Dr Kim Huynh wears a black and yellow batman costume, including goggles. He stands with his arms crossed in front of a stormy, dark sky.

How to be Good at University

Today I hope to not only make you feel good about coming to the ANU, but more importantly, help you to consider what it means to be good.

If this seems weird, then it shouldn’t.

Because universities as we know them grew out of the church, with a sacred mission to make students wiser and better. That was a long time ago, but that the prestige of elite universities is still linked to that mission.

I’ll put it this way, ‘What’s the point of all the privilege, the freedom, and the wealth that we can access as students and scholars if it’s not to advance in some way – goodness?’

You may respond, ‘I’ve paid money to be here and I want a return on my investment.’

Well, if you’re a domestic student, then you’ll fork out for about 40% of the cost of your education. If that’s what you think – that university is a transactional arrangement – then why not pay 100%?

If you’re an international student, I ask, ‘Did you come all this way, and dedicate perhaps the best years of your life, and all that money, just so you could make more money?’ If so, that’s a bit sad and silly, because there are surely cheaper and easier ways to earn big bucks.

And if you’re an academic whose sole concern is your career, then you might as well give the customers exactly what they want with a smile, do exactly what your boss says all the time, and relinquish any claim tenure or autonomy, because this is just another job.

The University is and should be different to other places, but only if coming here involves a sense of duty and honour, only if we are concerned with the life of the mind, and with the welfare of the soul.

In terms of how to be good at this, I offer two tips.

First, how to achieve good health; that is, embody goodness.

It’s only natural that students feel antsy about coming to university. You might have concerns about money. Or maybe you’re unsure about where or even whether you’ll fit. And then there’s all that study.

That’s totally natural. What’s concerning are reports from the US, the UK, China, and here, of people experiencing “overwhelming anxiety” and “epidemics of anguish” on campus.

Teaching thousands of students over 15 years has convinced me that far too many students and academics aren’t coping. And far too often we simply can’t find the help that we need.

From someone who’s battled to maintain my own wellbeing, let me give you some humble advice.

Be active in the morning. And relax before bed.

Being active might mean anything from a brisk walk or bike ride to an Argentinian tango. The point is to start the day with a rush and sense of achievement. And then end it with quietude and mindfulness, which might be a stretch, a sit, a loving chat or a gentle song. That’s it.

Try, however, to do this without a screen in front of you.

Kim lies in bed, wearing a white hospital gown and a bandage around his arm. He smiles to the camera.

Dr Kim Huynh fails to take his own wellbeing advice and ends up stressed and in hospital with tonsillitis two nights before delivering the 2018 staff welcome to students.

My second tip is to simply be more conscious of being good.

Wrongdoing, bastardry and deceit do not so much arise from the presence evil, but rather our failure to consider, to talk about and to try to be good.

Instead we strive to succeed, often over others. The logic goes, ‘I just have to get that better grade, that internship, that job, that big grant, that top ranking publication, that promotion, and then I can care for myself and others.’

The problem with all this chasing is that it never ends. We never appreciate anything as an end in itself. We never care for ourselves or for others, and constantly feel bad about it.

So, I propose adopting a bigger and better notion of success, one that’s more aligned to goodness.

This means diverting some energy away from climbing that slippery pole and setting longer term plans for work and fulfillment that incorporate our wellbeing and the wellbeing of others.

And I propose calling out this culture of busyness that’s antithetical to true innovation and productivity. It’s a culture that militates against goodness and treating people properly.

Morality is a function of time.

Here’s my example of what not to do. A couple of years ago when I was really busy, after teaching almost 1000 students in a semester, and while I was running haplessly for local parliament, my old man asked me a question. I can’t even remember what it was. I think it was related to my campaign and leaflet dropping. He was trying to help me, but because I was so busy, I was convinced that he was in my way.

I snapped at him and said, ‘I have 100 things to do that are 1000 times more important.’

These things, it seemed to me, were more important than my Dad who had given up everything for me and my brother, and who had recently had a stroke.

After that I decided to go part-time, which hurts the finances, but is worth it. It’s worth it because it improves the quality, creativity and meaningfulness of my work and life. And it means that I have more time for my family, my friends, and my colleagues.

Morality is a function of time.

I humbly propose that we steadily replace busyness with goodness.

The result is a university that’s concerned not only with filling your CVs and setting you up for your next job, but with fostering the sort of integrity and grace that will set you up for a lifetime.

Thank you and, on behalf of the ANU staff, welcome to this good place.

Dr Kim Huynh is a lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations. This article is taken from the 2018 staff welcome to students.

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