Why Copenhagen?

Tue, 17 Aug 2010 14:39:00 +1000

By Professor David Walker

Towards the end of my appointment as Distinguished Visiting Chair of Australian Studies at the University of Copenhagen I attended a meeting hosted by the University for Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) officials visiting from Brussels.

The meeting was called to announce DEEWR funding of the chair for another five years.

The announcement confirmed the Copenhagen chair as one of the major overseas positions alongside chairs at Harvard, Georgetown, Tokyo and Dublin. While the position might seem logical enough in Europe, it is not necessarily as clear to Australians that there is a logic in having such a position. Why Copenhagen?

The University has had a long-standing research and teaching interest in Australian subject matter dating from the appointment of Professor Bruce Clunies-Ross in 1970. An Adelaide and Oxford graduate, Professor Clunies-Ross introduced Australian literature to the literatures in English program.

The research and teaching profile broadened with the appointment of two highly regarded Copenhagen graduates, Dr Martin Leer and Dr Eva Rask Knudsen. In 1995 the University of Copenhagen hosted the European Australian Studies Association conference. This was my first contact with the program and it certainly whetted my appetite.

I returned to give a Keynote address in 2001 and was again impressed by the strength of the program and the quality of the students. Things Australian were soon to become much more firmly embedded in the Danish psyche with the arrival of Crown Princess Mary.

One of the pleasing traditions of the Copenhagen appointment is the invitation to attend a small award ceremony hosted by the Crown Princess. My wife and I attended a gathering of fifteen or so people on an utterly miserable day in May. A huddle of thirty or so drenched photographers gathered in the sleet and rain awaiting the Royal arrival. Mary struck all present as relaxed, informal and articulate.

In my five months in Denmark I heard nothing but praise for the job she was doing, even Republicans were impressed. Australia is firmly installed in Danish consciousness as an island called Tasmania with a continent nearby.

My teaching consisted of lectures to undergraduates and an MA unit examining Australian perceptions of Asia from the mid-nineteenth century to the present (where the present was then Kevin Rudd). Most of the students had visited Australia, some more than once, and all were fluent in English. Their written work, including the final exam, was also in English. Our discussions were lively, wide-ranging and illuminating. One of my students elected to write on the Asian theme in Australian invasion literature, not such an easy topic in Copenhagen. It was one of the best student essays I have read, making brilliant use of on-line resources, including Australian newspapers.

I was also fortunate to be asked to mentor a Danish doctoral student, Mads Clausen, who was then completing his PhD thesis on Australia’s post-war turn to Asia. He passed the examination process (which still includes a public defence of the thesis) with flying colours. My Copenhagen colleague, Professor Stuart Ward and I are hoping to have Mads visit Deakin for a month or so in 2011 as he prepares his thesis for publication.

As the temperature in Copenhagen did not move above zero for the first two months we were there, it was the ideal place to write. I completed a full revision of my manuscript on sight, memory and family and sent it to my publisher, Giramondo, towards the end of April. The book, titled Not Dark Yet, will be launched by the writer and historian, Don Watson, in March 2011.

While there are many differences between Denmark and Australia, there are common themes and shared concerns. Through much of my time in Denmark there was an often unedifying media campaign against foreign doctors and an ongoing concern about immigration, cultural identity and the preservation of Danish values. Given my teaching and research interest in Australian perceptions of Asia this proved to be a helpful stimulus to discussion. Among the differences was a University system that was far less concerned with auditing performance than is the case in Australia. An argument could be made that our system has become too obsessed with the ‘audit culture’ whereas in Denmark closer scrutiny of performance is overdue.

I am sure I am not the first to discover that the countries of Europe are ridiculously close to each other. As well as giving conference papers and a workshop on auto-ethnography at the University of Copenhagen, I gave papers at the University of Geneva, King’s College, London, and Nicolaus Copernicus University, Torun, Poland. Soon after my return to Australia it was my good fortune and pleasure to give a talk at the Mildura Writers’ Festival, where the chef and living legend, Stefano de Pieri, hosted the conference dinners. I talked to the patron of the festival, the poet, Les Murray, who is well known in Copenhagen. Martin Leer had translated one of his collections into Danish, not an easy thing to do, but another reminder that knowledge of Australian literature, history and society has deep roots at the University of Copenhagen.

The Australian historian and director of the program, Professor Stuart Ward, is confident that with the renewal of DEEWR support the University of Copenhagen will retain its place as a major centre for the study of Australia in Europe. My experiences suggest that he has every reason for optimism.

Professor David Walker recently won a Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Research.


Professor David Walker talking to Professor Stuart Ward, Department of English Germanic and Romance Studies, University of Copenhagen
Professor David Walker talking to Professor Stuart Ward, Department of English Germanic and Romance Studies, University of Copenhagen
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20th August 2012