Leaving “ME”

by Gillian Whitlock

© all rights reserved.

This winter I have been working on academic memoir as an autobiographical genre – one of the booming industries in recent life writing. How do institutions – disciplines, universities, generations – and times shape a sense of the intellectual self? Most particularly, how do literary scholars (prolific writers of memoir of late) understand themselves in relation to various kinds of disciplinary training? And, in turn, how do disciplines shape certain styles of selfhood? In his memoir of a career in the literature departments and senior administration of Harvard and Yale , In Plato’s Cave, Alvin Kernan points out that when he wanted to know what was bothering the University he would go visit the English Department. In Australia now one particular English department has become emblematic of the decline and fall of the Humanities. Simon During’s departure from Melbourne English to Johns Hopkins recently featured on the front page of The Australian Higher Edsupplement, which has printed again the list of the Humanities diaspora offshore. Kerryn Goldsworthy’s essay in the current Australian Book Review, ‘After the Academy’, is an autobiographical piece about the woman who rides away from Melbourne English. The media coverage of During’s departure and Goldsworthy’s narrative remind yet again of Hazel Rowley’s early and eloquent protest about the impoverishment of Australian academia when she took early retirement from Deakin to continue her starry research career in the United States in the mid 90s.

How our comings and goings and doings are mythologised and taken up in autobiographical narratives and in the media is important. In another time, the appointment of Australian academics to prestigious positions at Johns Hopkins or Edinburgh would be a matter for congratulation and a sign of the strength of scholarship here rather than a sign of its demise. Currently Melbourne English – henceforth “ME” to signify the metaphorical transformation I am interested in here – signifies the degeneration of Australian higher education. It is placed in opposition to the green groves of academe at Johns Hopkins by The Australian Higher Ed. in its presentation of During’s imminent departure (not by During himself I should stress). In ‘After the Academy’ Kerryn Goldsworthy presents herself as the autobiographical narrator who leaves Melbourne to return as a daughter and sibling to the region near Adelaide where she now lives. She buys a house within a few kilometres of the place her great-great-grandparents got off the boat from Cornwall in 1847. This is a move ‘back home’ where she is able to lead an integrated life in which heart and soul and mind come together. This deeply organic and romantic conception of being ‘earthed’ exists in binary opposition to “ME”, which is a place of alienation and commodification, suspended in darkness and rain. Here the category of ‘literature’ has become a contested site, more than ever remote from the literary community outside the university.

Why stay?

It is impolitic to ask. It is hard to even canvass this issue without appearing to undermine the necessary critique of current funding for tertiary education and the confused thinking about policy which characterises post-Dawkins administrations, both Labor and Liberal. Rhetorically at least, the departure of some of our most accomplished scholars is a powerful way of signalling to the general public that things are falling apart in our tertiary institutions. In a few years my own children will enter undergraduate courses where every aspect of teaching and assessment and access to facilities has been cut to the bone. This in complete contrast to the abundance – of resources and prestige – which was attached to the Arts when their father and I began our own undergraduate careers in the Whitlam years. There is no defence to be made of the current conditions in which we find ourselves. For many of us in the Humanities the loss of colleagues is palpable: Tony Bennett was my mentor, I now occupy the Chair vacated by John Frow, and I enjoyed discussions about the futures of English with Simon During. Kerryn Goldsworthy’s description of the alienation of many academics who remain is sharp and to the point. School and Faculty meetings echo with the theme of universities in ruins, for the sense of deprivation runs deeply and personally. It is part of everyday academic life in the struggle with poorly equipped teaching facilities, and reduced research funds, and the decline of morale in academia here.

The academics who go overseas are the most visible and public sign of a major rearrangement and reconfiguration, which includes the migration of Humanities academics intranationally to places where a research future for Arts disciplines seems more secure. I know best the reconfiguration of Humanities at Griffith University in recent years, for ex-Griffith staff are my own diaspora. But this might be understood in generational terms, and indeed the advertisement of four new lectureships in Humanities at Griffith in May suggests it might be read in regenerational terms too. Like other ‘new’ or ‘gumleaf’ universities (the term was originally coined by Simon Marginson) Griffith opened in the ’70s and, in a phase of intensive initial staffing, recruited recent graduates at a time when Humanities disciplines were undergoing fundamental transformations due to feminism, marxism and, later, the ‘posts’ of colonialism/structuralism/modernism and gender studies. The interdisciplinary, problem-oriented Schools of Humanities in the newer universities were exhilarating places to begin an academic career in the ’80s and early ’90s. Hierarchy was less entrenched, the gender-balance of staff was more equitable, and at Griffith at least the committee system allowed relatively junior members of staff access to decision-making around fundamental issues of staffing and curriculum.

It wasn’t a golden age – it was notoriously hostile to research output in the short term at least. But the gumleaf universities offered experiences, which shaped a distinctive generational experience for Arts academics here in Australia – a different set of expectations about academic work and about ways of figuring the self as an academic. A more precise example: at Griffith in the early ’80s the project to develop a new and different undergraduate BA degree began under the leadership of David Saunders and Tony Bennett. This project produced lectureships for Mark Finnane, Stephen Garton, Chilla Bulbeck, Ian Hunter, Geoff Stokes, Diane Gibson, Geoff Dow, Colin Mercer, Pat Buckridge, myself and, later, David Carter. The core team met regularly and, under Bennett’s leadership, worked through intensive and rigorous critique of each other’s work in a system where administrative practices and working protocols (in part derived from Open University precedents) were far more coded, collective and transparent than was the case in more traditional faculties at the time. Here and elsewhere (I am thinking of the excellent Deakin materials) different working practices were established for Arts academics. Although flawed (we produced an undergraduate degree as rigorous as a Masters for our first cohort!) they have been to some extent precursors for the experience of recent and intensive DETYA/DEST inspired auditing and quality management. Of course in the new universities it was always the case that management practices were different, and at Griffith this led to an extensive committee system in which junior academics gained an unusual degree of administrative experience and authority. It is not a coincidence that many senior women in Australian academia now began their careers in the new universities of the 1970s. Goldsworthy points out that as late as 1997 Melbourne English still had no woman above lecturer C. Indeed this still seems to be the case. The need to gather and nurture students, to be very precise about objectives and outcomes, to see curriculum development as an ongoing and collective process of change and innovation – these are not such new ideas for the gumleaf generation of academic staff. This is not to say that the current thoroughgoing federally-managed quantification of research and teaching activities and outcomes, or the language of quality management, is the same as the rigorous self-scrutiny which was established back then. It is to say though that the idea of academic work in the Humanities is as private and individual and akin to forms of aesthetic expression and spiritual development has always been one style of academic subjectivity in my thinking rather than an autobiographical narrative.

I am imposing upon others a kind of institutional and generational career trajectory they may well want to contest. It is a formation that suggests institutional and disciplinary conditions which are local and contingent are important in shaping professional subjectivity, and it infers distinctions between academic careers which began in the ’70s and ’80s within the sandstones and those which got underway in the gumleafs. As I think back to that group which worked together so intensively at Griffith, it seems to me it is no accident that most of this widely dispersed group have now moved on to be professors, deans, heads of school as well as respected researchers and teachers in Humanities. Many of us have remained attached to interdisciplinary and problem-oriented methodologies in Australian Studies and Gender Studies. By and large that widely dispersed core team remain active in Australian institutions as workplaces – albeit at a time when these are seriously flawed and under threat. For the generation which established careers in new universities, the golden age of academia has always been somewhere else, if we understand that prelapsarian state to be a period of highly individualised research and teaching in traditional academic institutions with an assured and stable cohort of students, clearly defined disciplinary formations, and administration being conducted by minions.

In representing our work to others it is important we explore ideas and understandings about the distinctively Australian projects in Humanities which we need to defend. I often go back to one of the most enabling metaphors I know for scholarship here in Australia – Susan Sheridan’s idea of ‘grafts’. Put simply, here in the Humanities we are placed to work in ways which reformulate and refashion – that is, ‘graft’- European and North American intellectual traditions to new effect. This is why antipodean academics like During, Meaghan Morris, Elizabeth Grosz, Nicholas Thomas, John Frow and others are so attractive to prestigious overseas institutions. It is also why During himself suggests that the coming and going of intellectuals and the trafficking of ideas in and out of Australia are part of an ongoing process of exchange and transculturation, and it is in the nature of things that he will return. Antipodean Arts is placed differently, and this is evident in the local reformulations of literary and cultural studies through postcolonialism which are emerging in the work of Robert Dixon, for example, or the autobiographics of Drusilla Modjeska and Elspeth Probyn, or the environmental studies of Tom Griffiths, or Ian Hunter’s work on early modern thought.

There is a personal and political urgency in thinking about our professional locations self-reflexively, and in understanding how we account for ourselves as academics and intellectuals, even in these hard times. Senior academics in Humanities are under scrutiny here and now to an unprecedented degree: output is quantified to the DEST point and dollar, traditional sources of authority and leadership are in question, one is called upon to justify and implement policies which are transient and inappropriate. If we are to make a convincing case for the impoverishment of Australian higher education we best focus on the conditions for undergraduate students and sessional staff, and the lack of opportunity for new researchers and prospective academics. It is here that the struggle to establish and sustain scholarly practices is most acute. After all, the current government takes care of the élites rather well, and many of us who occupy positions at levels D and E enjoy privileges still. When all is said and done, the really important question is whether the head of Melbourne English has been able to secure the ex Goldsworthy and ex During salaries in the departmental budget! Mention of academics ‘labouring’ under their workloads (Goldsworthy: 2002, 25) always seems a trifle forced. Academic work is stressful and demanding, but we still use vinegar for salad dressing rather than a treatment for calloused palms. The idea that one could make a living ‘by reading, writing, teaching and thinking in the field of literature, like a happy cow’ (Goldsworthy: 2002, 25) was not fostered in the pastures of new universities struggling to establish a reputation in the ’80s, and so one cannot mourn its loss with the same intensity. It follows that early research publications from Griffith Humanities – most notably Hunter’s Culture and Government and the Hunter, Stokes, Smith and Meredyth edition Accounting for the Humanities – explored connections between the disciplines of the humanities and the objectives of government. The remark that ‘precisely at the point where it is attached to the social body, the insight of the humanities academy fails’ (Hunter et.al., 1) remains pertinent in thinking about representations of our current condition, and a fatal flaw in strategic thinking about appropriate responses, which can be made.

Goldsworthy’s essay presents a compelling and powerful representation of a discovery of the authentic self in touch with landscape and family history, and to this extent it is shaped by the tropes and search for belonging which are embedded in Australian settler autobiographics. Arguably the memoirs and autobiographical fragments of academics in literary studies are particularly inclined to locate themselves as creative individual talents threatened by intrusive institutional protocols. Current conditions allow Goldsworthy to tell her own story in these terms in a compelling way. The death of scholarship, like the death of the author, is a useful rhetorical strategy for getting some things done. But it doesn’t do to obscure assumptions about scholarship which are circulating in the death notices of these times, or the different terms for understanding the self as an academic and public intellectual which are in play elsewhere. Look, for example, at how Elspeth Probyn ‘professionalises the self’ in engaged and polemical ways in her weekly column in The Australian Higher Ed. Different ideas and mythologies about scholarship as work, as identity, as character, and so on, need to be recognised, for they have very different effects. Now more than before, various scholarly histories shape how we invent the academic self. The policies of the Whitlam years allowed many first generation university students to enter academic life, often the products of the State school system. Subsequently the rapid expansion and diversification of Australian higher education post-Dawkins has allowed a different cohort of graduates to establish an academic career, and varied styles of scholarly work, in the new universities most particularly. These shape a variety of expectations about academic life. For example, many women have found in universities a powerful source of self affirmation and identification, and even a day discussing the quality audit can be a sea of tranquility when compared with the rigours of one’s ‘other’ life – parenting adolescents comes to mind.

Goldsworthy is right, the compulsion to examine your life so far and consider the shape of it is a common condition of middle age. In Australian academia now there is a readily available script with Miltonic overtones which places us in an irredeemably postlapsarian age, tormented by the devilry of DEST, working in a spiritual and intellectual graveyard. We need to be careful about how we mythologise academic lives, both our own and others. For some of us – readers of Beckett in matters of the heart and soul, or professionals shaped by institutional protocols very different to those of “ME”, or intellectuals with different ideas about subjectivity, embodiment and the past, or scholars who regard their own learning as necessarily tied up with the learning activities of students – academic work can go on everyday here in a process which belies rumours of the death of scholarship.


Gillian Whitlock is a professor and Director of Postgraduate Studies in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History at the University of Queensland. Her book The Intimate Empire. Reading Women’s Autobiography was published by Cassells UK in 2000. She is currently working on a book about contemporary Australian memoir calledPast Imperfect.

This essay has had responses from Kerryn Goldswothy, Adi Wimmer, Philip Neilsen and Nicholas Birns.

Goldsworthy, Kerryn. 1998. Needing His Signature.” Australian Humanities Review.
Goldsworthy, Kerryn. 2002. ‘After the Academy’, Australian Book Review June/July
11, 2002, 23-28.
Hunter, Ian. 1988. Culture and government: the emergence of literary education.
London: Macmillan.
Hunter, Ian, Denise Meredyth, Bruce Smith, Geoff Stokes, 1991, Accounting for the
Humanities. The language of culture and the logic of government
. Griffith University: ICPS.
Kernan, Alvin. 2001. In Plato’s Cave. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.
The Australian Higher Education Supplement July 3 2002.

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