Old folk at lunch

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Murray Fastiere and my academic past



Paul's recent questions about my early life have brought a few things to the front of my mind so I thought I might scribble some of them down.

Let me start by saying that I am no good at most things. I am hopeless at all sports -- even chess! And I cannot even open a can of something without cutting myself around 50% of the time. And, any time I pick up tools to do something in the carpentry line or the like, I always hurt myself.

But, as is common, I do have one thing that I am good at: Academic tasks in my case. The first intimation of that was in my Innisfail Primary school, where I was known as the "walking dictionary". I ALWAYS got 10 out of 10 on spelling tests and always knew the meaning of any new word that came up in our reading.

Then in junior High School in Cairns I was known as the "Walking encyclopedia" -- because I always knew the answers to any questions that teachers threw at us. One example of that was when we were reading something about ships (probably by Conrad) and "thudding" engines were mentioned. The teacher, Murray Fastiere, asked us what that was about. The rest of the class kept their heads down and their eyes on their books but I popped my hand up. I said: "Probably triple expansion engines". I was a smart bastard already by then.

Fastiere hastily said: "Yes, yes, reciprocating engines". He was a man of culture so I imagine that he knew nothing of the triple expansion cycle in marine steam engines.

I liked him. He wore a yellow sleeveless jumper and green pants when no-one else at that time did. I have been a devotee of sleeveless jumpers ever since. He spoke with what I thought was an Australian accent but it could have been a Home Counties accent -- as an educated Australian accent and a Home Counties accent are quite close. But from the surname he probably had a French father and he did often mention to us that he was a pupil of Marcel Dupre. NOBODY in Cairns knew what that meant! But he was in fact a good organist so Dupre obviously did him some good. He introduced me to Bach, and I can never forget that. I hope some day some relative of his reads this (via Google) and asks me about him before I die.

But I also got on well with my Ukrainian teacher of German, Leonard Gavrishchuk. His favourite saying was: "You must be precise" -- accompanied by an upraised thumb! I was probably something of a star pupil of his. So when the Junior German exam came around and I forgot to turn up, he sent a kid around on a pushbike to remind me. So I promptly got on my own pushbike -- dressed only in khaki shorts and an old singlet -- and arrived 1.30 hours late for a 3 hour exam. But I still finished with half an hour to spare! I knew the answers. I just had to write them down. And I eventually got an "A" in the exam concerned, of course.

But I did not go straight on to my senior studies. I worked for a few years. But in the end I decided that I needed to do my Senior (Matric) exam so I did it in one year in Brisbane as an evening student -- teaching myself for 4 out of 5 subjects. Evening students were supposed to take 3 years so I again did an academic task in a third of the time. One of the 5 subjects (Italian) I took up only 4 months before the exam depite not having done it for Junior. So I did 4 years work in 4 months as well as having a full-time job. In the circumstances, I think I can be excused for getting only a "B" in the exam. I clearly had a lot of self-confidence even to undertake such a task but it was clearly warranted confidence. I already knew well how easy academic tasks were for me. I also remember owning and regularly wearing a green suit -- complete with a rather furry green felt hat -- in that year.

After that I did my B.A. (hons) at UQ in the minimum 4 years even though the first two years I did as an evening student. Then I went on to do my Masters at U Syd -- where evening students were required to take 3 years. Guess what? I enrolled as a day student (even though I had a full-time job) and did it in ONE year -- that magical third of the time again. I remember that I used to turn up to seminars in a natty brown suit with 3 covered buttons -- which rather stunned everyone. I don't think I wore my green felt hat with it at that time, though! My input to the seminars was always well-informed and frequent, however, so I was treated with respect, garb regardless. Doing an M.A. in one year did not really stretch me, however, so I enrolled in Introductory Economics at Uni NSW as well. I passed but I forget the grade.

And when my Ph.D. at Macquarie came around I could really have beat the band if allowed. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation in 6 weeks towards the end of my first year there -- but I had to wait the minimum 2 years to apply for the degree. And I eventually got around 10 published academic journal out of that dissertation, so that was unusually strong proof of quality in it. A Harvard doctorate takes around 10 years on average but I doubt that many of them generate as many journal articles

I often wonder why Harvard Ph.D.s take so long. Maybe it is to ensure quality and thus protect the Harvard reputation. It might also be some sort of flow-on from the destroyed standards of American High Schools. Harvard have never acknowledged it officially to my knowledge but around a quarter of their freshers have to undergo remedial mathematics and English classes before they go on to their university studies proper. And Harvard get the pick of the crop from America's High schools! An American High School diploma these days is roughly equivalent to a Primary School pass of yesteryear.

And academic journal articles were where I did best of all. In my heyday, I was getting them published at around one a fortnight. The academic average is around one a year. And I was up against the handicap that most of my articles drew conclusions that ran contrary to the accepted wisdom. So they had to be of a very high standard to surmount that barrier!

So if I am not a born academic, no-one is. Maybe we are all good at something.

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