May 08, 2006

CONFERENCE | Breaking the News: The Humanities Writing Project

BREAKING THE NEWS: The Humanities Writing Project
Conference at the Humanities Research Centre, Old Canberra House, ANU
Dates: 24 - 26 May 2006

Scholarly writing in the humanities (it’s often said) should be intelligible and accessible to all; a clear pane of glass through which anyone may freely gaze. Often however the window seems so misty that it’s hard to get much of a view. Scholarly journals and books in the humanities seem increasingly pitched at specialist readers: philosophers writing for other philosophers, linguists for linguists, cultural theorists for cultural theorists. Does it have to be like this? Is the ideal of the ‘common reader’ no longer desirable or available in the twenty-first century? Is it a mere fiction from a bygone age, impeding the advance of more subtle and nuanced enquiry?

Scientific writing does not carry the same burden of expectation. Even when highly esoteric in nature, such writing is often regarded with respect even by those who have very little idea of what it’s about. Yet scientists themselves have also long known the importance of delivering their findings clearly and intelligibly to a wider public. Most serious newspapers and broadcasting channels have their science editors who regularly present the latest scientific advances to a non-specialist audience. The ‘humanities editor’ – a person equipped to explain and interrogate the most recent scholarly work in non-scientific fields -- is a much rarer bird. For the past thirty years Robyn Williams’ weekly ABC Science Show has brilliantly probed and promoted the latest work in science, but no equivalent program has yet been developed for the humanities, which are left to look after themselves, or are presented in a more dispersed fashion through a series of arts programs. Many of these programs are of exceptional quality: imaginatively conceived and stimulatingly presented. Yet simply because of their dispersal, the public gains little sense of what ‘the humanities’, as an aggregated group of scholarly disciplines, might ever really amount to, and why they might deserve to be funded from the public purse. The notion of research is still popularly associated with scientific and technological enquiry, and ‘research in the humanities’, to many members of the general public, continues to sound like a puzzle or even an oxymoron.

BREAKING THE NEWS brings humanities scholars into conversation with publishers, journalists, broadcasters, and others to review these problems of public presentation and comprehension. Researchers from different disciplines will be invited each to describe a single breakthrough or moment of illumination in their own work, and to consider how the excitement of that discovery might be conveyed to those with no prior or specialized knowledge of the field. The lay jury will in turn be invited to assess and critique these attempts, and discuss the general issues that arise.

This conference is the concluding event of The Humanities Writing Project, which is funded by the Australian Research Council through its Linkage Learned Academies Special Projects scheme. This is a collaborative venture undertaken by the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne, the Australian National University, and co-ordinated through the Australian Academy of the Humanities. For information about other events relating to this project, see

Convener: Ian Donaldson
Registration enquiries: Leena Messina, Programs Manager, Humanities Research Centre, ANU.