David's Graduation Address

Here's a transcript of my valedictory address at the Murdoch University Science faculty graduations way back in 1997. A point of trivia: It was dedicated to my piano teacher. This was actually the first time the University had ever asked a student to speak at a graduation, as far as I can tell. And the fools chose me! The dubious honour of having to listen to it went to a mob of science graduates, assorted parents and relatives, and other assorted academics and riffraff. Still, it led to an unprecedented (and all too temporary) spike in my corridor-cred, so it can't have been all bad. For your entertainment, I present...

Let me begin by saying "I really don't want to be here". I'm sure you can understand my terror I felt when this idea started, when Professor Ian James came down to the honours room and said "I've got a proposition for you". That's nothing compared to how I'm feeling now.

However, I'm here so I had to come up with something to say. This is a difficult thing for me - the last time I had to give a talk on a subject I knew nothing about was back in year 12 Literature. All my talks since then have involved equations in one form or another. Still at least the choice of subject material was reasonably small. I was informed that I could talk about anything I wanted provided I didn't bag the university. You can understand how this narrows the field somewhat.

Anyway, what I finally decided to talk about (after much procrastination) was society. I'm sure that you've all read between the lines every time you've sat down in front of the telly and watched a news report or a current affairs show and have been left with the perception that society is an uncaring and selfish thing. This is misleading - it is not society that is at fault. It is generally the people who are uncaring and selfish. It's only the thin veneer of civilisation - those feelings we know as fear and insecurity - that hold us together and give us our decency. As scientists, I guess we can all understand this behaviour quite simply: evolution, survival of the fittest, everybody striving to get ahead of everyone else. Unfortunately, the term fittest doesn't quite have the same meaning here as we might think it does. This is obvious when we look at our most successful, our fittest. These are the politicians and business entrepreneurs with their ample girths.

It may be cynical to say so, but it sometimes seems hard not to believe that our society and all the sub-societies therein are ultimately controlled by egos. Unfortunately, as someone once said to me in exactly the right context, "the scum always floats to the top!" (present company excepted of course). That's not the precise word she used but you get the idea.

Now, how does this relate to a graduation ceremony? Much of this ranting can be directly attributed to a particular newspaper clipping I read last week on the Chemistry Department board just down from the secretary's office. The clipping concerned a recent informal study of the academic staff at UWA, focusing on how students viewed them especially from a first year point of view. The results were predictably damning - most of the students agreed that they had not been treated at all well during their first year, finding that with a few notable exceptions, their lecturers were disinterested, unapproachable and looked as if they did not want to be there. The coordinator of the survey, himself a faculty member, offered several explanations for this including that academics resented the time teaching took from their research and that academics just don't like students. Now, like it or not, academia is about teaching as well as research and teaching is part of what they are paid to do. This sort of neglect should not be acceptable!

Where am I going with this? Well, when I was reading this article, I suddenly felt very proud of my institution (this is not something I'm usually susceptible to). You see, its been my experience here that with a few notable exceptions, the academic staff were always approachable and in some cases, distressingly eager to clarify points and answer questions. I hope that many of you can say the same thing about your time here and for those who can't, I can only sympathise and repeat that this sort of neglect should not be acceptable.

The point to all this, which I'm getting to in a very round-about manner, is that when you go on to better things which you shortly will I hope, you will undoubtedly be one day in a position where you are to train someone else. Just remember that you were trained in an environment where people were always willing to help you achieve the education that your HECS debts will shortly be paying for and that really, our thin veneer of decency dictates that you should extend this same courtesy to the people around you. I know its hard for lawyers and the suchlike, but we're highly trained scientists! Making our own little societies just a little bit better should be easy for us if we consciously try.