Whatever Happened to Australian Literature in the Universities?

In December 2006 Rosemary Neill wrote in the Weekend Australian Review on the declining status of Australian Literary Studies in universities.[1] Peter Pierce had just resigned from the Chair at James Cook University and Elizabeth Webby was retiring from the Chair at Sydney University, the only two Australian Literature Chairs in the country. Neill’s article provoked animated academic debate and the ensuing controversy prompted the then federal government to establish an Australian Literature in Education Roundtable to recommend ways of fostering the teaching of Australian Literature in schools and universities. Surprisingly, this initiative was not widely welcomed by Australian Literature academics. The Association for the Study of Australian Literature complained that it had not been invited to join the Roundtable, and some of its luminaries denied there was a crisis, arguing that Australian Literature subjects in universities had not in fact declined, and that Australian texts were widely included in other subjects.[2] Despite this dissent from academics more concerned to defend themselves than to promote their discipline, the Howard government agreed to sponsor a new Chair in Australian Literature to be competed for by Australian universities. The Chair was eventually awarded to the University of Western Australia by the Rudd government, and in 2009 Dr Philip Mead was appointed to it.

As this episode attests, the history of Australian Literary Studies in the nation’s universities is a chequered one. On the one hand, the lack of academic regard for Australian writing until the middle of the twentieth century was evident in Professor J.I.M. Stewart’s much quoted introduction to his 1940 Commonwealth Literary Fund lectures: “I am most grateful to the CLF for providing the funds to give these lectures in Australian literature, but unfortunately they have neglected to provide any literature—I will lecture therefore on D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo.”[3] On the other hand, outside the universities Vance and Nettie Palmer were at this time vigorously championing the national literature, though the universities remained uninterested and aloof, ignoring the handful of solo academics who challenged their disregard. In the late 1940s, for example, Joyce Eyre taught a course in Australian Literature at the University of Tasmania, but it was discontinued after her untimely death in 1950.[4]

In the 1950s and 1960s Brian Elliott at Adelaide University, and Tom Inglis Moore at Canberra University College and the Australian National University, taught and published on Australian Literature. The indifference Inglis Moore battled is evident in his pioneering study Social Patterns in Australian Literature, which found a university publisher in America, not Australia.[5] When he retired in 1966 his Australian Literature course was relegated to alternate years, and his parting plea that ANU establish a Chair in Australian Literature was ignored.[6] In 1973 the ANU English Department’s refusal to appoint a specialist lecturer in Australian Literature prompted Dorothy Green, another early champion of Australian Literature, to resign in protest. For decades it was a disgrace that the national university did not have a Chair in the national literature. At last, however, earlier this year ANU advertised a Chair in Australian Literature. This is welcome but long overdue.

In the 1970s and 1980s Australian Literature’s struggle to secure an appropriate and continuing place in the offerings of Australian universities finally began to bear fruit. The Association for the Study of Australian Literature was founded by a group of young academics committed to teaching and researching local writing in their universities. At the top, however, there was only one Chair in Australian Literature, at Sydney University. That Chair had been established after a major public subscription effort by concerned citizens outside the university, led by Colin Roderick, then a publisher at Angus & Robertson. A second Chair in Australian Literature was established at James Cook University in 1996, but it was not filled after the resignation of Peter Pierce in 2006, and has been replaced by a Chair of English, ironically enough entitled the Colin and Margaret Roderick Chair. In a further irony, the appointee, Michael Ackland, is, like all four of his predecessors, an Australian Literature specialist. In 2007 the University of Queensland established an endowed Chair of Australian Literature and Cultural Studies, and appointed to it their existing Australian Cultural Studies Professor, David Carter. The current Professor of Australian Literature at Sydney University, Robert Dixon, is, like David Carter, a distinguished Cultural Studies scholar, but not a Literature specialist, a matter of concern for Literature scholars. It is a matter of deeper concern that all these existing Australian Literature Chairs required external prompting and funding.

Back in the 1980s, just when Australian Literature finally seemed set to consolidate its place in academic Literary Studies, the Literature offerings of English departments around the country came under attack. The history of that attack and the consequent decline of Literary Studies in general, and Australian Literary Studies in particular, are therefore worth tracing. Literary Theory had long existed as a minor branch of Literary Studies, visited by academics seeking a rationale for their critical practice. Then came the ideologically inspired French Revolution, which elevated Literary Theory at the expense of the Literature it theorised. In the Terror that followed, the ideological crimes of the great books the ancien regime had championed were exposed, and they were tumbrelled off to the guillotine where much literary blue blood was shed.

In the ensuing culture wars, converts to deconstruction saw to it that the “elitist construction” of Literature was demolished, and Theory erected in its place. Literature was condemned as a tool of the oppressors, and hence an enemy of the people. “Classic” became a proscribed term, and the concept of a literary canon was discredited. Defectors from traditional Literary Studies who embraced the new ideologies extended their hegemony throughout the academic world in the 1980s and 1990s, filling chairs and commandeering journals: no one was appointed or published who did not cite and defer to fashionable French gurus, and academic publications became largely unintelligible to non-academic readers. Some useful insights were generated, but they came at a cost. Literary Theory became the über-discipline, supplanting Literature as the primary object of study. Advertisements for what had been literary positions routinely required “demonstrated expertise in theory”, whatever other requirements, if any, were specified. In all this carnage, Australian Literature was collateral damage. Theorists saw little point in valuing a national Literature as distinct from the discredited construct of Literature in general.

Just how far Australian Literature slipped off the radar was graphically illustrated some years ago when twelve Australian publishing houses rejected a chapter from a Patrick White novel mischievously submitted to them with only the characters’ names changed. No one in the Australian publishing industry recognised the work of this celebrated Australian author, whose style is—to say the least—idiosyncratic.

Theory was not the only cuckoo in the nest of Literary Studies. It soon became the animating principle of Cultural Studies, and this new discipline furthered the anti-elitist crusade by discounting the study of so-called “high” culture in favour of popular culture. In this newly levelled cultural environment, students studied texts that included brochures, advertisements, comics, Mills & Boon, and “reality” television. They were empowered to discard the deference literary scholars had traditionally shown towards what they regarded as works of genius, and instead to pontificate about undemanding material selected for study because of its current popularity. As Julian Meyrick has pointed out, in the current academic definition of culture, “the only thing left out is what most non-academics think of when they hear the word culture”.[7]

As Cultural Studies increased its parasitic stranglehold on the host discipline of Literature, Departments of English disappeared into Schools of English and Cultural Studies and then into larger, more diverse and even less meaningful conglomerates. Other competing disciplines like Cinema, Journalism, Communications and Media, Gender Studies and Creative Writing proliferated, and jostled for the space once occupied by Literary Studies. In 2009 Stephen Muecke boasted: “there are fourteen professors and six associate professors [of Creative Writing] across the country … By contrast there are only two professors of Australian literature.”[8] Students with an interest in writing who come from a popular culture that worships elite sporting achievements, but views elite literary and artistic achievements with indifference or suspicion, will understandably opt for a content-lite “creative” subject rather than one that requires them to confront a large body of demanding master works.[9] The great writers have, in contrast, been great readers and students of the classics. 

With this new order firmly in control, the few embattled academics who retained their allegiance to Literary Studies undiluted by competing disciplines grew increasingly isolated and demoralised. The decision of the Queensland University of Technology to sideline Literary Studies in favour of Creative Arts and to abolish the BA was symptomatic of the nationwide shift. In a 2009 advertisement for PhD Scholarships at the College of Arts and Social Sciences at ANU, fifteen areas of research were listed: “Cultures” was included; “Literature” and even “English” were not.[10] The new disciplines being offered, and their trendy packaging, have not, however, increased student numbers. Humanities enrolments have declined, funding has been cut, and many staff have been retrenched. Enrolments in the Australian Literature program at Sydney University, the only full undergraduate program in the country, have declined and its subject offerings have been reduced.

In addition to this internal erosion, external forces have further undermined what remained of Literary Studies. Following the Dawkins merging of the university and CAE sectors in the 1980s, the enlarged “universities” were flooded with students who struggled to write adequate English. Literature academics were obliged to offer subjects with euphemistic titles like “Effective Writing” designed to disguise their real, remedial function. What had been English departments thus became host to yet another invasive discipline that marginalised Literary Studies even further. At the same time Education faculties expanded their own undergraduate degrees and substituted “education” subjects for many of the Humanities and Science discipline subjects their students had previously studied, thus further reducing enrolments in core disciplines like English.

External attacks also came from the Howard government, which had no love for universities. That government’s decade-long cuts to university funding impacted disproportionately on Humanities disciplines. Student-to-staff ratios increased almost to Third World levels and a crudely instrumentalist view of education as vocational training prevailed. Universities allocated their diminishing resources away from Humanities to demand-driven programs popular with students, especially fee-paying students. Government attacks on the left-wing politics of Humanities and Social Science staff were echoed by its right-wing media myrmidons. This reached a crescendo on April 1, 2009, when the Vice-Chancellor of the University of New South Wales was quoted in the Australian Higher Education as claiming that the Humanities and Social Sciences were to blame for the global financial crisis.

Meanwhile Theory spread rapidly from Humanities faculties to Education faculties, where it was embraced with a passion. Championed by Allan Luke and his fellow zealots, “critical literacy” invaded school curricula around the country. While its aim of empowering students was well-intentioned, its effect on literary study was corrosive. All texts were declared equal, and all were scrutinised for power relations, and for ideological constructs of race, class and gender. In these exercises, literary works were progressively replaced by less demanding, more popular, and more readily deconstructed “texts”. Curricula became increasingly jargon-rich and content-poor, dismaying parents, teachers and students who found them repetitive, confusing and often unintelligible.

The worst excesses of jargon and ideology have been removed from the proposed national English curriculum, but there are also signs that such improvements will be strenuously resisted. The West Australian Curriculum Council submission, for example, opposed “an apparent shift towards a more conservative/traditional national English curriculum featuring a strong emphasis on literature” and argued that the term “literary works” should be replaced by “literary texts” to “remove any implied emphasis on canonical texts.[11] The Tasmanian submission wanted “critical literacy” included, and “believes the draft curriculum places too much emphasis on the study of Australian literature”, and therefore called for the removal of the statement that the national curriculum should feature “Australian literary works and an increasingly informed appreciation of the place of Australian literature among other literary traditions”.[12]

In the meantime existing English curricula have had a disabling effect on school-leavers entering Humanities faculties. Even those who are genuinely interested have had little exposure to Literature, and have learned only to distrust and deconstruct it. At Monash University in the 1960s, for example, first-year students read challenging works like Oedipus Rex and Much Ado About Nothing, Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment, Lycidas and A Vision of Judgment, The Waste Land and The Tree of Man. Many now struggle to read a single Dickens novel, let alone a Shakespeare play. Despite this decline, however, most Humanities and Education academics regard the theorising of their disciplines, including Literary Studies, as a great leap forward, one they have embraced enthusiastically. Winning the culture wars has, however, proved to be something of a pyrrhic victory: it has hastened the decline of the Humanities in universities, and it has gained very little traction in the hearts and minds of non-academic readers.

One result is an unprecedented disconnect between schools and universities and the broader reading public. Many parents, and not a few teachers, dislike the jargon and lament the lack of literary content in school curricula. Lindsay Tanner sums up the problem: “Without some external pressures there is always the risk that you will see a descent into self-perpetuating cliques of obscurantists talking to each other.”[13] Writers generally see Theory as alien to their craft. Drusilla Modjeska and Robert Dessaix, for example, prize-winning authors and former academic teachers, have both repudiated their earlier commitment to Theory because, as Modjeska said, it “divorced writing from the lives of those who wrote, and those who read”.[14] J.M. Coetzee, a Literature professor as well as a Nobel Laureate, puts the case even more strongly: 

From their exposure to literary theory these not-very-bright graduates of the academy of the humanities in its postmodernist phase bore away a set of analytical instruments which they obscurely sensed could be useful outside the classroom, and an intuition that the ability to argue that nothing is as it seems might get you places. Putting those instruments in their hands was the trahison des clercs of our time. “You taught me language, and my profit on it is I know how to curse.”[15] 

Not surprisingly, then, Theory is routinely ignored or censured in the general literary media, in newspaper, magazine and literary reviews. Commenting on the British government’s recent, deeply disturbing decision to cut all teaching subsidies to humanities, arts and social science disciplines in their universities, Simon Marginson warns that “unless the humanities and social sciences can ground themselves more plausibly in the public mind as important and useful disciplines”, Australian universities may face the same fate.[16]

Outside the universities literary appreciation and evaluation continue much as before, but largely without their leadership and participation. As a result, their engagement with a substantial part of their former audience has been lost. The Australian Council for Educational Research reports that a deeply worrying 57 per cent of humanities students who finish first year decide that they have been wasting their time.[17] 

In a recent Overland article, Rodney Hall charts the decline in the academic study of Australian Literature: “Since the 1970s we have witnessed the rise and then the demise of Australian Literature Studies. Incredible to think that a short time ago Aust Lit was thriving in our universities. It’s now largely a thing of the past.”[18] There are, however, it must be said, some encouraging initiatives: the development of the AustLit database at the University of Queensland, for example, and the projects by Copyright Agency Limited and Sydney University Press to make some classic Australian texts again available. But the overall profile of Australian Literary Studies in our universities is much diminished, and the support it is receiving from them is disappointing.

Despite this diminished interest in universities, Australians remain avid readers of books: many of the books they read are Australian; and not a few of them are literary. Frank Moorhouse has pointed to the spectacular growth in attendances at writers’ festivals, with 400,000 enthusiasts attending nearly fifty writers’ festivals annually, and the Melbourne festival recording a 40 per cent increase in 2008.[19] The number of literary awards and prizes has grown spectacularly. All this will continue so long as readers can find Australian books, including the classics, in print, in a library or online. Some of those readers would welcome the opportunity to study these at university level, but while ever that study is confined to theoretically driven ideological analysis, many will choose to bypass universities in favour of the burgeoning book clubs where jargon is anathema and moral evaluation and aesthetic appreciation hold sway. 

Can Literature regain its place as a core discipline in the liberal education that schools and universities have traditionally regarded as fundamental to their purpose? Can Australian Literature take its appropriate place in their offerings? For this to happen, the discipline of Literature would need to disengage itself from Cultural Studies, which belongs with Anthropology not Literature, and to extricate itself from the dominance of Theory, and from current preoccupations with peripheral matters like the history of book production, and return the emphasis to the experience of reading the best imaginative writing.

The elective Literature subject in the final years of high school proposed in the national English curriculum would augment the Literature component in the Basic English subject for interested students and prepare them for Literary Studies at university. It is to be hoped that this initiative will survive its opponents and retain its place in the curriculum.

It would be encouraging to see universities establish Chairs in Australian Literature from their own funds instead of relying on outside donors. They would also need to identify and support Literature as a separate, distinct discipline, and prevent vocational disciplines like Education, Journalism and Communications replacing content subjects like Literature and History in their undergraduate degrees with vocational subjects created to divert students and their funding to their own disciplinary empires. Teachers and professional writers need to learn from the best writers in the language, as they have traditionally done.

More broadly, politicians of all persuasions would need to follow the examples of Robert Menzies and Gough Whitlam, prime ministers who valued the nation’s universities and funded them accordingly. The last thing universities currently need is more under-funded places. They need existing places funded at a substantially higher level, one that would support student-to-staff ratios comparable to those in First World universities, and that would allow declining core disciplines like Mathematics, Economics and Physics, as well as Literature and Languages, to be staffed at sustainable levels. Such funding might also encourage Australian universities finally to accept their responsibility to reach out to the reading public by teaching, researching and conserving our national literature. 

Tony Hassall, who has written books on the novelists Randolph Stow, Henry Fielding and Peter Carey, is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at James Cook University, and Honorary Professor in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History at the University of Queensland.

[1] “Lost for Words,” The Weekend Australian Review, 2-3 December 2006, pp.4-6. See also Rosemary Neill, “Universities cold shoulder our literature,” The Australian, 4 June 2007, p.8.

[2] See Australian Author, 39:1 (April 2007), pp.20-27. See also Laurie Hergenhan’s alternative assessment of the decline of Australian literary studies in university courses, Australian Author, 39.2 (August 2007), p.30.

[3] Geoffrey Dutton, Snow on the Saltbush (Ringwood: Viking, 1984), p.18.

[4] See Ralph Spaulding, “Joyce Eyre and Australian literature at the University of Tasmania,” Australian Literary Studies, 32.4 (2008), pp.463-73.

[5] University of California Press, 1971.

[6] See Anthony Hassall,A Much Healthier All-round View,” review of Pacita Alexander and Elizabeth Perkins, A Love Affair With Australian Literature: The Story of Tom Inglis Moore in Australian Book Review, February 2005, p.38.

[7] Julian Meyrick, “The river or the boat,” Griffith Review, 23 (Autumn 2009), 74.

[8] The Australian Higher Education, 30 September 2009, p.28.

[9] For a sceptical account of the value of current Creative Writing courses see Malcolm King, “Sold on a creative impulse,” The Australian Higher Education, 21 October 2009, p.27.

[10] The Australian Higher Education, 21 October 2009, p.27.

[11] Justine Ferrari, “States wary of ‘literary curriculum’” The Australian, 30 September 2009, p.6.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Quoted in Andrew Trounson, “Humanities too shy about marketing their strengths,” The Australian Higher Education, 6 July 2011, p.25.

[14] Drusilla Modjeska, Poppy (Ringwood: Penguin/McPhee Gribble, 1990), p.150. See also Anthony J. Hassall, “Australian Literary Criticism: Future Directions,” Australian Literary Studies, 20 (2001), 88-93.

[15] Diary of a Bad Year (Melbourne: Text, 2007), pp.29-30.

[16] Andrew Trounson, “Standing up for the humanities,” The Australian Higher Education, 29 June 2011, p. 37.

[17] Stephen Matchett, “Uni loses appeal in first year,” The Australian Higher Education, 22 June 2011, p.22.

[18] “Copyright, the market and the survival of Aust Lit,” Overland 196 (Spring 2009), 22.

[19] “Manifesto for the imagination,” Griffith Review 23 (Autumn 2009), 53.

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