The defunding of the University of Sydney’s professorial chair of Australian Literature was announced earlier this month to follow the retirement of Professor Rob Dixon, causing an outcry in the academic community and drawing scathing responses from several of the discipline’s most senior colleagues and professional bodies. The Australian attributed the move to our oft-cited cultural cringe—a national unwillingness to claim as worthy our own literature. Its headline asks, ‘What kind of country can’t bear to teach its own literature?’ But this is a question which draws greater attention to the traditionalist perceptions of academia, to the concept of a professor leading a research team at a top-ranked university, than it does to the broader question at hand: that is, what is the role of Australian literature today, and why does it matter?
Certainly the loss of the University of Sydney chair suggests a failure to recognise the importance of studying our own literature, as well as literature and the humanities more broadly. Susan Lever has made the case for the short-sightedness of the cancellation and the critical importance of this professorial chair. Julieanne Lamond, too, has recognised the causal link between the underfunding of the humanities and the loss of this position at the University of Sydney. As Lamond has pointed out, the move is hardly surprising, given the lack of government funding to these areas and thus the persistent belief that this does not constitute worthwhile research.
But lamenting the death of this position as the demise of Australian literature depends first on the perception that the University of Sydney is the only institution offering the study of Australian literature or addressing it in teaching or in research, and second on the belief that a professorial position is the only one of significance in considering the health of a discipline.
If there has been one overarching theme in the study of Australian literature over the past few decades, it has been the disturbance of colonial ideals of Australian identity which depend on concepts of the battler, mateship, and masculinity. While such projects have been necessary and critical in opening up conceptualisations of Australian identity to racial, gendered, and sexualised others, they were not intended to remove the sense of democracy and egalitarianism inherent in the discourse of our national identity which underpinned the opportunity offered by the new world of Australia. In focusing solely on a single professorial position at one elite university as a marker of the health of Australian literary studies, we are missing the wealth of other critical discussion going on around the country, outside of the ‘Group of Eight’ universities.
Australian literature is studied in lively and vibrant ways at both urban and regional institutions around the country, even without dedicated professorial chairs, my own university (the University of Southern Queensland) included. Although it is not offered as a major at any of these institutions, this is aligned with a general move towards a broader base of study across the tertiary sector. Indeed, to offer it in such a narrow way through a major would suggest a return to a colonising rather than globalising mindset of world literatures. Australian literature (and the associated study of its theatre, television, and cinema) is taught and researched at every university in Australia, in dedicated courses and as part of genre- or theme-focused courses.
The progress rather than stagnancy of the study of Australian literature can also be seen in the generosity of retiring colleagues to those entering the discipline. My own transition from British postgraduate study to work in Australia, as well as a research focus on British women’s modernism to contemporary Australian literature, and thus to an emphasis on the contemporary critical relevance of literature, could not have been facilitated without the support of those trailblazers of the last few decades, the founders of critical journals and associations, and the authors and editors of the foundational works in the discipline: Sue Sheridan, Carole Ferrier, Belinda McKay, Chris Lee, Pat Buckridge, Susan Lever, Gillian Whitlock, and many others. In my own experience, then, there is none of the elitism or protectionism in Australian literary studies that the focus on the University of Sydney chair presumes. Rather, the expansion and growth of the discipline has been central to its purpose for many years.
The state of the discipline is not dire. Excellent research and teaching continues despite the lack of funding. What is needed, however, is a wider understanding of the importance of this work, even when, and especially when, that literature is not flattering to our national identity.
The best Australian literature is not easy to read, does not offer happy endings, because it challenges those beliefs about who and what we are. It asks the hard questions—questions that government bodies and individual readers, even those enrolled in courses dealing with Australian literature, are often loath to answer. In work by Christos Tsiolkas, Nam Le, Melissa Lucashenko, Charlotte Wood, for example, we are confronted with the ugliest parts of ourselves. The study of works like Dead Europe, The Boat, Mullumbimby or The Natural Way of Things can often produce resistance and recoil, but to read and engage with such books, and to put into practice our often-ashamed response, is to behave as responsible readers.
Such critical self-reflection on our understanding of our individual and collective selves can produce more valuable engagement with our national literature, but we have to be willing to be a part of such conversations. Perhaps the removal of the University of Sydney chair is an indication that we are not, but to look beyond this instance is to see the democratic and responsible continuation of the discipline outside of this symbolic position. More than this particular role, what is needed is greater public acknowledgement of the importance of literary studies for the health of the nation, whether that is in the media, through public funding, or in formal and informal reading practices.
While our governments and funding bodies at all levels fail to see the humanities—let alone literature, let alone Australian literature—as a strategic research priority, the structural organisation of our universities will follow suit. We must remember, however, that the innovative work in the research and teaching of Australian literature is there: the cultural cringe lies in these public structures. What kind of country can’t bear to fund the discussion of its literature, both in the classroom and outside of it? The kind that needs it the most.
Jessica Gildersleeve is Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Southern Queensland. Her research on Australian literature addresses narrative, trauma and ethics, and includes Christos Tsiolkas: The Utopian Vision (Cambria 2017) and the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Australian Literature.
 Susan Lever, ‘Whatever happened to Australian literature?’ Inside Story 29 Oct. 2019 < https://insidestory.org.au/whatever-happened-to-australian-literature/>.
 Julieanne Lamond, ‘Australian literature in universities is under threat, but cultural cringe isn’t the reason why’, Guardian 31 Oct. 2019 < https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/31/australian-literature-in-universities-is-under-threat-but-cultural-cringe-isnt-the-reason-why>.