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Two careers and expatriate study broadens Australian academia

By Don Edgar and Patricia Edgar - posted Thursday, 9 February 2012

As residents of a country geographically isolated from European and American culture, from where our history is drawn, it has always been vital for Australians to travel to widen our knowledge, thinking, experience and understanding of the world outside our shores. Modern communication technology may have made global information more readily available but it has transformed the way we work and made expatriate experience more likely and essential for innovation and success. It?s no surprise that the Australian diaspora has grown so much over recent decades.

Both of our working lives were transformed by the decision (way back in 1966) to study overseas. Patricia would not have ended up founding the Australian Children?s Television Foundation and shaping a children?s production industry that became an international success; Don would not have become Foundation Director of the federal government?s Australian Institute of Family Studies and developed research studies that transformed our understanding of the Australian Family.

We had started as secondary school teachers with Arts degrees and Diplomas of Education from the University of Melbourne. By 1966 we had married and had two children, Don moving in to lecture in education at the new Secondary Teachers? College, Patricia lecturing in adult education (teaching the first course on women?s issues in Australia in 1966). Don had completed a Master?s thesis in educational philosophy and sociology and wanted to go on to learn more in the sociological field, but no Australian university offered sociology and certainly gave no financial assistance or scholarships to a mature-age married student with a family.

So he applied to the best U.S. schools and accepted an offer at Stanford University where the top Harvard sociologists had recently defected and where the quality of Stanford?s sociology faculty could not be bettered. It was our intention to return to Australia after Don completed his PhD, yet opportunities opened up and we took them.

The Australian ?diaspora? at Stanford at that time comprised no more than a dozen people who thrived in the intellectual community. Some returned while others forged distinguished careers overseas. We loved the environment and spent an exciting two years there with one child in the famous Bing Nursery School, and the other enjoying her communal life in the safe haven of Escondido Village.

However, surviving on savings proved difficult and Don had to approach the Dean to ask for a job or an abortive return was on our agenda. The Dean offered a position at the Stanford Education Research Centre paying $300 a month plus all Don?s fees. It wasn?t a fortune but we lived on it for the next two years. That meant Don?s initial Fellowship was freed up to pay Patricia?s fees, as she too wanted to study. She had always been interested in film so she enrolled in a Masters degree in Communication, which included film and television production. The courses transformed her life.

We completed our degrees and Don was offered positions at several U.S. Universities. Patricia was offered a job in public television at KQED in San Francisco. When an offer to be an Assistant Professor and Research Associate came from the University of Chicago it was too good to refuse. We moved to Chicago, driving across country during the riotous Democratic Convention of 1969, with two kids and their grandparents in tow. So we were expatriates for real. Patricia worked for the University of Chicago raising Ford Foundation funds for a big research project training teaching teams to work in ghetto schools.

We returned home for a number of reasons: we were paying tax in both countries; Don was not enjoying his work in the Graduate School of Education; and we were worried about the children in an environment where there was gang warfare. Patricia did not want to return for she knew opportunities for her were much greater in the U.S. but family ties were strong and after an offer to Don from Monash University we returned to Melbourne.

Our life as expatriates thus lasted only three years but we see them as the best years of our lives and they set the ground for the opportunities that came our way in Australia. At first we were depressed by the passivity of the McMahon Government, then enlivened by Gough Whitlam?s ?It?s Time? and the anti-Vietnam campaigns. La Trobe University was setting up a School of Education and Patricia called on the new Dean to ask about a job in The Centre for Educational Media and Communication. She argued with the Dean about employment conditions, but he offered her a position on trial for one year.

That move set her on a career that had been unimaginable a few years earlier. She taught the first university courses on film and television in an Australian university, worked with Barry Jones and Philip Adams to get around visa exit problems for Jerzy Toeplitz from Poland to head up the new Australian Film and Television School (he came and taught in her La Trobe Media Centre for the first year until the School was ready) then started both making films and training students in film and television production, communication theory and the use of educational media.

As virtually the only Australian with such experience and qualifications, and a woman, she was appointed to the Australian Broadcasting Control Board by Dr Moss Cass, sacked by Malcolm Fraser when he abolished the ABCB to set up the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal, then (ironically) reappointed by Bruce Gyngell to Chair the Committee on Children?s Program and Advertising Standards. The details of these years are contained in her autobiography Bloodbath: a memoir of Australian Television. That work led her to establish (with the support of the Victorian Minister for the Arts Norman Lacy through the Australian Education Council) the Australian Children?s Television Foundation, which she directed for 20 years, winning numerous international awards and selling programs such as Round the Twist around the world.

In the meantime Don started a new career teaching sociology, first at Monash, then at La Trobe University. Having specialised in family studies while at Stanford meant he was appointed as Foundation Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies in 1980, a position he held until 1993, becoming a member of the International Union of Family Organisations, Secretary/Treasurer of the Committee on Family Research of the International Sociological Association, a member of the Council for International Year of the Family 1994, and more recently of the Victorian Children?s Council.

Both of us have an international network that derives from our time as students overseas. Patricia chairs the World Summit Foundation on Media for Children; we both continue to write and serve on various committees. That small Australian diaspora we found at Stanford and then in Chicago has obviously widened over the years, but had we not ventured abroad we may both have remained schoolteachers rather than academics and policy-active leaders in our respective fields. Coming ?home? had its problems at first, but we had benefited greatly from that broadening of our horizons, and we hope, Australia benefited as well.