Re-structuring radically

Historically, and perhaps even in the contemporary discourse, ‘re-structuring’ has been code for the opportunistic re-organisation of labour to the benefit of profit. ‘Fat’ is cut, efficiency is sought, new opportunities are created when management ‘re-structures’. Workers invariably lose and capitalists come out stronger. This is, of course, an over simplification, but we could see the recent attempt to deregulate universities as part of this wave. However, as many will be aware, universities have already suffered through neo-liberalism and are for the most part organisations that have been continually re-structured such that they are not currently configured to sustain, or perhaps even be open to, a poetic life. The rise of creative writing programs would only, paradoxically, seem to support this.

Critics on the right often like to suggest that universities are havens for left wing thought, but the insecure conditions in which many people labour are far more amenable to the ideal of the right, various as that may be. Universities now are market driven, administratively heavy, privately funded, semi-corporate entities reliant on casual labour that do not adequately respond to the needs of a creative life in the digital age. To call them public institutions seems to be an anathema. To be a poet within one now means having a day job involving teaching and criticism as well as a fair portion of administration. The university then needs to change. For poetry that means taking seriously ideas like artists-in-residence and re-thinking the English department as a site of potential. Moreover, it means thinking through some of the ideological unconsciousness that exists in the English department as it is configured in Australia.

It is time to abolish the English department. This is not without precedent. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Taban Lo Liyong and Henry Owur-Anyumba called for the abolition of the English department in a paper of the same name in 1968 with regards to the University of Nairobi. They suggested:

A. That the English Department be abolished.
B. That a Department of African Literature and Languages be set up in its place.
They went on to suggest that, on the literature side, the Department ought to offer roughly:
(a) The oral tradition, which is our primary root;
(b) Swahili literature (with Arabic and Asian literatures): this is another root, especially in East Africa;
(c) A selected course in European literature: yet another root;
(d) Modern African literature.

Perhaps now we could call for a similar thing here. English departments still exist in Australia, including at the blue-ribbon Sydney University. As a parallel, we could suggest:

A. That the English Department be abolished.
B. That a Department of Australian Literature and Languages be set up in its place.
On the literature side, where poetry lives, and which is a vital part of critical, engaged and metaphorical thinking, we ought to offer:
(a) The oral tradition, which is our primary root;
(b) Australian literature: this is a set of roots;
(c) A selected course in transnational literature: yet another root;
(d) Modern Indigenous literature.

These should be a matter of priority and given how little funding is dedicated to English departments as they now stand perhaps this radical re-structuring will open up new possibilities. People will cite that there are structural barriers to such a re-organisation – one of them being the barrier in the mind and the other being the socio-economic interests that enable the present condition to continue. However, to retain English as the ‘brand’ of the department seems cringe-worthy as well as an indication of an antiquated colonial mimesis.

If people wonder where all the teachers will come from in a new department, we could begin by saying there is space for old workers there. This is not re-structuring as we know it where workers are further marginalised. We could also point to the surplus of recent graduates from within higher education institutions who are denied appropriate opportunities as well as any number of Indigenous elders who are capable in an oral manner but who are plainly invisible within the logic of literature and languages as it currently stands.

One of the most enlightening and engaging ‘conferences’ I have been to was in the Gulf of Carpentaria where David Trigger and Richard Martin brought together local traditional owners, university academics and creative writers. It was noticeable because there is such a lack of this type of engagement. The structures and institutions are too far away, physically, culturally, economically, from country like this and that means collaboration is unlikely. The conversation around what to do with language, ideas, creativity, poetry should not be decided by university educated, self-interested parties like myself. Ngarluma, Yindjibarndi or other indigenous people I know have no desire to leave homelands but there needs to be more dialogue about how universities can engage all the corners of Australia. Why close remote communities when, with permission, we could go up to any number of places and learn from some of the greatest oral storytellers imaginable? To reinvigorate remote WA surely universities, and literature and language, can play a role. It is a cultural and political imperative.

When people encounter poetry we must ensure they encounter the diversity of it. Not only as an addition to the canon, but in the very beginning so that the canon as an idea and as a set series of works is thoroughly critiqued. The way many people encounter poetry that matters now is through the institution of the university. Universities, and English departments especially, must change now or risk contributing to the ongoing language genocide that plagues modern Australia.

Robert Wood

Robert Wood is chair of PEN Perth. He has previously been an Overland intern.

More by Robert Wood ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays