Q&A with Stuart Macintyre

To get us all ready for a week of thinking and breathing history at the Australian Historical Association Conference, we have a Q&A with Stuart Macintyre, Emeritus Laureate Professor of the University and Professorial Fellow of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. In this thought provoking piece, he talks about the changes that have occurred in academic history, reflects on the way historians’ choice of subjects are made both by interest and opportunity, and discusses the never ceasing thrill of opening an archive file at the beginning of a day of research. Stuart will be one of the panellists on our Early Career Researcher Round-table, ‘The Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow: Writing a winning grant application’, so come along and hear more of his fantastic advice for ECRs – all welcome!


Stuart Macintyre is Emeritus Laureate Professor of the University and and a Professorial Fellow of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. He was president of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia from 2007 to 2009 and is a life member of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. With Alison Ashford, he edited the Cambridge History of Australia (2013); his most recent book is Australia’s Boldest Experiment: War and Reconstruction in the 1940s (2015).   

1. Was there a moment when you discovered your love of history?

Probably not. Historians are familiar with the dangers of hindsight, and it is when I look back that I can identify various influences. One was family, especially my mother, for she was one of a very large family that liked nothing better than to reminisce. They did so with a fine disregard for chronology. ‘Was that the Crimean War or the Boer War?’ my grandmother pondered late in life when relating how her family had pioneered a farming settlement in the mallee country of South Australian; but that was when I was beginning to seek greater precision for these stories of change and continuity.

Another was reading. At a young age I became absorbed in historical fiction, from G.A. Henty and Arthur Conan Doyle to Scott and Stevenson. Such reading was encouraged at school and I was the beneficiary of excellent municipal and school libraries. I was also blessed to study history in Years 11 and 12 with a singularly gifted teacher of history – a man called David Webster who had been a contemporary of Ann Moyal at the University of Sydney after World War Two. Many undergraduates choose history because of a schoolteacher, and I was one of them.

2. Why did you become an academic historian?

Like many others of my generation, I began a combined degree in Arts and Law with the intention of becoming a lawyer. That intention wavered with the contrast between a stolid instruction in black-letter law and the excitement of learning history. In second year the study of Criminal Law and Torts was tolerable, but the prospect of taking Property and Contracts in third year led me to bale out and make up the missing subjects for an Arts degree.

Since so many others made the same choice, this was by no means a definite career decision, though I recall that when I informed my parents of my decision and they asked what I proposed to do instead of law, I casually replied that I might become a historian. But I was by no means a diligent student, nor did I think about how to pursue an academic career. I was heavily involved in politics at that time and it was in the final honours year that my study of modern European and British history came to inform my participation in the New Left. I proceeded to postgraduate study, principally because I was offered a scholarship so it was the course of least resistance. By the time I finished my M.A., I knew I wanted to be an academic historian (academic in the sense that university employment offered the opportunity to teach and pursue research) and so proceeded to doctoral studies in England.

It was some time later, after completing my doctorate and holding a research fellowship there, that I returned to Australia and began studying Australian history – principally because in that pre-digital era, the capacity to maintain research in British history was restricted to periods of study leave.

3. A lot of your work has been concerned with the relationship between labour and the political system. Is class inequality the primary inspiration behind what you do? Are there other sources of inspiration?

My first two books were exercises in a particular kind of labour history – one inflected by Marxism and social history. Class inequality and exploitation was certainly a major concern, one arising from my involvement in the New Left, and I’d always been interested in the study of politics, though the theories of class with which my generation worked extended to other social relations.

I’ve continued to practise labour history, including studies of particular occupations and unions, the Communist and Labor parties, but my interests have diversified to encompass biography, historiography and intellectual history more broadly.

The choices of subject that a historian makes are partly determined by interest and partly by opportunity. Shortly after returning to Australia in 1979, I was asked to write a volume of The Oxford History of Australia and that took me into a form of general history that I’ve continued to practise.

I have a particular attraction to archival research – the feeling of excitement when I open the first file at the beginning of the day is particularly sharp. I’ve been fortunate to have served terms on the councils of the National Library and the State Library of Victoria, and to have been involved in the fortunes of some major archives. I’ve always been interested in cognate disciplines, especially politics and economic history, and through involvement in the Academy of the Social Sciences I’ve been able to follow work done in those disciplines.

In the closing years of the last century it became common to condemn disciplines as artificial confinements that were an impediment to understanding. History, according to a commonly used taxonomy, was a pure-soft discipline. It was pure in the sense that its knowledge had no practical application, and soft in the sense that it had no hard disciplinary paradigm. But if history is not a form of vocational training, it is eminently practical. And its ‘softness’ enables it to draw on the methods, techniques and understanding of other disciplines more freely than most others. But above all it is a disciplined form of intellectual inquiry with its own principles and procedures.

Taking advantage of the opportunity to seek an understanding of society, institutions and political choice has remained a source of enjoyment throughout my career.

4. How do you think your background has shaped the questions that you ask?

Hard to say. I was fortunate in my family background, friendships, education and timing. I attended a private school whose values I rejected but with the advantages it conferred. I entered the University of Melbourne in a period of unprecedented growth that exposed me to a much greater diversity of fellow-students; and later, at Cambridge, I benefitted from the stimulation of a very talented generation of historians.

The topics I pursue and the questions I ask arise from my interests and are informed by my convictions; but in each case I am seeking to clarify them, to explore aspects that seem to me to be by no means evident or on which my feelings are ambiguous. I am usually attracted to the subject but with reservations I want to resolve. I’m reluctant to think a subject has been exhausted in its implications and possibilities.

5. How has academic history changed since you began your career?

It has changed institutionally with the reconfiguration of higher education and research, a change that we in Australia associate with John Dawkins and the creation in 1988 of a Unified National System, but is evident elsewhere.

Higher education changed at that time from a rarified pursuit restricted to an elite to a mass system that is far more instrumental in its objectives. Research became an adjunct of innovation. These changes had major implications for a discipline such as history that was part of a liberal education, and for historical research as a curiosity-based activity. We see the effects in the replacement of history departments by multi-disciplinary schools, in a funding system that disadvantages our discipline, in the regime of performance management and the disappearance from a majority of Australian universities of a planned sequence of history subjects that culminates in the honours program as an apprenticeship to the discipline.

Academic history has changed in its composition, though perhaps not as much as it should. It is no longer dominated by men, but it under-represents minorities.

It has changed intellectually with the shift from history as a form of liberal education to a service function and the increased reliance on applied subjects suited to vocational courses. And it has changed from denominating the study of the past by place and time to more thematic configurations.

Like all academic disciplines, history is marked by conformity and originality. Its methods of validation (from assessment to peer-review of research proposals and publications, appointment and promotion) make for imitation and tend to reinforce the status quo; but reputations are made by breaking new ground. We have now, as we have always had, clusters of research that are defined by fashion, where the outcome is understood in advance of the research, as well as more independent, innovative work. The current emphasis on research assessment and internationalisation, incidentally, tends to flatten out experimentation.

6. What do you think about the future of state-sponsored academic history? Does it have one?

Government policy on higher education and research is unhelpful, but then it is unhelpful to the humanities disciplines more generally. Even so, the shibboleths of that policy are far from consistent. It proclaims the need for interdisciplinary research, and yet research is still conducted and classified on a disciplinary basis. And as Graeme Turner’s report on the humanities and social sciences indicates, they still make up a large part of the country’s enrolments and research activity.

Government patronage of history beyond the academy is a sorry story. Ever since the establishment of the Prime Minister’s prize for history there has been stacking of the judging panel – except that it is not a judging panel since prime ministers on both sides of politics have overridden the panel’s recommendation. The failure of those who have served on these panels to denounce such interference is a particular disappointment. Much the same can be said about government direction of schools and the forms of public history it controls through cultural institutions and patronage.

Academic history is not well served by the publishing industry – which is still searching for a viable business model – nor by the penumbra of literary festivals, newspaper reviews and the like. We see a bifurcation between popular trade books and scholarly monographs. Too often those seeking to crack the trade market are advised to dispense with the scholarship. Having said that, there is more good history published now than in the past.

My chief worry is that the opportunity to study history freely and properly is becoming restricted to a minority of the more prestigious universities.

7. What is your favourite thing about being an academic historian?

The opportunity to combine a career with a vocation is a remarkable privilege. When, as a postgraduate student, I was able to read and think about the past with a stipend that paid me to do so, I was conscious of an unusual privilege. I have the same feeling whenever I open the new issue of a journal or turn back the covers of a book. It is even sharper as I begin a new project.

Academics are unusual in that they are free to allocate their time to their responsibilities as they choose. We don’t clock on and clock off. Despite the incursions of performance management, management can’t conduct our tasks: we design our courses and conduct our research, we guide our students and interpret the past.

8. Your least favourite thing?

Top of the list would be meetings, which in my experience are conducted in universities without regard to their utility, effectiveness or the time they absorb.

After that would come the increased separation of university management from the real work and purpose of the university. It used to be that the Vice-Chancellor and perhaps a few senior academics exercised management responsibilities on a full-time basis, but now it is deans and, all too often, heads of school. So a Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) conducts no research and her equivalent (Teaching and Learning) no longer teaches but instead they promulgate policies about how the activity is to be conducted.

I was fortunate that my career fell between two eras, one in which collegialism tolerated very lax performance and another in which line management became excessive.

9. Do you have any intellectual heroes? Which historians have had the greatest influence on the way you research and write?

My first hero was Macaulay, especially his essays. I discovered him in Year 10 and, as my history teacher observed, was infected by his purple prose. But I reread Macaulay’s History about every ten years, each time with wry delight. I then went through a Carlylean phase, and at about the same time discovered Marx’s historical essays. They too repay rereading.

Two English historians influenced me greatly as an undergraduate and postgraduate student. Maitland still seems to me to be a remarkable interpreter of institutions and structures, while Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism had a lasting effect. Marc Bloch was another influence.

Of those historians working as I established my career, Edward Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm were probably the most influential. And there have been so many producing superb work since that it would be invidious to single any out.

10. What do you think is the role of academic historians? Are we gate-keepers of certain values? Are we using the medium of the past to do similar work to novelists and artists? Are we social scientists?

When I became a historian, the discipline was a more important branch of the social sciences than it is now. I retain that earlier aspiration to understand cause and effect, what happened and why it happened, I see history an essential component of understanding public affairs.

The gate-keeping function is a limited one. It was not until after the Second World War that history came of age as a professional discipline, and even then its capacity to set standards was largely restricted to the academy. We certainly have a duty to judge accounts of the past according to the standards of the discipline – and to criticise those that do not deal faithfully with the primary sources, misrepresent secondary works, overlook important bodies of work, misunderstand context or violate principles of historical interpretation.

It would be myopic to think that we can impose our procedures on more popular forms of history, or to overlook the principles that govern them. No amount of scholarly rectification will alter these uses and misuses of the past; but we have a duty to uphold a disciplined understanding of the past.

11. Have you had mentors over the course of your career? How important are they?

The history profession is marked by a remarkable collegiality that assists newcomers. My greatest debt as an undergraduate was to Alison Patrick at Melbourne. She tolerated my erratic enthusiasms and then arranged for me to tutor in her first-year subject while I completed my M.A. thesis. Both Alan McBriar and David Cuthbert, who supervised it at Monash, were encouraging – Alan later made time to provide a very detailed reading of the draft of the doctoral thesis that I sent him from Cambridge. And my supervisor there, Henry Pelling, went out of his way to advance my career. I’d like to think that we are guided in our obligation to encourage others by the example of those who encouraged us. Even if unconsciously, we draw on the example of those we saw do it well.

Among my later mentors I’m particularly conscious of that group of Old Left historians whom I’d cut my New Left teeth by criticising. Ian Turner went out of his way to accept that criticism, and his friend Stephen Murray-Smith took me up when I returned to Australia at the end of the 1970s, as did Geoff Serle. Above all, I’m grateful to Bob Gollan – and treasure the copy of John Norton’s Australian edition of The History of Capital and Labour that he gave me. Bob assisted me in many ways, especially when I was writing The Reds.

And like all historians pursuing an academic career, I’m grateful to senior colleagues who aided and encouraged me. I think here particularly of Geoffrey Bolton, Pat Troy, Lloyd Robson, Greg Dening and others. Of my contemporary colleagues I owe a special debt to Pat Grimshaw, and have benefited greatly from working with Graeme Davison and John Hirst.

12. What advice can you give to history ECRs about their careers?

It’s risky to give advice when the pattern of academic careers has changed so markedly. There have always been more aspirants than opportunities, and the path from postgraduate studies to a tenurable appointment is now longer and more precipitous than when I took it.

It requires determination, nimbleness, patience, a clear-eyed appreciation of what is on offer. The usual advice applies: take opportunities to present your work in seminars, conferences and publications; time your application for a DECRA; make use of contacts; face to face is better than email; speak frankly to your mentors and ask them to be frank in their guidance.

As in an established career, an ECR has to juggle a number of activities – teaching, administration, research, writing. The first rule of casual teaching is to build a wall around part of the week that is devoted to your own work. The second rule is to adjust time to the task – a doctoral thesis is usually an exhaustive exercise, whereas so many of the activities that follow can’t be exhaustive.

Don’t over-specialise. Don’t restrict your reading to your specialisation; keep an eye on what is happening in other fields. Be prepared to read yourself into a new one; it’s a skill that will serve you well.

13. If you didn’t become an historian, what do you think you would have done?

Between completing my honours year and being offered a postgraduate scholarship, I was interviewed for a job in the Commonwealth public service as an archivist. I was always attracted to libraries. Until I got to know what it entailed, I was interested in going into politics. But I suspect that regardless of these possibilities, I would have continued to practise history.

14. Sam Mitchell or Luke Hodge?

Is there a choice? At my primary school in Hawthorn, the question was not what jumper you wore but what number. I chose 23 for John Peck (nicknamed Elvis), who went on to play full forward in the 1961 premiership side. The number was passed on to Don Scott and then Dermot Brereton; but if I had a free pick it would be Peter Hudson.


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