Reflections on the Australian Historical Association Conference

I’ve just spent 5 days at the Australian Historical Association conference, held this year at the University of Queensland, and I’m all conferenced out.

AHA conference header

I won’t attempt to summarise a conference with so many papers, so many parallel sessions, so many evening events that I didn’t get to. For those who are interested, the abstracts are here and almost single-handed, Yvonne Perkins @perkinsy tweeted the conference.

Instead, here are a few of my general impressions on the state of history in Australia today that I’ve picked up by osmosis during the last week.

  1. I hope the conference was a success. The numbers were good, though I gather there were more postgraduates and fewer senior historians than usual. This has financial implications as postgraduates get in at a concessional rate. (So do I, as ‘unwaged’ – which was Autocorrected to ‘unwanted’ on my iPad. Sigh). I wonder whether the shortage of senior people reflects workloads. Postgraduates have to present their work to a wider audience, but perhaps tenured staff are just too tired by the end of semester, to spend a week of their precious non-teaching time interstate. Which brings me to –
  1. I’m not a Head of Department, but I was told that the Heads of History meeting was pretty dispiriting. People are tired of battling for funding, tired of shifting goalposts, tired of the economic straighteners in political life. This is true across higher education, of course, but it’s particularly true for the humanities, and historians are even worse hit because –
  1. It is so easy to politicize history, because history, more than most disciplines, is a part of the public conversation. This is both a good and a bad thing. Professor David Armitage from Harvard, whose paper yesterday was a rallying call for greater public engagement by historians, made the point that in Australia, unlike America, history has a place in public discourse. This is great. But it also risks making historical research a hostage to politicians who want to tweak the school curriculum or cherry-pick research projects in their own image.
  1. The overarching theme of the conference was Conflict. Large conferences always choose a big and baggy theme like this, so inclusive that it is almost meaningless. The irony of Conflict, though, is that it bifurcated the conference between aspects of Aboriginal/settler frontier conflict (beloved of the left) and aspects of World Wars (beloved of the right). So that’s all right then. In sheer bloody-mindedness, when confronted with a Theme, I tend to go looking for something entirely different – medieval Irish cooking, say, or the political activities of Caroline Chisholm.
  1. I loved both these papers, and they each had wider things to say about Irish and Australian history. Some papers, though, show the tendency Armitage raised in his paper, ‘to know more and more about less and less’. Many primary sources are now digitized and available (even though many are only accessible through a pay wall) but it’s increasingly hard to get your head around all the secondary sources published on any subject. So PhD theses become ever more specialized in an attempt to cope. Fernand Braudel drafted most of The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II while in a German prison during World War II, with only access to a small local library. Without wishing to make years of imprisonment compulsory, there’s something to be said for blocking out the world and its masses of Big Data occasionally.

It was good to see old friends and acquaintances, and to meet in the flesh people I only know through social media. I’ve come away with a list of books I must read, and new ideas I need to think about. Some of them will no doubt find their way to my blog in the future.

It is different going to a conference in your hometown. It’s cheaper to stay at home – but there’s more commuting and less total immersion in the conference experience. There are still husbands and dogs to be fed. In times past, I got to know people best in shared accommodation, or over shared college breakfasts, and I went to all the evening sessions because there was nothing else to do in a strange city. I do miss the conviviality of those days – but I don’t regret the shared bathrooms or the freezing student rooms in mid-winter Melbourne.

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13 responses to “Reflections on the Australian Historical Association Conference

  1. Don’t you hate autocorrect? I disabled it on my phone when I spelled my daughter’s name and autocorrect changed it to Mafia – I was very upset!

    I agree about the problem of getting on top of secondary sources on a topic. That was the thing I was most nervous about regarding my paper, that someone at the end would put up their hand and say “but you haven’t considered so-and-so’s important contribution in this area”. I tend to work at the intersection of themes, in this case masculinity and religion. This means that I have two massive streams of literature to get on top of.

    I thought David Armitage’s proposal of doing ‘transtemporal’ history by looking at snapshots of an issue across a number of time periods was an interesting way to address the problem of us becoming microscopic in our scope. He was also suggesting that we look at the big questions rather than nailing every bit of ephemera on a particular event. Those suggestions may be a way around that problem but it opens up an even greater problem of being across the literature.

    Regarding Twitter: Both historians and the general public like to follow the Australian Historical Association conference on social media each year. I’m hoping next year that more historians will tweet their hearts out thereby conveying the depth of thinking and research in Australian history. It is worth doing. It’s such a buzz when someone on Twitter starts joining the conference discussion from another city or another country.

  2. I think it’s easier to address broad questions later in your career, when you have tenure and can afford to take risks – like Geoffrey Blainey, for instance, on the causes of war. Sadly it’s much harder to do this in a PhD, when you never know who your audience will be (and you have an audience of 2 or 3 examiners rather than a general public to please). It’s hard to think of many postgraduates writing – say – The History of the Potato, as William McNeill once did. A pity, say I!

  3. A great review of the conference, thanks for this as I was unable to attend.

    It might be worth discussing how lower numbers in attendance this year (though I’m not sure what the actual figures were) may be related to growing numbers of those compelled to miss out on important annual conferences. Without repeating myself, I’ll post this link to the Actual Casuals website; ‘accepted to present at an interstate research conference… I had planned to self-fund the airfares, accommodation and other expenses but I decided to withdraw, given the looming prospect of not getting any teaching in semester 2 that would cover these costs’… http://actualcasuals.wordpress.com/2014/07/04/sessions-over-part-1-now-what/

    One problem might be that the AHA seems to employ a “tenured track model” for organising a conference – and yet, the world faced by most tertiary professionals has changed. The lack of post-PhD academics at the AHA in 2014 might suggest something about the lack of full time positions not to mention those 60,000+ session-by-session tutors in Australia who have no access to conference funding.

    Within the present climate there are also the personal hardships many face. I’ve never heard a tenured academic admit that the cost of the conference dinner (where crucial networks are formed) would be better spent on covering the rent that week. Being present at a conference with tenured academics and (paid) research fellows comes with the embarrassment of admitting, in light of a brutally shrinking job market, you have been unable to begin developing a career track (‘yep so .. I uh… kind of teach here, but only when I’m wanted – which is every semester, but only with a few days notice…’).

    I will ask the question though, because there seems to have been some effort by AHA on the jobs question in 2014: what were the outcomes of the Post-PhDs careers session?

    • Thanks for your comment, Yiyo, and sorry you didn’t get to the conference. I can’t answer your question, but will throw it out there. If there’s anyone out there who attended these sessions, can you add something here?

  4. Thanks for your summary. I was at the conference and pleased to have been able to give a paper. I was a little disappointed that more senior historians were not present, but enjoyed the opportunity to mix with some people whose work I admire. I am a ol’ fella and close to finishing my thesis (hope that wasn’t a jinx!) and I found considerable value in being able to present some of my work to a learned audience who, with one exception, were strangers to me.
    Not to mention Brisbane’s winter – wow!
    Bob Clarke

  5. I should have added that for all the value I got out of the conference and the support the AHA offers PhD students, I hope it doesn’t turn into a PhDfest.

    • Thanks Rob. And yes, Brisbane’s winter is lovely – though I remember a conference here in February, where the first order of business was to promise never to hold a conference here in February ever again! Cheers

  6. Cath Bishop

    Ruth Morgan (based in Melbourne) and I (Cath Bishop, based in Sydney) have been elected as joint ECR reps… and the first thing I did at the AGM was to get the AHA membership fees categories amended… so that the ‘students/unwaged’ category now includes casual staff… i.e. all those of us without permanent positions or even such luxuries as postdocs/ full time fixed-term teaching etc… and without access to university funding for conference attendance etc etc etc… and yes – we will be fighting for the same thing vis-a-vis conference fees :)

    so … ecrs… please join the AHA Facebook group and/or email catherine.bishop@acu.edu.au and tell Ruth and me how you would like us to represent you at the AHA exec meetings etc.. and what you want us to do (I am sorry but providing an endless number of tenured professorships is beyond even our extraordinary capabilities!! :):))
    Cheers
    Cath and Ruth

  7. Indeed, Professor David Armitage did address the idea of greater public engagement by historians in terms of public policy formation, but the concept of history as a public conversation is what professional historians do, and do in engagements across different sectors of the society.

    Of course, the PHA mini-conference was held on the Wednesday as part of the AHA program. Another disappointment which come from the observations made about the conference’s melancholy was the lack of engagement between the ‘types’ of working historians — academic, professional, and, yes, postgraduates, and the “non-early career” wanting-to-be academics. As Marion alluded, there are different audiences involved from the different working position.

    I have been saying to my own colleagues that it is time we opened up conversations — real formal conversations — about how we linked up in collaborations so that we all can have cross-boundary pathways when needed.

    From own position, I desperately need postgraduate to coming into our professional history collaborations with local communities; to act as interns in the field of public history. Local history might not be sexy, but genre is there waiting for all kinds of themes in Australian or world history to open it up. What I am saying to local history groups is that local history needs to uncover the engagements that local residents did have in the past with various ideas of the nation or the world. Furthermore, I have asked older members of my local history group (which is most members) to show leadership and invite young people to come into the group with own particular passions within the context of local history, and being able to employ their own skill-sets. Local history is only going to survive when it takes on this inter-generational character. Otherwise, it is just a club for the elderly with no one there to pass on their stories, and wove it into the fabric of the local history. In this metaphor the design of the finish cloth is academic-based or scholarly historiography. Everyone can be part of the process of researching and composing history. But it is plain silliness not to see that the professional and other academically-trained scholar have a leadership role in this. And as a community-based professional historian I do need collaborative assistances of those still in academia, even those still hanging by the coat-tail.

    • Thanks for this Neville.

    • Well said Neville.

      I’ve tried to diversify with publications on national and local level histories, exploring interactions between each, and we certainly can apply the same academic frames of analysis when dealing with local histories. And there needs to be more of it because local “grassroots” histories while often ambitious have benefitted (at least in my experience) from the critical scope academic training is able to apply “in the real world” beyond the faculty hallways, and vice versa.

      There are at several examples of this “academic”/”professional”/”grassroots” interaction I have been involved with. Firstly, we see these kinds of intergenerational cross-overs at organisations that engage local histories but are hungry to delve into critical engagement (e.g. University of the 3rd Age).

      Further, there is a news blog which provides a space for community storytellers (e.g. “amateur” historians) to develop their pieces with the assistance of an academic editor. The blog has high participation from senior citizens and “younger” community members and the inter-generational experience really is priceless (See: http://illawarranews.blogspot.com.au/2012/09/new-threads-of-history-history-week.html).

      But I disagree where you say “local history might not be sexy” – oh but it is! The AHA conference “tour” last year (an idea which was initially resisted by the organisers) was an attempt to bridge the academic/community/local history divide with a tour of the “dark history” of Wollongong. It was a creative idea to bridge local stories with academic modes of inquiry and audiences. (See: http://www.illawarramercury.com.au/story/1637059/grim-tour-exposes-wollongongs-dark-past/)

      There was, furthermore, a community/academic event called “Crime, Cameras, Action” at UOW which promoted the kinds of crossovers you are talking about. Check out some of the background to this here: http://illawarranews.blogspot.com.au/2013/06/the-dark-history-of-wollongong-how-past.html

      Academics have so much to contribute to public history but there needs to be much more of it.

      • Many thanks, Yiyo. I am very pleased to hear that local history is sexy in New South Wales. Of course, in Queensland such immoral behaviour is frown upon. Nevertheless, I stand corrected.

        Your comment is timely because I am currently looking at such examples I can show my local group.

        Again, many thanks.

  8. Pingback: From conference to conference | Airminded

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