It’s mid-May, the Sami season of Gijre-giesie (spring-summer) has arrived, and I couldn’t be happier. There are buds on all of the trees and green things have sprung up positively everywhere. While winter crawled along here, spring moves furiously, making up lost ground. The outdoor tables outside my window are uncovered, and Swedes can regularly be found outside, eyes closed, faces turned smiling towards the sun. It’s been days now since I have seen true darkness with the sun rising at 3.30am and not setting until after 10pm.
It’s safe to declare that, on the whole, Swedish winter did not agree with me. That said, there were some amazing moments. Standing in the majestic silence at Lake Torneträsk, in Sápmi (Lapland) in the midday twilight, dwarfed by the surrounding peaks was one.
Witnessing the most resplendent display of Aurora Borealis in the midnight forest at Abisko, I will never forget. My first proper snowball fight amidst the pines in the Stadsliden (State Forest) at Gammlia. Enjoying a full Swedish Julbord on Christmas Eve complete with 30+ varieties of sill (pickled herring). Sampling semlor (traditional Swedish pastries) with new friends. Winter was magical in brief snippets, but on the whole, those months were some of the most difficult I have experienced; away from home, in near-constant darkness, the temperature below -20 most days, and none of the usual respites available, like a walk outside, or time with family.
The arrival of spring-summer marks the beginning of my final three months in Sweden. While I welcome the sun and light, it is bittersweet knowing my time in Sweden is coming to an end. The main objective of my project at Umeå University, the Historical Justice and History Education Symposium, is a mere three weeks away (4-5 June). Together with my colleagues, we’ve put together an exciting program of international researchers working in different contexts; academic, school, museums, on the challenges of historical justice. The contents will be available as a book volume in 2020. If you want to follow along on the conference days, I’ll be live-tweeting during the sessions where I’m not presenting or moderating via the hashtag #hjhed19.
After that, I’m very privileged to be heading to Toronto for the Curriculum Inquiry Writing Fellowship and Writers’ Retreat. I’ve an amazing opportunity to develop an article-length manuscript with mentoring from OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) faculty, the Curriculum Inquiry editors and in dialogue with other fellows. The article will extend ideas I published last year on the topic of history curriculum and historical justice. In this article, I’m looking closely at the relationship between disciplinary approaches to history curriculum and the contemporary demands and challenges of historical justice in established democracies. All going well, the article will eventually be published in Curriculum Inquiry.
In mid-July, I’m off to Porto for ISCHE41, the international standing conference for the history of education. Together with fellow-Aussie, Beth Marsden, I’m hosting a symposium on ‘Educational History and the Challenges of Justice: Contested Spaces and their Legacies.’ We’re fortunate to be collaborating with an awesome team of early-career and doctoral researchers who, in various ways, are interrogating questions of injustice and education in the past/present. Not to mention, the dynamic duo of Julie McLeod and Mette Buchardt, who are participating as discussants. ISCHE provides an opportunity to develop the historical, rather than didactical, aspects of my research; to think about how education has contributed to injustice in the past, and more recently, how education has been tasked with making amends. The plan is to develop the papers presented into a journal special issue, so keep an eye out for that!
I return to Sydney and UTS in mid-August to begin the task of preparing my thesis for submission in early-2020. After all the excitement abroad, it will be a time to focus all energies on condensing, polishing, grinding out and generally letting go of what’s been an all-consuming, five-year project. Thanks for reading, until next time!
This past week, I have been in beautiful Copenhagen to participate in ‘Citizens, Souls and the Curriculum’, a workshop at the Centre for Education Policy Research at Aalborg University.
This post offers some reflections on the workshop including its theme, atmosphere and papers. The specific focus of the workshop was historical, comparative and cultural-analysis perspectives on education policy in curricula, textbooks and practices.
My first impression was the uniquely congenial atmosphere of the workshop. The participants were exclusively female, emerging and established scholars. Our ways of interacting brought to mind an influential text I read as an undergraduate – Womens Ways of Knowing  – which, through extensive interviews, sought to show how women view reality and draw conclusions about truth, knowledge, and authority. It claimed that women in particular, engage in ‘connected knowing’ or what Elbow  called ‘the believing game.’ That is, ‘instead of looking for what’s wrong with the other person’s idea, they try to see why it makes sense, how it might be right’ [Clichy 1990]. This contrasts with what the authors called ‘separate knowing’, or for Elbow, ‘the doubting game’, which emphasises detachment from one’s objects of thought, impersonality and adversarial modes of discourse.
In my academic training so far, I have largely been socialised to engage dispassionately and doubtfully with ideas and their proponents. Mostly this is learned by experience and by modelling other scholars. Seminars in history typically involve the audience unquestioning playing the ‘doubting game’ by unpicking every aspect of the presenter’s argument. However, our host Professor Mette Buchardt immediately dispelled any such fears. In a clear demonstration of ‘connected knowing’, Buchardt opened the workshop by winding together a personal narrative of her relationship with each scholar, their shared research interests, and the state of various interconnected fields of research represented in the workshop program. Each paper, wrestled with what she called ‘curriculum’; the ways that ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’ is selected, disputed, arranged and disseminated in a society.
The first panel sustained a focus on the relationship between religion, education and nation-state building. Jil Winandy, University of Vienna, traced histories of publishing, focusing on the production of teacher training materials in eighteenth century France and Germany. In particular, she showed the ways that competing religious ideas and their proponents sought to transpose their educational histories into textbooks. Taking the historiography of teacher training materials as a site of the ‘culture wars’, Winandy showed how religious histories were used to legitimate educational reforms, and how distinctively religious and nationalist pedagogical traditions were being developed in nineteenth century Germany and France respectively.
Next, Karoline Baden Staffesen described her PhD research which is part of a large literacy history project conducted by Aarhus University and the Danish Royal Library. Her segment of the project uses qualitative methods to map the publishing history of Danish ‘readers’; a distinctive genre of learning books for children during the nineteenth century. And finally, Sara Fredfelt Stadager, a museum curator at the Danish Jewish Museum outlined her research on nineteenth century Danish missionary Eduard Løventhal, including his influential role in establishing the Indian collection at the National Museum of Denmark.
Papers in the second panel took a more contemporary, policy-oriented perspective. My paper canvassed some preliminary educational implications associated with the growing calls for for truth-telling about Aboriginal history in Australia. I outlined some of the ways that education has been linked to reconciliation politics in the recent past, as well as current trends in redress politics around the world, arguing that more work is required to uncover the problematic tensions and contradictions inherent in such processes of educationalisation.
Pernille Ahrong Gersager Nissen described her ongoing observations of a Danish elementary school classroom through the lens of critical race theory. Pernille’s unique analysis of a ‘design your own video game’ activity, revealed some curious and problematic ways that school children construct and perceive race in schooling. And finally, Jin Hui Li described her comparative analysis of ‘education abroad’ policies in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Denmark and China. Hui’s previous research compares contemporary higher education policies between Denmark and China, and this work-in-progress represents an effort to develop a deeper historical frame for comparative policy analysis. Hui discussed how ‘education abroad’ policies became state strategies for forming the essential knowledge required for the future of these nation-states and their citizens.
Our concluding discussion centred upon some common themes across the papers including:
1. The positioning of education as solution to a perceived ‘crisis’
The historical and theoretical perspectives in the papers showed how education policy is used as a political legitimation strategy. Historical analysis, although clearly not problem-free, can help to supplement and alleviate the futurist emphasis of education policy analysis which is often at risk of reproducing the problems it seeks to solve.
2. The challenge of categorisation
Many of the presenters reflected on the challenge of creating categories from which to undertake their analysis. Jil Winandy reflected upon how educational histories often seem to sit at the intersection of different disciplines, and I would surmise that it is for this reason that new ways of categorising phenomena are often required in order to make sense of the material. But there was a dis-ease amongst the presenters with doing this work, and an awareness of the dangers and limitations of arranging material into boxes.
3. Education as a strategic tool for nation-state building
Despite the globalisation characteristic of late modernity, including the internationalisation of education policies, frameworks and ideas, the nation-state remains a key framework for the analysis of education policy.
Finally, I’d like to reflect upon the value of interdisciplinarity and its relationship to connected knowing. With the reality of precarity looming over all early career scholars, it is tempting to retreat well within established academic margins. Young scholars learn quickly that when a job application asks for a ‘PhD in history or cognate discipline’, you can basically forget it if you are from a cognate discipline. And yet, as this workshop evinced, some of the most exciting academic work is being done between and across disciplinary borders. This, I think, requires a disposition of connected knowing, which I suspect needs to be modelled from the ‘top’ i.e. by senior scholars. While disciplinary rigour certainly has its place, researching creatively, about education policy in this case, will be more fruitful if it involves thinking with rather than merely against others.
I am very grateful to Mette Buchardt for the invitation to attend this workshop, the scholars who participated, and to Nanna Ramsing Enemark for such splendid organisation (and for providing the photographs!).
Last week, one of my academic mentors, Tanya Fitzgerald, sent me a copy of Raewyn Connell’s How to Survive and Thrive at an Academic Conference. I’ve read similar guides, but this one proved particularly insightful, mostly because Connell tells it like it is, no BS. I could have really used the advice in 2015 when I was weighing up whether or not to attend my first academic conference. It turns out I did attend, but for many of the wrong reasons.
For one, it was expensive – return flights from Australia to London, accommodation and food in one of the most expensive cities in the world, conference fees etc. – and it was self-funded. I did not apply for support from my university nor elsewhere mostly because, I did not know how.
I was also woefully ignorant of what I should expect and what was expected of me. Now that I was enrolled in a doctoral program, I simply wanted to do what ‘real’ academics did, and that was present at international conferences. So I did.
It began brilliantly, with the decision not to bring a USB backup of my presentation because surely ‘all computers will have internet access’. Ten minutes before my presentation and I found myself commandeering a kind, but slightly p***ed off academic’s office in the Institute of Education, London – only the best education school in the world!*
Naturally, I began my presentation utterly harried. That’s right the regular, heart-stopping kind of harried, reserved especially for one’s FIRST ACADEMIC CONFERENCE PRESENTATION was not sufficient.
No wonder the paper was a train wreck. By Connell’s reckoning, it was doomed anyway. Convoluted title, check. Original ideas swamped by odious literature review, check. Findings squeezed into last two minutes, check. Looks of pity from audience, check.
No one spoke to me afterwards: an ominous sign. At the break which followed, a senior scholar remarked in passing; ‘your ideas are important, but dangerous’. It did little to hearten me. My resolve to stand fearlessly alone during breaks quickly dissolved into fleeing at the end of each session.
Later that day however, things started looking up. There was a small Australian presence at the conference; members of the HERMES group from the University of Newcastle whose work I was familiar with. I was fortunate to meet Robert Parkes, Debra Donnelly and Vicki Parkes, who had endured my presentation and shared encouraging words. We also shared a number of beers together and that’s when things really started to improve.** See, I learnt the first of my own lessons about academic conferences then. A conference is never a waste of time or money, if while there, you make one new friend. I was fortunate enough to make several!
Upon my return to Australia, Robert generously invited me to expand my London presentation at a symposium at the University of Newcastle. I will always be grateful to Robert for giving a young, and untested scholar the opportunity to prepare what was my first, lecture-length presentation, as well as the chance to visit a new city and its university.
The paper I presented was far from perfect – the title probably too long, the theoretical work sketchy, conclusions arrived at hurriedly with little time to spare – but at least I carried several USB back ups, and received no pitying looks!
Importantly, while in Newcastle I met several Swedish scholars who were international guests of the research group. One of these, Daniel Lindmark, is now a colleague and friend at Umeå University in Sweden, and the host of my current Endeavour project. If not for the ill-informed and expensive decision to travel to London in 2015, I would likely not be sitting here now in Umeå, Sweden writing this piece.
So, for all the many dull and awkward, painful and embarrassing conference moments, I will continue attending with hope of making friends like Robert Parkes and Daniel Lindmark. Because despite the occasional ego-maniac, academia really is full of generous and inspiring people.
Now, nearing the end of my doctoral program, I am learning to be more discerning about where to invest my time, energy and intellectual labour. I am realising the importance of belonging to a community of scholars rather than attending random conferences. I am learning collegiality by seeing it in action amongst senior colleagues and trying to emulate it with my peers. I no longer spend every moment of a conference in sessions, instead taking time to speak to people, breathe, take a walk, and see the city.
So, if I had my time over would I still choose to present so early in my doctoral program, overseas, no USB, too-long title and all? Though I don’t necessarily recommend it, the answer is yes. For despite the failures and the expense, the lessons learned and friends made were worth it. But perhaps, if you’re a new doctoral student reading this, try Raewyn Connell’s How to Survive and Thrive at an Academic Conference, before you make any decisions…
*At the time, according to copious marketing on all the buildings.
** Thanks also to Christian Mathis
In mid-August 2017, in a cafe on Schellingstraße opposite Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilian University Library, I wrote what became the first of many drafts of my first peer-reviewed article ‘History Education for Transitional Justice? Challenges, Limitations and Possibilities for Settler Colonial Australia’, which has just been published in the International Journal of Transitional Justice.Or did I? Rewind to November 2015, and early in my PhD candidature I was working on the draft of an invited paper for the HERMES research group seminar at Newcastle University. There, Freud’s Nachträglichkeit (belatedness, afterwardsness), which describes the retrospective process of synthesising troubling knowledges back into narratives after the fact, was a major theme. So too, was Walter Benjamin’s allegorical method of rescuing the fragments ‘left-behind’ in the wake of conventional historicist narratives. ‘What time do we live in?’, my August-2017 draft began, taking up those temporal themes once again.
Yet in writing this post, I mined my notes from as far back as 2014 and found traces of ideas that had made their way into the final piece. In a note entitled ‘Ideas from UK Trip 2015’ I wrote, ‘Why are we having students emulate professional historians? Why only some of them?’ In one from 2016, which I wrote while in attendance at a History Teachers’ Association of Victoria conference, I asked; ‘Why do we teach revolutions as consecutive causal events?’ The note was entitled ‘Revolution as Ultimate Contingency’.
All of these ideas, present an alternate narrative of this article’s genesis. It made me wonder, where does an article begin?
Earlier in 2017, I read a great piece by former-La Trobe PhD, now Durham University Post-Doc, James Kirby, about the ‘Challenges and rewards of submitting your paper to an academic journal’. At the time, I recall being immensely frustrated. I was positively overflowing with ideas but was not able to articulate them well, nor direct them to an interested audience. My digital ‘desk’ was littered with unfinished drafts. Enter, the concept: historical justice.
Prompted by a comment from my ever-astute supervisor Marnie, who possesses the uncanny ability of understanding exactly what it is you’re trying to say before you do, I began to apply my thinking on history and education to the field of historical justice. Historical justice describes the widespread expectation to redress past injustices, something which is increasingly seen to be the responsibility of the state even when the alleged wrong occurred in a distant past, under a different regime. In Australia right now, episodes of historical justice are regular news. The recent national apology to victims and survivors of child sexual abuse, issued by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in late-October 2018, is just one recent example.
In my reading on historical justice, I uncovered an influential article from 2007, by Elizabeth Cole entitled ‘Transitional Justice and the Reform of History Education.’ It was published in the International Journal of Transitional Justice. This unearthed a specific set of debates addressing the role of education in movements and processes of historical justice. I had found my audience.
Although it will be obvious to established academics, identifying the specific debates you wish to contribute to, including the people and publications involved, is a vital but sometimes difficult step for young researchers. My thinking was transformed overnight from fragmentary ideas, to conversations regarding pressing problems. By deploying my thinking in direct response to specific arguments which were unfolding in the present, my research questions were brought to life. Once I recognised that writing is an entry into a dynamic conversation with others, from there, I was able to very quickly complete a full draft of the article in October 2017. I haven’t the space here to describe the review and rewriting process, but needless to say it was long and rewarding.
Now, I am back in Umeå working with educational historians on the urgent problems of historical justice in Swedish and Australian contexts. In June 2019, at the Historical Justice and History Education symposium that I am organising, I will get to meet many of the scholars with whom I have begun a conversation in print.
As to my question, where does an article begin? I have signalled some of the many possible points of origin, and perhaps it is only with belated insight that I can say in this case, that it began when I realised for whom and why I was writing.
This past week, I have recaptured something of the genuine joy of doing research. For the first time since I began my honours study, I am enthralled by my research project and the process of researching. I even spent time in the library today browsing the shelves out of interest and not necessity. This is a ritual that I’ve not practiced in nearly three years since the capacity to read for pleasure abruptly deserted me owing to the pressures of academic life.
Much of this feeling can be attested to the experience and excitement of change, as well as the freedom of being abroad on a scholarship with the mental space (and financial support) to engage with new ideas, rekindle dormant thoughts, and challenge familiar ones.
Also, it helps that the city of Umeå is delightful. I have arrived in the Sàmi season of Tjaktjagiesse (autumn-summer) which is marked by ripening woodlands and darkening nights. The air is fresh and clean, and the streets are designed with real consideration for all kinds of travellers, which is much more than I can say for Sydney’s.
Umeå University is a large, mid-1960s campus with around 30,000 students, many of whom will be arriving next week with the new semester. It is similar in design to La Trobe University with sturdy brick buildings and large natural spaces, so I feel quite at home here. I have an office in the Institutionen för idé- och samhällsstudier (Department of Ideas and Societal Studies), and share a corridor with scholars from Philosophy, History, History of Ideas and Science, and Religion. The academic culture is rigorous and rich, and so is the enthusiasm for fikapausers (daily coffee and chat breaks at 0930 and 1430).
There is also a real sense of interest in my project and its principal theme: history education and transitional justice. Together with scholars from the History and Education Research Group, we are organising a symposium on that theme to take place in June 2019. My colleagues tell me there is already a list of keen would-be attendees from the Nordic countries, and a prominent French historian, Professor Annette Becker, all eager to attend before we have even drafted a call for papers. There is a growing scholarly interest in the region concerning the uses of history and history education in process of reconciliation and historical justice. This is not yet reflected in any Swedish political support for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address injustices endured by the Sàmi people, as there is in Norway and Finland. Nonetheless, there is a sense of purpose and urgency concerning these themes, and this will only deepen and expand my own thinking, as well as encourage a high-quality conference and subsequent publications.
Yet, at the same time as all of this, I am a more than a little melancholy. This is largely because of what I have left behind – thriving scholarly communities in Sydney and Melbourne, a large network of friends and family, loved ones, places, and things, and the familiarity and comfort of one’s own language. As an aspiring academic in the era of the precariat, I know I will face many more short-term, overseas dislocations, and the sudden isolation that can result. Still, I was not wholly prepared for the cold, and sometimes gloomy nature of extended silence despite having so often wished for in my busy Australian life.
So, this post, and my experiences here so far, teach me that as researchers and people we are so often this and that (as Shawna Tang recently showed me). I am both elated and despondent, liberated and yet painfully isolated, all at once. For this, I am grateful. It is only when we are prepared to acknowledge that we can be both uncomfortable, ignorant or down, and capable, happy or informed, that we open ourselves up most to the capacity for real learning and growth as scholars and humans.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about institutional belonging.
You see, in January I moved from Melbourne to Sydney (my partner got a new job). I wouldn’t have so readily left Melbourne had it not been for the upcoming move to Sweden for my Endeavour project. I figured seven months in Sydney could be a good excuse to write a lot and avoid the multitude of distractions that inevitably come with being embedded anywhere for long enough.
It turns out that holing yourself up in a foreign city can drastically improve productivity! But while eliminating familiar distractions has proven to be beneficial for my writing, I couldn’t have anticipated the sense of loss that has accompanied it.
See, I have spent the better part of my adult life at La Trobe University. I started in 2010, arriving from Perth at barely nineteen years old. In the seven years that I lived in Melbourne, through all the rental properties and share houses (seven in total), the career changes (just one), the casual and part-time jobs (many), and the countless friendships, heartaches, tragedies and adventures, the La Trobe campus at Bundoora has been the most constant fixture in my life.
It might just be nostalgia, but I find myself thinking often of the humble brown brick structures, surrounded by bush, where watching the local wildlife (turtles, swamp hens) thrive and grow with the seasons is a favoured daily past-time. I miss the greasy flavourless comfort of Ping’s Chinese, and the freezing winter dash from Carpark Three to the David Myers Building when no amount of jackets is quite enough. I think of the undergraduate lectures that I, and my mother many years before, attended in the iconic East Lecture Theatres, as well as the joy and terror of giving my first lecture there in 2016.
It was timely indeed when a few weeks ago I attended a seminar about Institutional Histories as part of the ‘History Now!’ seminar series at the Australian Centre for Public History, University of Technology Sydney (UTS). There, Tamson Pietsch recalled a Griffith Review piece from 2016 where she described universities as institutions that “…hold us in time and [they] connect us to each other”. In her spoken paper, she described the ‘classroom, library and laboratory’ as public spaces where we encounter difference, and where civic relations are formed which hold us in time and space.
Though her point was more about the enduring power of public institutions in the era of individualism, I couldn’t help thinking of my own life (ironic, I know), and how influential La Trobe University has been in my becoming so far. Although many ideas were already germinating when I arrived, my time at La Trobe – which is known for its radical tradition – has only strengthened my commitment to a more just and equal society; my solidarity with leftist politics and labour movements; and my belief in publics including the idea of the public good, public spaces and institutions, and public knowledge.
But before I get too misty-eyed about La Trobe, we know all too well that universities, and institutions generally, have uniquely painful ways of letting us down. We have all experienced the myriad of ways that they can disappoint, frustrate, belittle, embarrass, anger, and sadden us, particularly lately.
On this, Pietsch quotes Hugh Heclo’s On Thinking Institutionally (Oxford University Press, 2011); “[i]n a backhanded way, our capacity to feel betrayed speaks to a residual trust in institutional values.” She adds; “Getting angry at the way institutions fail us is not a sign we want to do away with them, it is an indication that we want them to be better.”
As I get closer to departing for Sweden and forming new institutional relationships at Umeå University, I am drawn to reflect upon the sudden loss of collegiality and belonging that I’ve experienced since leaving my home institution. In Sydney, I’ve been incredibly privileged to work at the Australian Catholic University, and to have spent time both at UTS, and the University of Sydney, each with proud traditions and unique institutional cultures.
And yet, I wonder about the many thousands of PhD students whose institutions held them together, and who worked ceaselessly towards submission only to abruptly discover the sense of loss that surely must follow. To La Trobe University, I am grateful for those well-treaded grooves across time and space bounded by the experience and borders of the institution, that I now, and we all inevitably, must make anew.