As June 2021 turns to a close, this is my last official day at The University of Melbourne. I’ve taught my last classes, the marking for the semester is all done, I’ve wound up all my committee work, I’ve supervised my last undergraduate theses, and wrapped up all the end-of-semester administration. I’m now packing up my office (which I’ve rarely seen over the last 18 months) and tying up lots of loose ends. If I weren’t starting a new position, things would be falling eerily silent, with no Semester 2 subjects to prepare, no committee work to do, and no students to supervise. And with my new academic year starting in September, I do have a few moments to pause, to breathe, and to reflect on my 19 years at the University of Melbourne, before I head off on the next adventure.
I arrived at the University of Melbourne in July 2002, hired in the wake of Graham Priest’s arrival as Boyce Gibson Professor of Philosophy. As I leave, in 2021, there has been an almost complete turnover in members of staff in the Philosophy program. I arrived as one of the youngest staff members, and I leave as, if not the oldest, at least firmly in the middle of the age distribution of Philosophy staff. I’ve seen the Philosophy Department move from being an independent department in the Faculty of Arts, to being a tiny School of Philosophy, when the other Departments were amalgamating into congolmerate Schoools, to then being a part of the School of Philosophy, Anthropology and Social Inquiry, and then, when that imploded, we joined forces with our colleagues in History, Classics and Anthropology, History and Philosophy of Science and the Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, to form the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies. This last partnership seems to have lasted the distance, and Philosophy is now a thriving member of a well-functioning and collegial school, with large numbers of undergraduate students, a diverse postgraduate community, and an active research culture.
The road from there to here was not without its twists and turns, and quite a few periods of anxiety and trauma. The higher education scene in Australia is in a continual state of crisis, with regular periods of restructuring, staff redundancies, “belt tightening” and ever increasing “competition” for a reducing pool of resources. We must compete to get research funding, even if our research doesn’t so much require money but time, partly so we can get funds to create temporary positions for junior academics post-PhD, partly to increase the prestige for the University and the Department (since securing research funding is an easily measured proxy for doing “quality research”), partly to look good on our own CVs, and, partly to help fund the institution as a whole. Somewhere in there is the importance of the research we’re trying to do, but many days that imperative seems further down the priority listing than it should be.
As a continuing member of staff with a relatively active research profile, I was more insulated from the ongoing turmoil than junior academics attempting to find secure employment, or staff members in fields viewed as marginal or secondary, or those whose research activity fell under the required threshold for counting as “research active”. Those pressures never fell on me anywhere near as hard as they fell on others. However, this tension is felt everywhere in the system, even in a relatively secure place such as the University of Melbourne, where, you would think, a Philosophy Department might be safe.
It turned out that the Philosophy Department was relatively safe, but there was a period late in the first decade of the 2000s and early into the second decade, when we were at risk of collapse. In the worst period of restructuring, we lost many of our colleagues, and the Department was halved as many colleagues retired or took redundancies and none were replaced. For a while, there were only six of us, attempting to keep the ship afloat, teaching all our students, doing our resarch, and making the case that the University needs a generalist Philosophy program, teaching a full major, despite efforts of some of our colleagues in the Faculty for us to specialise and become a boutique applied philosophy program. The situation was dire, and the workloads were atrocious, but those of us who remained worked hard, grew the department, both in terms of student numbers, and eventually, in new members of staff. We have now regained all the positions we lost during that time, and for the moment, the future looks relatively bright, once we get through the pandemic, at least.
What I most value from my years at Melbourne are the close working communities. The longest running must be the Melbourne Logic Seminar, which I launched at my arrival, and which has been ably coordinated by Shawn Standefer over the last few years. That group put up with so many half-baked thoughts of mind, and was the crucible in which many different ideas have been incubated and research careers have been launched. I’ve already waxed lyrical about working with Shawn in my teaching. The research collaboration with Shawn has been a special delight, too.
I’ve also treasured the weekly lunchtime meetings with my graduate students. We’ve been doing this over most of my time at Melbourne, getting together, talking about our research, supporting each other as ideas take shape—and occasionally crumble into dust before our very eyes—and seeing projects from conception to fruition. This is one of the highlights of my week.
Other groups that deserve a shout-out was the shorter but very intense working group consisting of Jen Davoren, Rohan French and me, who managed to transform our interdisciplinary introductory logic subject into a successful but short-lived experiment on Coursera. The course ran for only two sessions before becoming unviable (because we had no funding for it to continue), but the lessons we learned in online pedagogy proved very useful when it came to dealing with 2020. Teaching the interdiciplinary intro logic subject with Jen has been a constant delight over the last 15 years, and the support from our colleagues, especially the much-missed Greg Hjorth, Lesley Stirling and Steven Bird, who helped us cook up a crazy and wild intro to logic for students from all over the university, taking in aspects of digital systems, computer science, linguistics, philosophy and mathematics. It was a wild experiment, loved by those who took the subject, but never as popular as we had hoped for it to be. I’ve learned so much about how to teach logic to a diverse student body over these years.
I’ve also served on many School, Faculty and University Committees, with an aim to somehow support the teaching and research of colleagues. (I’ve never seen committee work or my time as Head of Department as a stepping stone to going on to greater administrative responsibilities. It’s necessary plumbing work to make sure that the important things—teaching and research—can continue, and hopefully, thrive.) For a crew to work with to do the hack work of keeping the institution going, I’d like to single out the Philosophy Department when we were at our lowest ebb: somehow, Chris, Howard, Laura, François, Karen and I managed to keep the place going, fighting for our discipline, keeping everything going as the institution restructured around us, and navigating a path forward in a time of crisis. Somehow, we managed to keep our heads together, work out how to navigate the difficulties and even stay relatively sane while doing it. We got through that time, fighting for our corner, looking out for each other, with the hope that things would turn the corner. And they did.
It’s been a wild ride over the last 19 years. I can’t wait to see what the years ahead will bring.