Monday, April 14, 2008

New Chair in Australian Literature at UWA

I should think the former Prime Minister will be spitting chips that the new government is smoothly taking the credit for the new Chair in Australian Literature, rumours of which began blowing in the wind in the second half of last year after a campaign waged mainly in The Australian about the perceived decline in Australian studies, particularly Australian literature, in universities. If I have understood the sequence of events correctly, this all started with John Howard's nationalist agenda and now the Rudd/Gillard team has scooped it up and run with it. Neat.

Much talk about the 'death of Australian literature' was generated and much was made, during this campaign, of the fact that with the retirement of Professor Peter Pierce from his chair at James Cook University, Australia was left with 'only one' dedicated Chair of Australian Literature, as though there had once been many such Chairs but the numbers had been steadily dropping off for years, as with an endangered species. Those in the field, however, knew that until the original appointment of Professor Pierce, there had only ever been one to begin with: the Chair of Australian Literature at the University of Sydney, formerly held by Professors Leonie Kramer, GA Wilkes and the redoubtable Elizabeth Webby, and currently by Robert Dixon.

In fact, Australian Literature is a relatively new discipline, established in universities only tentatively in the late 1960s, by the stalwart likes of Vincent Buckley and Chris Wallace-Crabbe at the University of Melbourne and Brian Elliott at the University of Adelaide, after years of sneering resistance by the exiled English or Australian Anglophile academics who dominated Australian university English departments at the time, clutching their well-thumbed copies of Leavis and Lawrence. ("Aw-stralian Littah-rachoor? That's an oxymoron, haw haw.") The Association for the Study of Australian Literature -- still going strong, I'm glad to say -- wasn't even founded until 1978; before that there hadn't really been enough people teaching it to justify the establishment of a professional body.

Australian universities were invited to compete for the establishment of this new Chair and a number of proposals were submitted, but the University of Western Australia was the unanimous choice.