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?

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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.

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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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