I’ve been talking about the antics of these interwar Americans for some time now – following them down archival rabbit holes and port city back alleys, and trying to piece together what happened in 1926 on that ship, and why it matters to us today.  It’s been ten years in the making, but my book on the Floating University is finally here!

The book tells the story of the 1926 Floating University: a bold educational experiment in which 500 American college students sailed around the globe in the belief that learning at sea would make them better citizens of the world. As well as a full curriculum, the voyage included visits to foreign dignitaries including Mussolini, Gandhi and the Pope, and stops in 47 ports. But the trip was also beset by trouble: reports of sex, alcohol and jazz made their way back to an American press hungry for scandal and the Floating University became a byword for what could go wrong with educational travel. It explores this largely forgotten voyage and argues that – as well as revealing the tentacles of US empire – it exposes a much larger contest over what kind of knowledge should underpin university authority, one in which direct personal experience came into conflict with academic expertise.

The introduction and table of contents are available here, and (everyone’s favourite) the acknowledgements are attached below. Thank you to everyone who has helped me along the way, and especial thanks to my partner Ruth and my daughter Vita – the cutest book mascot I could ever dream of. I submitted the manuscript the day before she was born and every day since I have thought my heart might explode.

A 40% discount is available from the University of Chicago Press website when you enter the code FLOATING.

If you want to know more, there’s an early Q&A with me about the book in Inside Higher Ed or please get in touch with me directly.

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I have an article out on the sources of university income in the UK and Australia across the 20th century. To tempt you to read it, I’m going to try my hand at a twitter thread (which I have mostly just cut and pasted here!) @EmeraldGlobal https://doi.org/10.1108/HER-06-2020-0040 (1/13)

[You can read the free-to-access pre-print version of this article here]

Where does funding for universities come from? How has this changed across the 20th century? How do patterns in Australia and the UK compare? These seem pretty important questions right now for lots of reasons @HistEdSocUK @ANZHistEdSoc #auspol (2/13)


But answering them is hard because there is no official time series data on university income in Australia that is comparable with Vincent Carpentier’s quite brilliant UK study. @ResearchCGHE (3/13)

Vincent Carpentier (2004), “Historical statistics on the funding and development of the UK university system, 1920-2002. [Data collection]”, UK Data Service. SN:4971

Problem is: data + politics. Availability & quality reflects different periods of university governance. As @andrewjnorton says, “different historical data sources do not always match”. The 1970s & 80s in particular are a bit of a mystery (4/13)

But surely it’s possible to do better than this 2014 effort from the @Go8 ??? (5/13)

From the Group of Eight’s submission to the 2014 Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment

So I trawled the CTEC reports and Yearbooks and other sources to create (with lots of data caveats) a comparable series for Australia and updated Carpentier’s series as well. What does it show??? (6/13)

Australian universities’ income from all sources since 1922 reveals three distinct periods: mixed 1922-1947; government-led 1952-1987; cost-sharing incl. international students 1992-2017. (7/13)

Similar patterns are evident in the UK, but there domestic student fees have come to make up much greater percentage of income (as it is likely too in Australia post Tehan reforms) (8/13)

Grouping these categories to show universities’ “private” income (ie international student fees & private income such as investments) makes these patterns even clearer for Australia. (9/13)

And the UK shows how domestic student fees have been used as a substitute for govt support. The % revenue universities’ receive from public sources is at its lowest since WW1 (for more graphs see the article!) (10/13)

So what? Do these graphs point to the end of the public as an organising principle of our political, economic & institutional life? (pace @James11Vernon) https://globalhighered.wordpress.com/2010/10/26/the-end-of-the-public-university-in-england (11/13)

Comparison w the UK was crucial to the foundation of @uniaus argue @ejwaghorne & @Gwil_C – Given the challenges of covid + climate, perhaps now the time to make new comparisons about the way #highered has and can be funded? https://doi.org/10.1108/HER-06-2020-0040 (12/13)

Photo credit: Ali Amin @NUS_Welfare – South Australian students holding a snap protest outside office of @Stirling_G

For the full article see T. Pietsch, ‘A history of university income in the United Kingdom and Australia, 1922-2017’, History of Education Review (2020) 49:2, 229-248 https://doi.org/10.1108/HER-06-2020-0040. The free-to-access pre-print version is here. (13/13)

sun-220524_1920Back in January, as smoke choked the air of Australia’s east coast cities and a billion animals died, Frances Flanagan and I tried to wrestle with a question that had .

What does it mean to do academic history in these times?

In 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change determined that there were twelve years remaining in which the global community could act to reduce carbon emissions by 45% and avert runaway climate collapse. Their report urged “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure … and industrial systems” at a scale and a speed that was “unprecedented”.

The enormity of this challenge is dispiriting. There is no ready-made human community in waiting equipped to forge such change – certainly not one with a democratic mandate. This, as the world is belatedly coming to see, is the tragedy of our inheritance and the challenge of our moment. It is a challenge that spans the immediate and the far distant, the intimate and the general. It is at once metaphysical and mundane, existential and political. It will transform our individual and collective human life and it requires concerted and co-ordinated action. Our existing political communities are stunningly ill-equipped to meet it.

With the summer’s fires encircling our cities, Frances and I sought to think seriously about how the urgency of this challenge might press upon our own home-discipline. We looked not only for the ways it might shape the content of what we teach and research, but also its connection to our epistemic orientation: the ways we face the world and seek to orient subjects towards certain forms of seeing, understanding and acting.

Of course practices of making sense of the past are as old as human time, and have long been undertaken by a host of human actors from a variety of knowledge traditions. But historicity, as it is practised and taught within a range of disciplines at the start of the twenty-first century, carries with it a very particular orientation. It one that is predicated on an impatience with the idea that events or structures are eternal, static or natural. It understands people as subject to forces beyond their control, but also as having power to act on and in the world. Historians today tend to locate their actors in the midst of things: acting as best they can in their context with the tools they have; acting courageously, or secretly or self-interestedly or collectively; pursuing world-making on small and large scales.

There seemed to us to be nothing inherently progressive or conservative in this approach to time. On both the left and right side of politics, it is one that acknowledges animating forces and human striving. It sees the world as sacred and profane, replete with systems of power and possibilities for change and love and hope and tragedy. It is an orientation to power, time and human subjectivity that presents the possibility of a world in which structures can be re-ordered, subjectivities can be re-aligned, and everyone’s actions matter.

It might seem rather obvious to say but, writing under the skies of Australia’s ‘savage summer’, this seemed to us to be an approach to power and human agency that is very different to another orientation that has come to shape how states ‘think’, how politicians and business leaders speak, and the way people from all walks of life understand themselves and their worlds.

This other orientation promotes a vision of the world that is largely antithetical to the possibility of change and human agency. It flattens the differences of place and context and it tends towards fatalism – as evident, say, in its framing of the ‘inevitability’ of artificial intelligence or the ‘naturalness’ of wildfire. It is a technocratic and managerialist orientation that accords a very small class of people decision-making power, while reducing the agency of almost everyone else to the realm of consumption. In the process it seeks to depoliticise issues that urgently need politicising.

For those who feel the urgency of these times, perhaps doing history means seeing themselves as a part of this high-stakes debate about the systems that create and structure the world we all live in?

Our article, published recently as part of a special issue of History Australia, explores what this might mean for the ways historians think about themselves and the ways they write and speak. Thanks to the journal, the piece is available on open access for a limited time, but if you can’t beat the pay wall, the full text is available here for free.

Twelve short years are projected. How will we dwell in that time? Do we still believe it is open? That the ends predicted are inevitable? The communities inviting people to understand themselves as active and their worlds as re-makeable are few and far between.

With the time we have been given, let us speak the thing we know to be true: that in halting, inestimable and surprising ways, societies change, and in acting together, people have a hand in changing them.


Tamson Pietsch & Frances Flanagan (2020),Here we stand: temporal thinking in urgent times’, History Australia, 17:2, 252-271, DOI: 10.1080/14490854.2020.1758577



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