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Speaker: In Praise of The Catalysts of Thought: The Free Theatre's 'Faust Chroma'

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  • Bob Munro,

    I can't match the erudition of the post. But somebody better start this off. My son's best mate is in his second year at Canterbury which he is attending purely so he can study his obsessions, film and American studies.

    Every business has to cut it's cloth according to changing circumstances and retrenchment and reorganisation is common in the commercial world. What is also common are support systems to mitigate for those affected.

    When the first announcement was made of the possible closure there was nothing in place for the students. It was the beginning of the study year and suddenly their chosen courses might be scrapped, if not immediately then some indeterminate time in the future.

    There wasn't even a dedicated phone number they could ring for advice. If this was the business world it would have been straight off to the employment court seeking a hefty sum.

    I hope things were handled better for the staff.

    Christchurch • Since Aug 2007 • 418 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    I hope things were handled better for the staff.

    Probably not. In 1997 Otago University was cutting back in the arts - Russian was disestablished, and German and Classics suffered staff losses. The final proposal went to a University Council meeting, and students and staff were protesting outside.

    When the affected staff went back to their offices after the council meeting had made the decision, they found letters from HR informing them of the loss of their jobs, a decision that had only been made in the meeting that had just attended. A disturbingly prescient form of efficiency.

    Since Nov 2006 • 6162 posts Report Reply

  • ali bramwell,

    Its good to see someone speaking so specifically about the implications of Canterbury's 'change proposal' and its potential impacts on arts development.

    I was at the recent govt forum for the arts in Chch which was gatecrashed by a determined student group (from the under-threat film and theatre studies dept at U of C) who made some passionate pleas for intervention to save their departments.

    At the same forum other voices repeated the weirdly persistent political meme "there are too many artists being produced." I call this a meme because it is contagious and yet has untraceable origins and completely opaque logic. (where are all these artists? how many is too many? even if true, more artists is harmful how exactly?)

    To further complicate things the University of Canterbury (following the path already taken at Otago University and others over the last 5 years or so) appears to be 'streamlining' unprofitable humanities programmes for purely economic reasons.

    Of course this has/ will have disastrous effects on speculative research in humanities, thats an obvious consequence.

    But to decry the symptoms in isolation fails to consider the underlying causes. The user pays emphasis in tertiary education has caused a steady decline of student uptake in humanities since it was implemented. This decline was predicted by many at the time. Why so surprised? From one perspective U of C has held out against the larger trend of eroding arts/humanities for an admirable length of time.

    The argument is more fundamental than criticizing U of C for a lamentable, but hardly unique, lack of foresight. If some things are a social good..as opposed to being a directly functional part of an economic/industrial production ecosystem...then social sphere has to invest in maintaining them.

    Arts are widely considered expendable and of no discernible function. Even where the contribution of arts/humanities to a healthy society is taken as a given, the assumption is that no social investment is required because these activities will continue anyway. The old and tired artists do it because they love it economics of matyrdom are being used, where society benefits by default from artistic acts of selfless service. A monastic/ vocational calling doesn't need education and research. dont be silly.

    #cost benefit equation that thinks (bizarrely) that tertiary arts/humanities education has created too many professional artists (writers/actors) etc will remedy this by reducing tertiary arts courses. In reality the reverse is true, the equation is much simpler: by economic standards the number of prospective students is spread too thinly over existing courses. the result is the same: attrition of arts education.

    #cost benefit equation that thinks fees paid is a reliable measure of educational worth will make structural educational decisions based on fees paid.

    #cost benefit equation that thinks arts/humanities activity has no measurable use in society will not act to protect and foster said activity

    am I happy about this? hell no.
    apologies for far too long rant.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2007 • 33 posts Report Reply

  • Simon Bennett,

    University cutbacks in the humanities, particularly in the areas of Theatre and film studies is something that makes me quite wild.

    In the early '80s I began an LLB/BA degree at Victoria. I had no real idea of what to do with my life, I had been good at English and languages at school, so law seemed to be the obvious vocational training.

    I decided to fill some of the BA side of my degree with Drama and Film studies credits, and Wham! I fell passionately in love with the subject and felt consumed by a sense of vocation. Naturally, I dropped the law degree and devoured every possible paper in the film and drama studies areas. I was lucky to have inspiring teachers in Russell Campbell, David Carnegie and Phil Mann. It was David and Phil who suggested that I might consider directing professionally, and encouraged me to take the Toi Whakaari path into the industry.

    Anyway, 20 odd years later and I have had a rewarding career in theatre and television drama. As Head of Drama at South Pacific Pictures, and Executive Producer of Shortland Street and Outrageous Fortune, I believe I'm making a not insignificant contribution to the economy in the area of 'cultural capital'.

    My point here is that if it weren't for courses such as those I attended at VUW (and I understand the film studies course is under scrutiny there at present), I would not have discovered my vocation, nor would I have been likely to contribute to the economic and cultural life of the country in the way I have. I thought that one of the ideas behind university study is to open students' eyes to possibilities; to offer choices and options; to widen knowledge and understanding of the world.

    I would be terribly sad to see these areas of endeavour dry up in any of our tertiary institututions.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 142 posts Report Reply

  • Geoff Lealand,

    Good to see this discussion in the public domain. I am concerned about Film and Theatre Studies but even more concerned about American Studies, for the proposals have implications for a much larger group of people. I haven't seen much to match the lobbying going in respect of Film/Theatre.

    I did have a letter in The Press a month or so ago, framing my objections to plans to axe American Studies (as a MA graduate of the programme in the 1970s) and arguing that our understandings of contemporary life are pretty much framed by America--whether we embrace American values and world vierws, adapt or reject them.One instance--the intense interests we have in the Democrat primary!

    I also recalled how American Studies introduced me to the notions of historiography and critical analysis--ideas I had never before encountered in NZ education. These beginnings have pretty much framed my subsequent academic career (now Assoc Prof in Screen and Media Studies at the University of Waikato, with an international reputation in research and writing (if you will forgive the plug!)

    Screen & Media Studies, U… • Since Oct 2007 • 2301 posts Report Reply

  • Sharon Mazer,

    It is difficult for me to know how to begin to respond to Creon Upton's insightful reading of the Free Theatre's current production and to these thoughtful posts. As Head of the Department of Theatre and Film Studies, and against my usual volubility, I have to confess I don't really know what to say at this moment. I am still in shock over the way the University's management managed to turn on us, at how it has put my colleagues, our courses and our students at risk of extinction with so little evident financial or academic justification, at the violence with which our faith in the basic, due processes of our institution has been ruptured.

    The proposal to disestablish our Department was developed in secret, by an appointed committee working to its own rules, and the Review Panel has functioned in much the same way -- in private, contingent on the good will of the hand-picked individuals in the room, without those of us under attack being notified of the options under consideration or given the opportunity to present our case in an open forum. We could only make submissions, which seems too close to "submitting" one might think. Indeed, while many of us made our submissions openly, there are many who have not. As well, I have spent the past three weeks waiting for at least a pro forma invitation to speak to the Review Panel, but that invitation has not been forthcoming.

    Were the ordinary protocols and processes of the University to be engaged this would not be possible. The Proposal to disestablish our Department would have been tabled at Faculty and then at Academic Board. We would all have the opportunity not only to have our voices heard, but just as importantly, to hear each other speak, to debate the outcomes but also to consider in depth the values -- economic and academic -- of the University and thus to act as citizens rather than subjects of the University.

    The value of our Department's approach to teaching and research is exemplified by Peter Falkenberg's work with staff and students in Faust Chroma. It's in Dunedin now, and will return to Christchurch for the College of Arts' showcase "Platform" at the end of May. (Ironic, isn't it, that the Free Theatre is making such a significant contribution to the College's campaign to show its commitment to creative arts.) This work is far more eloquent than I can be at this point about why our Department's work is vital and, perhaps at the same time, why it has come under attack in such a way.

    University of Canterbury • Since Apr 2008 • 4 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    cost benefit equation that thinks (bizarrely) that tertiary arts/humanities education has created too many professional artists (writers/actors) etc will remedy this by reducing tertiary arts courses.

    Which I find somewhat ironic. Surely, if we're going to adopt a market approach to education, then the control point is when there aren't enough audience/buyers of the products that various artists make/produce, to support them. If theatre graduates suddenly put on three times as many professional shows, there won't be the audience to support them all enough in the public, and the market will make sure that less shows are put on next time. That'll flow through to students who will be well-informed that there are fewer jobs for theatre graduates, and will study something else.

    If we try and control things at the graduate supply end, we should shut down a couple of law schools. We produce way too many law graduates in NZ than we have need for lawyers, and many go on to use their broad-based legal education in other fields. What's the problem with half the graduates of film and theatre studies taking their broad-based arts education and going off and doing something else for their life?

    Since Nov 2006 • 6162 posts Report Reply

  • Creon Upton,

    While the university's not paying me (lunch break) to do other things, I can begin to respond.

    Bob wrote

    Every business has to cut it's cloth according to changing circumstances and retrenchment and reorganisation is common in the commercial world. What is also common are support systems to mitigate for those affected.

    In terms of the second point, of course there are some support systems put in place for staff during times of "change", but frankly the general attitude from management has been, I'm sure, completely at odds with recommended business practice -- essentially bullying and a complete lack of transparency, ie, a total failure to reassure staff of their value in the process.

    But this, I think, relates to what I have to say about your first point. This is difficult because it creates the risk of accusations of elitism or whatever. But the difficulty with the business model is that it simply doesn't work in terms of what we understand universities to be: it is the specialist academic community that defines what they do and why. Taking academic policy out of the hands of the academics concerned is a massive (and I think wroing) change in direction.

    Which might explain the heavy-handedness of the approach: drastic measures call for drastic means I suppose.

    The hitch being that academics simply cannot do what they believe their job to be when that job is not supported by the management systems of the university.

    The thing is, if as a society we really want to make such changes and redefine universities in this way, well, I guess that's how things go. But do we really want that? And if no, we need people from outside the institution to do some bleating about it too.

    So it's nice to see a bit of bleating going on here. Cheers.

    Back to work....

    Christchurch • Since Aug 2007 • 67 posts Report Reply

  • Simon Bennett,

    I'm led to believe that one of the academic criteria for measuring the 'output' of a discipline is the level of postgraduate study. This is linked to funding.

    In the areas of theatre and film studies (at VUW, anyway), the number of postgraduate students is relatively low.

    Might this not be an indicator of success? That graduates are finding employment, rather than recommitting to further study with the possibility of work in the education sector at the end? Film and Drama students tend to want to make films and produce plays. And this is a bad thing?

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 142 posts Report Reply

  • Creon Upton,

    Yes, Simon, I guess the funding thing is one of the problems: whatever the govt of the day decides is the appropriate measure dictates a lot of the policy.

    At the moment I think PBRF (staff research output) and "completion and retention" (of students) are the important things.

    But thankfully I'm only general staff, so I don't have to deal with these things directly.

    Your point, though, is a good one: ironically, Film and Drama is one of the few areas in the Humanities that do actually lead in specific vocational directions.

    But, generally speaking, most BA graduates do not go on to jobs in their immediate area of study. (Yes, Mum, I got that job as a Civil War historian -- it comes with health benefits and a very attractive pay scale.) So to introduce that "marketability" idea, which the Change Proposal did -- somehow implying that employers want graduates from "core" disciplines like Philosophy and Classics more than from AMST or TAFS -- is about as absurd as my previous clause suggests it to be.

    The idea, I thought, from a BA is that it encourages critical thinking and communication on contemporary topics in contemporary ways.

    And that it's good to have a population with those skills -- who are probably going to be able to do most jobs reasonably well as a result.

    Christchurch • Since Aug 2007 • 67 posts Report Reply

  • Bob Munro,

    In terms of the second point, of course there are some support systems put in place for staff during times of "change", but frankly the general attitude from management has been, I'm sure, completely at odds with recommended business practice -- essentially bullying and a complete lack of transparency, ie, a total failure to reassure staff of their value in the process.

    Under the Emplyment Contracts Act 2000 it’s my understanding that ‘Good Faith’ is at the basis of the provisions and consultation is required with potentially affected employees when an employer is considering restructuring. I’m assuming this applies to universities.

    This from the Wikipedia article on the law.

    Based on case law, fair procedure includes:
    - notification of the restructuring process before decisions are made.
    - notification of the criteria used to decide who will be made redundant.
    - a discussion with employees of how the restructuring process could affect their positions.
    - an opportunity for employees to comment on the restructuring process.
    - offering alternative positions within the company.
    - a reasonable period before the redundancy takes effect.
    - If a redundancy was not fair an employee may bring a personal grievance for unjustified dismissal.

    This seems pretty unequivical of the process required. Kyle's example from 1997 should not be possible now?

    Christchurch • Since Aug 2007 • 418 posts Report Reply

  • Bob Munro,

    sorry - that's Employment 'Relations' Act 2000

    Christchurch • Since Aug 2007 • 418 posts Report Reply

  • Sharon Mazer,

    But of course the University of Canterbury is very supportive of staff being made redundant -- as long as staff acquiesce. Had we not chosen to fight this proposal we would have had the luxury (!) of HR advisors and counsellors to hold our hands and help us gently out the door. What we have lacked is access to exactly the processes outlined by Bob Munro above. In fact, in notifying me of the recommendation, Professor Strongman said "You can't fight this, Sharon. The case is too solid." In fact, at the same time that we were being notified the University launched a massive public relations campaign to sell the proposal to the wider community as if the recommendation were already a final decision; it told undergraduate students to find other majors and resisted enrolling PhDs; our administrator was pushed into a job comparison exercise. And so on.

    We have tried to meet the challenge of the Change Proposal directly. We have demonstrated that, instead of saving money, the University stands to lose several hundred thousand dollars by dismissing our students, who study a wide range of (perhaps more sensible) subjects in addition to their majors in theatre and film. We have demonstrated the vitality of our curriculum and research culture, both the ordinariness of theatre and film in the modern university and the distinctiveness of our approach here at Canterbury. And we have offered a range of more realistic savings options in place of disestablishment. But as yet there is no indication that our efforts to negotiate have been taken seriously. There has been no dialogue, no effort to come to an understanding.

    Our students go on to a wide range of careers, including in theatre and film. They become professional actors and directors, run theatre and production companies, become teachers and journalists and psychologists and oh just about anything that people with solid liberal arts educations and training in the expressive arts can do. They make it up as they go along, just as we did (and still do). We also have a thriving postgraduate research culture, with nine PhDs and more MA and Honours students in the pipeline. These senior students are the next generation of artistic and academic leaders in our fields. Most of them want to live and work, make art and academics in New Zealand. It has been very difficult for us to see their work with us so disrespected.

    University of Canterbury • Since Apr 2008 • 4 posts Report Reply

  • Creon Upton,

    Ali wrote

    Even where the contribution of arts/humanities to a healthy society is taken as a given, the assumption is that no social investment is required because these activities will continue anyway. The old and tired artists do it because they love it economics of matyrdom are being used, where society benefits by default from artistic acts of selfless service. A monastic/ vocational calling doesn't need education and research. dont be silly.

    That's absolutely right, and it applies to academics as well: already people with considerable skills and knowledge accept fairly average incomes for the sake of research and teaching -- but the current environment in our universities is increasingly making the sacrifices too great, especially when the pay-off -- freedom of enquiry -- seems to be regarded by the institution as some anachronistic joke.

    Simon wrote

    I thought that one of the ideas behind university study is to open students' eyes to possibilities; to offer choices and options; to widen knowledge and understanding of the world.

    And of course that does continue to go on, but it's being incrementally eroded.

    Eg, as Geoff wrote

    our understandings of contemporary life are pretty much framed by America--whether we embrace American values and world vierws, adapt or reject them.One instance--the intense interests we have in the Democrat primary!

    I also recalled how American Studies introduced me to the notions of historiography and critical analysis--ideas I had never before encountered in NZ education.

    The Change Proposal revealed a fundamental lack of understanding of American Studies or interdisciplinary critical studies in general, romanticising some supposed historical "core" of privileged disciplines. Ridiculous.

    Bob, re the Employment Relations Act, I'm not sure, but I think some of this has been avoided by the disestablishment of entire programmes -- people are not made redundant as such: their jobs simply no longer exist. I think. But I can't imagine that management is getting bad legal advice. (In fact, I'd love to know how much all this is actually costing the university.)

    And, finally, the latest news is that the release of a draft implementation plan has been delayed until April 15 while the powers that be consider the recommendations from the review panel.

    PS Did anyone in Dunedin go see the show? Kyle? Ali?

    Christchurch • Since Aug 2007 • 67 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    PS Did anyone in Dunedin go see the show? Kyle? Ali?

    Sadly I'm saving my limited funds for Heavenly Burlesque at Sammy's this Friday. A burlesque show with circus arts, followed by Sonic Smith at the after party. It's got the three essential food groups surely.

    Since Nov 2006 • 6162 posts Report Reply

  • Bob Munro,

    re the Employment Relations Act, I'm not sure, but I think some of this has been avoided by the disestablishment of entire programmes -- people are not made redundant as such: their jobs simply no longer exist. I think.

    Yes - it's perhaps like the business decision to close a branch office, the workers there don't get a say in the decision making but they are offered support if they will go quietly as per Susan's second post.

    A wider problem for the university management if they are seen by staff to not be bargaining in 'good faith' is the souring of relationships at a professional and personal level throughout the system. It breaks down the collegial atmosphere. It incurs a sort of unease or 'sickness' if that's not too strong a word in the mood or morale of the institution. I would imagine this unease is easy enough to create but would require special leadership to retrieve once these bonds of trust are broken.

    A special problem for university authorities would be the relative stability of staff. People can’t move between jobs nearly as much as in the business world. If an accountant is sick of the way things are run she just moves across town to a similar position in another firm. So people who experience an injustice are stuck where they are and the corporate memory of the injustice continues rather than fades away with the turnover of staff.

    Christchurch • Since Aug 2007 • 418 posts Report Reply

  • Bob Munro,

    That's 'Sharon's' second post. I aplogise for my dyslexic mistakes. A poor typist gets caught up in the mechanics of posting these things.

    Christchurch • Since Aug 2007 • 418 posts Report Reply

  • Jackie Clark,

    And all I can say is how sad it is that our institutions of higher learning are becoming so very shortsighted in their abolition of Departments, and courses.

    Mt Eden, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3123 posts Report Reply

  • Stephen Judd,

    I met this really interesting chap over Easter who was doing fantastic stuff with martial dance theatre. A budding expert in South Indian martial arts, someone who's helped take kapa haka offshore to foreign success. He was telling me about his PhD work. "That's neat!" I said, "I want to hear more about that." "Well", he said, "I don't know if you will, because I'm only part-way through and they're closing my department."

    How the hell can you close a department that has working PhD students? Appalling.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2947 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    How the hell can you close a department that has working PhD students? Appalling.

    It's actually not easy to close a department without screwing over some PhD students. If you're nice about it, and say "we'll close in three years, everyone finish up their PhDs, no one take on any more", then the theory is nice, but the staff aren't going to sit around for three years and then apply for jobs.

    Jobs might not come up very often in their fields, particularly in a little country like NZ. So even if the department stays open, the only specialist that can supervise might get a job elsewhere anyway. And some departments, won't supervise if they can't provide a specialist, so the only easy answer is 'never close a department', which doesn't always work as an answer.

    And it's pretty expensive to run a department which is going to have a sinking lid of undergraduate and postgraduate students, because you can't take on new postgrads, or new majors, because the staff won't be around long enough for either of them to finish.

    Since Nov 2006 • 6162 posts Report Reply

  • Ben Austin,

    Ugh, I remember the 1997 Humanities cutbacks at Otago. Kind of hard to forget watching a grown man (my lecturer) cry in a lecture.

    Any hope Canterbury handles this better?

    London • Since Nov 2006 • 884 posts Report Reply

  • Kerry Weston,

    Seems very odd to me that arts courses in film & theatre that do lead to 'proper' jobs in film, tv etc are being axed, at a time of growth in these industries in an imaged world - didn't I read somewhere that LOTR alone was responsible for a big leap in tourist numbers?

    What's sadder, is the number of fine arts grads from the large number of courses available who end up with $50k student loans and the dire realisation that they're never going to make it as a practising artist in NZ, simply because the market isn't big enough. So many go on to become nannies, baristas etc or join the brain drain. A waste of talent. As someone who has lived 'on the smell of an oily rag' whilst pursuing a creative life as a painter, I promise you artistic integrity is passe in the new world.

    Now doing an equally useless history degree - a current paper on 1920s/30s NZ moaning about the lack of intellectual, creative, cultural stimulation and the resulting bland, narrow society of farmers and land speculators, where ordinary blokes can't wait to dash off to war for a bit of excitement and the women find ingenious ways to make ends meet. History never repeats, I tell myself before I go to sleep....

    Manawatu • Since Jan 2008 • 494 posts Report Reply

  • ali bramwell,

    kerry I cant agree about the futility of arts education or of history. (how can we prevent the same mistakes if we dont know how they happened the first time for instance?)

    But I totally agree with you that the student loan issue is a major part of the problem. young students now have to make cold blooded decisions about likelihood of income and employment before they even start to study...at the same time they are still trying to figure out what their priorities are in life, this is very difficult. and without good independent advice to guide them, many rely on listening to their parents fears.

    BA and BFA are not perceived as vocational pathways. for those that cant manage science, welding and business management are perceived as vocational pathways. the formula for predicting guaranteed employment after study seems to include a direct relationship with product based economics. this is falacious and fails to account for knowledge added economic growth. Inventiveness and entrepreneurial creativity come from a similar skill set... all those generative problem solving skills are endlessly transferable to other professions.

    How many people make supposedly 'job sensible' study choices that they then regret at length?

    lost dreams...

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2007 • 33 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    Actually stats have indicated that graduates of an arts degree, are more likely to be working or in postgraduate study than graduates of some other degrees (commerce I think was noticeable) a couple of years after graduation.

    The belief that an arts degree won't get you a job is largely urban legend.

    Since Nov 2006 • 6162 posts Report Reply

  • ali bramwell,

    yeah, thanks Kyle

    ...did I make it clear that I dont actually agree with that vocational perception thing? I was talking about the advice students get from worried parents...Mum and Dad are convinced if Judy or Johnny goes to art/film/drama/etc school their life will be ruined, they will never have any money and they will suddenly get a whole lot of embarrassingly placed body jewellery, a drug habit and peculiar political ideas...

    actually that last one is pretty much true, gets them all in the end. mwa ha ha ha ha

    Creon: sorry no I havent been to faust chroma, but there is still time, its on again tonite and tomorrow night

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2007 • 33 posts Report Reply

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