In this thought-provoking Q&A, Tom Griffiths, William Keith Hancock Professor of History at the Australian National University, discusses the place of imagination in history, his goal to bridge the sciences and the humanities and the role of historians to unsettle and inspire. He encourages Early Career Researchers to develop a sense of themselves as scholars and to trust their intuition and reminds us that being an historian is a lifelong apprenticeship.
Tom Griffiths is a Professor of History in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University, Canberra, and Director of the Centre for Environmental History at ANU. His research, writing and teaching are in the fields of Australian social, cultural and environmental history, the comparative environmental history of settler societies, the writing of non-fiction, and the history of Antarctica. Tom’s books and essays have won prizes in history, science, literature, politics and journalism. His most recent monograph, Slicing the Silence: Voyaging to Antarctica (UNSW Press and Harvard University Press, 2007), won the Queensland and NSW Premiers’ awards for Non-Fiction and was the joint winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History in 2008.
1. Was there a moment when you discovered your love of history?
My instinctive way to make sense of something is to try to understand how it has come into being, how it has evolved over time. My parents had scientific training and were also serious students of culture, so I grew up in a home full of fascinating books. I enjoyed history at school but I also enjoyed French, English, maths, physics and biology. It wasn’t until my second and third years at university that I really fell in love with history, and it was thanks to the influence of literary-minded historians such as Donna Merwick, Greg Dening and Pat Grimshaw. They helped me to see that doing history required a rigorous kind of thinking and also a dedication to the craft of writing. I wanted to write, and I suddenly realised that what I wanted to write was history.
2. Why did you become an academic historian?
I felt a strong calling to be a historian, somehow, but not necessarily to working in the academy. My first sustained jobs were in public history – as a consultant to Museum Victoria, field officer at the State Library of Victoria and historian in the Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands. Apart from some casual tutoring I was not employed by a university until my early 30s when I was appointed Lecturer in Public History at Monash University. It was a job that enabled me to work across the boundaries between the academy and the community and to encourage my students to do the same. Graeme Davison offered a model of practice. He was an academic leader who sought to empower the new generation of historians working in heritage, conservation, museums, libraries and commissioned history. I did my PhD part-time with these jobs and with a young family and it was a constant source of joy.
3. How do you choose your projects? Is there a theme or a burning question that inspires your historical research?
Perhaps projects choose you? Sometimes it feels that way. The best projects, I find, grow slowly, organically and intuitively. Or they are delivered to you, suddenly, by life experience. The grant application culture of today gives too much encouragement to narrow rational planning. We have to play that game, but all the more important, then, that we nurture spaces in our lives where original thoughts can take us unawares. Time in the archive and time in the field: these have been the two great sources of my insights. My work at the State Library of Victoria, where I was steeped in archives and the culture of collection, led to my PhD and book, Hunters and Collectors. My work for the Department of Conservation on the forests near Melbourne threw me into the history of forests and fire. And my desire to write a history of Antarctica was given shape and urgency by the opportunity to visit the continent of ice with the Australian Antarctic Division. An enduring quest in my work has been to bring together history and natural history and to bridge the sciences and the humanities.
4. You’ve worked in both public history and academia, how has this shaped the way you research and write history?
Fundamentally! I feel blessed to have worked as a historian in a number of settings, both within and outside universities – in the public history positions I mentioned above, with scientists (on forests, fire, climate and Antarctica), and also in international academic diplomacy at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies in London. Working at the edge of one’s discipline with people of different training or from other walks of life makes one reflect on the distinctive skills of the historian. I feel that I’ve been exposed to a creative edge through that work. Also my academic teachers always made it clear that the intelligent general public really exists and is our first imagined audience.
5. What role do you think imagination plays in researching and writing history?
My recent book, The Art of Time Travel, explores that question. Of course imagination is vital. But it doesn’t mean making things up. It is up to historians to explain to their social-science colleagues and to the public the disciplined act of the imagination required by the writing of good history. I constantly read novels, enjoy poetry, film and theatre and love art, and they all feed my historical imagination. I am often struck by how much historians and novelists share as writers and I’ve learned a great deal from conversations with novelists such as Marion Halligan, Delia Falconer and Alex Miller. History doesn’t own truth, and fiction doesn’t own imagination, but sometimes the differences between history and fiction are very important indeed. Occasionally, however, it is hard to draw the line. Recently I read Marguerite Yourcenar’s scholarly ‘novel’ Memoirs of Hadrian about the Roman emperor. It is wonderful! Read it and ask yourself if it is a work of history or fiction.
6. How has the practice of history changed since you began your career? And what do you see as the new and exciting challenges facing historians today?
Answering this question in early 2017, I wonder if we have shifted suddenly from a world where humanists felt their role was to challenge the certainty of truth to one where they now need to defend the very possibility of it. The strategies of public debate refined by climate denialists since the 1990s are now permeating all policy areas. Systematic evidence-based knowledge is often sabotaged and disparaged. Historians, like scientists, face the challenge of explaining how uncertainty is compatible with the search for truth and understanding.
When I began my career, the ‘new social history’, feminist history, Indigenous history and environmental history were revolutionising historical perspectives. Since the late 1980s the scale of history has been zooming in and out adventurously, and microhistory, world history and Big History have become vigorous genres. As well as thinking in much deeper timescales, historians such as David Christian in Maps of Time (2004) and Dipesh Chakrabarty in ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’ (2009) are considering what it means to write a history of humans as a species. I’m excited by the way historians have been at the forefront of humanistic analyses of climate change and ‘the Anthropocene’.
7. What do you see as the most important role of the historian in Australia?
To deepen our capacity for compassion and understanding by constantly bringing to our attention the rich complexity of human experience. To unsettle comforting complacencies. To inspire and spellbind with true stories. Right now I especially admire our colleagues who are giving voice to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and writing scholarly histories of immigration and refugees.
8. What is your favourite thing about being an historian?
I love the seamlessness of it all. It is a lifelong apprenticeship in storytelling. The learning never stops. It is a rigorous intellectual challenge and also a constant stimulus to conversation and adventure.
9. What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced as an historian?
Historians always have to be brave because of their commitment to complexity, and also because they respect the locals. Contemporary history can be especially challenging because the witnesses talk back. Local history can be harder to write than world history because authority in small communities is generally bestowed by pedigree and experience. I felt daunted by attempting a history of Antarctica because I first had to earn my right to write. And being invited to work with a community that suffered in the Black Saturday firestorm was both an enormous privilege and a perilous responsibility.
10. Who are your intellectual heroes and how have they influenced the way you research and write history?
I enjoyed writing about many of my Australian intellectual heroes in The Art of Time Travel. Overseas scholars who have influenced and inspired me include Jane Carruthers, David Lowenthal and Stephen Pyne. From good teachers, one learns not just skills and philosophies but a whole creative way of living. Perhaps this is even more the case with one’s contemporaries and students. I enjoy being a historian not least because I tend to like historians!
11. What advice would you give to Early Career Researchers about making a career as an historian?
Develop a sense of yourself as a scholar, teacher and writer that is independent of how academic institutions value you. If you set out just to meet the bureaucratic measures, therein lies frustration and failure. Learn to trust your intuition. Spend regular time in archives. And create spaces in your life for writing.