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An idea to change university Humanities and Social Sciences

By Elspeth Probyn - posted Tuesday, 29 June 2004

Humans are creatures of habit. In this respect, academics are all too human. Sometimes it seems that scholarly traditions spawn like mushrooms in a climate of unreflective attachment to the status quo.

Of course, things do change and there have been major changes in our universities. Some have been for the better but often we are prodded, kicking and screaming by directives from on high. Equally, change for its own sake - such as constant institutional restructuring - can have devastating results on the bodies and morale of those being told to change.

Doing things differently needs to be based in clear understanding of why and what needs to change. It also needs outside impetus, or at least far-sightedness.


These thoughts buzzed as I left on the last plane out of Canberra on a cold Friday night. We were a weary bunch, gladdened by escape and a cheap glass of shiraz.

While you don't necessarily equate Canberra with creative change, last week it glittered with several signs of positive change. Mid-week saw the first major intervention by the newly formed Council of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHASS) - a joint initiative of the Academies of Humanities and Social Sciences.  Under the directorship of Toss Gascoigne, recruited from the Federation of Scientific and Technological Societies, some 200 social scientists and humanities scholars hit the Hill. Their mission was to spread the word about the social, economic and cultural worth of the humanities and social sciences.

It's a brilliant, if obvious, idea. Most pollies haven't the foggiest what we do, so let's tell them. It's worked here for the sciences, and in Canada it has been an ongoing project for some time. Pair up politicians and academics and see what happens. One of the immediate results was government funding to CHASS for a forum to discuss ways of implementing innovation in the field.

Oh no, I can hear some muttering. Not more stick to innovate. Over the last several years, we've been constantly exhorted to demonstrate innovations in teaching and in our fee-income generation. For some, innovation has become synonymous with coercion.

Which is why I prefer the idea of doing things differently rather than innovation, even if it's just a semantic twist on how to introduce new ideas and methods into the various facets of our work.

This vision of change flickered as I sat through a conference at the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at the Australian National University. Convened by Amanda Wise and Adam Chapman, two young postdoctoral scholars, its thematic was Migration, Affect and the Senses. The challenge was to think about the different types of feelings associated with and experienced through migration. 


The papers were thick with description as researchers tried to evoke the sensory experience of different forms of migration. As an object of study, it demands different research strategies and techniques, including an emphasis on different kinds of narrative.

Interesting stuff but as I sat through session after session, my bum numbed. Why do we subject ourselves to this format of academic presentation?  I was just as guilty, if not more so. As a keynote speaker I had more time in which to numb my audience.

Surely we could do with some change in how we present academic work? And just as I began to despair about our tradition, a young man took the stage, while to the side a pot of sauce simmered. Simon Choo, a PhD student at the ANU, is conducting a gastro-anthropological study of the migration of food from Malaysia to Melbourne.   To demonstrate his argument, he cooked us pork satay. While he recounted his research, bowls of lemongrass, turmeric, curry leaves and peanuts circulated around the room.

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About the Author

Elspeth Probyn is Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Sydney.

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