What my Bachelor of Arts taught me

Alex Burns

1/ On Friday, 19th June 2020, Australia’s education minister Dan Tehan announced wide-ranging changes to Federal Government funding for university courses. Amongst these changes was a proposed 113% fee rise in humanities, social sciences and law degrees, where students would now pay 93% of a humanities degree. On the same day, Minister Tehan admitted in a National Press Club briefing that the 113% fee rise was meant as a price signal for students to study STEM degrees instead: CRISPR rather than Foucault. That evening, the economist Professor Rabee Tourky of The Australian National University and I had a lengthy Twitter debate on the fee rise implications. Professor Tourky feels that Minister Tehan’s announcement will be positive for humanities and social science enrolments, that science will suffer, and that there will be little impact on students due to the demand elasticity of the HELP deferred payment system (originally HECS). My view was the opposite: Minister Tehan’s announcement will entrench economic and social stratification, higher student debt, and therefore, delayed housing and family formation.

2/ Amongst the reactions to Minister Tehan’s announcement was a defence on the social network Twitter of the Bachelor of Arts degree. Some of these tweets read like opportunistic marketing messages - highlighting how the social network has become integral to impact and engagement exercises for academics. The most interesting thread was #MyArtsDegree - where writers like Australia’s novelist John Birmingham pointed out that they had essentially built their own lucrative career with the writing skills learned from their BA. This was essentially my experience as well - but for personal reasons I learned a lot more about overcoming personal adversity.

3/ I began a Bachelor of Arts in 1992 with a major in cinema studies. My father and step-mother had broken up at the end of my Year 10 and I was part of the first cohort that undertook the two-year Victorian Certificate of Education. I had a lot of upheaval in my final two years of high school, as my family unravelled, and as I experienced both domestic violence and the parental redirection of my student payment subsidies for their own living expenses. By the time I began my degree in 1992, I wanted to become a film maker and scriptwriter, and I had an interest in legal studies and politics.

4/ However, my studies were beset by many personal upheavals and poor decision-making due in part to untreated depression and complex trauma. I spent all of 1992 and part of 1993 working full-time in a computer stock dispatch wholesaler and missing a lot of classes. In 1993, I refocused on cinema studies and missed a music class. In late 1993, I moved out of my father’s home after more personal upheavals, moved into a flat, and discovered my calling as a freelance journalist. In 1994, I worked for La Trobe University’s Rabelais student newspaper, then got into a college romantic relationship that became caught in a poverty trap, didn’t take classes in 1995, and failed all my classes in 1996 and 1997. But my freelance journalism career took off, until in early 1998 my two main publishers closed, my college relationship broke up, and I tried to commit suicide. I failed all of my 1998 classes as well.

5/ In 1999, I re-applied for my degree and was admitted as an ‘at risk’ student. I took one class - a first year Philosophy of Human Psychology unit - and got 76%. I was writing for the United States-based subculture search engine Disinformation. I was doing interviews for a book. Then, a rebound romantic relationship broke up, my share flat kicked me out, and I ended up homeless for the next 18 months, sleeping in the stairwell basement of the Thomas Cherry building at La Trobe University’s Bundoora campus, drinking free coffee at the Part Time, Evening and Mature Students lounge, and editing Disinformation from a Borchardt library computer.

6/ In 2000, I had two cinema studies classes with Dr Geoff Mayer, on the Classical Hollywood film system, and Melodrama genre films. I began to grasp how the period after Classical Hollywood’s end was similar to the Dotcom era of editing Disinformation. I passed all of my classes apart from International Relations of the Middle East. In 2001, I passed all of my classes, including taking a life-changing politics of media class with Professor Robin Jeffrey, and writing a Gurdjieff Work essay for Dr Tom Weber’s peace studies class (“this isn’t peace studies,” Weber told me). I went to New York City nine days after the September 11 attacks, then spoke at This Is Not Art in Newcastle, Australia during the anthrax fears, and then moved back into my father’s house when university administration finally alerted him over my homelessness. I graduated ‘in absentia’ on 3rd May 2002.

7/ What I learned in 2000-01 was that the self-discipline of regular writing helped me to deal with homelessness, family dysfunction and isolation, and to overcoming adversity. I may have been able to overcome this more quickly if I had accessed counselling and support services. Instead, I stripped back my life to the (obsessive) essentials: getting food, a place to sleep, writing for Disinformation, attending classes, filing my invoices so that I could get my $USD100 a week payment, and filling the gaps working as a temp for several telemarketing agencies. I had discovered the power of Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi’s flow (psychological states of optimal experience) and K. Anders Ericsson’s 10,000 hours of deliberate practice (popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers). The most important thing I learned was to do whatever I had to finish the Bachelor of Arts degree.

8/ My La Trobe University BA was the pathway to further studies and to greater economic/social mobility. In 2002, I enrolled in a Master of Science in Strategic Foresight at Swinburne University - its founding Professor Richard Slaughter and I had both written for 21C Magazine - and then in 2005, a Master of Arts in Counter-Terrorism Studies. From 2011 to 2020, I worked part-time on a political science PhD about strategic culture and terrorist organisations. I developed a career in research administration, published individual and co-authored research, got cited, and got invited to speak at national and international conferences. All of this would have been impossible without my BA.

9/ My life circumstances had not been promising to get a BA. I had grown up in a dysfunctional lower middle class family that lived in the Bendigo suburb of Maiden Gully. My father turned our house into a restaurant before losing it due to high interest rates on his loan. He was largely disinterested in my university studies and publishing, having attended only a semester of university in New Zealand before deciding to work instead. When my father died on 30th May 2017, he had burned through about $1 million in entrepreneurial financing, lost his house due to a home equity line of credit, become an alcoholic, and had a serious gambling addiction. His $60,000 estate went to debts and a blended family from a third marriage rather than his own children. My BA taught me to write an objection for my father’s HESTA superannuation fund that for the first time laid out my trauma history in a coherent and an evidence-based narrative. The superannuation fund ruled against me; but I had made my case and I still had my integrity.

10/ A few weeks ago I requested from La Trobe University my BA course transcripts. At first they were pretty confronting to read: I had made a lot of mistakes, and in reality I had been very ill for a long time period (despite having a father who was a psychiatric nurse, who should have known better about depression and complex trauma). Not having an undergraduate degree in the mid-late 1990s was a contributing factor to downward mobility and poverty that cost me my first major relationship and rental accommodation. But through focused effort I persevered. Today, when I am on Zoom calls with University of Melbourne colleagues they all comment on the bookcases behind me that are full of political economy and political science books. Few know of my undergraduate ‘origin myth’.

11/ When I last visited La Trobe University’s Bundoora campus, I went to the Thomas Cherry building’s stairwell basement for a few minutes, in silence. Then I went out into the sunlight and onto a more prosperous future.