In our final Q&A for 2016, Anna Clark, Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Co-Director of the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney, discusses how her intellectual heroes and mentors have shaped her approach to history and what she loves about being an historian.
Anna Clark is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Co-Director of the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney. She grew up in Sydney, and studied at Sydney University, before moving to Melbourne to do a PhD. With Stuart Macintyre, she wrote the History Wars in 2003, which was awarded the NSW Premier’s Prize for Australian History and the Queensland Premier’s Prize for Best Literary or Media Work Advancing Public Debate. She has also written two history books for children, Convicted! and Explored! Her current project, ‘Re-imagining the National Story’, is a history of Australian historiography, funded by the Australian Research Council.
1. Was there a moment when you discovered your love of history?
History has always been pretty prominent in my family! But I sort of avoided it for the first couple of years at uni for that very reason. Eventually I picked up an Australian history subject, partly due to timetabling convenience and absolutely loved it. I also got my first ever HD at uni, and I pretty much dropped all of my other subjects and just did history after that.
2. Why did you become an academic historian?
I don’t really know the answer to that. The flexibility to work on your own projects, teach and research is such a luxury, but it wasn’t something I was ever striving for. I’ve been very, very lucky to work in this field, and I absolutely love it, but it wasn’t a career track that I was strategically working towards. And, like many academics, I spent over 10 years on fixed-term contracts with no long-term security.
3. Is there a theme or a burning question that inspires your historical research?
I’m really interested in what connects people to history, how it works as a discipline and how it’s taught, as well as the intersections between the academic, popular, public and political in Australian history. I enjoy thinking about the different ways that history operates in different contexts—schools, politics, commemorations, families—and how those contexts intersect.
4. How has academic history changed since you began your career?
The pressures to teach and research and progress one’s career are accelerating, while job security and numbers of academic appointments in history seem to be decreasing. At an impact level, I also think there is increasing pressure on academic historians to engage with popular and public audiences as well as engage with popular and public histories (which I support).
5. What is your favourite thing about being an academic historian?
The thinking and writing. To think about something deeply, and try and communicate that is what keeps me going. Also the flexibility—I have young kids and work part-time, so I enjoy that balance of home and scholarly life.
6. Your least favourite thing?
Probably the increasing pressure to publish and attract external funding. While publishing is critical to academic scholarship, historical work comes in all forms and isn’t necessarily amenable to quantitative matrices.
7. Do you have any intellectual heroes? Which historians have had the greatest influence on the way you research and write?
The late and wonderful Inga Clendinnen is one of my heroes. She was such a powerful thinker and extraordinary writer. I keep returning to and rereading her work. Tom Griffiths is another historian whose work I admire greatly and who engages with the many tendrils of history, generously incorporating environmental, literary, scholarly, intellectual, public and vernacular domains—and he’s a beautiful writer.
8. Have you had mentors over the course of your career? How important are they?
I’ve had great support over the years from my supervisors, especially Penny Russell at Sydney University and Stuart Macintyre at Melbourne. Both have really shaped my thinking and writing. One of the great things about academia is its intellectual generosity to younger scholars. So many people have read my drafts, written referees’ reports, shared their research, engaged at conferences etc. I’m now pleased that I’m in a position to be paying that forward to others.
9. What advice can you give to history ECRs about their careers?
Probably to hook into reading and writing groups. Feeling part of an intellectual community is critical for a job that is often self-directed and involves independent research.