Funding Humanities Research: it’s called being part of the world

Nearly three years ago when the Australian Research Council was last under explicit attack, I wrote a blog post for my other site, Hoyden About Town, mostly prompted by my astonishment at how little challenge was being offered by anyone to the open ridicule coupled with threats of government interference in an independent process. We should have been rocked by the implications of a declared intention to undermine the foundational principles of higher learning.

Medieval painting of Hildegard von Bingen transcribing a vision.

This esoteric research lark has been going on for some time.

Now our government, which should be in the business of supporting and promoting the work of our universities and high-end intellectual workers, has once again chosen to join in the disparagement of the very concept of employing people to do research in non-STEM areas. News Ltd. publications have been dipping into their recycling bin of material on why academics are a waste to keep fed and clothed. Rob Brooks’ column in the Conversation lays out the background, and uncovers the indispensable element of sustained ignorance necessary for making an argument that Arts and Humanities research is not important: If you’re going to ridicule research, do your homework.

To help them along, Scott Morrison went on record to agree that the Australian Research Council, which allocates most of the research money available in Australia, is wrong to approve projects that don’t offer outcomes of obvious material benefit. He told the Australian‘s Ray Hadley that the ARC is failing to offer adequate justification for its choices of which research to fund, and would not pass a “pub test” of approval from the general public. Thanks, Mr. Treasurer, for making us look like hicks to the world, at the same time as kneecapping one of our key growth industries. Not to mention the insult to people who spend time in pubs.

This time around the ARC has finally been goaded into making a statement that it believes in the value of its role in supporting Humanities work. Unfortunately it includes reassuring the public that only 3.3% of the organisation’s competitive grant funding even goes to the Humanities – I could do without this being framed as a positive. I’m sorry that I need to re-publish an old article. I foolishly hoped we would turn a corner in the time since then, and this piece would be a mere historic artefact, in a world where History as one of many valued disciplines was beyond doubt.

Posted at Hoyden About Town on 18 December 2013

Yesterday in Federal Parliament the MP for Hughes, Craig Kelly, gave a speech in which he stated that there should be no funding for research that does not either find a cure for a disease, ”improve our prosperity” or “improve our lifestyles”. The speech rested on mocking research projects that have gone ahead at Australian universities in the last few years under independent, peer-reviewed processes standard the world over. Here is an excerpt:

A cool $150,000 went into a study of the impact of locally mined silver to make coins in Athens between the years 550 BC and 480 BC. In another example, a cool $200,000 went to determine what young Australians are learning about sex, love and relationships from the popular media. I would suggest that these are not the type of funding projects that the government should be funding.

Another little one here, which I am sure might be a favourite of many sitting on the opposition side, is a study of Marxism and religion and the relationship between theology and political radicalism—$60,000. Another one here is $180,000 for a study rethinking the history of Soviet Stalinism to provide a sophisticated understanding of the complexities of Stalin’s Russia. We know the complexities—obviously, Stalin must have been a good bloke who was misunderstood. We need $180,000 to find that out.

In another example, $210,000 was spent on a study of how early-modern women’s writing was produced and circulated. And $196,476 was spent on a study of trade unions in Indonesia to document and analyse unionist strategies for the upcoming Indonesian election. Is this really what the Australian taxpayer should be funding, instead of medical research, instead of research to make our nation more competitive?

This is a little bewdy, too: $164,000 for a study of magical spells and rituals from the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD to achieve success in personal relations—a most important expenditure! In another one: $370,000 for a study to find whether physiological plasticity of individuals renders populations resilient to climate change. It goes on: $265,000 for a study to understand the context and purpose of philosophy within higher education in the eastern Roman Empire in the period 300 BC to 500 AD. In another example, $330,000 of taxpayers’ money was spent under the previous Labor government to explore the music-cultural identity and related socioeconomic dilemmas of remote South Sea nomads vis-a-vis the Muslim Malays in the industrialising Riau Islands.

Under the previous Labor government $253,000 of taxpayers’ money also went to study archaeology in the Central Caucuses. And $444,000 of taxpayers’ money was spent to study a history of advertising industry practices in Australia between 1959 and 1989. Isn’t that the type of study that would be better funded by the advertising industry than by taxpayers? Another example is a study of official histories produced by humanists in the courts and chanceries of Renaissance Italy during the 15th century.

There has been too much under-reaction to what the government is advocating, so let me spell it out: if these grants shouldn’t happen then our universities shouldn’t have Arts faculties. If this use of resources is a waste then our universities should be downgraded to vocational training centres, all academics not working in medicine or technology should lose their jobs, and Australia can kiss goodbye to the income we get selling our education overseas, because people from other parts of the world won’t pay huge amounts of money to travel here for a qualification from an institution that can’t command international respect.

Kelly keeps referring to making Australia competitive, so let’s talk about that. Education is a product; you can’t sell it if what you are producing isn’t any good. The way the world judges whether you are capable of offering a good education is by looking at the quality of the research you publish. Not the immediate practical usefulness of the topic, the quality of the scholarship. If we stop participating in the system of higher learning engaged in by the rest of the world, it will take no time for us to have no standing in the international higher education scene. Universities function as a world-wide community, and they are wildly competitive. You fall behind, you disappear. Not publishing research across the breadth of potential fields of knowledge is to fall behind. If you want any hope of being competitive in education, you can’t limit your research to a few restricted areas.

You can’t publish without doing research, and no publications, no credibility. This is how the world measures whether people doing higher level intellectual work are any good or not. If our academics can’t prove they are good at what they do, no one will pay to come to their institutions to study under their guidance. People come to university to learn from experts. Experts carry out research. Grants pay their wages while they do. It is not enough for a university to only have experts in the narrow fields that sell best to overseas students. Universities are judged on the full breadth of what they produce, an institution that no longer publishes in philosophy, history or literature will not be seen as a serious site of intellectual activity. Our brand in the marketplace for that immensely valuable product, education, will be trashed.

Let’s be absolutely clear about this: if you don’t believe “a study of Marxism and religion and the relationship between theology and political radicalism” or “a study to understand the context and purpose of philosophy within higher education in the eastern Roman Empire in the period 300 BC to 500 AD” should be funded, then you don’t believe philosophy departments should exist, because that’s what they do. If you don’t believe “a study of how early-modern women’s writing was produced and circulated” should be funded, then you don’t believe history and literature departments should exist. The only end game here is to shut down all philosophy, history, fine and performing arts, and literature departments, and probably most of sociology, psychology and political science too.

Painting on a tower wall of an arm made of books holding aloft a giant key.

A conceptual diagram of the value of Arts and Humanities research

It’s easy to look at these figures as some kind of disembodied amount paid for the topic, like buying a book. That’s not what they are. The money tagged in those grants goes almost entirely on the salary of the person doing the research. The money covers some expenses like research trips and organising conferences, but the bulk of it is the wage of the scholar, sometimes also research assistants. A $200,000 grant is three years of salary for an academic who is also writing, publishing, speaking, and when they are not engaged on a full-time research project, teaching. Each of those grants Kelly lists represents several jobs. You cancel the grant, your scholar goes overseas, or leaves higher education for a job below their skill level, or is unemployed. Less work, less teaching, fewer peripheral jobs, the sector shrinks, Australia has fewer skilled workers.

The insult to the electorate is that Kelly assumes the titles of previously funded projects are a weapon in his arsenal. He assumes anyone hearing them will join him in mocking their worth. A person with even a cursory understanding of what is going on when research grants are allocated will be nothing but disgusted at his sly, shock-jock misrepresentations that show he believes Australians to be too parochial to comprehend that there could be “complexity” worth understanding in Stalin’s Russia. A person of any reflection will see a study of “archaeology in the Central Caucuses” and think how great it is that Australia has players in a field as competitive as archeology. They will see “a study of official histories produced by humanists in the courts and chanceries of Renaissance Italy during the 15th century”, and be impressed that we have moved on from the cultural cringe enough to know we have scholars who can contribute to a major field in European history. Kelly counts on us being so enamoured with ignorance that we can’t even see value in knowing “what young Australians are learning about sex, love and relationships from the popular media”.

There is plenty to get angry about in the contempt the government is showing for this country’s smartest and most committed people, not to mention the contempt for the broader idea of there being value in the life of the mind. But we shouldn’t miss noticing the extremity of the contempt they are showing to every single Australian out there, even those with no personal stakes in the university system. Abbott, Pyne and Kelly have all assumed that Australians are too stupid and ignorant to understand the value of this country continuing as part of the intellectual world. They assume we will scoff at the notion that work on thought and culture is needed if a country is to thrive. They think we will agree with them that we shouldn’t aim to be a part of the wider world’s systems of pursuing knowledge. I am going to choose to believe that they have grievously misjudged us.


Margaret of Anjou by William Shakespeare

Sydney showings of Margaret of Anjou

“This spark will prove a raging fire.”

7pm Friday 8 July, Io Myers Theatre at the University of NSW

7pm Thursday 18 August, Theatre of the University of Notre Dame

A French Queen of England, a loyal adulteress, a devoted leader but a devastating foe, Queen Margaret is one of Shakespeare’s most vivid renderings of a historic character. Intrigue, betrayal, romance and revenge coloured the life of this brilliant and compelling woman.

Shakespeare Twentyscore and The Puzzle Productions invite you to two staged readings of Shakespeare’s ‘new’ play.

Three brunette women of varying ages, with sword hilt.

The three faces of Queen Margaret

Tickets for UNSW $10

Notre Dame is free and unticketed BUT extremely limited capacity.

Poster with silhouette rose. Text as above image.

The Shrew Lands

Notes on The Taming of the Shrew by Sport for Jove at the Seymour Centre.

There is a virtue in deciding not to pretend to solve the unsolvable.

Having thought about The Taming of the Shrew as long and as intimately as I have my conclusion, for what it’s worth, is that there is no way to make it both a romantic comedy and at the same time not wildly offensive. But (and this is crucial) I have come to believe that this would have been so even when it was first penned, and that its primary driving force is to produce in the audience member the confusion of feeling something to be right and simultaneously feeling it to be wrong. We want Kate and Petruchio to get together and have a great relationship and a great future together, but the framework within which we see it happen is horrible. And I don’t for a moment believe that this is because Shakespeare wanted us to think long and hard about the way our society treats women. I think he merely wanted to make sure his audience left this show compelled to talk about what they had just seen. That was how one made money in the theatre.

Director Damien Ryan has thought long, deeply and very intelligently about Shrew, and he has crafted a massively enjoyable night in the theatre that does ask us to go away feeling good about Kate and Petruchio’s marriage, but doesn’t tell us to go away feeling good about the society that requires such manoeuvres to bring them together.

Woman in jodhpurs and pilot hat/goggles stands over old man in director's chair, with large vintage movie camera behind.

Photo by Marnya Rothe, via Sport for Jove website

Ryan’s signature use of everything on stage is here. Setting the story in an Italian silent film studio of the 1920s allows for racks of costumes, ladders, lights, cameras and a swivel-set Wild West/Italian villa building. This provides a platform for as much comic business as the text can bear, including an immensely clever use of silent film footage, where some secret filming and swift editing by Grumio allows him and his master to convince the other men that Kate was pleased by the wooing.

In Bianca the production skewers a cultural shift in the ideal woman since the time when the most desirable potential wife was a girl who displayed modesty through silence. Today we expect the woman pursued by many men to be glamorously sexual, not reticently demure. This Bianca is a femme fatale, not an ingénue. It is a neatly humorous point that a film star in the 1920s would have been silent even when she was being projected as most active. There is an added gimmick of Bianca appearing in a new frock every time you blink. However, this means the contrast between her and her sister rests on  Kate not caring a jot how she appears to men, as she strides about in her aviatrix suit, rather than on one sister being (ostensibly) meek and the other argumentative. The problem this creates is that it causes us to wonder why this is something that should need changing. If fact, the only way end-of-play Kate seems to have changed from beginning-of-play Kate is that she doesn’t hit people anymore. Which is a good thing, but hardly a transformation.

All this however, doesn’t tend to enter the mind during the course of a fast-paced, expertly delivered, glamorously presented comedy. These are thoughts born of sober reflection later on, which brings me back to my initial point that this is a play that is both unsolvable, and designed to make you realise that after the event. When it is filled up with cleverness and heart as this production is, there is little point in fighting the pleasures of this story. The best possible thing to do with this production, and this play, is to feel all the contradictory feelings it prompts, and then talk about them afterwards.

Man in Panama hat kisses blond cowgirl, while aviatrix looks on.

Photo by Marnya Rothe

The Further Lives of Queen Margaret

Line drawing of medieval royal marriage.

Image via the Luminarium Project, which is an excellent history resource.

I am finally getting the opportunity to step back into the rehearsal room. This is inexpressibly exciting for me, I always feel that being in a working room with actors is my natural place. All the other things I do (from writing, to marking papers, through to motherhood) represent varying levels of me trying to imitate models of others’ work that fall into the overlap between what I would like to achieve and what I am capable of, but in a rehearsal room all I care about is the people I am working with and the text.

Queen Margaret of Anjou, and then of the Royal House of Lancaster, was a key figure in the English medieval Wars of the Roses. Brought over from France to marry King Henry VI, who was barely capable of rule, she was the one tasked with fighting for the right of their son to inherit his father’s title.

In Shakespeare, she is the only character to appear in four plays. Most of her scenes are the thrilling, high octane, intensified emotional points in plays that can otherwise be somewhat sprawling and full of interchangeable lords arguing politics. (I exaggerate. Just a touch.) Unfortunately, the three Henry VI plays are rarely performed, and if they are it is most often as an amalgamation that results in Margaret’s role being heavily cut. Worse, her role in Richard III is often excised completely, because modern directors don’t know how to cope with an element in a play that doesn’t contribute to driving the plot.

In making this new work, Margaret of Anjou, Liz Schafer and Philippa Kelly have done more than re-cut a version of the tried-and-true history-cycle concept. They have performed a bold experiment in dramaturgy, shaping Shakespeare’s material around a fresh narrative arc. Character driven, relationship centred. Instead of the guiding principle being merely to summarise, it is to tell the story of a woman who is among Shakespeare’s most vivid creations. This work asks, why shouldn’t we take what we want most from Shakespeare, and make that our play?

Here is a short paper I gave on the project at the University of Sydney recently:


This piece has already had rehearsed readings in Perth, Ballarat and the UK, and it will be my pleasure to bring it to Sydney on 8 July and 18 August this year.