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Acknowledging one of sociology’s long-term contrib
By Yoland Wadsworth
Posted: 2020-08-19T20:20:00Z
Acknowledging one of sociology’s long-term contributors
Author: Yoland Wadsworth

With Social Sciences Week coming up it is fitting to honour the long career of a sociology departmental colleague, Sue Stevenson, who retired on 1 July in 2019 after a period spanning 54 years at Monash University.  Sue assisted in the vicinity of 600 successful Higher Degree by Research thesis completions, mostly in sociology but also since 1999 in Anthropology, Criminology, Politics and Human Geography. Beside these many post graduate sociology students, Sue assisted numerous academic staff with administrative management over the many decades.

Speaking to a packed farewell event for Sue, attended by more than 100 at the Monash Club in Clayton, the Dean of Arts Professor Sharon Pickering (who had previously been Head of the School of Social Sciences for several years) paid tribute to Sue as having supported the development of generations of doctoral students as well as academic and professional leaders, being ‘not only the go-to person for students and academic staff from within the School of Social Sciences, but also across the Faculty’.

The Dean’s was no superficial or subtly awkward speech from a slightly discomforted senior member of a University’s upper echelon called in to ‘say the right things’ about a member of their service staff. She offered instead a detailed, well researched and lengthy appreciation of a highly respected colleague. It did great justice to the substantial career that was drawing to a natural conclusion before our eyes in a way that, in my experience, is rare. 

It was also a closely-observed tribute by a woman full of gratitude for another woman’s contribution over a period spanning six decades.  Monash had only recently been built when Sue was first appointed in 1965 to the Politics Department. Two years later Sue moved to the joint Anthropology and Sociology Department which, in a sign of the times, housed its own small Anthropology museum and academic library (see photograph).  This was a department which also in 1969 enrolled an unprecedented 1000 first year sociology students. In 1967-1973 Sue was initially Stenographer and then Secretary in the Centre for Research and Aboriginal Affairs, then worked from home after giving birth, returning in 1974 to work on the SAANZ (sociology) journal.  By 1975 Sue was Research Assistant for the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at a time when it had 25 full-time staff and PhDs were still being hand-typed – then worked on through the introduction of computers in the 1980s, to seeing the fall in sociology staff members to a low of 9 before a rise again to the current 17, and finally adapting to the mechanisation and ‘virtualisation’ of much of human contact and student attendance, before she retired after 21 years in graduate research administration, including in the Senior Graduate Research Administrator role, and nearly three years as acting School Manager of Social Sciences.

In Sharon Pickering’s words, Monash was indebted to Sue ‘for her professionalism, service and contribution’ to the university over a long professional life that ‘maps the journey of an institution that went from a reasonable idea into one of the great Universities of the world’.

L to R:
June Harrison and Sue Stevenson in 1970, Department of Anthropology & Sociology Museum (image©Monash University Archives#431)

Sue was recognised by the university with multiple awards including the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Exceptional Performance by General Staff in 2000, the Arts Dean’s Award for Exceptional Performance by Professional Staff for her role in the Student Services team in 2008, and the Dean’s Award for Exceptional Performance by Professional Staff in 2011 as part of the Faculty of Arts HDR (Higher Degrees by Research) team.

L to R: Sue Stevenson pictured in 2015 with her 50 years University Medal (image ©Monash University) – Sue in 2016 with the last remaining museum artefact, a gift from the late Prof. Colin Tatz of Politics / Sociology (image©Yoland Wadsworth)

And although Sue’s eight years of service prior to her being required to resign to give birth in 1973 were not counted (in an era before maternity leave enabled continuing service), Sue nevertheless received a 25 years Monash Service Medal in 2000, and then went on to be the first ever recipient of the university’s 50 Years’ Service Medal in 2015. (And yes, that did mean that by 2015 Sue’s continuity from 1965 was recognised, reportedly still reluctantly, but thanks to the determination of Dean Sharon Pickering.)

Through it all, and never seeming to age compared to we mortals around her (is there an attic somewhere with a portrait of an ageing grey-haired Sue with signs of corporate survival marked deep in her facial lines I wonder?!), Sue continued not only to look still very recognisably like the 16-year old who began work in 1965, but also retained the cheerful demeanor of someone who has only ever seen people as the main source and purpose of human life.  Many an academic male preoccupied in the world of competitive intellect benefited over the years from Sue’s sustaining of an atmosphere of warmth and humanity vital to any living system that welcomes students, supports staff, and supplies a sense of trust to enable creativity to flow. In Sharon Pickering’s words, while the university focused on growing ever bigger: ‘Sue stitched together many of the internal threads that hold institutional communities together’.

Not that Sue lacked an ability and gift to discern integrity and kindness (and its absence) in those she met. Sharon recounted that over the decades, Sue had assembled a display of photographs ‘of the departed and the significant’ in her office, and Sharon often asked, ‘Who is that?  ‘Sue would regale me in detail about their contributions, collegiality, families etc. etc. She often wasn’t actually answering my question. What she was telling me was, ‘this is how you need to be. These are the qualities of people who deserve being remembered in a university.’  It was an important aspect of Sue’s personal ethics that Sharon Pickering credited also as a guiding ‘ethical radar for Monash’ as an institution.

L to R: Sue Stevenson receiving from then Head of Department Jo Lindsay an award of recognition for ‘50 Years of Professional Service and Friendship to Sociology at Monash’. In background: Professors Anne Edwards, Andrew Singleton  and Gary Bouma – Sue Stevenson at Monash Sociology’s 50th anniversary reception in 2013 (images©Ulla Svensson)

It occurs to me that sociologists might do well to cast a sociological eye on those we call ‘administrative officers’, and possibly conclude that their reading just as many PhD theses as students’ supervisors do (while not being too distracted by their cries of ‘I never really read what I’m typing’), plus their providing personalised assistance to just as many students to get them successfully through their degrees, not to mention vast quantities of draft publications passing before their eyes, just might mean that said administrative support officers also acquire a keen eye for the content of sociology and its applications, and probably qualify with honorary social work credentials to boot.

There were indeed heartfelt accounts given at the Monash Club event of students’ appreciation for Sue’s guidance in this respect, and there are many more to be found in the Acknowledgements sections of numerous PhDs and academics’ books, or seen in the time-honoured ritual of postgraduate students making their way up to Sue’s office in the ‘Ming’ wing (Menzies building) with families in tow, on the day of their doctoral conferrals. Sharon Pickering thought what we should really count is how many times Sue was acknowledged in students’ theses prior to or instead of the supervisors!

Those who know Sue well would also credit her with quite finely-tuned and dryly-humorous analytical insights into the politics of post-modern formal and informal university bureaucracies, and more than a passing grasp of the theory and practice of byzantine systems complexity derived from the numerous case studies she has not only observed, but within which she has conducted countless action inquiry projects to navigate her way with great adaptive success!

It is possible she has contributed also to building in a culture of quality given that, exactly a year after her retirement, the university still features Sue's name on the School of Social Sciences webpage for Postgraduate Research Enquiries, obviously en homage as a policy decision that anyone in that position is to do the job as a nominal 'Sue Stevenson', thus maintaining Sue's standards systemically and in perpetuity.

At her retirement event I mused on the thought that Sue had perhaps also been conducting an unobtrusive, longitudinal, field-based, in-depth study of Australian sociology per se, watching the dramatic rise and fall and rise again of sociology exemplified in a single department, and the fortunes (and misfortunes) of every one of its staff, known personally by Sue over the previous six decades.

Throughout this however, she has shown a not-so-typical-of-sociologists ability to remain publicly silent (so far!) about all she has observed, and an unforced cheerfulness and concern and meticulously-expressed professional respect for all those with whom she has worked.

We look forward to (with only a small amount of trepidation) her forthcoming reveal-all memoir when she at last reports-in on her findings regarding the good ship Australian Sociology and all who’ve sailed in her under the particular aegis of Monash Sociology.

The irony of the Latin root of the word service, servus meaning ‘slave’, may not escape Sue – Monash University’s longest serving member of staff.  It may indeed provide a useful starting point for her forthcoming thesis.

L to R: Two of the 1000-sociology student intake from 1969, Kaye Hargreaves and Yoland Wadsworth, and former member of Monash Sociology staff and Editor of the SANZ journal in the 1970s Lois Bryson, with Sue Stevenson in 2013 (photographer©Ulla Svensson / image©Yoland Wadsworth)

(Thanks to Gary Bouma, Sandra Stacey, Ulla Svensson, Helen Marshall and Sue Stevenson for input and photos.)

Yoland Wadsworth
Social and Global Studies Centre
RMIT University