I'm writing from my office at UNSW in Sydney, where I've spent the last week or so packing and taking care of loose ends before heading back to Shanghai this weekend, this time for good. The unseasonably cold weather of the previous week has given way to the usual glorious Sydney summer, blue skies and a light smattering of clouds, making it even harder to leave this place.
I've lived in and around quite a few cities over the years. Sydney is by far the loveliest city I've ever spent time in, and perhaps one of the most beautiful cities on the planet. So it's not easy to bid this city, and this country, adieu and head back into the northern hemisphere winter, wondering if we'll ever return to these fair shores.
As for UNSW, it's been a mixed experience of ups and downs, highs and lows, much as you'd expect from any major institution and any long-term job. I started here in July 2002, and have taught on campus for a total of four years, eight semesters in all (five years if you count my sabbatical in 2005 and my leave-without-pay in 2007).
When I arrived in '02, the Chinese history program here was in rough shape. My predecessors had set up two courses, one on the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the other on 20th century China. Both were poorly attended. I decided that was a little too specialized for this campus, and consolidated these two courses into one on Modern China, using the Jonathan Spence model and his wonderful textbook and documents reader. This meant cramming a lot of history into one semester, but it seemed to work well. I also added a course on Chinese civilization, from 1600 BC to 1600 AD (Shang to Ming), which turned out to be my most successful course in terms of student evaluations, and also a real joy to teach. Over the five years I taught here, enrollments rose steadily from around a dozen students per course to over 40.
My piece-de-resistance was "Nightlife and the Metropolis", a cultural history of urban modernity using nightlife as a window into the history of 19th and 20th century cities. This course focused on four metropolises: New York, Paris, Tokyo, and Shanghai. It proved very popular, with over 160 students signing up at first, and roughly half that number for the next two times I taught it. It drew in a lot of students who otherwise wouldn't have considered taking a history course, and who knows, it might eventually result in a book.
Last year, our new administration organized a campaign to reduce the number of courses taught in an effort to save money by getting more "asses on seats" as they like to say here. Unfortunately, the "great rationalization" of course offerings for our program in the coming years would likely mean an end to all these courses I spent so much time putting together, and to much of the diversity of offerings that my colleagues in History had set up over the previous years. Thankfully this is an issue that I leave them to handle, and I wish them the best of luck in doing so.
I look back on my four years at UNSW as a crucial training period in which I learned how to be a teacher. Sure I made some classic mistakes, and a few right blunders along the way (don't get your grades in late, and never change the date of a final exam!), but overall things went well in that arena. On the other hand I'm less than satisfied with my lack of publications over the years which I blame on too many projects, too many false starts, not enough focus, and not enough persistence, but hopefully the publication of my first book later this year (or early next) will begin to remedy that.
***Here are some things about Sydney that I'll miss (not necessarily in order): * **
The coffee cart below our building (Morven Brown) on the UNSW campus and Italian coffee in general!
Snorkeling in the waters off Clovelly beach
The Bondi to Coogee cliff walk and everything in between
Taking the ferry to Manly
Taking our daughter Sarah to the Tarronga Zoo
Watching the sunset over the city and Harbour Bridge from Watson's Bay
Hiking in the Blue Mountains
Fireworks over the Harbour on New Year's Eve
Weekend trips to Hunter Valley
Browsing the shelves of Berkelouw Books
Cycling the loop around Centennial Park and taking my daughter Sarah to her favorite playgrounds
BBQ parties at Tamarama
Discovering new beaches and new walks with the Parsons
Weekends at Capertee with the Brawleys
Backyard BBQs at the Doumanises
Club-hopping at the Cross with the irredoubtable Prof Nathan
It's been a good run. Goodbye, Sydney, farewell UNSW, au revoir Australia. We'll miss you.