecues instead of more sophisticated matter like balls?  Many of the reviews associate The Slap with a soapie, regarding it as a multicultural version of the television show Neighbours.  Even though they might nod to the multicultural aspect of the novel the newspaper reviews clearly associate the content with popular culture:

There are elements of The Slap that suggest it's a highbrow soapie with a split personality. The author's choices for inclusion are very politically correct but once let loose the characters get up to all sorts of unacceptable mischief. (Windsor 2008)

There’s a lot of judgment contained in these couple of sentences, besides the term “highbrow soapie”.  Is the reviewer seriously saying that Tsiolkas chose the ethnicity of his characters on the basis of being politically correct?  Could it be that Tsiolkas was actually representing a part of true Australian society, perhaps one he even participates in?  Then there is the judgment that the characters’ behaviour is “unacceptable mischief”.  Perhaps Windsor is trying to disassociate real Australia from the one portrayed in the book, suffering from cultural cringe.

Windsor mentioned the presence of an Aborigine in The Slap in passing, whereas Armanno, who is more embracing of the culture depicted, fails to mention the presence of an Aborigine at all.  He merely says the book “encompassed the Australian middle ground while at the same time veering so far away from presenting traditionally white-bread characters” (2008).  Armanno fails to mention any of the ethnicities represented in the novel so even though he supports the book as representing the middle class he cringes away from saying what that middle class really looks like by concentrating on the violence (particularly the original slap of the child) for 70% (578 of 820 words) of the review.

Also from The Australian, George Megalogenis (2009) notes in his blog that many reviewers “reduce The Slap to the question of ‘Would I or wouldn’t I discipline my neighbour’s spoilt brat?’” Megalogenis looks beneath the term ‘multicultural’ which he sees as indicating cohesion as opposed to a “polyculture in a semi-permanent state of fury.”  He then turns the review into a political discussion about race and class.  However, he also only mentions the Aboriginal character in passing, focusing on the Mediterranean and Middle East people instead, but even they in only a very general sense.  Yet Megalogenis seems prepared to embrace these cultures much more readily than the Aboriginal culture.  This is also a form of cultural cringe.

Meanjin didn’t review The Slap, instead Michael William (2009) interviewed the author, Christos Tsiolkas.  There was discussion about age, class and society but not once in twelve pages were race or ethnicity mentioned.  Overland reviewed The Slap, as part of a collection of five Australian novels.  As one expects of a literary journal with scope for more words and a different audience, it digs deeper than the mainstream newspapers.  There is slightly more than the cursory glance to race and again there’s a reference to soapies:

There’s more than a whiff of soap opera in the structure and form of The Slap. With its epic span and its domestic focus, the book suggests what Neighbours could be – if that show was populated with Aborigines who had redeemed themselves through Islam; if episodes featured bisexual AIDS-afflicted men being good parents; if the characters were Indian, Serbian, Greek, Jewish and Arabic... (Ashton 2009)

There is little evidence of cultural cringe with much of the review focused more on the writing technique such as “multiple narrators” and bodily functions as a “relief” from the main narrative.  Overland pitches itself as a “literary and cultural magazine” on its About page (Overland n.d.) but this review definitely leans more to the literary aspect than the cultural.  Is this a form of cultural cringe?  Probably not.

Once The Slap was long-listed for the Booker Prize the foreign reviewers came out in enthusiastic support.  Brigitte Weeks of The Washington Post opens by describing The Slap as being about “middle-class suburbanites...struggling with too little money and too much alcohol” and concludes:

In “The Slap” we live for a few short weeks in suburban Australia, learning the language, becoming intimate with the characters and experiencing their customs. But finally the novel transcends both suburban Melbourne and the Australian continent, leaving us exhausted but gasping with admiration.

Although Weeks felt the need to include and explain some terms such as ‘stubbies’, this review embraces and celebrates Australian culture more than the Australian reviewers do.

In Michael Arditti’s short review (400 words) in the Telegraph (UK) he describes the novel as “a painstaking exploration of Australian domestic life” and Melbourne as a “melting pot”.  He compares The Slap favourably with Australian television soaps and in his brief description of characters includes “Bilal, an Aboriginal Muslim convert”. 

The Guardian (UK) reviews The Slap twice, first by Jane Smiley, then later as part of an interview by Aida Edemariam with Christos Tsiolkas.  Smiley claims the book expresses that “multiculturalism has won” and the most Australian aspect is that all the characters are “touchy”.  She focuses on the relationships and believes the novel scrutinises “modern Australian life as an exercise in liberalism”.  Despite concentrating on the characters in her 650 word review Smiley is the only one in the four foreign reviews examined here who fails to mention the presence of an Aboriginal person.  Edemariam, on the other hand, quotes Tsiolkas as selecting a moment between the Aboriginal man, Bilal, and a quintessential Australian blonde, Rosie, as the “real centre of The Slap”.  Like the Australian reviewers, she places the book in its political setting but takes it further by including the names of the imposing politicians of the period, Howard and Hanson.

From examining these reviews of The Slap it isn’t clear that the reviewers genuinely suffer from cultural cringe.  However, it does appear that the foreign reviews are more enthusiastic about the Australianness of the novel but then so few Australian books are reviewed in their publications that it would make sense to ramp up the novelty factor.

When reviewing Samson and Delilah it is impossible to avoid the Aboriginal characters.  Actually it appears the Australian reviewers loved the movie for their stark portrayal of remote Aboriginal life.  However, some avoided commenting on the social context by merely describing the movie.  David Stratton (2009) was guilty of this in his review in the Weekend Australian, although it could be argued the movie itself gives the social context.  In the same newspaper edition Michael Bodey (2009) writes more of a report on the movie’s makers than a review and thus uses quotes from people associated with the movie as well as the film itself to write his piece.  Political and social context is left to the words of Thornton, the director.  Bodey compares Samson and Delilah to Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes, calling Ten Canoes “a whitefella's rendition of Aboriginal culture [whereas] Samson and Delilah is clearly a blackfella's”.  The reporting style of writing removes the obligation for the commentary expected of a reviewer. 

Similarly to Stratton, Sandra Hall (2009) uses the film’s content and not commentary for social context.  “It's a demanding film, so determined to replicate the listless rhythm which governs the community's routines that you feel a need to slow your pulse beat to adapt to it.”   Words such as ‘demanding’, ‘determined’ and ‘listless’ gives the impression Hall was annoyed that it wasn’t a feel-good movie and she concludes, “Yet like all stories about addiction, this one is ultimately dispiriting...it's tough going.”  Hall gave Samson and Delilah three stars as opposed to most reviewers’ rating of the full five stars.  Perhaps there was just too much cultural cringe for her.

Unlike other newspaper reviewers, Jim Schembri (2009) of The Age places Samson and Delilah firmly in social context, saying “It is the most confronting, powerful, honest and important film about indigenous culture yet made in this country” and that it “breathes with authenticity”.  By saying all this before describing the film, Schembri accepts that this film truthfully reflects Australian culture, without cringing away from it.

In the literary journal New Matilda, Jennifer Mills (2009) acknowledges the authenticity of Samson and Delilah in her very first sentence.  She goes on to describe the social setting in which the film was made, referring to petrol-sniffing, violence, the general feeling of hopelessness and colonisation.  She is very conscious of writing as a white person on Aboriginal issues, “I don't want to be another white person trying to write authoritatively about that life — I want people to speak for themselves,” so is restrained in her commentary.  This is not cultural cringe. 

Peter Craven (2009), a prolific Australian reviewer, wrote a review of Samson and Delilah for The Spectator, a UK magazine.  He summarises the film’s tale and then lobs his grenade with:

On one level, Samson and Delilah is a petrol bomb thrown in the face of Aboriginal mythologising and self-deception. It is a devastating portrait of people in a state of terminal depravation who, even at their most active, are bewildered beyond any point of helping themselves.

As is typical of Craven (Davis 1999, pp.119-120; Rickard 2002), he is blunt and controversial.  His review is the only one examined here daring to go against the Aboriginal culture so often portrayed as the ideal in the media.  It may be a case of attack being the best form of defence.

Russell Edwards (2009) in the foreign magazine, Variety, claims Samson and Delilah is “an engrossing and touching snapshot too often left on the cutting-room floor”.  Ryan Gibley (2010) in the New Statesman is more sceptical of the authenticity of the film as representing true Aboriginal life, qualifying with words like ‘probably’ and saying “the film conforms to tragic type”.  As seen in these two examples, foreign reviews tend to fall into absolute acceptance of the film as depicting real life, similarly to many Australian reviews, otherwise they lean more to the film being a dramatisation of true Aboriginal life.

Samson and Delilah has also been reviewed bluntly and passionately in historical context by History Australia (Gorman 2009), with an element of cringing at how other (non historians) view Aboriginal Australia and by a German completing her PhD in Melbourne on Australian fiction (Schuerholz 2009).  She brought a unique viewpoint of an outsider living in Australia, and thus not subject to a cultural cringe.  She reveals on a personal level that the film was horrifying, but also uses emotive language (‘rejection’ and ‘pain’) when depicting social context.

It is inevitable that Samson and Delilah is compared to Baz Luhrmann’s Australia of the year before.  Reviewers generally made unflattering comparisons, dismissing Australia as “the film...Baz Luhrmann ought to have made instead of his overblown Outback epic, Australia.” (Canberra Times, 2009) but Thornton defends Australia from these attacks, “’He's so brave, Baz, so brave,’ Thornton says. ‘He made an Aboriginal film but hid it behind this love story. Good on you, mate.’” (Bodey 2009).  It seems Australia was panned by reviewers for its romantic colonisation picture of Australia in the lead up to World War 2.  They were cringing from this unrealistic traditional portrayal of Australian life.

It seems Australia has moved a long way from Arthur Phillip’s introduction of the term ‘cultural cringe’.  Although Rickard claimed in his research of literary writing in 2002 that “the cultural cringe just refuses to stay buried,” it appears there is little evidence of it in the reviews of the book The Slap and the film Samson and Delilah.  From this intense look at the reviews it can be interpreted that many Australian reviewers shy away from giving cultural context in their reviews but they are not in denial either.  If there is any one area Australian reviewers still suffer from cultural cringe it is regarding Aboriginal society.  As authors and film makers embrace Australian culture in an increasingly complete and authentic manner reviewers need to so too.


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