Historians go adventuring

Students must be encouraged to let go of the familiar

Dinoo Kelleghan

Dr Penny Russell ... students need to read expansively

“The biggest challenge facing the great teachers … is how to ignite the first spark of the will o’the wisp … that lights up one source of history and then another, zigzagging across the marsh, connecting and linking and writing bright words across the dark face of the present.”
– Stephen Fry

“Curiosity first and foremost,” the University of Sydney’s Chair of History says when asked what quality teachers should instil in history students. “What we want most from students is a capacity to read — read expansively, and with purpose and curiosity.”

Professor Penny Russell, Bicentennial Professor of Australian History and head of Sydney University’s History Department, says budding historians need to have “a willingness to be plunged into the unfamiliar”.

In the teaching of history in primary school there’s an emphasis on fanning out from the individual to the family to nations but the notion that history begins with oneself doesn’t sit easy with Dr Russell. How can 21st century youth enter into the world of mediaeval history if they are only trained to look for what is relevant to them?

She wants teachers to “stimulate children to have a capacity to enter imaginatively into worlds, to study history as if the world doesn’t revolve around you”.

That’s a challenge she’ll face in July when she takes up the prestigious Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard and lectures American students on the history of a country they regularly confuse with Austria.

“I’m looking forward to the challenges of making Australian history interesting and relevant to students who are far removed from it,” she said.

History is not a placid lake for students to float in, says Professor Russell: you have to swim, use the tide to lift and take you places.

“You need to be able to construct an argument to be a successful historian,” she said. “When you read history, you’ve got to be able to identify the argument and see the main moves in the argument, discuss the scaffolding that shapes and holds up the argument.”

History students need to have the “golden thread” that runs through their written work that propounds an argument. Given the immensity of history, says Professor Russell, many students feel intimidated by this prospect.

“One of the hardest skills for students to acquire is how to state an argument.

“I know it’s hard for them to have that sense of authority. But a lecturer marking an essay will say to the student, ‘Yours is the guiding intellect and we need to see this on the page’. We need to see the thinking process on the page — that’s the spark of originality for which the essay marker is always looking .”

Teaching Australian history

The question of Australian history and how it’s taught is a battlefield, says Penny Russell, not referring merely to the history wars over the curriculum.

“There are pushes to try to reduce Australian history to one thing or another. One strand is the convict, colonial, military part and the sense of nationhood, and that’s not terribly interesting to a lot of history students. Then there’s a history of violence and dispossession. But that told as a single moral narrative can alienate people. So both the narrative of guilt and the narrative of pride don’t satisfy.”

How does Professor Russell make Australian colonial history interesting to young immigrant students who don’t have much in common with either the early settlers or Indigenous Australians?

“There’s an obvious thread,” she says. “Australia is founded on immigration – can it [invasion and settlement] happen again and undo what we have created?

“There’s a sense of continual arrival from 1708, a succession of arrivals of immigrants seeking many different things from Australia. So there are many people dealing with assimilation and the question of where you feel at home and what home means.”

At Harvard, Professor Russell will be working on three books. “The one I’m keen to get finished while I’m there is what happens to ideas of honour in colonial society and how they frame class and status.”

She will teach two courses: one, “Intimate Frontiers”, will be on gender and sexuality in settler society, specifically in Australia. The second course, “Emotions in history” will explore whether historians should cultivate or clamp down on empathy with their subject and whether emotive writing spoils scholarly rigor and balance.

Wars obscure others

The Americans are gearing up for their World War I anniversary, when the United States entered the war in 1917, and this comes after Australia’s extensive commemorations. “I’m hoping we can let it go a bit,” Professor Penny Russell said. “It’s become all-consuming. National narratives leap from foundational moment to foundational moment – the goldfields to Gallipoli, skipping all the things I’m interested in. Soldiers sanctified as national heroes in a way that nothing else can compete with. What does that do to the rest of us in nation-making?”

Professor Penny Russell’s article, “A love affair with history”, will appear in Federation’s next issue of the Journal of Professional Learning, JPL

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