by Ann Moyal AM
The Independent Scholars Association of Australia has now enjoyed a fruitful existence for more than fifteen years and in view of its diverse and changing membership, I would like to make available this personal recollection of its genesis and early years.1
The decision to establish a body that brought together the interests of independent scholars emerged over time from my own direct experience at the young Griffith University where, from 1977 to 1980, I had been Director of the Science Policy Research Centre. That story became something of a cause célèbre of which I wrote in Breakfast with Beaverbrook (1995) and which forms an illuminating chapter, 'Science policy under the whip', in Brian Martin's, Intellectual Suppression (1986). But so disenchanting had been my experience, as a senior and reputed woman, with the Vice-Chancellor and the hierarchy of Griffith University and its council and so close had it brought me to what the historian Herbert Butterfield called 'the evil in the very system of things', that my impulse was to leave the academic cloisters far behind.
During the 1980s I spent short periods as an honorary Visiting Fellow in a range of university departments and moved in the nineties to some emerging centres of communication and telecommunication. I published books and scholarly papers funded by small ARC grants. Across these years, I was also writing in different fields for the press, churning out conference papers, refereeing and assessing for grant bodies, reviewing books, mentoring younger scholars seeking advice, sharing my expertise when requested, and serving as founding honorary editor of Prometheus, a new journal of issues in technological change, innovation, information economic, communication and science policy—all activities that form the normal portion of an appointed academic's career. Yet in my heart, and certainly in my purse, I felt myself to be outside the system, an independent scholar with some rueful satisfaction in going 'against the grain'.
It was in this mood that I came to realise that I was by no means alone in this territory; that independent scholarship had a long and distinguished historical tradition stretching back to mediaeval and even Greek times; that many other men and women had decided against an academic career to pursue their own research and scholarship, and that independent research and writing also came from those who worked within the bureaucracy, in media outlets or other institutions and who produced works of scholarship and criticism outside their paid employment. I was also aware, as constraints and contractions grew in the university sector, that there was a gathering stream of scholars eager to take early retirement and conduct their scholarship outside the ivory tower.
It became clear that this diverse body of thinkers and writers marked a 'hidden intelligentsia' in Australia, a source of expertise in varied aspects of our national culture - in history, economics, literature, science, social studies, the arts, law, communication, public policies, public administration, international and regional relationships, and other cultures, but that through isolation, scattered presence and their lack of institutionalisation, their contribution and national profile was less recognised and significant than it ought to be. They marked, undoubtedly a valuable national resource.
Could not such scholars working in isolation, 'in silence and solitude', as Charles Darwin so tellingly styled his scientific labours, come to form an association where they would gain the benefits of community and exchange? It was an exciting thought. When, then, in 1993, I was invited to join the Program Committee of Canberra's Centre for Australian Cultural Studies chaired by social historian David Headon, I presented my idea and won enthusiastic support. An immediate warm supporter was Patricia Clarke, Committee member and long time editor of the Canberra Historical Society's Journal with an impressive array of original research on women journalists, governesses and early women novelists in Australia behind her and whose contacts were wide.
With David and Pat behind it, the concept of an Independent Scholars Association of Australia began to take form. I enlisted the interest and generous assistance of that great powerhouse for independent scholars, the National Library of Australia where Director General Warren Horton seized at once on the relevant interconnections of the Independent Scholars with his estate and granted a thousand dollars and the free use of the Library's Conference Room for the inaugural conference of the Association to be launched in August, 1995. It was a generous and confirming gift which, maintained through Jan Fullerton as the supportive next Director-General, has continued to the present day.
A group also came together to define the Independent Scholars' character and goals. Makers and shakers, they offered congenial company. Pat Clarke and David Headon, literary writer and bibliographer Joy Hooton, cultural critic Humphrey McQueen, the historians John Moses and Margaret Stevens, were all sources of fertile thinking, and were vital sounding boards. Now a growing number of us were moving in step together and engaged with initiating themes. We called our first conference 'Against the Grain', and from the one hundred strong participants who arrived from all over the country to attend its sessions, the Independent Scholars Association of Australia was born. In my opening address, 'A Declaration of Independence', I reported that the concept had had a 'swift and highly supportive genesis' and outlined the range of scholars we hoped to attract. It was significant that one of Australia's outstanding independent intellectuals, Nugget Coombs, had recently noted in an ABC Radio broadcast what he saw as 'a declining moral dimension of the intelligentsia' and had suggested that the battle of ideas was being won by 'an uncaring corporate society with no sense of community'. 'The intelligentsia', he concluded, 'have "sold out"'.
It was a theme for this inaugural conference that rang particularly true. In a time when universities were undergoing major structural and financial change and new pressures were being placed on academic staff, a growing number of academics and researchers were finding work outside traditional university posts. And linked with constraints on tenure and pressure to attract grants, there was a mounting sense of insecurity among younger and middle academics, a high level of frustration among creative thinkers, and a widespread unease that universities were no longer the bastions of intellectual integrity and freedom of ideas. There were compelling reasons then for the establishment of an Independent Scholars Association whose purpose was both to serve as a collective community - perhaps an 'alternative academy' - and to provide a forum to stimulate informed and independent debate in the public sphere. 'We were launching', I said, 'what we believe, is the first association of its kind in the world'.2
Cheered by the wide response and welcome media interest in the Association's birth, we set about devising a charter. A Canberra-based Provisional Council was set up under the aegis of the Centre for Australian Cultural Studies that morphed into an official council. I took the role of President for the first five years with Joy Hooton as Vice-President, Patricia Clarke as Secretary, Margaret Steven as first Treasurer followed by John Merritt and Neil Manton (and later by long-serving Keith Powell), while Humphrey McQueen, John Moses, and information economist Don Lamberton came on board. Many distinguished members would take their turn on council as the years progressed. Several were eminent retired academics such as Professors John Mulvaney, Australian pre-historian, and plant physiologist Ian Cowan. Others were former or ongoing academics: anthropologist, Gretchen Poiner and Indianist scholar, Auriol Weigold who succeeded jointly in 2000 to the president's chair; immigration specialist and oral historian, Ann-Mari Jordens, followed by the future-thrusting retired CSIRO scientist Doug Cocks and environmentalist Mike Austin.
At our inaugural conference, Humphrey McQueen, then a free-lance historian for some twenty years, had probed the unrecognised 'straightened circumstances of authorship' which un-institutionalised scholars endured and 'the necessary art of self-patronage'. At the outset we sought to address this gaping problem and set down among our original aims outlined in our 1996 Conference Proceedings, 'to seek a share of public funding for independent scholars', to raise awareness of their needs on matters of copyright and freelance rates, and to advance the 'proper' payment for their participation as scholars in academic activities'. Reality intervened. We dropped the hopeful share of public funding in 1997, but recorded our other goals that year in the second Newsletter of the Independent Scholars Association, (ISAA as we encoded it), in broadly definitive terms. These are still current in 2011 and can be found in the front of each issue of the ISAA Review.
In his opening address at our second annual Conference, 'How Free is Speech?', held soon after the general election of 1996, the eminent Melbourne Professor Max Charlesworth, a new member, declared:
The founding of this Association has turned out to be a stroke of genius since it now looks that, under the new political regime, there is going to be a reversion to the grey values of the Menzies era. In this climate independent scholarship will be enormously important. The politicisation of the bureaucracy, the nobbling of the universities (though we have to admit that they have, alas, never played a radical critical role in Australian society), the globalisation of the media, the emasculation of the ABC, and the curious attack on what the Prime Minister calls 'political correctness' - all these foreboding tendencies indicate that free speech and independent thinking are going to need all the friends they can get for the next six years.
From our first public appearance, we attracted a significant stream of members: historians, sociologists, theologians, political scientists, anthropologists, pre-historians, science historians, biographers, information economists, internationalists, scientists, writers, film makers, broadcasters, publishers, editors, librarians, media commentators, former diplomats, public servants and Asian, Chinese, Indian and other internationalist scholars. We took the boab tree, its branches sprouting from an upturned root bowl, as our emblem and wrote beneath it the leitmotif: 'The boab tree is self-sustaining; it draws on its own resources. Upside down, it flourishes against the grain.'
Our first five years pulsed with action. ISAA's Conference Proceedings published each year attest to our concern for challenging contemporary issues. In 1997, 'Downsizing and the Contented Society' drew a large attendance. While downsizing was ushering in workforce reduction and human change across a wide spectrum, the management leaders in charge of it in the Commonwealth public sector had proved entirely unwilling to send a representative to discuss the policy or its efficiency in management strategy at our public event. An early member, Sydney sociologist, Professor Sol Encel, adroitly focussed the topic as 'Downsizing, Rightsizing and Capsizing' while Barry Jones, who had alerted readers widely to the disappearance of public intellectuals in his Sleepers' Wake (how many, he asked, were there under fifty?), expressed delight at being invited to address 'the rising anti-intellectual mood in Australia and the retreat from reason in our politics'.
Yet, as anyone of a 'volunteering kind' will know, the life of a new unaligned organisation demands much work from its enthusiastic founding team: taking and typing minutes, devising programs, organising the printing and distribution of papers, soliciting and giving press interviews, and writing about ISAA for relevant journals. Pat Clarke as ISAA's Secretary was offering friendship and a lively interest in the work of new members as they joined. We held council meetings at Pat's spacious house in Canberra complete with tea, cakes, and fruitful conversation. I began the small quarto-sized ISAA Newsletter in October 1996 with a President's column, a list of new members, announcements of awards and members' major publications, which were striking in their quality and range. We were building an involved new community and our confidence soared. In May 1997 we held a special Seminar in association with the Centre for Australian Cultural Studies. 'Scholars and Libraries. Collecting Policies and Archives Policy' drew in Jan Fullerton and Margy Burn from the National Library, Professors Iain McCalman and James Richardson from the Australian National University, Michael Piggott from Australian Archives and many more, and followed it with a submission on library policies to the Australian Law Reform Commission and the Minister for Communication and the Arts.
By 1997, ISAA Chapters had sprouted in three states: in New South Wales in Sydney, in Victoria in Melbourne (both with strong attachments to their respective State Libraries) and in Canberra, models that we hoped would stimulate groups in other regions. An embryonic South Australian Chapter appeared that year in Adelaide through an initiative of Mary Maxwell and a subsequent keen group formed later. A handful of scholars met from time to time in Perth. Independent scholarship was becoming 'a growth industry'.
For ISAA itself, 1997 ushered in organisation change. In autumn that year a group of Council members together with Gretchen Poiner from the NSW Chapter met at Robertson in the Southern Highlands of NSW to draw up (in the popular fashion of the period) an 'ISAA Strategic Plan'. Essentially a mode of restating our goals, it defined our vision of ISAA as 'an alternative academy for the promotion of scholarship and the encouragement of independent scholars' and our major strategies as organising conferences, workshops, seminars and other meetings; fostering communication through newsletters, reports, a website and other means; maintaining a database of members and their expertise and interests for use by members and the private and public sectors, and reviving dialogue and the critical exchange of ideas.
Our Strategic Plan also envisaged promoting the representation of independent scholars on the boards or councils of organisations such as the National Library, State Libraries, the scholarly Academies, and other national and State bodies. Clearly ISAA saw itself as a national organisation that should be represented on bodies where scholarly activities were sponsored and overviewed. In this our successes have been smaller than we hoped although two ISAA representatives, Melbourne historian, Carolyn Rasmussen, and Joy Hooton have successively represented the Independent Scholars Association on the National Library's Harold White Fellowship Advisory Committee where Pat Clarke, a long time member of the Australian Society of Authors, also sits and during 1998 I was invited as a Fellow to represent ISAA on the National Scholarly Communications Forum of the Four Academies concerned with conferences and seminars on 'Change in Scholarly Communication Patterns. IT and Communication in a New Information Age'.
1997 was a time of flowering. In the reportage of ISAA's second Newsletter in December that year, we reached out to make collegiate links with organisations who shared kindred interests - the Australian Association of Adult and Community Education, the Royal Australian Historical Society, branches of the Professional Historians Association, the Society of Indexers and the omnibus Australian and New Zealand Association (ANZAAS) for the Advancement of Science. Importantly in 1997, ISAA was incorporated and registered as the Independent Scholars Association Inc. under the ACT Associations Incorporation Act (1991).
By 1998, processes had also been shaped in Council to establish a series of national sub-committees that included Media and Publicity, a Conference and Seminar Committee, and a Web Committee that presaged ISAA's first tentative appearance on the Internet that year. From ad hoc beginnings and our early evolutionary growth, we sought to establish mechanisms that would ensure that the membership was involved in decision-making processes and that the views of members were reflected in our membership provisions and in Chapter and Council representation. 'From my crow's nest view', I noted in the President's column of the Newsletter in October 1998, 'I believe ISAA has gone a long way to becoming a significant national organisation. It is widely known and, moving through my disciplinary interests and networks, I am delighted by the range of those who have heard of the Association and promptly seize the opportunity to join. We are very much on the march'.
ISAA was conceived as an apolitical association and, like its members, opinions drawn from ISAA talks and works-in-progress sessions were diverse and provided debating points for new ideas. As its founder, I genuinely believed that some of our most interesting and influential writers were not part of institutions or defined academic disciplines, but were drawn 'from the margins' - from independent writers, journalists, playwrights and other cross-disciplinary authors. At the 1998 ISAA Conference, 'Australia observed', hosted in Sydney by the NSW ISAA Chapter and The Library Society,3 publisher John Iremonger, another member we were delighted to attract, argued persuasively that scholars in Australia, and notably in the universities, were not reaching out to the community and communicating their works but talking among themselves, while former diplomat turned independent academic, Alison Broinowski saw in ISAA's annual conferences a pressing need to 'encourage members to be controversial, to rock the boat'. While ISAA is apolitical, there was a common advocacy that scholarship cannot be quarantined from politics and that abuses of power required enduring scrutiny. The Sydney ISAA Conference Proceedings were published in the January issue of Eureka Street.
Our annual conferences continued to chart significant fields. The conference on 'Independent Scholarship' in 1999 given exclusively to papers from members only, proved a popular mode that ISAA might sometime revisit. Our tentacles subsequently reached into such topics as 'Rocking the Boat' (with Elaine McKay on 'Kosovo women: rocking the cradle or rocking the boat?' and Ann-Mari Jordens, 'Disturbing the past: a historian confronts the Stolen Generation') 2000; 'Out of place: the diasporic experience' (2001); 'Blurred boundaries: Australians and globalisation' (2002); 'The use and abuse of history' (2003) and 'Access to learning in the 21st century' (2004).
The ISAA Review, initially an in-house journal for members launched early in 1999, became a refereed journal a few years on. As Gretchen Poiner, its editor, observed in its introduction, 'The issue of the ISAA Review is a testament to the richness of scholarly ways of seeing and doing, involving exploration, reflection, critique and imagination'. In practical terms, it was also a means for scattered scholars to make their researches and opinions known. The prolific military historian and early member, Michael McKernan, would sum it up more informally in likening membership of ISAA to 'a large common room with the critical rigour of a university trained membership but the ability to spot bullshit at fifty paces'.
My days from 1995 were closely tied up with the growth of ISAA and I was proud of the members we had drawn. Phillip Adams was one of the first to join and gave me generous time each year on his ABC 'Late Night Live' program before the annual conference to discuss our program and ideas - communication that reached out across Australia. Spectacularly, during 1999, an overseas friend who became an interested member anonymously donated an important sum to enable us to initiate the $15,000 ISAA Book Prize for the best work of independent scholarship to be published in Australia in each of the two following years. It was funding that later enabled the council to establish an ISAA office and employ a part-time administrative assistant.
The chapters attracted a spread of far-reaching papers. Concerned with critical issues in the public domain, the ACT Chapter twice drew the engaged Julian Burnside QC to address a public audience at the National Library on questions of immigration and human rights followed by David Hicks' one-time lawyer, Stephen Kenny. In Sydney, the NSW Chapter formed active collaboration with the Friends of the State Library of NSW (as the Victorian Chapter did with the State Library in Melbourne) sponsoring joint seminars on topics of imaginative public interest. Their collaborative approach culminated in the publication in 2007 of a collective work supported by the State Library of New South Wales, Limits of Location: Creating a Colony (Sydney University Press), written by members researching the rich collections of the Mitchell Library.
The 1997 Strategic Plan had gone so far as to envisage that ISAA should establish a trust fund and seek benefactors and sponsors. Early in 2004, Melbourne member John Poynter with Ian Cowan and myself were offered pro bono advice by Freehills Solicitors, Melbourne, on establishing such a fund to be administered through the Australian Academy of the Humanities in Canberra, one avenue we explored without results. But such plans and sponsorship approaches remain open.
Initially we offered three definitions of membership: (i) a 'member' being one who had a record of published (or for playwrights 'presented') work, or had made a substantial contribution through their profession to knowledge; (ii) a 'Friend of ISAA', someone who, while in gainful employment, was in sympathy with the Association's concepts and aims; and (iii), a concessional category for postgraduate students. These divisions soon proved conflictive or at best confused, and over time they melded into a more universal concept of independent scholars - those who were committed to, and interested in, scholarly ideas and critical debate.
I retired from the presidency in 2000 and was gratified to be made the first honorary life member of the Association. It had been a creative adventure, an engrossing experience, productive, demanding, rewarding in friendship and company, and a clear expression of co-operative goals. Our focus in the first five years was the building of a new and interactive society, rich in scholarship, open to participation, and personally nourishing to its members. Participation lay at the heart of our progress. Yet like all organisations, through shifting leadership ISAA was bound to change. Processes of streamlining and more bureaucratic approaches have been adopted and ISAA has become a broader church. When, metaphorically, I passed the president's baton to Gretchen Poiner waiting in the wings, I recall her words. 'Ann, it's like letting one of your children go. They grow, change, and you are very proud of them'. ISAA has changed; members come and go, there is flexible development in chapters in the states and different approaches to the membership. As its 'mother' I watch it thoughtfully.
Certainly the idea of independent scholars and their potential for community and national influence holds enduring currency. There has been striking independent scholarship, ideas, communication and publication from within ISAA over the course of its existence and, in its broadening scene of membership, it holds a stream of productive scholars. ISAA has indeed a record of considerable achievement. Its membership list points to an impressive span of new and diverse research and scholarship drawn from across the states. May ISAA enjoy great advancement in its next decade.
Yet one question constantly challenges us. What is an 'independent scholar'?
1 This is an adapted extract from an autobiographical work nearing completion.
2 An American Independent Scholars Association with remarkably similar goals and aspirations had, in fact, been formed the previous year.
3 The only ISAA Conference to date to be held outside Canberra.