“Eurovision” by fotospielwiese 2011 CC BY-ND 2.0

What’s the difference between Eurovision and Academic Senate?

One’s an entertainment spectacular that fully embraces glitter, wind machines and amazing hair. And the other one is Eurovision (ba dum tish!). But despite a few differences, they each have a superfan in the form of new Senate Chair Professor Mariella Herberstein, who says everyone should get involved in both.

Mariella Herberstein
Professor Mariella Herberstein

First, the serious stuff. Who’s going to win Eurovision?

“My favourite this year is Finland – it’s got all the key Eurovision elements. It’s poppy, there’s a girl posse, I foresee wind machines on stage, sparkly shoes, there could be even a key change – nothing can go wrong!”

What success have you had at picking winners in the past?

“Zero.”*

And this May has been a big month for you in another way, as you’ve also just started your new role as Chair of Academic Senate.

“There is a lot happening, that’s my initial discovery. There are a number of ongoing projects that affect all academic staff and students. In his last Teche post Dom [Verity] alluded to a statement from Academic Senate about academic freedom. With that sort of topic, there’s going to be a wide variety of opinions on what that should look like. That’s going to be a very interesting first exercise, managing many different opinions.”

What else you are looking forward to about this role?

“I’ve been a Head of Department and a Deputy Dean, but this position in Academic Senate will give me yet a completely different perspective on what makes the university run. So I look forward to learning about this, to understanding it. But I’m also looking forward to reaching out from Senate. Because a lot of where Senate acts affects colleagues right at the coal front. So I want to keep my connection with my colleagues and the understanding of how a particular policy may affect them or their students in day-to-day life.”

What’s going to be the greatest challenge?

“Being agile in that space. Senate meetings don’t happen every week, but in between monthly meetings we have to respond to very short-term events, in order to address issues or grab new opportunities. It’s a challenge for every university. Traditionally Senate is seen as a very slow-moving body – how can we change that perception, and also increase that agility? Become more like a motorboat than a tanker.”

What are some of the ways for Macquarie staff and students to get involved in Senate activities?

“There are a number of ways. We will have elections at the end of the year for new Senate members, so there’s an opportunity to put up your hand. You don’t have to have any experience whatsoever. All you need is a commitment, enthusiasm, and an attitude that what Senate does is for the benefit of the whole university. If you have that frame of mind, Senate is the place for you, for staff and for students.”

“I don’t count minutes amongst my most exciting reading, so in addition to meeting minutes we will try to have regular blog posts or video blogs to highlight important developments in the Senate. And not all the work that Senate does is done by Senators – we often invite people outside Senate to join Working Parties because we know there are good thinkers in particular areas. The best way to participate is to let your Senate member in your Faculty know that you are interested. Or contact me to be involved.”

What was your own experience of learning and teaching like as an undergraduate student?

“When I look back I just can’t believe my attitude, particularly in first year. I barely passed, I failed chemistry and I had to do it again. I think it was what many students experience – the transition to having to manage your own learning and teaching. By year 3 I did quite all right, but I was never an outstanding student. But I do remember very clearly that there were some charismatic teachers that really inspired me. I think for many students it will be that individual that will make a difference.”

‘Charismatic’ teachers – does that mean that it was something about their personality that inspired you?

“I think a teacher can be any personality, but when they are enthusiastic about a particular topic, you sense that. I had a variety of different lecturers and their delivery ranged from monotonous to highly engaging, but I don’t think that quite matters. One was unable to make eye contact with anyone in the lecture, but nonetheless I still remember what he was interested in, his enthusiasm, and even some aspects of the information.”

How did that translate into your own approach to learning and teaching?

“When I started working at Macquarie in 2001, I didn’t think much about teaching. I was a Post Doc, and I’d given guest lecturers and contributed to pracs, but I didn’t really think deeply or hard about it. And then when I started teaching more I discovered how rewarding it is to ‘switch on’ someone, just like I was switched on about a particular topic. And I acknowledge that I won’t switch on everyone. Currently I teach first year Biology – BIOL114 – and I have to acknowledge that people do my unit for many different reasons – some want to do medical sciences, they are not necessarily interested in biodiversity or evolution. Nonetheless they can do brilliantly well, because they get all the support that they want. But what I really enjoy is when I see that flicker, when I realise that someone finds this as exciting as I do.”

*this trend unfortunately continued, with Finland failing to make the 2016 Eurovision final.

Professor Mariella Herberstein is Macquarie’s new Chair of Academic Senate, as well as a reviewer of every single Eurovision act since 2010 as editor of the Science of Eurovision blog. Find out what’s on the agenda for the next Senate meeting here, and contact Mariella via marie.herberstein@mq.edu.au.

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