In this month’s Q&A Professor David Lowe talks about his continuing love of history, why history matters and the intellectual heroes and mentors who have inspired him. He has some fantastic advice for ECRs, encouraging us to publish at both ends of the spectrum and to follow our passion, which he argues is crucial for sustaining our enthusiasm in the long run!
Professor David Lowe is head of the Contemporary Histories Research Group at Deakin University. He is an historian of international relations and Australia in world affairs. Professor Lowe joined Deakin University from Cambridge in 1991, and from 1993 to 1995 was Monash Lecturer in Australian Politics at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, University of London.
1. Tell us a bit about your background.
I grew up in Melbourne’s southeast suburb of Dandenong and went to Dandy West Primary (we had a great song to direct at rival schools: ‘Dandy West are the best; all the others are a pest’); and then nearby Dingley, and went to Haileybury College where my Dad was a maths teacher; then Monash as an undergraduate, including honours; and then Cambridge for a PhD.
2. Was there a moment when you discovered your love of history?
I’m not sure about a ‘moment’ as such, but the love of compelling narrative grew on me as I worked my way through secondary school, and I think I enjoyed English Literature more than most other subjects (I didn’t study history at upper level secondary school). I was also lucky enough to experience two very gifted lecturers at Monash, David Cuthbert, who brought high drama and rhetorical questioning to the study of the Second World War, and Graham Worrall, whose enthusiasm for lecturing on the French Revolution was palpable.
3. Why did you become an academic historian?
I started out doing combined Arts/Law but gravitated steadily towards the Arts side of things and History in particular. I remember getting hauled over the coals by my Property lecturer, Terry Carney, for looking at my watch during one of his lectures. It wasn’t his fault that my mind was drifting but it was telling of where I needed to go, so I ditched Law and headed towards honours in History, which I enjoyed. I recall meeting the great US historian of foreign relations, John Lewis Gaddis, on a visit he made to Australia at this time, and I think this helped foster my interest in the history of international relations. Joint supervisors, Tony Wood and Joan Beaumont also proved a great team.
I suspect I wanted more to go overseas to study next, than I had my heart set on being a historian. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship, one of a new batch, to undertake a PhD at Cambridge in England. This was a terrific experience and, perhaps not unusually, led me to circle back towards Australia in thinking about the history of the postwar world. I was keen to return to Australia at the end of my three years in England and grabbed the first job that was offered to me – at Deakin in Geelong. Apart from a fantastic two-year stint at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies in London in the mid-1990s, I’ve been based at Deakin since.
4. Our research often becomes more blatantly autobiographical as we get older. How do you think your choice of research topics has reflected your personal preoccupations, and how have they changed over time? Can we expect a Lowe family history next?
To some extent, the original (PhD) focus on how the cultural meets the strategic dimensions of overseas relations remains a focus. I’ve broadened this in recent times to thinking about ways in which the Cold War is remembered, and most recently how postwar decolonisation is remembered; but as well as broadening I’ve also tried to focus on discrete case studies as a series of inquiries – hence my recent work on the history of Australia’s embassy in Washington, which is followed by similar research on overseas posts in India and Japan.
Methodologically, there was probably a ‘literary turn’ for me that coincided with fatherhood and having less time to spend in archives, but it was a turn that I think was coming, in any case. Once, while in England, when I was researching whether there was a Labor tradition in Australian foreign policy, I began using Hansards in ways that were more than just grabs and snatches of colourful comment, and I began to think that the form, content and rhythms of parliamentary debate warranted deeper attention. Thus developed another line of interest that continues now – in role of historical consciousness in politics and policy-making.
No family history expected any time soon.
5. Is there a great book that you are still wanting to write?
I’d love to write several, but one thing on my mind at the moment is something about the rise of the international student as a factor in internationalism and international history.
6. Can you distill your philosophy about why history is important into a sentence or two?
In essence, I think history fosters the kind of curiosity that we need in order to remain healthy – as liberal and humane societies, and as people able to contextualise the challenges that they face and have faced.
7. How has academic history changed since you began your career?
There are some constants, not least the publication of many excellent books. As one of the judges of the Ernest Scott prize a year ago, I was struck by just how many great books were being written by Australian and New Zealand historians in any one year.
Intellectually, the surge of the transnational turn has been a liberating force for much Australian-focused history – and in ways that have broadened the context in which some of my own work unfolds.
I think it has perhaps become harder in modern universities to carve out those reflective spaces that seemed to be more available when I started my career in the early 1990s. I know that seniority brings other responsibilities, and I’ve attracted some of these, but at all levels, I think the need to manage and meet expectations, not just of students, but of performance reviewers, middle management, and senior management leaves us with shrinking time for reflective thinking. This, and a research performance measurement culture, tends to mitigate against risk-taking.
In addition, I worry about a trend towards research-focused academics removed for too long from teaching undergraduate students, and over-bearing workloads on the other hand, for those at the teaching end.
8. What is your favourite thing about being an academic historian?
I am lucky to be paid to undertake something I love, and to do so in an environment of like-minded colleagues and students undertaking the historical journey. The stimulation that comes from a strong research environment and the energy that students bring is a terrific combination.
I also appreciate the flexibility attaching to the role. We tend to work long hours, but we can also shape our days more than many other professions.
9. Your least favourite thing?
The enormous condescension of scientism (to mangle EP Thompson). The research measurement settings that have grown in recent years have prioritised the sciences and health sciences ahead of social sciences and humanities in ways that can be odious at times. While I’m reassured by the strong peer support and scrutiny pertaining within the AHA and in formal ARC and other assessment exercises, it is important to stay in advocacy mode when dealing with funding bodies within universities or elsewhere that are comprised mostly of non-humanities experts.
10. Do you have any intellectual heroes? Which historians have had the greatest influence on the way you research and write?
Early in my career, a couple of scholars who shook things up in the writing of international history were Bruce Cumings, author of many works on Korea and the Korean War, and David Campbell, more of an international relations academic, but one who brought a Foucauldian turn to the study of the Cold War. Although I didn’t follow either strictly in the way I undertook research and wrote, both were influential in clearing intellectual spaces for me. They both showed how to move beyond familiar ways of looking for causation and agency, and how more interesting questions could be devised and pursued.
Two British historians, Ben Pimlott and David Cannadine, had a similar effect, in different works; and I think Edward Said’s several works were never far from the surface of debates that circulated in my formative early years as a historian.
But there would also be many more recent historians whose works continue to inspire. If I focus on non-Australians in the interests of personal safety, then I’m inspired, for different reasons, by India-focused historians such as Ramachandra Guha and Dipesh Chakrabarty; and by the work of history-minded anthropologist, Heonik Kwon. I love works that explore the sense of agency historical actors sometimes develop for themselves, and here, David Reynolds’ book on Churchill’s multi-volume history of the Second World War, In Command of History, remains a wonderful book.
11. Have you had mentors over the course of your career? How important are they?
I’ve been lucky to encounter a number of influential senior historians who have provided advice and help. Joan Beaumont at Monash and then Deakin has been both constantly encouraging and also an academic leader to observe and learn from. My supervisor in England, Anthony Low remained very interested in all stages of my career, and provided the kinds of advice and introductions that proved most valuable; and David Reynolds, also in England, has also been extremely helpful and wise in his counsel and testing of my ideas at times.
Throughout the academic journey I’ve appreciated the help of senior Australian historians such as Peter Spearritt and political scientist/historians Judy Brett and Jim Walter. Some of my contemporaries whose interest and support mixes easily with friendship include Dennis Glover, Lizzie Collingham, Frank Bongiorno, David Lee, Chris Waters and Phillip Deery.
12. What advice can you give to history ECRs about their careers?
In short form, I think there are three main messages. The first, to follow your passion in what questions you pursue, may sound a bit trite, but it’s crucial for sustaining your enthusiasm over the long haul. The second thing I’d suggest is to aim at publishing at both ends of the publishing spectrum but not much in between them. What this means is aiming at strong publishing houses and great journals (including joint publications in collaboration with others) on the one hand, and media interventions, blogs, The Conversation, Australian Policy and History etc, on the other. You need a CV that shows you can hit the high end of publishing and that shows you are also writing to engage, to have impact on debates etc where possible. Don’t spend too much time in the ‘middle ground’ of respectable publishing that is neither high end nor attracting journalists’/public attention.
Finally, I’d suggest a need to be as flexible as you can be about your circumstances: keep as many options open as possible regarding locations where you might find work; and make sure you say hello and engage with senior academics in your field whenever possible.
13. How did you cope with Hawthorn’s form this year?
I deliberately delayed completing this survey so that I could watch them recover from the disastrous start and be upbeat about their chances next year. At least that’s my take right now. One of the great things about being a historian is that sense of perspective you can bring to great rises and falls you are witnessing in the AFL. The trouble is, this outlook seems to be much more available to me mid-week than it is on weekends…