Best Teacher: Dr. Giselle Bastin

If you are looking for the lady who does it all, look no further than the Course Coordinator for the Bachelor of Arts, the Bachelor of Arts Enhanced Program for High Achievers and First Year Director of Studies for the School of Humanities and Creative Arts, Dr Giselle Bastin. She is also a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English here at Flinders. Giselle sat down for a chat with one of her students, Empire Times editor Laura Telford.

 Giselle came to Flinders in the early 1990s as a postgraduate student from the University of Adelaide looking for teaching work and loved it so much that she decided to stay. Flinders then formally asked her stay, even offering to pay her. She said ‘Yes please.’ When asked what university life was like while she was studying, Giselle says that full time students at university were really full time, and if they had part time work it was only on a Thursday or Friday night, or perhaps a Saturday morning. ‘People—school leavers in the main—saw university as the primary thing that they were doing, before work, before play.’ Nowadays, this perception has altered dramatically with Giselle going on to say that ‘university is [now] just one more part of a person’s busy life that is somehow squeezed into working and other structured activities.’ She explains that the drastic change has occurred due to students needing to earn so much more to survive, particularly with the advent of HECS.

Anyone who knows Giselle, knows of her love of all things royal. From royal cups and saucers, to posters and a waving solar-paneled Queen toy, her office holds its own against even the most devout English person. However, she calls herself a ‘disinterested’ observer, which is not to be confused with ‘uninterested’, she exclaims. Her most prized piece of royal paraphernalia is her bottle of 1981 Charles and Diana wedding sherry which, she says, does look a bit ‘manky’ these days but has at least ‘last[ed] longer than the marriage did!’ Her fascination began at school when Lady Diana Spencer married the next in line, Prince Charles. ‘My girlfriends and I studied the royals as if they were the most important celebrities in the world,’ and Giselle’s one time hobby has turned into a major area of research for her. Even today, as a self-described ‘Diana girl’, Giselle is regularly called upon by the media to discuss the current day royals—although do not ask her for a comment on the new royal baby, they are both cute, moving on. Giselle’s scholarly research looks at biographies about the House of Windsor and the fairytale structure royal biographies tend to assume. ‘I will get die-hard republicans come up to me and ask me if I have met the Queen,’ we laugh, because it sounds absurd, but she says it is almost our (Australians’) guilty pleasure. ‘We are still in the Commonwealth, we flex our muscles from time to time, and know in our heart of hearts that we are going to become a republic sooner rather than later, but we just cannot seem to quite bring ourselves to “sack grandma”.’

Gone are the days where Giselle simply taught undergraduates across the English major; these days her academic repertoire includes, Course Coordinator for the Bachelor of Arts, First Year Director of Studies for the School of Humanities, and Coordinator of the BA Enhanced Program for High Achievers. How does one manage to do all those things as well as teach? She says she teaches less but her interactions with students are more personal ‘and of a higher quality’. Looking after English honours students is a ‘joy’ but she says her biggest joy are her ‘BA High Achievers’—a small group of elite students in a relatively new degree now offered at Flinders.

The degree only began in 2013, and the cohort includes about 60 students across three year levels, making for a close bond amongst the students—or at least that was what was supposed to happen. Giselle says that given her High Achievers are ‘naturally fascinated about the world’ they frequently take up the chance to go and study overseas in their second year, thereby leaving the cohort for a bit. An advantage for the students of being in a small cohort is that she is given the chance to ‘talk and discuss topic options one-to-one and find out the processes behind the study pathways they choose.’ Because of this, students tend to be more open and willing to try new things. This is why more of her advanced students are partaking in semesters abroad.

While Giselle agrees the Bachelor of Arts is notorious for getting a bad rap—and did so even while she was obtaining hers—she says that it has a lot to do with the fact ‘people are unable to see the immediate vocational focus or what the immediate vocational outcomes of a BA will be.’ She hopes that in her role as course coordinator she has become better at explaining that the BA prepares a student with generalist skills, which in a workplace are vital. ‘It is all well and good having a specialised degree, but if you cannot communicate your specialised knowledge to anybody or structure an argument about what you know, or just know how to disseminate information in a way that will hit the right marks, what is the point of that specialised knowledge? BA students are taught to be lateral thinkers; they are trained to see the narratives that are embedded in other, specialised fields of knowledge, and to communicate the links between systems of thought.’

As First Year Director of Studies for the School of Humanities and Creative Arts, Giselle has been working closely with Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) Professor Andrew Parkin, who ‘is a fantastic advocate for keeping and nurturing first year students at Flinders University.’ Giselle says she has been trying to strengthen the peer mentoring program within the School of Humanities, which relies on final year students having direct contact with new students, ‘helping ease them into university life.’

Giselle says that the hardest part of her job is finding a carpark in the morning. ‘Students do not often believe me, but we [the academic staff] are in the mix just as much as everybody else, but this supports, I think, the Flinders ethos of equality in the sense that we can all be frustrated together. It’s a bonding exercise!’ Though on a serious note she adds that the parking is improving all the time, and she would be lying if she said there were bad parts to her role because it is ‘the best job ever!’

Conversely, when asked what the best thing about her job is, Giselle does not even hesitate when she says it is the students. ‘Students of all ages and experiences—I learn so much about the world through meeting a cross-section of people, people who are living incredibly complex lives.’ Though recognising the clichéd nature of her answer, Giselle also says one of her favourite things is ‘watching and partaking in other people’s learning journeys because that is what learning is about. It should not be a private affair; it should be getting excited about being in a learning environment forever and experiencing other people’s joys as well as your own.’

When asked the age-old question, what do you wish students knew about you, Giselle replies ‘that it would be that there are many sides to every story. Take all the royal paraphernalia in my office; people assume I am a royalist, a monarchist, or assume that I’m just being ironical and that I must be a republican and do it for a laugh, but that is what I want this kind of thing to do, to get people to look behind the surface images and to look at how quickly we so often leap to conclusions based on appearances’ She continues by saying that she wishes people could see that ‘there is no black and white,’ that there are lots of people being republicans and there are lots of people being monarchists, and ‘I am trying to maintain that it is possible—and usually more interesting— to stand back and look at how the story is unfolding.’ That, and ‘do not judge a book by its cover!’

When asked, outside of teaching what else do you do, Giselle rattles off that she loves spending time with her gorgeous children and wonderful husband whom she adores almost beyond reason. However, prying deeper, a secret emerges. Her guilty pleasure in those rare moments of down time, other than shopping of course, is reading royal biographies while sipping a large gin and tonic. She says that she has ‘the perfect world, in the sense that [her] job is also [her] great love.’

And finally, when questioned about her favourite texts—not books—she says she likes to tell students that everything they need to know about the flaws of human nature can be found in two texts alone: Hamlet by William Shakespeare and Fawlty Towers starring John Cleese. ‘It’s all there; what we fear, what drives us; where our weaknesses are; what we desire.’ However, when push comes to shove, Giselle names The Untouchable by John Banville as perhaps her current favourite book before adding that sometimes she just sits down and reads the works of T.S Eliot and Virginia Woolf for fun (sad, but true).

Words by Laura Telford