Graduation address given by Professor Robert Dixon, FAHA

Professor Robert Dixon, FAHA gave the occasional address at the Faculty of Arts graduation ceremony held at 9.30am on 26 October 2007. Professor Dixon is a graduate in Arts of the University of Sydney and subsequently, Doctor of Philosophy. He was appointed Professor of Australian Literature at the University of Sydney in 2007, a chair that was created in 1963 and remains the only permanent chair in Australian literature in the country.

The photo of guest speaker Professor Dixon is copyright Memento Photography.

Professor Robert Dixon, FAHA

Graduation address

Congratulations to Graduands, family and friends, and to Dr Susan Thomas for her distinguished teaching award.

I first graduated in this hall in 1976, having done my BA Honours during the Whitlam years, from 1972 to ‘75. Like most Sydney graduates, these sandstone buildings are very dear to me. They have strong personal associations. When I graduated with my PhD in 1982, my parents were still alive and my first child had been born. My PhD supervisor, Elizabeth Webby, was here to see me graduate. I was her first PhD student. She’s here again today for the graduation of her most recent PhD students, Nathan Garvey and Nicolette Stasko.

In addition to their personal associations, these buildings were designed to make a statement about the value of humanities education in colonial Australia as a form of public good. They were designed in the 1850s by the colonial architect, Edmund Blackett. In choosing what’s known as the Gothic Revival style, Blackett was deliberately evoking associations between the new colonial university and the medieval universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The university archives contain an undated note in Blackett’s hand, possibly the draft for a public talk like this one, in which he explains the significance of the medieval style: ‘It is impossible for an Englishman’, he wrote, ‘to think of a University without thinking of Medieval Architecture – We cannot entertain the most visionary idea of study or learning without associating in some way or other the forms and peculiarities of the Gothic Style’.

Today, this might sound old-fashioned and even colonial. Nevertheless, Blackett did add some nationalistic touches to his design. Out in the main quadrangle, there are gargoyles in the forms of a wallaby, a kangaroo and a kookaburra. Although there’s something old fashioned about Blackett’s Englishness, there is also something profoundly moving about his commitment to university education. His designs for the University of Sydney are a physical symbol of the ideal of an Antipodean – that is, an Australian - university. They look back to the past, to the traditions of the English universities, but also forward to the Australian future. Until the late nineteenth century, the east wing and the Great Hall were the largest man-made object on the continent. The cost of the initial works was around L150, 000, a staggering sum in the 1850s. Although there were some grumblings about the cost, the buildings were warmly received by the public. What’s so moving about these buildings, then, is that they were visionary: they represent a massive commitment to education by the community and its leaders. This was truly an education revolution.

That same public involvement was evident in establishing the Chair of Australian Literature, which I now hold. It was established in 1963 as a result of a public fund-raising campaign. Like Blackett’s buildings, the Chair was a symbol of the public’s commitment to humanities education. I think it’s important to remember and respect these kinds of commitments.

The first Professor of Australian literature was G.A.Wilkes in 1963. He was succeeded by Dame Leonie Kramer in 1968, and then by Elizabeth Webby in 1990. I took up the appointment earlier this year, following Elizabeth’s retirement.

There was great personal satisfaction for me in returning to the Sydney chair. I could have stayed at UQ. It is an excellent university and I had good colleagues there. The decision was made more difficult by the fact that our adult children have lives and careers in Brisbane. But coming back to Sydney has given more a personal satisfaction that I couldn’t have had by staying at UQ. And one of the things that clinched it for me, I’d have to say, was experiencing again the symbolism of these buildings –of the idea of a university that they represent. I think it’s important to remember the massive commitment to a secular humanities education that these buildings represented in the 1850s – as a proportion of per capita expenditure they were a staggering commitment that is difficult to grasp in today’s terms. We can only admire it.

Like the Great Hall, then, the Chair in Australian literature began with a public involvement in humanities education. And Australian literature remains strong at Sydney University. We have the only undergraduate major in the subject and a group of dedicated teachers and research staff. It’s especially pleasing to see a significant increase in PhD numbers, as we’ve seen today with Nathan Garvey and Nicolette Stasko’s graduations. And although we are a traditional sandstone university, Aust lit research today is very much part of the digital age. We have a number of pioneering research projects that involve the latest application of digital technologies. Nathan’s thesis, which is about the history of publishing, is exemplary in this regard, and makes use of new digital resources in a way that I could never have imagined in the 1970s.

Finally, then, the two points I want to make are these: Sydney University’s commitment to study and promotion of Australian literature; and the value of a public engagement – that is, your engagement - with humanities education as a force for public good.