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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 28, No. 7. 1965.

Asian Studies Challenge

page 12

Asian Studies Challenge

Convener of the Asian Studies Committee

The protracted delay in reorganising Asian Studies has led to misconceptions in some quarters as to the purposes of the reorganisation. Such misconceptions have on occasion been apparent even in the pages of Salient. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to explain why changes are being made, and what pattern of development is envisaged for the future.

Over 10 years ago the importance was recognised of making available to New Zealand undergraduates, courses of study related to Asia. It was also concluded that such courses should be primarily concerned with the recent history and present organisation of Asian societies, rather than with the linguistic and literary subjects which had characterised the traditional courses in Oriental Studies. With those objectives in view, this University decided to establish a Department of Asian Studies, which from the late 'fifties developed undergraduate courses within the conventional Stage I-II-III framework.

Late in 1962, after five years' experience, the time was ripe to initiate a review. By that time, moreover, we had the benefit of a recently-published document (the Hayter Report on Oriental, Slavonic, East European and African Studies) which had been prepared for the United Kingdom University Grants Committee. The Hayter Report reinforced our earlier conviction that Asian studies with a social-science emphasis were desirable. However, it also tended to reinforce our the machinery for encouraging doubts that we had yet perfected such studies.

Our experience suggested that the attempt to offer area-based units in Asian Studies in parallel with disciplinary-based units in the social sciences had encountered the following difficulties. Students tended, in selecting their personal courses of study, to prefer units which trained them in a discipline (e.g. as economists, or geographers, or historians) to the interdisciplinary units in Asian Studies. With relatively small enrolments, the staff of the Asian Studies Department remained few in number. The Department consequently continued to suffer the disadvantages of small size. "To make its mark, or even to find its feet in the university," observed the Hayter Committee, "a department must be a large enough nucleus to give its members moral and intellectual support." It had proved impracticable, moreover, to draw from other departments (already fully committed to their own teaching programmes) members of staff with a knowledge of and interest in Asia to make any substantial contribution to the teaching in the Asian Studies Department.

That Department was therefore unable to offer students a range of courses conducted by a variety of different teachers, each a specialist in his own field; indeed, small size together with the interdisciplinary character of Asian Studies meant that each member of that Department was called on to teach outside his own discipline. Despite the keenness of the staff and of the students in Asian Studies, such disadvantages tended further to check the growth of the Department's enrolments.

The review thus pointed to the conclusion that, in establishing a separate department with responsibility for providing separate courses in Asian Studies, the university had fallen short of its original (and continuing) objective of encouraging such studies among a substantial proportion of students, especially in the social sciences. It did not seem likely that the objective would be attained without structural change. Accordingly, in mid-'63 the University Council decided, on the recommendation of the Professorial Board, to phase out the existing programme, and instead actively to develop the study of Asian material within the units offered by social-science departments.

It was recognised that such a transfer of responsibility for undergraduate teaching about Asia, entailing the eventual abolition of the Asian Studies Department, would not by itself guarantee a more fruitful development. To ensure such a development, it was decided to establish a Centre of Asian Studies, consisting of a Director (of professorial status) and a number of staff, each of whom would be not only a specialist in Asian affairs but also a member of a social-science department, within which most of his teaching would be done.

The Director would be generally responsible for fostering Asian studies, both by encouraging and co-ordinating departmental developments, and by initiating and supervising such interdisciplinary courses as might be appropriate. There may well be a need, for instance, for an introductory course in modern Asian history for students who will be dealing with Asian material in their own discipline, and it is possible that interdisciplinary courses may also develop at the graduate level.

It was intended that, during the present quinquennium, funds would be made available to build up the establishment of the Centre to that of a medium-sized department of, say, six academic staff. The actual membership of the Centre might well be greater than that, for two reasons. First, it is envisaged that the Centre would pay only part of the salary of a staff member who is engaged in general teaching in addition to his Asian teaching, hence the Centre's funds may well be spread among more than six Asian specialists. Second, there are already some Asian specialists on departmental establishments who might well become honorary members of the Centre. The Centre organisation would provide opportunities for interdisciplinary co-operation, especially in research, and also in any appropriate course-work. Such a form of organisation has been fairly widely used for area studies in the USA. and is strongly recommended in the Hayter Report.

It is clear that, although the 1963 decisions fixed the outline of future policy, many matters remained to be settled once the advice of the Director was available. The post of Director was advertised in August, 1963, and again after last August's salary adjustment. As Salient has already reported, the Council made an appointment earlier this year, but in the meantime the phasingout process has been prolonged.