The future of Australian studies

© Tjayanka Woods, 'Minyma Kutjara Tjukurrpa', 2005.

At the end of October I travelled to King’s College, London for a one-day symposium at the heart of celebrations to relaunch the Menzies Centre of Australian Studies, now in its fifteenth year. I was one of a few dozen lucky researchers from a range of disciplines invited to the symposium to speculate on the future of Australian Studies.

On my train ride from Manchester to Euston I watched the velveteen, green English countryside roll past – so different to the tropical bushland of my Queensland upbringing – while I considered my knowledge of what made Australian Studies a discipline. My perception was historical, and retrospective: Australian Studies looked back into an Australia that was, not that is. Immediately suspicious of perhaps having the wrong end of the proverbial academic stick, I hurried to King’s College camps, eager to  hear what heavyweights in the field had to share.

Despite being outside expert knowledge, I still found the symposium discussions on Australian Studies relevant and provocative. It was immediately obvious that my perception of  Australian Studies was dated, but also not that uncommon. There seemed to be a cultural fog obscuring what the exact nature of Australian Studies is now. Changing the name of the discipline was something often raised as a way of articulating this point. Being on the outside-looking-in seemed to be a strong theme running throughout the symposium, particularly in exploring answers to this ultimate question of how Australian Studies should move forward, out of a historical context and into a contemporary one. Monash University was mentioned as an example, for its description of the discipline as Australia in the World.

Throughout the sessions I jotted a few key thoughts down.

On Australian Studies in Historical Context:

Moving forward we need broader range of disciplines & better scholarly conversation.
– Frank Bongiorno.

Australian Studies only make sense in relation to the rest of the world, to the global community.
– Agnieska Sobocinska 

Australians are hyper-mobile. We make sense of ourselves as much outside of Oz as within.
– Agnieska Sobocinska 

We need a broadening perspective for the field to thrive. We need to look beyond the borders.
– Nathaniel O’Reilly

On Trans/Nation, Region, World, Planet – What is the Future of Area/Australian Studies?

The myth of Little Australia: that it can only take its place in the world by acts of mimicry.
– Richard Drayton

Post-colonial humanism: recognising Aboriginal knowledge from around the world.
– Javed Majeed 

What happens to national history if you remove yourself from the ‘centre’ of a country to its lesser known places?
– Mark McKenna 

A country’s history is not just questioned from outside. You can destabilise a country’s history from within.
– Mark McKenna

Where are the women?
– a question to the all-male panel from an audience researcher.

On The Future of Australian Studies and the Arts: 

As a writer in the academy a problem for me is how the arts are seen as a utility.
– Professor Gail Jones

I was particularly drawn to some thoughts from Dr Colin Harvey (Digital Humanities, KCL)  in his paper on Fantasy Writing, Digital Media and the Future of Australian Writing, which raised the point of popular Australian fiction drawing on European mythology, fantasy, and fairytales, but not Australian. This reminded me of an event I was a columnist for at King’s College earlier this year during the inaugural Australia New Zealand Festival of Literature and the Arts, which explored the question of Australia’s First Fairytales. In the following panel on Eco Comparative Futures, Professor Anna Reading (Director CMCI, KCL) also shared intensely wonderful and evocative ideas on the senses, the past, natural and emotional resources, technology and consciousness in her paper: ‘Mining Memories’: The Global Digital Memory Mining Chain, which seemed an Australian fairytale itself.

I found the MCAS symposium invigorating, and revelatory: when I arrived I was randomly seated next to a lecturer who I last saw when she taught me on my undergraduate degree at Griffith University in 2002, and gave me my first High Distinction in Creative Writing. Later we chuckled together over being living examples of the point referring to Australians as being hyper-mobile, seeking to understand themselves both inside and outside of the country. A buzz-word of the day was resoundingly obvious: transnational. It was used often, not only to describe Australia as a people, identity, or a nation forward from its history, but in essence to provide an answer to the question of the future of Australian Studies as a thriving discipline.

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