Rhonda Evans: Director of Australian & NZ Studies, University of Texas at Austin

Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist Advance. 

“As a city, Austin has a lot to offer and is a very appealing place for students – lots of live music, great food, and culture.”

Rhonda Evans has a very special relationship to Australia. Based at the University of Texas at Austin, she is a Senior Lecturer and Director of the Edward A. Clark Center for Australia and New Zealand Studies, where two subjects pertaining to Australia are offered – an Australian politics class through the Department of Government and an Australian literature and film class through the Department of English.

With a passion for Australian history and politics, Rhonda has visited Australia over a dozen times. Rhonda shared her views with Advance on why Austin is a great place for students and her favourite part about working with Australians.

How long have you been teaching at UT? What’s included in your syllabus when teaching about Australian and New Zealand studies?

The Clark Centre was formed in 1988 by two professors, John Higley and Desley Deacon. John retired in 2012, which is when I took over. I came to Austin from East Carolina University to accept the position. The Clark Center is a very small outfit in the massive organisation that is UT-Austin. We don’t have a curriculum that we teach, but UT-Austin does offer two subjects pertaining to Australia – an Australian politics class that I teach through the Department of Government and an Australian literature and film class that is taught through the Department of English. In the Australian politics course, we begin with Stuart Macintyre’s A Concise History of Australia in order to give the students a historical overview of the country. We then move on to an Australian politics textbook to give them an understanding of how the political system operates. We close the semester by examining a few current topics in Australian politics, such as the issue of asylum seekers.

Why is it important for this to be taught?  

I think it’s important for Americans to learn about Australia for several reasons. First, in terms of foreign relations, Australia has undoubtedly been a stalwart US ally since World War II. The US and Australia have a “special relationship” that is second only to America’s relationship with the UK. With the rise of China, some believe that this alliance is under threat. Second, though the US and Australia share many cultural similarities, there are also a lot of differences, and I think that these differences can be quite illuminating for Americans to consider. For example, Australians tend to support a more interventionist state than do Americans generally, and of course, Australia has vastly different (more restrictive) gun laws. And yet, no one would deny that Australia is a liberal democracy that values freedom. Australia illustrates that democratic societies can be organised quite differently in political terms. Third, I think that Australia has a very dynamic and innovative society. It has an amazing food and wine culture and holds so many film, music, art, and literary festivals. And finally, I think that Australia has done an amazing job of navigating the changing global economy over the last several decades. Although Australia still faces many challenges, to be sure, I think that it is also an amazing success story.

What’s your favourite element of Australian history?  

I started my pHD at UT-Austin in the late 1990s. Quite frankly, I knew very little about Australia at that time. I happened to take a comparative politics course with John Higley, who was then the Clark Center’s Director. I did well in the course, and at the end of the semester, he asked if I’d consider spending three months in Canberra as an intern in the Federal Parliament. His Center would provide the funding. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was – every American wants to go to Australia! But, I didn’t fully appreciate that the internship meant spending three months in Canberra winter! Aside from a long weekend in Melbourne during which I spent an afternoon in St. Kilda, I didn’t see a beach the entire time I was there! This was back in 1999, when Canberra still felt a bit like a remote outpost. It’s come a long way since then, although I suspect that many Australians would dispute that claim!

I interned for Robert McClelland who was then shadow attorney general. As part of my internship, I was studying the 1999 republic referendum. I remember attending a public debate on the issue in which Malcolm Turnbull participated. Politically, it was an exciting time to be in Australia. My research on the republic issue required me to study “the dismissal.” I became very interested in Gough Whitlam and in the reforms later pursued during the Hawke-Keating years. I guess I fell in love with Australian politics, and the rest is history. I’ve been to Australia probably about a dozen times since then and can confirm that I’ve enjoyed many of Australia’s finest beaches.

Typically, what type of student undertakes the subject? Do you come across many Australians?

For the Australian politics class, it’s generally a small class, no more than 30 or so students. The class is comprised mainly of Juniors and Seniors, and most of them are Americans. Every year I’ve had one or two Australians, usually at UT-Austin on an exchange, and then the odd student with dual citizenship.

What makes UT in Austin it so appealing to students?   

UT-Austin is a major research University, and often shows up in the top 25 of Universities globally – a high ranking. As a city, Austin has a lot to offer and is a very appealing place for students – lots of live music, great food, and culture.

What are you working on now?  

Currently I’m working on building a dataset that includes information about every decision issued by the High Court. I’m interested in better understanding the Court’s role in Australia’s political system. The data we’re collecting will allow us to reevaluate the conventional wisdom about how the Court’s role has changed over time. Completing the dataset will require me to travel to Australia in July/August, along with three or four students, to collect additional data. While I’m there, I hope also to deliver several talks about the project at Australian universities.

What’s your favourite part about working with Australians?

Australians possess a “can do” attitude that I really appreciate. I’ve met so many people there who are doing such amazing things, and yet they have very modest attitudes about it. Their self-deprecation often obscures their deep commitment to excellence. I’ve made some great friends in Australia over the years. I love the time that I get to spend there with them. I do think that Australians have an amazing quality of life. When I’m there, I love visiting the markets – especially in Adelaide and Melbourne – and I enjoy experiencing everything the culture has to offer. Oh, I also love that you can find excellent coffee just about anywhere you go. I just really enjoy the warmth of the Australian people and the country’s beautiful and varied landscapes. It’s a real privilege to have a parallel life “down” there to which I get to return every year for a about a month or so!