Q&A with Joy Damousi

This month we interview the Australian Historical Association’s Vice President, Joy Damousi, Professor of History in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. Here she discusses what inspires her to write and teach history, encourages Early Career Researchers to give back where they can and reminds us to create and seize opportunities to research history.

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Joy Damousi is Professor of History in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies. She is the author of numerous books which include The Labour of Loss: Mourning, Memory and Wartime Bereavement in Australia (Cambridge, 1999); Living with the Aftermath: Trauma, Nostalgia and Grief in Post-war Australia (Cambridge, 2001); Freud in the Antipodes: A Cultural History of Psychoanalysis in Australia (UNSW Press, 2005; winner of the Ernest Scott Prize) and Colonial Voices: A Cultural History of English in Australia 1840-1940 (Cambridge 2010). With Philip Dwyer she is the general editor of a four volume World History of Violence, due to be published by Cambridge University Press in 2017. She is also currently the editor of the History series for Melbourne University Press. Her current research includes war, trauma and post-war Greek migration to Australia; sound and the two world wars; and child refugees and war.

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

I would trace my love of history to early childhood during when I grew up with stories of the past told to me by my mother in particular about family history and Greek history. These were told (and continue to be told) with great color, adventure, drama and humor, which inspired a keen sense of the vital importance and value of historical knowledge and the past, with particular attention to time and to place.

2. Why did you become an academic historian?

Fundamentally, I love archives of all forms and making contact with people who lived in the past through them is endlessly fascinating and riveting.  I also love trying to form an understanding of how and why people lived, made decisions and acted in the past. The challenge of developing new arguments and narratives, new perspectives and dimensions is an exciting and challenging part of academic history that I relish. The opportunity to write is a great privilege in being an academic historian.

Working in universities also provides an extraordinary opportunity to work with wonderful students across all levels, from undergraduate to PhD as well as post-doctoral colleagues. This has been an extremely rewarding experience over many years as an academic historian and remains a major attraction of the job.       

3. A lot of your work has been concerned with ensuring that women’s experience is placed on the historical record. Is that the primary inspiration behind what you do? Are there other sources of inspiration?

I have been and continue to be interested in many topics. Not all of these deal directly with women as such, but women and gender is always central to how I frame a topic and what interests me about it.  It is undeniably a major inspiration. Other sources of inspiration would be aspects of politics and culture more generally – examining the political aspects of a topic and also its cultural and social expression.

4. How do you think your background, as the daughter of Greek migrants, has shaped the questions that you ask?

My background has been very significant in sharpening my awareness of class and left-wing politics, ethnicity, gender, and difference – all of which I became aware of well before I read about these in academic texts.

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

I have been an academic historian for 25 years. Obviously there have been significant changes. I would list the following:

  • The digital revolution and what is possible in how we conduct research and what we research;
  • The shifting place of theory and theoretical frameworks in framing questions;
  • The role of ideology in writing history and methodologies from outside of history;
  • The challenges in publishing Australian history internationally and increasing pressure to do so;
  • The increasing fragmentation of the discipline.

Institutionally:

  • Casualisation of the academic workforce including historians;
  • Mixed successes in shifting perceptions of women in the academic history profession.

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

Yes. Universities make decisions about funding and at times this will favour disciplines like history and at times it won’t. But as a core academic discipline I am optimistic about its future survival.

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

It gives me the opportunity to create new knowledge and disseminate it – that is – to research, teach, write  – as well  mentor junior academics

8. Your least favourite thing?

Time-wasting administrative paper work generated for no reason.

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

Coming through the 1990s as a junior academic my intellectual heroes were easily the pioneer women academics who led the way in women’s history at that time – in Australia Pat Grimshaw, Marilyn Lake, Ann Curthoys, Jill Matthews, Desley Deacon, Pat Jalland, Verity Burgmann and overseas, Joan Scott, Catherine Hall, Leonore Davidoff, Sally Alexander – to name a few. These remain inspirational.  In addition and in  more recent times, as my work has moved into different directions, I would say cultural historians who are working on themes I am pursuing such as Donna Merwick, Jay Winter, Peter Gatrell, and Sheila Fitzpatrick.

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?

As for the role of academic historians – yes there are certain values we uphold such as integrity in research and discussing the past with critical judgment, and rigorous assessment. I don’t see myself as a novelist, artist or social scientist, although at times I might use methods from these disciplines and practices in my own work. None of these are intrinsically interested in the past, or the context that constitutes our understanding of the past, which is how I would characterize the difference in writing history.

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

Take opportunities: create them and seize them when they appear. Work with the best people – they will inspire you. Never settle for second best in your work. Everyone gets knockbacks – its part of the process so don’t be discouraged and find ways of moving on. Give back – mentor others and take this seriously.

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

A journalist, archivist or basketballer.  

13. Do you think Nathan Buckley should be sacked? And have you thought about running for president against Eddie?

Given current performance relative to opportunity, lets say one needs to critically assess the Pies performance at the end of the year. In other words, maybe not give the coach the sack, but unless there is a dramatic turnaround (ie win 7 games at least) over the next 10 weeks, definitely not time to re-sign. Many have raised this possibility with me of the presidency of the CFC but doubt I would have the numbers! Never miss an opportunity, so if it arose you never know!

 

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