Puppetry while the uni teeters

21:33, Aug 19 2012
van Beynen
ROGUE REPORTER: Press journalist Martin van Beynen.

New Orleans is an odd place to compare to Christchurch, but the two cities have one important thing in common. They are both recovering and rebuilding after a natural disaster.

Any Christchurch person who has seen the superb drama series Treme, about the deprivations and problems caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, will be struck by the parallels (and differences).

The same issues crop up in both cities. Insurance problems, where and what to rebuild, central government assistance or lack of it, ineffective councillors, dreams shattered, livelihoods lost and an exodus from the city.

Both cities have also seen their universities badly affected. As Canterbury University loses $100,000 each day it is open and is forced to consider programme cuts and redundancies, I am reminded of Treme character Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), a Tulane University English professor, who becomes a renowned blogger after Katrina.

Bernette is based on real-life computer science professor Ashley Morris, whose post- Katrina blogs did in fact become famous.

One of the eloquent rants is about Tulane University closing down degree programmes, including engineering and computer science.


"God knows we need to keep critical programs like Russian, Portuguese, Musical Theatre, Medieval Studies, Women's Studies, Jewish Studies, Digital Media Production and African Studies," Morris wrote.

"Why would Tulane need to produce people that know how to create computer networks, power grids, or, say, levees?"

Clearly, Canterbury University, like Tulane, must terminate some of its programmes and it needs to do so quickly. Fortunately, Canterbury's engineering and computer science departments are not candidates for the chop, but with universities not known for quick and effective decision-making, you never know.

One thing we can be certain of is the outcry from within the university if any position is axed due to insignificant factors such as student numbers and revenue generated.

We all know academic positions are incomparably special and indispensable and their loss threatens the very core of our civilised society. Of course, jobs in other sectors are not nearly as valuable, and losses in areas such as the media and manufacturing are merely adjustments as society adopts new technologies.

Still, no-one envies Canterbury University and the unfortunate predicament it finds itself in. Imagine my joy then when I read this month that the university still feels confident enough to put on a new paper.

Just when I thought the university would spend its rapidly depleting resources on protecting its core programmes, the Film and Theatre Department has put together a puppet, animated film and gaming paper in which students will create their own puppet show using everyday objects.

Apparently 45 students have enrolled for the course, previously a summer school programme - some might think it should have remained that. Of course, the construction industry is full of jobs for puppeteers and we know prospective employers pore over CVs looking for performance skills using inanimate objects.

Students these days come straight from schools where their minds have been enriched and challenged with year-long courses in drama, photography and overseas trips, so you can see how the university might think the puppet course is just the trick to get some more bums on seats.

Of course, we wouldn't expect anything less from the absolutely essential Film and Theatre Studies Department, especially judging by the calibre of their PhD students. Readers might remember the Rev Father Aaron Annan who, when it looked like the department might be axed earlier this year, protested his rights would be violated if he could not complete his studies at Canterbury.

Father Annan hails from Ghana, which is quite close to Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast, so you might think his protest a trifle over-dramatic. His PhD is on traditional African masks in post- colonial Ghanaian theatre.

Father Annan, whose parish must be looking forward to his return in three years so they can hear all about his studies, must have been thrilled when he heard the department survived to fight another day. He would be very relieved his rights were not violated, especially since Canterbury must be the best place in the world to be doing a PhD on African masks. I hear Canterbury Museum has at least two.

The university is now seeking help from the Government and the private sector, which, no doubt, will be very impressed with the puppet course - come in Peter Jackson - to replenish its barren coffers.

Might I suggest the Government could raise countless millions by stopping the big middle-class rort of the student allowance system for a start. It is amazing how many of our students come from middle-class homes which are so poor they just fit within the income bracket that entitles the students to a government handout.

After scrapping the student- allowance system, the Government could then start getting tough on student loans and university student numbers. It might find it can thus raise enough money to bail out Canterbury University and allow every university in the country to have its own Punch and Judy show.

The Press