This week I am stepping down as Director of the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies after 17 years. It feels like a big moment in my life, but it is also an interesting moment to reflect on what that phrase New Zealand Studies means.

‘Studies’ is rather a suspect word. Women’s Studies, Cultural Studies, Area Studies, Media Studies— only the last of those is still around in our university, yet the idea that ‘study’ can be plural is quite liberating.

When I came to the Stout Centre in 2001, it had a longer and more wordy description about the “study of society, history and culture” and that phrase is actually what we do, but because the misleading word ‘Stout’ (the name of our benefactor) appeared in the title we got listed in a dictionary of brewing! Actually, that was also a boon—Guinness supplied a cask of its best to a conference we held about the Irish in New Zealand—but it seemed a good idea to include a shorter description in our name.

The Stout Centre was founded by historian Jock Phillips in 1984 and over its early lifespan did a lot of history, society and culture but not much on science, love and hate, fear or water.

The default discipline is always history, but part of the joy of ‘studies’ is that as long as there is some connection to New Zealand you can look at just about anything.

In its time, the Stout Centre has often been ahead of the game—or very much up with it. In 2006, we held a conference on water as part of our Australian series, well before water was a hot topic in this country.

The Australian series themselves were an idea born out of the reflection that our dialogue with and about Australia tends to be limited to the economy, sport and now migration and citizenship, but we don’t often talk about all the other ways we have difference or commonalities. For instance, our cultures. I have written a bit about the differences between our literatures and in 2012 the Stout Centre held a conference called The Colonies, to which a lot of Australian historians and literary scholars came. Most of them hadn’t been here before and they found it instructive, especially when they were taken on to Te Herenga Waka, the university marae. One of the things ‘New Zealand Studies’ opened up for me was how much more sharply you look at your own culture when in conversation with someone else’s.

In 2015, we imitated the Australian research landscape and held a conference on the history of emotions. There is a very large and enviably well-funded Centre for the History of the Emotions in Australia, which focuses on literature and art in the early modern and medieval periods. We decided to purloin the idea but apply it broadly to New Zealand.

The results were fabulously interesting. For instance, we paired Joanna Bourke, the historian of war, (who talked about the mutilated soldiers of World War I and how nurses, for therapeutic reasons, were encouraged to provide sexual services), with Philip Armstrong, who works on human-animal studies and talked about the emotional behaviour of sheep.

These marvellous and startling collisions of thought and disciplines are wonderfully energising. I think the Stout Centre has made the life of the mind so much more vivid than it would be if we all solemnly stayed in our own disciplinary barracks.

One of the things that has changed dramatically since the Stout Centre began is the presence of, and relationship with, Māori and Pasifika staff and the rich bicultural dialogue we are able to initiate together.

My colleague Professor Richard Hill works on Treaty of Waitangi matters, which has played a big part in this, but it is always instructive to recall that when the centre was founded it was designated a centre for Pākehā studies by the then Professor of Māori. In recent years, we have had a number of Māori scholars working here, including three J.D. Stout Fellows—John and Hilary Mitchell, who held it jointly, Kim Workman and Atholl Anderson. We also have a number of graduate Māori students, and have had close collaborations with our Pasifika colleagues, especially the late Dr Teresia Teaiwa, who was a champion for making Pasifika people and scholarship visible in the wider community.  

What I have loved about New Zealand Studies and the Stout Centre is the way that expansive term allows you to think of something that interests you, which might not at all relate to your own area of expertise, and make it happen as a conversation, a dialogue, a thinking space, a research project, a seminar, a conference.

A lot of very interesting bright people spend time under our roof and in our heads—the glorious rich and fertile mix that results when an idea gets tossed around across disciplines and cultures and through ‘studies’. Long may it last.

On Monday, Newsroom will publish an article by Professor Lydia Wevers’ successor as Director of the Stout Research Centre, Associate Professor Kate Hunter.

Emeritus Professor Lydia Wevers is a specialist in New Zealand literature and history at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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