Citizens, Souls and the Curriculum Workshop – Reflections on an Interdisciplinary Workshop

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.

Nyhavn, Copenhagen

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 [1986] – 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 [1973] 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!).

Where does an article begin?

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?

Finding my supervisor’s (Marnie Hughes-Warrington) book in the bookstore on Schellingstrasse in Munich

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.

Schöneberg, Berlin 2017

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 and That

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.dsc_38221

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.


On Institutional Belonging

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.

The surprising benefits of a read-aloud reading group

Matilda Keynes is a PhD candidate in in the department of History and Archaeology at La Trobe, and lecturer-in-charge at the Australian Catholic University, where she coordinates the subject ‘Education in History’. Her doctoral research explores the educational implications of retrospective politics since the 1980s, focusing on history education in Australia. 

In 2018, Matilda is an Endeavour Postgraduate Research Scholar hosted at Umeå University in Sweden where she is undertaking a comparative study of Swedish-Australian uses of history in processes of transitional justice. She tweets @matildakeynes.

Nikita Vanderbyl is a PhD candidate in the department of History and Archaeology at La Trobe. Her research in Aboriginal Australian history and art history focuses on Wurundjeri artist William Barak and the trans-imperial circulation of Aboriginal material culture during the nineteenth century.

Nikita’s work has been published in Aboriginal History and The Conversation. She tweets @nikitavanderbyl.

This post is co-published today with La Trobe University’s RED Alert blog

This article first appeared on The Research Whisperer on 24 April 2018 and is reproduced with kind permission of The Research Whisperer.

Recently, Erin Bartram’s piece ‘The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind’ made waves on Twitter for its honest and frankly, painful assessment of the experience of leaving academia, after the author failed to secure a tenured position.

As Australian PhD students, we discover early in our candidature that our 3.5-year program likely won’t be competitive in the global market.

For many of us, our further study is born out of a genuine passion for learning, and accompanied by naive aspirations towards an academic career. In most cases, 3.5 years of modest funding isn’t adequate to write a thesis; publish a monograph with a leading academic publisher plus multiple peer-reviewed, tier-one journal articles; present at international conferences; attract research funding; and coordinate and design undergraduate subjects. Let’s not even mention the expectations of attaining a myriad of impressive awards and bursaries.

Given the heavily-skewed ‘jobs available vs. PhD graduates’ ratio in history, it is no surprise really that the few available positions often go to those who earned their doctorates from leading R1 institutions (or equivalent) internationally. All this is happening in the context of an increasingly casualised academic workforce. About 65% of Australian university staff are now employed casually, and the vast majority of the research labour listed above must be done without job security.

This, Bartram’s piece, and the many other varieties of ‘quit lit’ that grace our Twitter feeds daily, as well as the experience of departmental restructures, and the loss of supervisors to illness, redundancy and retirement, can make for fairly low morale among doctoral students. At more than one point, it can feel overwhelming. We won’t pretend we’ve found a way to halt this compounding sense of futility. Even if we did, it would likely vary for everyone as the PhD journey is such a personal one.

What we have found, though, is the surprising morale-boosting benefits of the humble reading group.

For the past three years a group of historians and historiographers in-training here at La Trobe University have met weekly for a two-hour reading group. The official rationale is to expand our understanding of the history and structure of our discipline. The unofficial positive outcomes, however, have been countless.

In general, the typical academic reading group can be stale, awkward and often pretentious.

The usual format is for a chair to set a reading in advance, and for group members to come prepared to discuss its salient points during the meeting. Often this can lead to a certain rigidity of thought and interaction, whereby group members stick to their pre-formulated points. At worst, it can descend into the kind of posturing that we all know too well, whereby genuine thinking-together is derailed by the worst kind of adversarial, sparring matches concerning obscure points of interest to no-one.

What’s productive about our group is the method we employ. We use a read-aloud, think-aloud methodology where we take turns to read the text aloud, and pause regularly to discuss and clarify crucial points. Usually one person will have read the piece in advance in order to help mediate the discussion, but everyone else will be encountering it for the first time. This makes for a genuine intellectual and personal experience whereby thinking happens in the moment and with others. This approach has proven to be remarkably well-suited to different kinds of learners, and swiftly eradicates any of the aforementioned posturing.

There is a degree of vulnerability and a slowness that comes with reading out loud, both for the audience and for the individual reader, but also in the tentative character of thought that is produced when working through complex ideas together. This is a welcome relief from the break-necked pace of PhD life where we are expected to read and understand vast amounts of material as quickly as possible. It is also conducive to creating lasting friendships and genuine collegiality among PhD researchers who so often occupy a liminal space within academic departments, and where competition and precarity can create tense working environments.

Our group of participants grew organically from among the History department. Informal discussions over lunch led to a general consensus that our shared interest was worth exploring. The read-aloud method was inspired by a philosophy group at Melbourne University whose convenors read key segments aloud. This aligned with Matilda’s own research interests in theories of learning and university pedagogy.** The founding group members agreed upon the first readings and later, readings were decided upon among the wider group. We would recommend having at least one person whose knowledge of the field, whatever it may be, can lead the initial reading selection. Once underway however, everyone involved brought knowledge and expertise to the process of selection and interpretation.

From there, when new members showed interest in joining, we were very transparent about our approach and its benefits. We tried first and foremost to cultivate a shared investment in the methodology, which in retrospect is the core of our identity and mandate as a group, rather than the subject matter, though they are mutually conducive.

Although the method of the group is perhaps more important than the subject matter, focusing on the structures of our discipline has increased our confidence as historians and historiographers, and broadened our knowledge beyond a narrow field of inquiry. This is vital in an absurdly competitive job market, where specialised research expertise, as well as breadth, are key demands.

Most importantly, though, the reading group has become a vital and sustaining source of camaraderie during the many ‘tough times’ a PhD can throw up (sometimes referred to as the Valley of Shit on the Thesis Whisperer blog).

By creating a recurring space of collaboration beyond a visit to the cafe or pub, we’ve been able to forge an enduring sense of disciplinary and collegial identity via the thrill of engaging genuinely and collaboratively with a piece of writing.

This has been a highlight of our degrees so far and one we would recommend to fellow graduate research students.

** Indicative references for these include:

  • Women’s Ways of Knowing. Belenky et al.
  • The Power of Mindful Learning. EJ Langer
  • Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts. WG Perry
  • Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years. WG Perry
  • New Students New Learning Styles. C Shroeder
  • Pedagogy of the Distressed. J Tompkins
  • Clinchy BM, ‘Issues of gender in teaching and learning’, Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, Vol. 1, 1990, pp. 52-67.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to all the members of the Theory and Philosophy of History Reading Group at La Trobe University.