SALIENT Feature Writer Brannavan Gnanalingam spends some time with the Academic Idol finalists, and talks to their students and colleagues.
On the face of it, the two remaining Academic Idol hopefuls couldn’t be more different. One’s a Wellington-raised veteran who’s been lecturing at Vic since 1972. The other’s a youngish Irish-descended Englishman who’s lectured here for two years. One’s a good Kiwi bloke, the other constantly questions his sexuality in class. One’s a legend around law, the other’s making his way up in film. One teaches in one of the most established academic professions, the other teaches in a very new academic discipline. But all this aside, there are a lot of similarities (and this will apply to the other lecturers who have participated in this contest – our many, many thanks to them). They both love their students and they are both funny, modest, interesting people. They are two of the nicest people you could meet. Above all though, and that’s why they are here, they are fantastic lecturers. Having seen both in action, I couldn’t speak highly enough of both. Academic Idol hasn’t been simply about the contest, it’s also about highlighting some of the wonderful lecturing that students have every right to expect when they come to university. This week we got to know two of the best.
Contract law isn’t usually regarded as the sexiest area of study. It conjures up images of people with magnifying glasses gazing intently at fine-print, actually and willingly getting bogged down in semantics. Yet for many students who are forced to do this compulsory paper at Law School, the traditional perceptions are completely changed when coming up against Professor David McLauchlan.
Being a professor of law for twenty-five years, and a lecturer for thirty-five, would guarantee a certain amount of mana around the place. New Zealand Supreme Court and English House of Lords judges use him for advice, he consistently receives some of the best student evaluation scores in the University, and he spent a year at Oxford and has published over fifty articles and shorter papers in journals. These are but a few of McLauchlan’s outstanding achievements.
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There was no shortage of people willing to offer their praises of him either. Dr. Grant Morris, a fellow Academic Idol nominee and popular law lecturer says “David’s ability as a teacher is well known throughout New Zealand. I first heard about his reputation as an inspirational lecturer when I was a law student and I didn’t study law at Victoria.” On a personal level, Morris says: “David is an inspirational mentor for young academics. Since beginning my job at Victoria in 2002, David has always made time to give me advice and encouragement.” Students are as effusive. CJ Hunt says “he’s bloody great. Instead of just making you read the case, he’ll let you think whether they’re correct or not. He’ll spend half a lecture attacking one of the best judges in the world.”
McLauchlan fell into law, it wasn’t something he was always planning to do. During high school, McLauchlan and maths decided to part ways and he didn’t want to do arts at university. This led to law. This then led to lecturing. “I had a bit of experience in an office, and thought, ‘no I’d like to learn more’. So I had an opportunity to come up here, get an assistant lectureship, do a Masters and it grew from there. I never left.” McLauchlan actually started making his name teaching commercial law. “I guess I came to the university with a bit of a practical bent. In fact, I started out teaching legal systems [the old LAWS 101] and criminal law. But I think my natural inclinations took me to the contract, commercial side of things.” In 1972 he started lecturing contract, and in 1974, commercial law. His first lecture was a nerve-wracking experience. “With 24 hours notice, I was asked to give a couple of lectures in contract when the main lecturer fell sick. And luckily he had very good notes, so I went away and studied them up. When I went into the room, my knees were knocking. And I prayed I wouldn’t be asked a question. And luckily, I wasn’t asked too much because the notes were so good. But that was completely foreign territory.” Despite all his experience, McLauchlan admits, “I used to get nervous before lectures right up until ten years ago.”
This however belies his knowledge on what he teaches. Nick Hegan, a contract law tutor and post-graduate student says, “he’s really passionate about it. He has a really in-depth knowledge. You could ask him about the smallest thing.” Morris says: “David’s lecturing approach is a perfect example of research-led teaching. He is a world-renowned expert in his field of contract law and manages to clearly communicate his encyclopaedic knowledge to students at all levels.”
But above all, McLauchlan treats his students so well that it’s obvious why McLauchlan is a beloved lecturer. The general sentiment around Law School is that he’s by far the fairest examiner in the School. McLauchlan admits he aims to let students just think. “People are under pressure in examinations and I want to reward those who have done the work, and display they have battled away with the course material.” He’s also found he’s had to adapt his style as times change with students. “In my mind, in the university there’s far too much assessment, [and] not enough time for learning. That affects students’ abilities to participate in extra-curricular activities, they’re constantly under pressure, there are too many students with a full-time load because they have no work. I had it easy in my day. I’ve changed what I expect, to take into account the extra loads students are doing. I’m probably a lot softer than I used to be. I used to pick on a few students and give them a hard time. But I’ve realised I’m a pussycat now.”
He’s also willing to place trust in students. “I think some lecturers underestimate the fact that students want to be challenged. As long as you provide them the opportunity to get to grips with the material. I enjoy the challenge of working with them and showing students that university studies, particularly in law, isn’t about rote-learning the material, it’s about developing their intellectual equipment.” Instead of burdening students with pages and pages of reading each night (which is a pretty common thing around Law School), McLauchlan wouldspend three weeks on a ten page case. And for any student, that sounds like a sweet deal – yet he’ll also end up picking out half the law of contract from it.
McLauchlan emphasises “I think I’m privileged working in a university. There aren’t too many jobs where you’re as independent. There’s a perception out there that academic lawyers are the ones who couldn’t make it out there in the ‘real world’. No, it’s a different choice of career. It’s one of those careers you never get out of your bones. Increasingly, people just don’t retire because it’s your life. People in general practice can’t wait to get out of it. I wouldn’t change anything – I’d be richer if I’d gone out [in the ‘real world’] money-wise, but certainly less rich in other ways.” Perhaps the final word belongs to Ted Thomas, one of New Zealand’s greatest modern judges. He takes time to mention McLauchlan and one of his articles in a case. “I may disagree with him on any number of points and no doubt will, but I found his article invaluable. In Lord Goff’s words, ‘for jurists are pilgrims on the endless road to unattainable perfection’ and we have on excellent authority from Geoffrey Chaucer ‘conversations amongst pilgrims can be most rewarding’.
A post-grad student walked out of Sean Redmond’s honours class last year and confessed “I wish Sean was my Dad”. He’s very much a cult figure, a lecturer who’s known for dancing to Britney Spears’ ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’, attempting to break boards during a tae kwon do demonstration (despite having no knowledge of any martial arts) and for getting students to throw pies at his face while dressed as Charlie Chaplin. He’s also planning for an upcoming film class on hip-hop and African American cinema to dress up as a gangsta and try freestylin’ some rap.
Redmond has only been teaching at Vic for two years. He came over from England where “we were stuck in a rut. I wanted a fresh start with my family. I know it sounds cheesy.” His childhood was so crazy that his sister, as soon as he turned eighteen, “just turned around and suddenly said, straightlaced as you could be ‘Sean, you do know that none of us’ – that meant my Mum, my Dad and my other sister – ‘thought you were going to make eighteen?>’”. His childhood was one of movement and chaos. “I think we had eight or nine houses between the age of seven and when I was about fifteen. For all sorts of reasons, we couldn’t pay the rent, got thrown out, and were made homeless for a while. I think I had my ears pierced – both of them – by the age of seven, had my hair dyed by the time I was nine. I think I’d been suspended from school by the time I was twelve, I was arrested by the time I was fourteen, spent my first night in jail – only one night ever, thank god – when I was 17. Although that was a racist attack, I was with an Asian mate in a pub and we got beaten up by a bunch of white racists.”
Yet film was also a passion. “I fell in love with film when I watched Abbott and Costello Go to Mars, then I watched Flash Gordon from the 30s and I saw Charlie Chaplin dance. I don’t know, I fell in love with the beauty of it. The qualities, the places it took you. I found it to be the most creative medium, it spoke to me.”
Redmond started by teaching high school students. “I had some really bad teachers at school who were patronising, aloof. It was a really rough school, poor school. And the teachers there just treated us like we were rubbish. And I remember thinking – I had an epiphany moment when I was about 14, I really did – I thought teaching’s really important, teachers should be really good, they should be passionate if they want to change people’s lives. And I remember thinking then I’d like to teach to show them how it could be done.”
His students are also in agreement. Carlos Ramirez-Laloli says “I think Sean is a great lecturer because not only are his classes interesting and academically sound, but he always makes a real, visible effort to make them appealing to students. Plus he is the only lecturer that I know of that wears a sensuous pink shirt while talking of his man breasts.” A post-grad says “I never had so much fun yet learnt so much in a class as I did when I was in Sean’s class, which is a pretty rare achievement for a university lecturer. Sean always told me I was handsome too, which was good for self-esteem.” Matt Wagner, a fellow Academic Idol and highly popular lecturer says “students are (contrary to some beliefs, I suppose), live, thinking, engaged, emotive, human beings, and they recognise and respond to those qualities in others, especially in lecturers. Sean knows his stuff, and he cares. He cares deeply about both the students and the material. He’s not a charlatan, he’s not faking it, he’s not bored by either the material or by students, and he doesn’t count either as a chore. It’s rare to get all of that in one; these are the things that make him one of the best lecturers I’ve ever seen, and they’re the things that students respond to.”
Redmond admits, “I was petrified the very first time I taught over here. You don’t know if your humour, comedy, performance translates well over here. It doesn’t always. [But] they were brilliant from the off, really great students here. I’ve been immensely impressed by their knowledge, their understanding, their desire, their hunger to learn.” However, his first experience of teaching wasn’t the greatest. “I started teaching initially in FE, which is a 16 to 18, A-Level qualification. I was so nervous the very first lesson that I stood outside the door instead of going in, because I thought there was another lecture in there. I stood outside this classroom for about half an hour and occasionally thinking the students inside aren’t up to very much having imagined another teacher in the room. I think it was my mentor, bizarrely who walked past, because they assign a mentor to a new teacher, and he went ‘Sean what are you doing?’ I said, ‘well I’m waiting for this class to come out. There’s a teacher in there. They’re in there, and I’m supposed to be in there.’ So my mentor opened the door, and of course there was no teacher in there, and my class waiting for me. In front of them, my mentor said, ‘Sean this is your class, you need to go in’. I went in red-faced.”
Redmond’s style doesn’t come easy to him though. His comedy and easy-going nature mask his immense intelligence, though he’ll be too modest to admit it. With his emphasis on performance, you’d think he could easily have been an actor. “There’s a paradox about me. On the one hand I’m extremely shy and nervous, vulnerable and fragile, but on the other hand, I’m bombastic and ebullient. Those tensions often get in the way of me trying things out.” Though, he does admit to being a closet actor and writer – and wants to pursue the creative aspect of the art. “I think that I am ridiculous. I do, I know this, and I can’t do anything about it. I oscillate on that invisible line of being totally ridiculous and being relatively cool. Between tragic and comedic, clever and stupid, ugly and beautiful, incisive and muddled, complex but shallow. I can’t get around it, I think that’s why I want to teach, it’s my desire to fuel excitement and get around ideas. But I do often feel partly ridiculous.”