Monday, 16 July 2012

Homoerotic research in Canberra

In the university tradition in Australia, research was relatively new and the PhD was seen by many as a crass, inferior and American substitute for the British MA. The ANU was criticised for various things and one was that it was the nation’s PhD factory. The university’s own staff felt the weirdness of their position. At the very first staff seminar, this poem was read:

When they ask whom we teach at this place
Don’t prate about research, my brother
Throw the question right back in their face,
The Professors here lecture each other.

There was something rather homo-erotic about it all, it seemed, as the national capital gathered esteemed men together to do nothing but research.

Dons elsewhere, in prefatory odes
Claim the spur of wife, mistress or mother.
We need no such Freudian goods –
Our Professors inspire each other.

And, within academia, research for the ‘national good’ did not yet make academics feel they were achieving anything 

Let the State Universities grind,
Pulling graduates till they smother,
Our alumni will be refined –
We’ll confer our degrees on each other.

This ambivalence to the ANU in its early days has some more serious foundations. After the revelations of the horrors of Nazi science during the Second World War and public understanding of the effects of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many intellectuals leaders – Ian Clunies Ross among them – were concerned to protect science’s civilising capacity by separating it from direct military intervention.

In 1949 the CSIRO handed all military research to the defence department. The ANU was a little too closely aligned to government strategy for the peace of mind of some leaders.

Poem found in the archives: NAA/A9221/2 Establishment of ANU Correspondence LG Melville