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Adams, David Michael (1945–2020)

by John Hart

David Adams, n.d.

David Adams, n.d.

David Michael Adams, a Lecturer and then Senior Lecturer in political science for 33 years, died on 9 April 2020 at the age of 74. 

He began life in the East Anglian town of Beccles in England and spent his childhood and youth there until he entered the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1964. He graduated with a BSc (Econ) in 1967 and, subsequently, with an MSc in 1968. Even after four years in London and about to depart for Australia, David had not left his childhood roots behind him. His MSc research paper was about local politics in Beccles, which may have been the only time this topic had been studied in a leading British university.

At LSE, David was exposed to the cream of the political science profession in the UK at the time. Many, including Michael Oakeshott, Ralph Miliband, Bernard Crick and Peter Self, were also outstandingly good lecturers. He learnt a lot of political science from them, but also absorbed the skills and techniques needed to deliver a quality lecture.

After completing his master’s degree, David spent a short time as a research assistant at the LSE during what was to be an eventful year in two respects. In December of 1968 he married Jill Croucher, also from Beccles, and, while at LSE, he applied for several academic vacancies, including one at the University of Queensland. Colin Hughes, then Professor of Government at Queensland, was in London on sabbatical at the time and offered David a three-year position. David accepted and he and Jill set off for Brisbane in 1969, where he took up the post of Senior Tutor in government. Two years later, in 1971, he was promoted to a Lectureship in Public Administration and remained at the University of Queensland until 1973.

While in Queensland, David was contracted to come to Canberra to deliver an annual course on Australian government to the new graduates entering the Australian public service. On one of these occasions, he taught the course with Gordon Reid, then Professor of Political Science at ANU, and it was this connection that brought David to the then Department of Political Science in the School of General Studies at ANU. He was appointed to a Lectureship in Political Science in 1973 and subsequently promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1978.

Teaching was David’s forte and ANU had recruited an outstanding educator. This was evidenced immediately in the two upper-level courses he launched on his arrival—‘Australian Government and Public Policy’ and ‘Bureaucracy and Public Policy’. In both, he combined the fields of public administration and public policy to great effect and made those courses particularly attractive to the large number of part-time students then enrolled in the BA degree, many of whom were in full-time employment in the public service. He later developed and launched a pioneering course in the field of political psychology, which created an opportunity for political science students to explore what psychology had to offer to the study of political behaviour. It proved to be a popular course for political science students, and it also attracted a significant number of undergraduates enrolled in the psychology program in the Faculty of Science.

David also devised a brilliantly innovative fourth-year honours course, ‘Approaching Politics’. He taught this for the first time in 1997 and focused on what literature, drama, film and the art of cartooning had to say about the study of politics. It was to be, in this writer’s opinion, one of the most significant and cutting-edge courses ever developed in the history of the Department of Political Science at ANU.

In terms of the sheer numbers of students, David’s major impact on teaching came when he took over the first-year introductory ‘Political Science’ course in the late 1980s. He substantially reworked the subject-matter of that course and brought to the teaching of it a level of energy and enthusiasm that engaged students in a discipline few had studied in high school. It also generated a significant increase in enrolments over the next few years and, by 1991, numbers for that course had reached almost 600, albeit creating additional management problems such as repeat lectures and a necessary increase in the number of tutors. It would be no exaggeration to say that David’s first-year course was also a catalyst for the growth of enrolments in upper-level courses in political science through the flow-on from the first-year course. This helped to lay the groundwork for a much-needed increase in staff numbers in the 1990s.

David made the lecture into an art form. His preparation for every single performance was meticulous, assiduous and organised. It was all on 5x3 file cards, but they were rarely needed. The structure and the material were firmly fixed in his head. The delivery was impeccable. There was humour, wit, anecdotes, passion—and flexibility if things were not going as planned. He once told colleagues a story about when he decided to omit some of his prepared material because of time pressures only for a student sitting in the back row of the Copland Lecture Theatre to ask a question about the very material that had been left out. David then reeled off details of 14 different referenda, to the amazement of the 400 students present. But, as he went on to say, ‘you only get that sort of luck once in a lifetime’.

At the end of his large, first-year lectures, David would emerge mentally drained. The Tuesday and Thursday classes were regularly followed by a lunchtime run around the lake. I accompanied him. We would run for an hour or more and often did not say anything. It was his way of recovering.

There were also a large number of honours and doctoral students who benefited from the care and attention that David Adams gave to them. He instilled confidence. He encouraged and stimulated them to think creatively about the possibilities of their thesis topic. He met with them regularly, he prodded and helped and pushed. He read their drafts carefully and often several times. David firmly believed that supervision did make a difference. His certainly did and his services as a supervisor were in great demand.

It came as no surprise that David Adams was one of the early recipients of the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2001 and it was richly deserved. The following year, he was nominated by ANU for the National Teaching Awards.

Notwithstanding a growing reputation as a teacher at ANU, David kept a relatively low profile beyond the Department of Political Science for almost two decades until the 1990s, when he became involved in the administrative side of university life. He was good at administration, probably not surprising given his academic interests.

It began with an 18-month period as Head of Department starting in mid-1992, a role he took on after a period of some instability in the department. He steadied the ship, managing the diverse range of views amongst the staff with sensitivity. He also skilfully prepared the way for a new incoming professor to take over the headship in 1994. It was no mean achievement.

In the mid-1990s, David took on substantial roles within the Faculty of Arts, serving as Deputy Dean over several extended periods between 1996 and 2004, a span that included significant periods as Acting Dean. His administrative service at ANU coincided with times that were exceptionally challenging, and he worked tirelessly, quietly and discreetly to manage and resolve difficult and sometimes sensitive problems. Indeed, he did it so successfully that few of his colleagues in the Faculty of Arts even knew those problems existed.

Within and beyond ANU, David will also be known for a steady stream of publications in books and academic journals on Australian government and public administration. Perhaps his most memorable and enduring contribution was the 23 ‘Political Review’ articles published in Australian Quarterly between 1975 and 1994. These dealt with many controversial issues and personalities over the years, particularly the 1975 crisis, and became an important record and reference source for scholars of contemporary Australian politics. David’s lively writing style, and his balance and objectivity were the hallmarks of these pieces, leading one Cabinet Minister to praise him for having ‘maintained a splendidly dispassionate stance’ on the 1975 crisis.

What David wrote and taught while at ANU was just part of a much wider range of life interests. He not only read extensively in fields way beyond his academic specialisations, but had amazing recall of details, events and stories. The cinema was one of his greatest passions. From the age of seven, he would be there weekly and, when he was a student at LSE, it would not be unusual for him to go to The Academy in Oxford Street three times a week (wearing a large college scarf and a copy of The New Statesman rolled up in his pocket, as David liked to tell you). His knowledge of film, and his recollection of what he had seen was amazing—up there with David Stratton. Indeed, in his retirement, he played an active role in the Canberra U3A film group. He was also a great aficionado of mid-20th-century British comedy. Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd, Ken Dodd, Tony Hancock, Round the Horne, and Yes Minister were favourites, and he never missed an opportunity to draw on the wit and foolishness of Sir Humphry Appleby and Jim Hacker in his first-year political science lectures.

David was also an avid sports fan. That encompassed a lifelong loyalty to the Norwich City football club, an addiction to basketball from the Canberra Cannons to the Los Angeles Lakers, total absorption for three weeks every July during the Tour de France, and, of course, test-match cricket. He participated as well. As a child he was a junior snooker champion. He played squash when he first arrived in Canberra and, later in the 1980s, he caught the running bug. He competed in several Canberra Times fun-runs and three Canberra Marathons, which he completed in a respectable time (although he did not look so well when he crossed the finishing line).

David formally retired from ANU in 2006. ‘It was time to move on,’ he told an audience at The Grange in 2019. ‘The gap between students and me had grown,’ he said. And he had no regrets about retirement. He indulged his interests in films, literature and art, and he and Jill travelled overseas frequently ‘The last eight years have been some of the best years of our lives,’ he confessed. He did, however, continue lecturing to first-year students for a further three years on an adjunct basis, but by then it was quite apparent to him that most 18-year-olds at the end of the first decade of the 21st century had no idea who Sir Humphrey was. He finally ended his Visiting Fellow status in the then School of Politics and International Relations in 2013. Fittingly, an ANU prize for the best performance in the ‘Introduction to Politics’ course was established in his honour and has been awarded regularly since 2007.

David Adams passed away in Canberra after a sudden and rare illness. His warm friendship, collegiality, and outstanding contribution to the life of ANU will be long be remembered by his colleagues and countless former students.

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Citation details

John Hart, 'Adams, David Michael (1945–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/adams-david-michael-32472/text40275, accessed 5 July 2022.

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