This is an essay about the politics and ethics of disciplinarity in the contemporary Australian humanities academy and of the efforts of scholars within one discipline, English Studies, to establish and consolidate the bona fides of a professional representative body. In itself, the drafting of mission and values statements for a group like the Australian Universities Heads of English (AUHE) is of no particular consequence – such statements are by now a standard feature of any professional organisation or association; ultimately, the utility and impact of the specific statements described below are yet to be determined. But in the context of a special issue of Australian Literary Studies devoted to the value of literary studies in Australia, this essay approaches the topic from a perspective often overlooked, or simply taken for granted when the matter of values and the labour of literary study, criticism and education are examined. Unlike other professional associations of university English academics in this country, such as the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL), the Australian Association of Literature, the Australasian Victorian Studies Association or the Australian Universities Languages and Literature Association, the AUHE is engaged primarily with questions of professional practice. The AUHE speaks to and on behalf of English Studies professionals about the conditions of their working lives and of the practices of their discipline. And it speaks about those conditions and practices, advocates on behalf of its members and intervenes in conversations and debates about the field with external audiences, including students, university managers, government policymakers, colleagues in other adjacent and non-adjacent disciplines, media, teachers of English in other educational settings, and other public and private entities with interests in the conduct of tertiary English Studies. In a sense, the AUHE is an embodiment of tertiary English Studies in Australia. As such, and given its specific ambition to act as a peak body, the refinement of its mission statement and the articulation of its values statement marks a stage in the development of the AUHE at a moment in the history of the professional discipline. Indeed, the formulation of these statements is an intervention in a set of processes, most of them external to the discipline, that are profoundly reshaping the working lives of English academics in Australia.
So, what values define the profession of university English Studies in Australia, and how do those values align with what we may identify as the values of literature? And what values should a professional association of ‘English’ academics prioritise when speaking on behalf of its members and their discipline(s)? In 2021 and 2022, the AUHE instigated a project to revise its mission statement and draft a statement of values. The author led the project with the assistance of Professor Chris Danta (University of New South Wales) and Associate Professor Maggie Nolan (University of Queensland), with consultation and input from the community of AUHE members. The project came about as a response to a series of public pronouncements by past and present academics, politicians and journalists about the nature of the discipline of English, on a range of matters from the very name of the field, to its economic value as a subject of education, to its impact on students and the broader community. This essay considers the context for why such statements were deemed necessary and a rationale for how they may be used. In essence, the articulation (or rather re-articulation) of the mission and values for the AUHE were consistent with the association’s development as a peak organisation representing tertiary English educators.
The Australian University Heads of English: The Labour of Representing a Discipline
The AUHE is a voluntary professional association that has been running for over ten years; its inaugural meeting at the University of Western Sydney took place in December 2012. Its members are the nominated ‘heads’ of English departments and programs from over thirty Australian universities, listed on the AUHE website. The objectives of the association have been the advancement of university English Studies in Australia, and the AUHE describes itself as:
a peak body drawing together English departments at more than 30 universities as well as existing literary associations. We aim to be a forum in which the present and future of literary studies in Australia is discussed and shaped and will address issues such as the relationship between English in secondary and tertiary education, quality assurance in teaching, research funding, enrolments, curriculum as well as pedagogic strategies for teaching literature in English. (‘Australian University Heads of English’)
To undertake its mission, the AUHE is constituted by an executive of six positions, along with representatives from each state and territory. In addition to the executive, there are currently three committees with volunteer membership drawn from across the subscriber representatives. The Learning and Teaching Standards Committee describes its current role as ‘investigating issues around employability and employment outcomes for undergraduate and postgraduate students of English Literature. It is also exploring the role of taught masters' programs in English Literature and new and emerging pedagogies in teaching the subject at the tertiary level’ (‘Learning and Teaching Standards Committee’). The Research Committee:
pursue[s] issues affecting research in the discipline, prioritising the advancement of research in the broad interdisciplinary fields encompassed. Its tasks include sourcing and monitoring information on research funding trends and quanta, providing input on qualitative assessments of research infrastructure and outputs, such as journal rankings, facilitating discipline-wide collaboration and representation in the interests of research in the discipline, and monitoring the impact of sector-wide decision-making processes on the discipline’s research resources. (‘Research Committee’)
A Lobby Committee, as the name implies, exists to act as an arm to approach government agencies on all issues relating to policy affecting English.
As mentioned above, the AUHE stands alongside several other associations representing the English Studies profession in Australia. What sets the AUHE apart from these other associations is its focus on the profession per se: on how English educators, researchers and administrators shape and direct their working lives, how they serve students and the general public and how they engage with their direct employers – namely, the universities and associated organisations and, ultimately, the Commonwealth. With its focus on the status and health of the profession, the AUHE’s ambitions reflect those of primary and secondary English educators, such as the Australian Association of Teachers of English (the AATE), as well as international organisations such as the Modern Languages Association (MLA) of North America and the English Association in Britain (though both of these associations are much larger and have more extensive professional missions than AUHE).
Since its inception, AUHE has undertaken a number of practical initiatives addressing specific matters of professional significance, including: researching and producing a set of Threshold Learning Outcomes for English (see Table 1) and producing a ‘Good Practice Guide’ (Bacchus et al.); surveying English departments around Australia to produce a ‘State of the Discipline Report’ (Moore et al.); producing discussion papers on the nexus between secondary school and tertiary English Studies (Bastin et al.); reporting on the impact of journal ranking systems on the English discipline (Nolan et al.); providing briefing statements to parliamentary inquiries on such matters as the use of ministerial intervention on the awarding of Australian Research Council (ARC) grants (‘Australian University Heads of English Submission’); and its executive members have engaged in public-focused forums (see, for example, Uhlmann).
Table 1: Australian University Heads of English Threshold Learning Outcomes (TLO) for Tertiary English in Australia
Students graduating in English will have knowledge of distinct varieties of literary texts in their contexts from a range of periods and places
Students graduating in English will have knowledge of a range of literary forms and writing practices
Students graduating in English will have knowledge of changing theories, methods, and concepts in literary studies
Students graduating in English will have the skills to read, understand and interpret complex literary texts
Students graduating in English will have the skills to communicate coherently in a range of critical and/or creative forms
Students graduating in English will have the skills to locate, assess and use appropriate critical resources
Students can apply relevant skills and knowledge to recognise and reflect on the significance of literary texts in imagining and interpreting the (social) world(s)
Students can construct coherent, evidence-based arguments
The AUHE was formed within and as a response to institutional forces in Australian universities shaping the sector and impacting English, and the humanities and social sciences (HASS) more generally, over the last three decades. That context has been characterised by the long-term outcomes of an era of economic rationalism and intensified managerialism within universities, a decline in real terms in state funding of the university sector and a pivot towards demand-driven funding, and a gradual decline in the autonomy and status of humanities disciplines arising in part from a management ethos that has embedded a culture of rolling restructures of university organisations. In their 2014 report, ‘Mapping the Arts and Social Sciences’, Graeme Turner and Kylie Brass summarise a number of the challenges then facing the HASS sector in Australia. While deliberately avoiding the diagnosis of a ‘crisis’ in the field, Turner and Brass offered reflection on a range of issues about teaching, research and the academic workforce that have proven to be highly prescient in the years since. In relation to the academic workforce, they identify ‘unbalanced staffing profiles, declining career opportunities, the feminisation of casual and part-time staff cohorts, and an ageing academic workforce’ as key challenges to the HASS sector (Turner and Brass 3). All these factors affecting the university sector and HASS directly impact the professional discipline of English and shape the environment in which the discipline exists. There has been a reduction in full-time continuing academic staff across most disciplines in the humanities, through either natural attrition or forced redundancies. In most university structures, English has seen a ‘demotion’ in its organisation status from ‘schools’ to ‘departments’ to ‘programs’, and from single to multidisciplinary clusters. One outcome of this has been a decline in the professoriate, traditionally that sector of the English discipline that has been the epicentre of disciplinary leadership. These issues have had a direct impact on the way that AUHE operates. In many universities, there are no longer ‘heads’ of English; in some places, English as a subject area has disappeared, with staff having retired or been subsumed into other fields; the growth of creative writing programs and their integration into or alignment with English programs is another symptom of the ‘broadening’ of English and signalled another change in how the discipline is defined. Of course, what Turner and Brass could not predict were the radical policy changes promulgated aggressively by activist conservative federal governments, such as the 2021 reforms that led to significant increases in student contributions to courses in the humanities; the revelations of the widespread practice of underpayment and ‘wage theft’ at Australian universities (Schneiders; NTEU Wage Theft Report); a worldwide pandemic that radically challenged the way university teaching and research is conducted, propelling an already accelerating transition from on-campus to online teaching and remote working arrangements (Ferguson); and a new government that has promised to craft a new ‘universities accord’ as part of what has been advertised as a broad reform of the higher education sector (see Hon Jason Clare MP). All of these are matters of concern to which the AUHE seeks to respond.
The description of the labour of the AUHE provided so far has focused on the way the association has engaged practically with its membership and with university structures and management in an era marked by rapid change and transformations. Another key focus of the association’s work is its engagement with external parties, including the media, politicians and what may be classified as the professional commentariat in this country. English as a primary, secondary and tertiary education subject frequently finds itself as a flashpoint in an ongoing series of contests between conservative and progressive politics and discourses. For better or worse, the AUHE has found itself drawn into arguments about the value of English Studies and literature: as a medium of intellectual, moral and psychological enlightenment and as means of vocational and economic advancement. These engagements in these public debates have necessitated reflection by the AUHE on the professional ethics by which it conducts itself.
Contesting English: What is Being Valued by the Australian University Heads of English?
Considerations of why ‘English or literature matter’ and why ‘the English or literary profession matter’ need to be framed in different terms. When we talk about what is useful, distinctive, good, worthy or esteemed in literature, we are necessarily speaking of different things than when we talk about what is useful, distinctive, good, worthy or esteemed in the profession of English education and research. Moreover, the ends of literature are not the ends of the profession of English educators, researchers and administrators. The values that enable the work that we do as university English academics, as scholars, teachers and researchers of literature, are not coterminous with the values that are ascribed to either the writing or reading of works of literature: that is, to what Derek Attridge describes as ‘the literary experience’ (Attridge) or, indeed, that broader category of aesthetic discourse that we loosely identify as the ‘literary’. Defining the values of literature is of a different order of intellectual work to that involved in defining the values that underpin the work that we do as teachers, researchers and scholars of English.
These points are no doubt obvious and unremarkable. Nevertheless, it is important to remark upon them because so often the values of literature are confused or elided with those of the English profession. We see this when English teachers and researchers are publicly called upon to represent their profession and its values; too often, they revert to a discourse on the value of literature per se to justify and account for the work they do as teachers and as researchers. When put on the spot and asked to identify the value of their work, they will mobilise statements about the ‘power’ of literature to perform certain functions, while ignoring or avoiding the actual work that they themselves do in school or university classrooms and research libraries. And this is completely understandable: reading and talking about, as well as producing, literature is glamorous; work–life in the modern school or university is anything but glamorous, even if it can have its moments of sparkle and glitz. Riffing on the glamour of literature is a good way to engage with a public audience, especially one that already has an investment in the apparent enchantments of literature. But for those audiences that do not share such fascinations, the appeal to literature’s glamour fails to answer questions such as: what is the return on the public investment in the infrastructure that underpins teaching and research in literary studies? Or, what does an association of English teachers and researchers, like AUHE, actually stand for?
These questions were prominent in the AUHE’s responses to a series of events in 2018 and 2021 that involved the intervention by two federal ministers to veto the awarding of ARC funding to research projects in literary studies. In 2018, the Federal Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, used his ministerial prerogative to stop the ARC’s decision to award funding to eleven projects, all in the humanities, three of which were for literary studies projects. Four years later, the Acting Minister for Education, Stuart Robert, vetoed six projects in the humanities, four of which were in the area of literary studies. In each case, no formal, detailed explanation was given for the ministers exercising their veto. In a media release, spokespeople for Robert explained that the projects in question ‘do not demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money nor contribute to the national interest’ (Hurst). In 2018, Birmingham used a similar justification, remarking in a tweet that ‘most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research’ other than those vetoed. These were not the first cases of conservative government ministers providing little or no justification for such decisions. In 2004 and 2007, a number of projects were denied funding through the ARC due to ministerial intervention; however, the exact details remained vague until independent researchers were given access to ARC records under freedom of information laws. Yet, the lack of requirement for ministers to publicly justify such decisions clouds our knowledge of the extent of this censorship (Alexander).
In 2018, the AUHE responded to the first incident by drafting a public statement condemning Birmingham’s decision and calling on the reinstatement of the defunded projects. It also called for legislative change and demonstrated broad support for its objections to the government’s actions: ‘The statement has been signed by over 2,000 leading writers, academics, and public supporters in Australia and across the world, including Australia’s only living Nobel Laureate in literature, J. M. Coetzee, and three winners of the Miles Franklin Award, Alexis Wright, Michelle de Kretser, and Amanda Lohrey’. The AUHE argued that ‘The groundswell of support shows that our literary culture is cherished and is regarded as an essential public good’ (‘Australian University Heads of English Submission’). In response to the 2021 decision, the AUHE again joined a network of dissenting voices calling for the reinstatement of the funding and legislative changes to ensure that such political interference is no longer possible. In both cases, the AUHE mobilised the rhetoric of the value of literary culture to Australian society, but its objections were also premised on an important professional foundation: that the interference by politicians threatened the integrity of the labour of the profession and eroded the public trust in the profession’s expertise. Birmingham’s belittling statement about the supposed negative attitudes of ‘most Australians’ to the topics of the defunded projects, and Robert’s offhand dismissal of those projects denied funding in 2021, chimed with and politicised objections to the direction of and value of contemporary English Studies in general. And in both cases, the responses of the AUHE prompted reflection on its mission and the values that underpin that mission.
The Value in Mission and Value Statements: Crafting the Australian University Heads of English Statements
Following consultation and development, the AUHE agreed to the following statements of its mission and values. The current draft of the AUHE mission statement begins with a brief preamble to describe the association, as follows:
The Australian University Heads of English (AUHE) is the peak body of tertiary sector English in Australia. It draws together English departments across all universities as well as literary associations.
This is followed by the Mission Statement that reads:
The AUHE discusses matters of importance to the field of university English education and research in Australia. It seeks to shape the guiding principles and practices of the field. And it represents and advocates for English academics and students.
The AUHE addresses issues such as:
- the significance of literature as a field of education, research, and industry
- the role of literature as a form of political, ethical, and community engagement
- the nexus between English in primary, secondary, and tertiary education
- quality assurance and professional development in pedagogy, research, and student learning and welfare
- the working conditions of English teaching and research staff, and the learning conditions of students, in Australian tertiary institutions
- decolonising and indigenising the field of English education and research
- public interest and concerns in the teaching and learning, research, and administration of English studies at all levels of education.
The new Values Statement reads as follows:
In undertaking its mission; in advocating for its members, their students and institutions; and, in advancing English education and research in Australia, the AUHE is guided by a set of core values. These values are:
Fairness and Equity
Transparency and Accountability
Inclusivity and diversity
The AUHE affirms the vital contributions literature and literary criticism make to Australian society.
Vision statements, value statements and mission statements are part of the rhetorical infrastructure common to modern professional and organisational life (Alegre et al.; Braun et al.; Davies and Glaister; Desmidt et al.; Ingersoll et al.; Kernaghan; Urbany; Weiss and Piderit). According to The Society for Human Resource Management, value statements articulate the social, moral and political principles that companies or associations purport to uphold; mission statements describe the purposes and rationales of organisations and professional bodies; and vision statements voice the ambitions to which groups aspire. In the simple terms of these definitions, the new AUHE statements clearly articulate the association’s purpose and its moral compass. (That said, we chose not to formulate a separate vision statement. In part, this is because a vision for the association is implicit in its mission and values.)
The revised Mission Statement provides greater specificity in framing the association’s core business. It aligns with the original statement (see above) but expands on this by providing more focused descriptions of the AUHE’s ambitions. It also responds to emerging issues. So, for example, the AUHE now explicitly frames as part of its mission ‘decolonising and indigenising the field of English education and research’. This initiative recognises the importance of this issue to English Studies nationally and globally. The history of the complicity of English Studies in the production and circulation of colonialist and racist discourses is by now well established. And while English education has also provided a vehicle for the dissemination of other oppressive discourses and practices, the focus on ‘decolonising and indigenising’ in the current iteration of the AUHE mission statement recognises the valence of this issue across other literary associations (for example, ASAL, which has been working with consultants from the First Nations Writers Network to frame policies and initiatives in this regard), as well as universities, and for English education generally. The articulation of this aspect of AUHE’s mission explicitly recognises AUHE’s position as an association for English professionals in a political context marked by a history of colonial violence and trauma for First Nations people, as well as a profession that welcomes within its ranks a growing number of First Nations colleagues.
While the Mission Statement for the AUHE has been drafted with a degree of specificity in mind, the Values Statement is more succinct and broadly focused. This is a deliberate approach that allows for flexibility in the decision-making that the AUHE is called upon to make. It also recognises the manner in which values that have been identified are interpreted by society at large and that the application of these values to all areas of contemporary life is an evolving process. That said, the final sentence in the Values Statement makes a specific claim for the value of ‘literature and literary criticism’ to Australian society. While, as noted above, the AUHE welcomes members and represents professionals for whom literature and literary criticism may not be their principal focus, as a whole community, AUHE recognises the special qualities of literary scholarship: those intrinsic values of literature that other contributors to this collection explore.
Having reframed the mission of the association and articulated its values, what next? And what impact will they have? University employees are familiar with the form and language of value and mission statements because we are frequently exposed to them in our daily work lives and, indeed, frequently encouraged and, in certain circumstances, required by university management to embed them in our work practices and cultures. And, as university employees, we all know, only too well, the cognitive dissonance that so frequently attends the reading of such statements and, worse, the sense of bad faith that comes with uttering them. Nevertheless, the utility of these statements almost goes unquestioned in modern organisational culture: the commonly held view is that a company or association risks adverse effects if it fails to articulate – and articulate well – its values, mission and vision. And yet, the worth of such statements is frequently and easily called into question. One does not need to look far, say, for multiple examples of companies that regularly ignore their value statements. Take the often-cited example of the Enron Corporation, which, when it filed for the largest bankruptcy case in American corporate history, espoused the values of ‘Integrity, Communication, Respect and Excellence’. Or, closer to home, we might consider the values of the mining company Rio Tinto, whose allegiance to the values of ‘Safety, Teamwork, Respect, Integrity and Excellence’ did not mitigate the company’s decision to destroy the ancient rock shelters at Juukan Gorge, site of over 32,000 years of human habitation in the Pilbara. With such examples in mind, it is not difficult to conclude that value, mission and vision statements are easily dismissed as superficial, glib and fraudulent virtue signalling.
Indeed, one twenty-year study of the economic value of mission statements suggests there is no correlation between mission statements and financial performance (Desmidt et al.). Another study of university mission statements by Stuart Davies and Keith Glaister casts a similarly cynical view upon these instruments. They conclude that:
although there is generally a positive attitude towards mission statements, senior managers within universities tend not to consult widely when formulating them and have put little effort into communicating them to the university’s staff. Their importance seems to be perceived in terms of meeting the requirements of an external stakeholder rather than offering the opportunity to develop a real sense of purpose within the organisation. (Davies and Glaister 261).
But such a conclusion rehearses an age-old lament of the inevitable failure of rhetoric to align with action. And it seems that for all the studies that question the value of mission and value statements, there are as many, if not more, extolling their utility. But that utility is clearly contingent upon certain conditions. Value statements and mission statements are only effective to the degree that an organisation commits to them and uses them to frame its policies and guide its engagements with its members and external parties. In framing the statements, the AUHE has kept in mind the need for clarity, focus and an activist tone, three qualities that have been identified as integral to successful statements (Weiss and Piderit 197). That is, the language adopted is simple and straightforward; we have attempted to draft the statements in a sufficiently broad manner so that they address both members of the AUHE and interested parties outside. And we have adopted a tone of advocacy and activism in keeping with the AUHE’s ambitions. Authenticity was another key element in the foreground when drafting the statements: are the goals expressed in the mission statement consistent with the expectations of our membership? Do the values actually reflect those of the association’s members and contemporary university English academics, in general? To ensure that the statements are authentic, we invited members to share the draft with their colleagues in their local departments and to provide feedback on them. That feedback was then used wherever possible. But these are also meant to be aspirational and living documents: they invite regular reflection and revision, and it is to be hoped that the AUHE formally reviews the statements but also its own performance in light of these statements. This could perhaps be best achieved through the annual general meetings that the association holds and through regular consultation with members.
As part of a review process, the AUHE needs to keep up-to-date with developments for other similar associations. It is useful that, in developing both statements for the AUHE, we referenced similar declarations by other professional organisations representing English academics and teachers, as well as those in other disciplines: these included the Australian Historical Association, the Australian Psychological Society, the Australia Association of Teachers of English, the MLA and others. The MLA provides a model of succinctness and clarity in describing its mission thus: ‘A leading advocate for the humanities, the Modern Language Association promotes the study, teaching, and understanding of languages, literatures, and culture’. The MLA Value Statement reads:
The values on which the MLA bases its decision-making are:
Equity: The MLA supports and encourages impartiality, fairness, and justice throughout the humanities ecosystem.
Inclusion: The MLA recognizes that all members should feel a sense of belonging within the association—that they are accepted, supported, and valued in word and in actions and that the association’s resources are accessible to them.
Advocacy: The MLA champions intellectual freedom; fair working conditions; and the value of scholarship in, pedagogy of, and public engagement with the humanities. (‘Mission and Strategic Priorities’)
The AATE provides a different model, adopting a longer articulation of six ‘statements of belief’ that express ‘respect [for] the enduring values, and traditions of Australia’s cultural heritage’; a belief that ‘students come to understand themselves, and their world through engagement, with a range of cultures, in the ways, these cultures represent human experience’; affirm the ‘value [of] the power of the imagination and literary expression to provide pleasure and enrich life’; a commitment ‘to developing powerfully literate citizens who are able to effectively participate, and realise their goals, and aspirations in the 21st century’; a commitment to ‘use research, and evidence to inform practice, and improve the learning of students’; and a commitment to ‘ongoing professional learning, especially through active, participation in a range of professional communities’ (‘Statements of Belief’). While the AATE and MLA have chosen different formats, they demonstrate certain key elements of well-drafted mission and values statements: namely, the mission statements possess clarity, focus and an activist tone; and the values statements are succinct, authentic and aspirational.
The AUHE’s new mission and value statements are heuristics through which the association can engage and communicate on matters of central importance to its members and the profession. English has changed much in the last fifty years: the look of university English in Australia, the way it is taught, the status it enjoys within and outside the academy, the degree to which university English academics can influence the conditions of their work, and the regard and value their labour is accorded by their employers and society more generally has changed greatly from the time I commenced my undergraduate studies in the 1980s. The challenges to our profession outlined in the first half of this essay are not going away; indeed, there are good grounds to expect that they will intensify in the coming years. As each new situation arises that calls for AUHE to puts its values into action, the association will need to think carefully about its values aligning with its mission and with the contemporary realities of the field. And this will also provide a moment to revise the statements that have been drafted. In this respect, the AUHE can develop what James F. English describes in his book The Global Future of English Studies (2012) as a ‘genuine disciplinary reflexivity’, one that helps us to move ‘beyond the normative thinking of a discipline in crisis toward a realistic appraisal of our choices and responsibilities as a discipline with a future’ (5, emphasis in original).
I wish to acknowledge the contributions of Professor Chris Danta (University of New South Wales) and Associate Professor Maggie Nolan (University of Queensland) to the project to draft mission and value statements for the AUHE, as well as the 2021–2022 executive of the AUHE for advice and feedback.↩