Australian Studies alive and kicking just this side of the pond

Australian Studies alive and kicking just this side of the pond
Image credit: Canberra Times: Australia's unique Parliament House, which can be seen quite clearly from ANU's Australian Studies Institute. Picture: Karleen Minney
Wednesday 30 October 2019

By Mark Kenny, Paul Pickering

From the Australian National University's Sir Roland Wilson Building one can see several gleaming pillars of state - the High Court of Australia, the National Gallery, the modernist marvel of the National Library, the National Museum, and Parliament House.

The house "in" the hill owns the skyline, its lofty flag pole reaching outwards at its base as if to corral an otherwise divided populace.

Indeed, from Roland Wilson, home to ANU's Australian Studies Institute, one can even discern the Senate wing offices which house bureaus of the ABC, Nine newspapers, and News Corp, publisher of The Australian.

Yet for all that proximity, the national broadsheet splashed earlier this month with a story from its Canberra bureau, headed "Creeping uni 'cringe' fails nation".

"The nation's top universities are 'not interested in promoting the study of things Australian' and are 'failing in their responsibilities as national institutions,' leading academics and historians have warned," the "EXCLUSIVE" led off.

These were bold claims that, frankly, would not age well during the $10 cab fare over Lake Burley Griffin.

The text proceeded more soberly to explain that the international ranking system for universities weights academic publishing in international journals, and that this tends to skew research interests in institutions reliant on those rankings pursuing foreign students.

The academics quoted made valid arguments along these lines.

But there was less to sustain the story's primary thrust that Australian universities are "not interested in promoting the study of things Australian' nor the jibe that the universities "are becoming highly authoritarian".

Neither is true, nor supported by any breadth of inquiry evident in the depiction.

We can all agree on the need to study Australia (across all disciplines), and Professors Greg Melleuish and Stuart Macintyre have in their separate ways contributed much as advocates and scholars to promoting this agenda.

It is also true that international rankings echo through the corridors of academia in ways detrimental to Australian studies.

But it's a question of degree and a couple points might be added to balance the discussion.

First, it is important not to overlook the significant amount of research that is being undertaken into Indigenous history, politics, language and culture (broadly defined).

Second, those in government responsible for funding research must consider their policy and be accountable.

Indeed, it's ironic that many excellent applications focusing on Australia - again notably in the social sciences, humanities and the arts - disappear into the ether.

The much vaunted "national interest" test introduced by the government last year apparently does not preference the study of the nation.

And, if you don't study Australians at war, forget it.

What is not a difficult case to prosecute is that the study of Australia needs to be part of global conversations.

Clearly, there are things we do differently here that others need to know about as part of their work.

Notwithstanding the insensitive line in the national anthem, "for we are young and free", we have 60,000 years' worth of stories to tell.

And while we're on the subject, we are not even, in any meaningful sense, "girt by sea".

Macintyre was among the first scholars to point to the limitations of focusing on our island status to the exclusion of our place in the world.

The dichotomy between the national and the global is a false one.

Others, such as ANU's Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Political Philosophy, Keith Dowding, note that the Australian Journal of Political Science is rated "A" level by the Australian Political Studies Association, and at most universities in Australia is treated as such in assessment of promotion applications.

Dowding acknowledges that Australian social science academics will seek to have Australian-focused papers published in non-Australian journals also - but asks, why wouldn't they?

He cautions against focusing too much on one country without being aware of comparisons, which "leads to big errors in reasoning - thinking an issue is unique to your country and so needs a unique answer when in fact it is a global phenomenon".

In 2017 the ANU funded the establishment of an Australian Studies Centre not to preach to the converted but to promote a better understanding of Australia refracted through the lens of the global, the transnational, the comparative, the imperial, the international.

As scholars, we can do this without drowning out our distinctive national stories in a chorus of overseas voices. Our program is entitled "Australia and the World".

Among its work is a series of official partnerships with leading Australian institutions, as well as partnerships with universities and Australian studies centres globally.

Only this week, the AuSI, in its partnership with the Parliamentary Library, delivered a public lecture on the life and work of Alfred Deakin, Australia's second (and some say best) prime minister, who died a hundred years ago this week.

This is part of the collaborative First Eight Project breathing new scholarly life (and public interest) into the wellsprings of nationhood.

Nobody from the media attended, despite being metres away.

AuSi has also recently signed off on a dedicated PhD scholarship specifically targeted at Australian politics, for which applications are currently open.

  • Mark Kenny is Senior Fellow at the ANU's Australian Studies Institute and the School of Politics and International Relations. He hosts the weekly Democracy Sausage podcast.
  • Professor Paul Pickering is director of the ANU's Research School of Humanities and the Arts and the Australian Studies Institute.

This article appeared first in the Canberra Times on 22 October 2019 - view here

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