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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.