Archives for category: teaching

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



Ok so I’ve started a history podcast. Well, me and a bunch of amazing producers at 2SER (a community radio station in Sydney). It’s called History Lab and this is the two 2 min taster:

Podcasting, in case you have been living under a rock, is definitely now a thing. 

According to Sharon Taylor, CEO of Omny Studio, downloads in Australia are now in the tens of millions per month. While you might have noticed radio stations making a big push for podcasts they are by no means only podcasting platform in town (actually only 14% of weekly podcasts are by Australian radio stations or Australian radio personalities). For lots more statistics have a look at The 2018 Infinite Dial Australia study, conducted by Edison Research and Triton Digital (they also have reports on the UK and the USA).

For academics, impact and engagement are also now definitely things. Historians, of course, engage with broad audiences in a variety of ways, from writing for public audiences, to building partnerships with teachers, institutions and community groups – and, yes, to making tv and radio documentaries too! But the rapidly growing popular demand for podcasts makes it a promising – but as yet unharnessed – platform for doing in and with broad audiences.

With History Lab we are trying to make a new kind of podcast. We’ve got some good stories to tell, but we are interested in much more than just the story. Instead of an academic or other expert doing the research and then telling you what it means, we want to draw you as a listener in to the investigative process. We want you to come along with us as we try to make sense of the traces the past leaves in the present.

Sometimes this is confusing and frustrating: records are patchy, evidence is destroyed and a lot of the time people disagree about what happened and what it means. Sometimes there are more questions than answers. But more often than not, trying to make sense of the traces of the past is also pretty exciting. Things are not always what they seem. Aren’t we always in the process of finding that out?

I’ve written a short piece about why I think podcasting matters to historians and what is special about History Lab (it involves an iceberg analogy), but this is the redux version:

First, in a world of fake-news and post-fact, showing what lies behind historians’ claims to knowledge about the past is imperative if those claims are to be believed.

Second, and related, personal experience is transformative. Abstractions and stories must be taken on trust, but lived experience is direct. Hearing steps echoing in empty corridors and the host wondering about the things historians say, invites the listener into the process of discovery. It opens up the experience of history-making to all who listen.

In these two ways, the History Lab podcast seeks to be a contribution to public discourse – it is premised on the notion that doing the work of thinking and making meaning together is central to the good society.

So come and join the History Lab.  Listen online, download in a podcast app and subscribe to receive notifications whenever we release an episode. Tell your internet friends by posting it on facebook, follow @historylabpod on the twitter or send out a carrier pigeon.

Best of all, sit give your friends a good cup of tea and tickle their ears with some history.

Series 1 is as follows (and yes Episode 1 releases imminently!)

  • Episode 1: (30 May) Lindy Chamberlain and the Afterlife of Evidence – What has happened to all the evidence on which Lindy’s trials turned?
  • Episode 2: (13 June) Damages for a broken heart – What is the history of love and heartbreak in colonial Australia?
  • Episode 3: (27 June) When the Titanic sank in the outback – Why is there a memorial to the Titanic in the middle of outback Australia?
  • Episode 4: (11 July) Fishing for answers – We encounter the practices of the Eora fisherwomen and discover if you listen closely the past of Sydney Harbour still sings.
  • Bonus Episode 5: (18 July) The making of History Lab  Explore the thrills and spills of Season 1, and how you can get involved in the next season.

But, wait there’s more!

Don’t just listen to History Lab – help to make it! History Lab is open as national engagement platform for historians of all stripes. Find out more about how to pitch us an episode and a whole lot more at our website



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I was invited to comment (via the magic of digital media) on Hilary Perraton’s A History of Foreign Students in Britain (Palgrave, 2014), at the launch taking place in London on 29 November 2014. If you are there I’ll hopefully appear on a big screen, but for the rest of the world, here’s what I had to say:

Let me begin by saying that I have very much enjoyed reading this book. I come to you of course, as one who has been a ‘foreign’ student in Britain , and I imagine that many of those in the audience also share this experience.

Foreign students have become a familiar feature on university campuses and in cities across Britain since the 1980s, when institutions, governments, and the public alike began to grapple with economic and domestic policy shifts that drove universities, in Hilary’s words ‘into the marketplace’, forcing them to seek new forms of income and new forms of commercial engagement.

However, too often all parties involved in discussion about the place of foreign students in Britain universities are in danger of thinking of them as a phenomenon of the late 20th century. That’s one of the reasons that this book by Hilary Perraton is so valuable.

In taking the long view on international student mobility, Hilary shows us that the movement of students across borders has been happening since universities were first established in the British Isles in the eleventh century. Indeed, with the growth of ‘studium generale’ across Medieval Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries, the idea of student mobility became central to the very definition of a university. The term itself referred to an intellectual culture that was shared throughout western Christendom. ‘Scholars and tutors could travel, study and teach with their qualifications universally recognised’ (20). In fact, the movement of ideas, books and people was a central part of developing and propagating this pan-European culture. Since then, the numbers and direction of the flow of students across borders has waxed and waned, but their connection to the basal idea of the university remains.

Taking this the long view immediately reveals the slipperiness of the definitions we mobilise when we study this subject. What counts as a ‘student’? Should it include secondary school students? Or those who enrolled for a time but never graduated? What makes a ‘student’ foreign? And for that matter, what makes them ‘British’? This is not simply a question of parentage, residence and the difficulty of categorising lives lived across borders, but also a matter of shifting geo-political boundaries. Should the many sites of ‘empire’ – tied so closely to British universities by culture, and by the movement of students and the hiring of academics, and indeed also to British economic interests, that in 1889 the Commissioners appointed to direct the proceeds of the 1851 Exhibition, placed colonial universities alongside British provincial ones when they designed scholarships designed to benefit ‘national science’ – be counted as part of an expansive British academic world? Indeed, which regions were part of the empire and which outside it? The notion of ‘informal empire’ takes us only so far. How do we think about Scotland – with its flourishing universities that sat at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment – in the period before the Act of Union, but also after it – when distinctive institutional culture remained, attracting large numbers of international students to the famous Edinburgh Medical School well into the 19th century. Indeed, institutional particularity is a difficult subject to get at. Perhaps the nation is a poor unit of analysis, when one institution could thrive, and another languish, both at the same time.

Thinking about the difficulty of drawing these conceptual boundaries points to the problems inherent in attempting to ‘nationalise’ ideas. What is ‘British science’ if it is undertaken in part by people who were or who were once, ‘foreign students’, and who bring to their scientific explorations, all the experience of other places and contexts? When knowledge is crucial to the waging of war, or to the building of nations, or indeed to the generation of ‘intellectual property’, this becomes a pressing question.

Although the title does not suggest it, Hilary Perraton’s book also takes the wide view. Students have never travelled along a one-way street, and their movement into Britain must be seen alongside a direction of travel that flows the other way. Hilary suggests this in various places – for example, he tells us that in the 15th century, Britain exported more scholars that it attracted (22) – but I’d often liked to have seen more about outward flows alongside inward ones. What he does do very well is place foreign students in Britain within the broader context of European and global movement, and the chapter on international comparisons, in particular I found illuminating.

By taking both a long and a wide view we see clearly the importance of what we might term ‘the international political economy of higher education’.

Students did not simply come to Britain – they were attracted here by different forces at different times, and the rise and fall in their numbers tracks the political and economic history of both local and international forces. Therefore, in medieval Europe religious orders such as the Dominicans encouraged their members to travel and twelfth century Bologna, Paris and Padua attracted an increasing number of foreign students. Paradoxically, as universities flowered across Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, travel between them decreased as each turned to their regions. Towards the end of the 15th century numbers rose again as the wars of religion abated and religious learning and law became central to the emerging political consensus. Travel once again became more restricted during the Thirty Years’ war (1618-48) and the end of the 17th century was ‘a period in which European university numbers were falling and bans were placed on foreign study by mercantilist monarchs’ (203). By the end of the 18th century, many were in decline, with a number of universities folding completely. But the mid nineteenth century witnessed their return. Empire, industrialisation, and the growth of the middle classes and the professions, led to an increase in universities, university numbers, and foreign students alike. On the cusp of the First World War 15.4% of the students in France, 10.7% of those in Germany, and approximately 10% of those in Britain were from abroad (204, 56). Between the two world wars a host of international agencies and scholarships supported mobility in the aid of ‘international understanding’, but the rise of fascism changed all this, reminding us that flows of students are driven by war and fear, as well as by hope and opportunity. The Cold War saw student mobility shaped by political imperatives, and students recruited into the soft diplomacy objectives of schemes like the Fulbright. As Hilary succinctly puts it ‘scholarship programmes illuminate government policy’ (215).

Crucially – and as these examples suggest – this was a political economy in which local states and later nations played crucial roles. The quote Hilary gives from Clark Kerr sums this up well:

Universities are, by nature of their commitment to advancing universal knowledge, essentially international institutions, but they have been living in a world of nation states that have designs upon them. My basic question is: where does this dual identification position these institutions between a mythical academic Heaven and a sometimes actual earthly hell, and in what ways does it affect how they may act? … Which to serve: the universal truth or the particularised power? (212)

Of course one of Hilary’s points is that apparent ‘universal truth’ and particularised power have often overlapped. The absolute claims of proponents of the Protestant Reformation were, for example, turned to very local ends by the crown in the 16th century.

And this seems to me an important point: the international political economy of higher education has generated overlapping geographies of student mobility. The wars of religion divided Europe into a Catholic and a Protestant zone around which students moved. This division was gradually (although never entirely) replaced by an age of empires, in which students were drawn variously to Britain, France and Spain. Later, during the Cold War, ‘two circles of European student mobility came into existence’, with Africa and Asia the site of battle (217). An ideological divide of east and west, echoed the earlier religious one that divided Europe into Protestant north and Catholic south (209).

Now we have the market. Where the notion of universities as a place of learning seems sometimes to sit ill with the imperative placed upon them to look for revenue in the global market for international students. Although it is couched in the language of choice, student mobility in this era of the market is characterised by vast disparities too.

Because the international political economy of higher education is and always has been marked, not just by politics, but also by geographies of economic and cultural inequality. Many of these played out in the reception of students. From reading Hilary’s book we see that Britain has a long and history of not being particularly welcoming to its student visitors. Race, says Hilary, was never a formal barrier – and by that I think he means that formal exclusion on the grounds of race was never institutionalised in university statutes in Britain. But there were, as he acknowledges, a myriad of other obstacles placed in the way of the aspiring non-conformist, Jewish, African or Indian student. Distance, confession, expense, opportunity all kept students away (48) and racism made them unwelcome after arrival. Some of these informal barriers were so actively encouraged that they might be classed official policy. Gender too shaped travel. Hilary discusses briefly the formal admittance of women. It’s difficult to capture, but the relationship between women’s worlds of learning, and those of men, is something we still don’t understand and it points to a much larger question that this book does not address: when some people moved, on whose immobility was their mobility contingent? These are relationships that it is hard to capture, but if we think increasingly about the international political economy of higher education in our own world, we see how crucial they are.

This book makes us ask: how have travelling students shaped British universities? Travelling students were constitutive of the early medieval idea of a university and there is a desperate sense in which this is equally true today. What would happen to British universities if their large cohorts of international students disappeared? This kind of accounting shows how crucial they have become to the operation of higher education institutions in Britain.

But thinking temporally and spatially about the long history of international student mobility also shows us just how central it remains to idea of the university itself. As Clark Kerr implied, universities still sit between the local and the ‘universal’: they depend on the free movement of ideas and people at the same time as they need to serve local constituencies. Mediating these demands, in the context of the changing international political economy of higher education has – as Hilary Perraton’s book shows – long been their challenge.

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