Friday, February 11, 2011
Threepence, sixpence and Islam
The year was 1971. I was employed as a tutor in History of Asian Civilisations at the University of Queensland, and Dr Devahuti was my boss - for the South Asian section at least. My boss for the Chinese and Japanese sections was none other than the lecturer who had decided to award me a High Distinction for his other subject five years before, an HD I definitely didn’t deserve – but which had helped me enormously in getting the Tutorship.
In those days (but no more, sad to say!) a tutorship was grooming for a lectureship somewhere in the country, or abroad, while you got your advanced degree. Or degrees, in my case. I could have gone on straight to a Ph D from my First Class Honours, but I felt myself unready to launch into such a time- and energy-consuming project while engaged in so many other new things.
I was, after all, learning to be a Tutor, trying to absorb all the Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian cultural history that I was supposed to know already and be soon teaching to undergraduates (but that I really knew very little about) and I was also learning Hindi by evening classes. I had just married. Helen, my Honours classmate and then newly-appointed co-Tutor and her fiancé came up to Gladstone one weekend for the wedding, and the following Saturday, Janette and I went to their wedding in Brisbane.
It was not an auspicious year to begin a Ph D and I’m glad I was smart enough to realise it. Helen began hers, but I chose to do a Masters degree instead, and then would go on to a Ph D if all went well with the MA. In truth it never occurred to me that all wouldn’t go well with it, and fortunately, it did turn out fine – but it was a tough enough row to hoe along with everything else happening at the time.
Ironically, had I not done the MA before my Ph D, I almost certainly would not have got the lectureship here in Armidale, as my Honours degree on its own wouldn’t have been competitive enough against the qualifications of the other applicants for the job I got here.
Such are the twists of fate that push our lives along the paths they do.
I started out telling you all this because my mind was on another track entirely. When I mentioned 1971, I was actually recalling it was the year that I gave my first lecture ever to undergraduates. As tutors, we were encouraged to give one or two lectures a year as practice for the academic career we were making for ourselves.
Devahuti suggested I should do, as my first lecture, the philosophy of Islam. I was as nervous about this as I was when I did my first ever teaching prac lesson seven years before, to a class of Grade 2s at Enoggera State School.
Oh, I have to tell you about that now that I have you here - but very briefly, I promise! My first lesson was a 15 minute one to teach how many threepences there were in a sixpence. I kid you not, and even if you never used a threepence (pronounced ‘thrippence’ for you babies under 50 or so) or a sixpence, I’ll bet even when you were seven you wouldn’t have had much trouble working out the mathematics of the relationship between the two coins.
I had charts of pennies in threepences and sixpences, giant coins and all sorts of wondrous devices to teach my little ones the art of divining the magical connection between these little silver bits of our currency - and real silver it was in those days too, suitable for Christmas puddings.
But it was all rather wasted, as there wasn’t a kid in the class who didn’t know, long before I began my earnest quest to instruct them on this vital matter of childhood economics, that you could buy as many peppermints with two thrippences as with a sixpence.... BUT.... I had fifteen minutes worth of diagrams and charts and coins and by god they got them anyway.
Sorry, I needed to tell you this episode in my life way more than you needed to know about it. I knew I’d get it in somewhere in these stories of my life. I just hope in my comparison between nervousness when teaching about silver coins to Grade 2s and explaining Islam to undergraduates I haven’t trivialised one or the other too much.
My lecture on Islam turned out to be a resounding triumph - certainly much more satisfying than the lesson to the Grade 2s, as there was one vital difference. The undergraduates knew less about Islam than I did, but the Grade 2s and I were at par on the matter of thrippences and sixpences. The undergraduates burst into applause at the end of the two-hour lecture.
And no, don't try to tell me that they were so glad it was over after 110 minutes of aural hammering that they couldn't help themselves - I just won't have it, thank you! They really liked it. Had they stood up a minute before leaving, it would have been a standing ovation. However, I don't think it got that far - but for a first ever lecture, it wasn't so bad. Mind you, in the three months before I gave it, they'd had some pretty awful ones from some of my colleagues. But, as Hagrid often let slip, I shouldn't have said that. Comparisons are odious.
Now contrary to what you'll be thinking, I’m not telling you this to try to reassure both of us what a super-duper teacher I was. Quite the reverse, in fact. The reason why it was so successful, I fairly soon came to realise after more serious study, was that I knew even less about Islam than I imagined. I had simplified it so ruthlessly in my lecture notes that even the most average student got the hang of the fundamental ideas. All the subtleties of this fascinating religion disappeared without trace in the simplistic serving of its philosophy that I dished up.
Only later, when I taught the philosophy of Islam year after year, did I want to include all the ifs and buts. It might have been more accurate, but I’m not sure it would have made such an impact. I guess there’s a lesson in that somewhere.
So I’ve finally got to where I intended to be after the first paragraph. What I was going to gripe about, but I’ll leave it now to the next story, is that successive Australian governments of all political persuasions paid me and several of my colleagues for decades to research and teach about Islam and Muslim cultures, but none of them have taken any advice we’ve given them on these matters. They just go on making the same old mistakes and wondering why their foreign policies towards Muslim governments are such miserable failures.
Maybe next story.... by then we’ll see what’s happened in Egypt in the next few hours – probably before you read this – and I’ll take it from there. And you can blissfully ignore it if you like. Fair enough?