Why we choose to live at St Paul's

By Alan Atkinson

There is much more to the University’s residential colleges than recent media coverage would suggest. Historian Alan Atkinson, who has been a live-in tutor at St Paul’s for five years, explains the rewards of the role and sense of satisfaction it provides.
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Credit: Brian Mcinerney

I graduated in Arts from the University of Sydney in the 1960s. As an undergraduate I lived at St Paul’s College. Now, with my wife, I live there again. In the intervening 39 years, 1968 to 2006, I was an academic writer and lecturer. It was a productive time. I loved teaching. My books (in Australian history) won various prizes and I ended up with a five-year research professorship.

All the same, my briefer time at St Paul’s, since 2007, has been even more rewarding. Overseas, the educational potential of university colleges seems to be common knowledge. Not so in Australia. Here colleges have a keen appeal to many students, and yet interest in them is usually negative or nil.

At St Paul’s our usual boast is that seven of our students since 2001 have been Rhodes scholars. In the same period St Paul’s also supplied half the annually elected presidents of the Student Union. In 2012 two of our students shared the Convocation Medal, awarded to recent graduates for service to the University and wider world. Besides boasting, which is pleasant enough, we need to ask how this is happening.

When I came back in 2007, at first just as a stopover, I was struck by the quality of leadership among the students, especially the way the older ones supported the first years in their academic work. I stayed, and I came back out of retirement, because there was clearly an unusual educational experiment underway. The fresher initiation system, as I remember it in the 1960s, was gone. Academic standards were high. There was a keen and generous sense of achievement.

A lot of this is ultimately due to the College Council. In the 1970s some members set up a scholarship fund, now very substantial and bringing in a critical mass of excellent and deserving students. Also, in 1994 the council appointed a first-class Head of College, the present Warden (Ivan Head), and they have stood by him in his efforts to make St Paul’s an increasingly interesting place. These are the fruits of a sometimes eccentric independence.

Genuine independence is crucial. The original purpose of the Sydney University colleges was not just residential. They were meant to be centres of intellectual life which in some sense challenged the University. In the 19th century that independence was expressed in religious terms. St Paul’s was and is still, liberal Anglican. The first warden, in the 1850s, aimed to run college courses in astronomy and geology, so that students could keep up with the impact of scientific progress on religion. Now there is a chance for independence to be expressed more widely.

"I realise how important the relationship across age levels is for good student communities."

University teaching practices are changing. Classes are getting very big and online instruction is very common. On the one hand, student individuality matters less for teaching. And yet in the world at large some of the more advanced workplaces are being reorganised so as to stress “relational leadership” and initiative at all levels. Social networking (electronic or not) makes that easy. In a recent book one of our young alumni, Eric Knight, explained how this approach “does not diminish individual brilliance but focuses on the tight network of supporters and collaborators gathered around an individual”.

A college which can nourish and use intellectual and organisational leadership of this sort is in step with the world. This is up-to-date student collegiality. It is initiative interwoven with teamwork. The colleges at the University of Sydney are places where student collegiality can be attempted most easily and effectively. Of course, there’s plenty of it elsewhere. The student union is a great example, with all its internally-generated clubs and societies. The University is also developing peer-assisted learning. The union is driven by student leadership, but peer-assisted learning is contingent on the official curriculum. Here are two siloed worlds. One is non-academic, the other academic.

Colleges can pull the two together, energising academic work with the spirit of creative leadership. Institutional independence and small numbers make student initiative a lot easier, and the college tutorial system is wide open to leadership by both graduates and undergraduates. Class teaching can be interwoven with social networking, orchestrated by student tutors. With tutorial groups of (say) half a dozen, colleges are the perfect antidote to the overwhelming class sizes situation confronted by most new undergraduates at Sydney.

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St Paul's College

In 2012 the students at St Paul’s decided to use this advantage by launching a program called Positive Education, which involves training in mental resilience, focus and self-knowledge. Positive Education has not been tried before at the university level, and management by students is rare. The challenges are just now being worked out.

I now realise, as I didn’t when I was just teaching, how important the relationship across age levels is for good student communities. One Paul’s fresher has described the behaviour of seniors as “absolutely extraordinary … [I have] never seen anything like the voluntary effort for others”. That seems to be the general verdict. St Paul’s is a college for men. They call themselves a band of brothers, and of course brothers are usually of different ages. The Positive Education program is designed to refine that relationship, and to allow for a more expert and educational sense of responsibility. The program has two sides to it. Occasional lecturers speak on subjects of immediate interest, such as physical wellbeing, including sports psychology. Also we look to the special needs of first years.

The college has contracted with the Positivity Institute, which provides basic training to a number of senior students, who each manage workshop groups of 10 or more freshers. From there we aim to move up to issues of cognitive psychology. This is a rapidly evolving area of research with big implications in a number of disciplines. With us, ‘Know thyself’ will be backed up by recent research findings in neuroscience, how decision-making works and so on. Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize-winner in Economics, is a leading text. It’s all experimental so far, but we have high hopes.

Taking a view from among the students (a live-in view), colleges can ask questions about what the University does and about the way teaching works. In some things they can manage better and point the way forward. This is what makes it worth living at St Paul’s.

Alan Atkinson is Senior Tutor at St Paul’s College, an Honorary Professor of the University of Sydney and author of The Europeans in Australia.