Student life

The lighter side of a heavy workload

Engineering students barbeque
Engineering students barbecue

Engineering students, like other university students, liked to have fun. ‘Sometimes there was a bit of larrikinism’, commented Clive Weeks, ‘but I think we were pretty respectful of our lecturers.’ ‘The lecture theatres in those days were full of paper aeroplanes’, remembered Gary Codner. Codner also remembers a class where a student planted a surprise box of fireworks. ‘About half way through the lecture there was this almighty explosion. We all got shocked because the noise was incredible … I think it took ten years off the lecturer’s life, I don’t think he ever forgave us for that.’ John Bertrand remembers he and his peers trying hard to get a reaction out of one of their lecturers.

Part of the ‘gig’ in our final day celebrations of course is trying to figure out the best way to shock this particular teacher because we basically had failed to shock this man the whole year … the arrangement was that some of the boys, including myself, were stuffed into a VW [Volkswagen car]; with arms and legs out everywhere, we drove into the lecture theatre. This very cool lecturer just continued to put chalk on board; didn’t turn around. The whole class of course was riotous.

aftermath of farm week
Aftermath of Farm Week

The most raucous time for student life at Monash, however, had to be Farm Week – a week of social activities, games and events, which took place in the second week of classes in second semester. One of the standout events of Farm Week was the scavenger hunt. Teams of students would compete against each other to complete various tasks and challenges. Lecturer Brian Cherry reflected that ‘Farm Week was a week when anything goes … I had explosions … it was just generally a hectic time.’ Cherry even participated himself, driving the Materials Engineering billy cart in the billy cart race around campus. ‘Around the university, through the Union – without opening the doors, fortunately I was in overalls and a crash helmet. I think after that year the authorities clamped down a bit on things.’

And clamp down they did, though not just because of the billy cart race. In 1984, Monash banned Farm Week after a number of public complaints. It had become a tradition to use hay bales to block off sections of the major roads surrounding the campus, causing upset and general havoc for road users. In 1984 it was alleged that students participating in Farm Week had barricaded sections of the Princes Highway and Wellington Road, causing damage to cars. They had also disrupted lectures, throwing eggs, flour and water at staff and students, covered a disabled student in eggs and thrown horse manure during an evening lecture. Farm Week was swiftly cancelled – the Monash students had clearly gone too far.


Farm Week (audio)

Farm Week was revived in the late 1980s, under the new name – Green Week. Allegedly, it was named after the main colour of the prime sponsor of the week, Victoria Bitter. Green Week took up where Farm Week left off, reviving a number of different activities including the famous scavenger hunt.

Engineering students in volatile times

Monash University opened its doors to students in 1961 – the beginning of a decade of student activism and unrest. Between 1968 and 1971 student protests against the Vietnam War at Clayton attracted wide public attention. Emeritus Professor Louis Waller, who joined the Monash University Law Department in 1965, recalls, ‘the name of Monash became well-known for protests around Australia and overseas’. Standout periods of unrest were protests against the Vietnam War and university administration in the late 1960s, and the 1980s with the introduction of university fees.

1969 protests
31 July 1969 Protesting students outside Vice-Chancellor's office. Professor Ken Hunt and unidentified security guard facing students; students 'Russell Skelton', 'W. Nelson', 'Counihan' 'Michael Hyde' and 'E. B. Gingold' identified in photograph.

Clive Weeks was at Monash for the beginnings of the student movement. ‘It was really a time when there was lots of shouting – get behind this cause, sort of thing.’ There were large meetings held on campus and in the union building, as well as demonstrations – the most famous being the student occupation of the administration building in 1968. Albert Langer was the charismatic leader of this first wave of student activism. ‘Albert was very much a highlight of the luncheons when we used to troop across to the cafeteria’, remembers John Bertrand. ‘Langer was a leftie, flag-burning, young student that was against the world and he had a lot of followers … there were quite a lot of demonstrations and different things going on in terms of students taking on different causes, which is terrific.’

Vice-Chancellor Louis Matheson was sympathetic to the students. He made a point of establishing direct communication with the student body, ‘going to the Union every day at lunch time to answer questions and engage in debate’. By October 1970 there had been two major occupations of the University’s administration offices, which resulted in 32 students appearing before the Discipline Committee. Matheson later declared an amnesty on these students. When, in late 1974, another student occupation resulted in several students not only occupying the administration offices for over a week, but also breaking into private offices at night, Matheson finally called in the police. This was the first time the police had been called onto the campus. The students were taken away, but the following morning Matheson dropped all charges.

During these times of student activism and unrest, the primary aspects of university life – teaching, research and examinations – continued regardless. However, they weren’t without interruption. Peter Rogers, who was part of the first intake of engineering students in 1961, shared how his graduation ceremony had to be relocated from the Clayton campus to the Melbourne Town Hall where better security could be provided. High security was required after a series of protests were staged in response to the planned execution of Ronald Ryan.

Former graduates recall that engineering students were on the periphery when it came to student activism. ‘I suppose we sat on the sidelines a little bit more than some of the other faculties, and observed out of interest and curiosity without getting too involved in the radical activities’, remarked Clive Weeks. ‘I think for Engineering students it was a bit of an amusing diversion. I don’t think we were seriously caught up in those things’, recalls Peter Rogers. Alan Finkel speculates that higher workloads may have contributed to the lack of participation:

When I started in the early 1970s it was the tail end of the Vietnam era, so there was still a lot of political activism around the campus, but the Engineering students – and I think the Medicine students also – were fairly disengaged from it … I actually think that in the main we didn’t have enough time to engage in the political activity of the campus. We were aware of it because there’d be good healthy demonstrations and it was sort of fun to be on the campus when that was happening, even if you weren’t directly involved … We had a lot on our plate, we went about doing that, we were in a good faculty, enjoying what we were doing; therefore student activism just didn’t come into it.


The social side of engineering studies

Despite their demanding workload, engineering students still found time to socialise. Inter-faculty football matches were played, as well as some staff-versus-student cricket matches. Union Nights were also popular; ‘there’d be a band come in on a Friday night and there’d be a dance’, recalls Clive Weeks. Peter Rogers was involved in the Monash University Football Club from the start. ‘I think I was its [the football club’s] first secretary as well, and I helped organise the Science-versus-Engineering matches in the early days’, he remembers. One of these matches was recorded in the short-lived engineering student newspaper, The MESS:

In a savage mood of impending reprisal our Captain and coach, Pete Rogers, gathered his team together and with the fiery oratory with which he is renowned, instilled into them a fierce will to win and a collective killer instinct.
                                                                                                                                                The Mess, Vol II, No.3, 1964

Rogers was also the first secretary of the Engineering Students Society. ‘Of course at that stage there weren’t any females in the Faculty, so it was very much sort of a boys’ own club.’ This reality is particularly evident in some issues of The MESS, which, to the reader today, appear littered with crass and often blatantly sexist comments. 

The MESS was the journal of the Monash Engineering Students Society, and was ‘the only publication which Engineers lay claim to … intended to be more than just a collection of third-hand jokes’. Engineering students and academics contributed to the journal. Staff contributors included Noel Murray and Charles Sinclair. Sports results appeared together with engineering-related questions and advice, covering everything from careers to relationships. Engineering students were very proud of their achievements academically and socially.

The Engineering Revue was another fondly remembered student activity from the early days of Monash. Playwright David Williamson was one of Monash’s first engineering undergraduates, and was heavily involved in the coordination of these performances. The MESS editorial for volume III, edition 2 in 1964 begins:

orientation barbeque
Orientation barbecue

No other faculty has yet produced a revue, no other faculty has been so instrumental in producing rags. In fact no other faculty has made its presence felt to quite the same extent as has MESS.

Student societies continued to be an important part of student life for engineering students as the decades progressed. Former student Dariel de Sousa – who studied engineering in the 1980s – was President of the Monash University Mechanical Engineering Club during her undergraduate years, and was involved in organising many social events. She recalls that ‘we used to have Kentucky Fried Chicken Friday afternoons’. De Sousa also has fond memories of her fourth year final dinner.

There were mostly boys in our year, and most of them didn’t have girlfriends. We got most of the lecturers to come along … and we did presentations. I just remember all the guys on the dance floor dancing with each other and not feeling self-conscious about it at all.

Currently, Monash University has over one hundred student-run clubs and societies, catering to almost all tastes and interests. There are a variety of different engineering-related clubs, including Engineers without Borders, and the Engineering Students Society.

Staff and students

Due to the intense and demanding course requirements, engineering students spent a large amount of time on campus and interacting with lecturers. As a result many students developed close working relationships with their lecturers. ‘Certainly the guiding light for me’, reflected John Bertrand, ‘was Bill Melbourne … [he] was really my mentor in many ways’. For Dariel de Sousa too, positive and close relationships between staff and students were a highlight of her time at Monash:

You wandered down the Mechanical Engineering corridor … and you’d see lecturers coming out of their offices, and say hello to them and have a chat to them. I don’t think there was anyone in the Faculty who I regarded as being so distant and disconnected that I couldn’t go and knock on their door and ask a question … it was a very easy-going, happy environment.

One student who graduated in 1973 remembers that ‘Peter Darvall would drop by with a few beers when we were working late some nights in final year.’ One of the earliest graduates of engineering remembers John Agnew particularly, because he ‘was able to interact with students at our level and earned a great respect for his cheerful yet very professional approach’. Brian Cherry was another lecturer who left a lasting impact, particularly because of his ‘willingness to pilot the billy cart in the race around campus’.

Bill Melbourne fondly remembers John Hinwood’s Environmental Engineering course, a final year elective offered for students in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Fifty per cent of this subject was based on a four-day fluid mechanics camp. ‘John would take 30 students away … two, three or four academics would go, we even had children, my kids went down … this was the spirit of community which was there.’ It was ‘one of the most dedicated activities in my whole time I was in Mechanical Engineering’, says Melbourne.

Julie Fraser, former photographer for the Department of Materials Engineering, recalled that when she first started with the department in the late 1970s she was around the same age as many of the postgraduate students. She found it was easy to socialise with them as well as with the other academic staff members. ‘There was a fair bit of partying going amongst academics and tech staff’, she recalls. ‘We did socialise heavily; I’ve still got friends from those days.’

One student who graduated in 1970 remembers ‘wonderful teachers and researchers who were always available to see you outside lectures and tutorials’. It seems little has changed since then with a graduate of 2010 reflecting that lecturers in the Faculty

went above and beyond the duties of a lecturer to simply teach a unit and proved themselves as individuals who cared deeply about their work and commitment to students in and out of the lecture halls.

While not everyone shared this sentiment, with one graduate from 2003 commenting that the bias of some lecturers shown towards certain students ‘left a bitter memory during my time at Monash’, it seems that most students felt that they had a comfortable and caring working relationship with the staff in engineering, just as the majority of the staff felt their role was more than just teaching.

(Updated Jun 9, 2011) Printed on: