By Professor Peter Bastian
For a long period after the establishment of universities in Australia and New Zealand, separate studies of the United States, in any discipline, were quite rare. However, by the 1960s ties to Britain were starting to weaken and there was a greater interest in the United States. Professor Norman Harper at the University of Melbourne found that a number of young scholars were choosing to pursue higher degrees in the United States rather than in traditional British universities. He decided that the time was right to draw these scholars into an academic organisation that would encourage them as they came home to teach in local universities and create American Studies programmes.
Harper invited interested parties (about 40 people) to a conference at the University of Melbourne from 13-18 August 1964 that was the beginning of the Australian and New Zealand American Studies Association. By the time the conference was held, the energetic Harper had already set up an interim executive, given the Association its name and decided that Melbourne would mark the first of a biennial conference. He was elected ANZASA’s president and remained a key figure in the organisation until his death in 1986. The first generation of young academics were often associated with Harper in various ways—a fact that gave ANZASA something of a family atmosphere for many years.
From the beginning the biennial conferences have been ANZASA’s most consistent and important activity. In Australia, the ACT and every state (except Western Australia) have hosted the conference at least once, while Auckland, Christchurch, and Dunedin have all hosted the conference in New Zealand. In many ways, the 1964 conference—with its official opening, keynote speakers, reception/cocktail party, and general meeting—set the parameters for following conferences. Harper invited Merle Curti (University of Wisconsin) and Lewis Leary (Columbia) as guest US keynote speakers. This invitation created the precedent of having keynote speakers from the United States as part of any ANZASA conference. Overseas visitors to the conferences have long noted the quality of the presentations, reflecting the international standard of ANZASA academics, along with the friendly informality of the gatherings.
Usually a dignitary officially opens these conferences but it has been hard for anyone to surpass US ambassador Ed Clarke who, after opening the Canberra conference in 1966 burst into a rendition of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’. Shame he couldn’t make the conference dinner.
Hymn Book and Conference Dinners
Earlier ANZASA conference dinners were noted for collective singing (usually after the copious consumption of alcohol). John Salmond and Bill Breen originally compiled The Official ANZASA Hymn Book in 1982 from scattered, and ‘unofficial’ sources. The practice of collective singing has largely disappeared in recent years, and was never the same once John Salmond gave up singing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. Despite this the dinners have always been fairly unstructured and rarely, if ever, interrupted by formality. At one conference dinner, while I was president, the caterers informed me they had set up a presidential table. I told them I would be laughed out of ANZASA if I sat there and had them dismantle it.
In its early years the publications of the Association were quite simple. In 1964 Harper volunteered to publish the proceedings of the first conference and by 1978 had produced another four volumes of proceedings that covered all of the conferences up to 1976. Lionel Fredman at the University of Newcastle also undertook to produce a Newsletter to keep members informed of Association happenings between conferences. The first Newsletter appeared in July 1965 and the last in 1988.
In 1970 the ANZASA Bulletin commenced at La Trobe University and was later was transferred to Sydney University. The aim of the Bulletin, largely an annual publication, was to provide a place for ANZASA members to publish more scholarly pieces especially from its young researchers. Thus the main publications of ANZASA were a newsletter, a bulletin and the conference proceedings.
In 1978 the decision was made to discontinue publication of the conference proceedings in order to provide potential papers for a proposed journal of the Association. This journal began in 1980 when the Sydney conference appointed the ANZASA Bulletin editors, Neville Meaney and Richard Waterhouse as journal editors. This journal, named the Australasian Journal of American Studies, replaced all of the previous Association publications.
AJAS was first published annually each July between 1980-1982 and then since 1983 twice yearly in July and December. The journal is still sent in hard copy to all ANZASA subscribers, although as early as 2002 the journal moved to largely electronic production, with all submissions and editorial work being undertaken by that method. It was also possible via electronic communication to have the editorial board spread around Australia, New Zealand and Singapore without it losing coherence. AJAS also offers various prizes including:
Norman Harper Essay
Named in honour of Norman Harper and for the best undergraduate essay submitted in any year by an individual and/or tertiary institution. The prize is worth $100.00, and the essay is published in AJAS.
James Holt Award
Awarded for the best article appearing in AJAS over a two-year period.
Peter Coleman Prize
Awarded for the best postgraduate essay to appear in AJAS over a two- year period.
Paul Bourke Postgraduate Travel Fellowship
Although many of the first generation of ANZASA scholars had pursued postgraduate studies in the United States, it was soon clear that these academics would be fostering postgraduates within their own Australian and New Zealand universities. From the beginning one of ANZASA’s important roles has been to foster young scholars by offering them cheaper membership rates and providing travel allowances for them to attend the biennial conferences and present papers. Short-term travel scholarships to the United States were also provided in the 1970s through the American Council of Learned Societies, and in the 1980s through funding from Myers. In recent years, ANZASA has provided the Paul Bourke Postgraduate Travel Fellowship. Named after a former President and distinguished member of the Association, the fellowship is open to postgraduates from Australia and New Zealand who are members of ANZASA and wish to round out their research by visiting the United States for short periods.
Fulbright and USIS Support
The Australian and American Fulbright Commission, Fulbright New Zealand and the United States Information Service have long given support to the Association as well as to various university departments containing ANZASA members. This has included financial assistance for US academics invited as key speakers to the conferences, funding for postgraduates to attend the conferences, funding for separate American Studies conferences at various universities, supporting the publication of some of these conference proceedings and providing various short-term scholarships for Australian and New Zealand academics to visit and study in the United States.
Australian Centre for American Studies
ANZASA, from its inception, wanted to create in Australia an American Studies centre for research and scholarship. Although the original aim was to locate this hub in the national capital, in the 1980s the Australian Centre for American Studies (ACAS)was established at the University of Sydney. It was largely funded by the private sector, although both the US and Australian governments gave it limited funding. When funding from the private sector declined the ACAS struggled, and eventually closed down in 1997.
United States Study Centre
In 2006 the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, gave $26 million towards establishing a centre to study relations with the United States. This new body was located again at the University of Sydney. ANZASA has established cordial relations with the new Centre that has assisted postgraduates to attend ANZASA conferences. Several members of the Association have either taught or completed research periods within centre or are part of the International Academic Advisory Committee and the Centre now provides assistance with the production of AJAS.