Q&A with Jenny Gregory

In this week’s Q&A, Emeritus Professor Jenny Gregory explains how she discovered her love of history through a happy accident (a timetabling clash!), her desire to research Western Australian history to find out more about the place she lives and the challenges of writing history in Australia’s west. She talks about the importance of mentors, but also of forging your own path, and she encourages ECRs to seize opportunities and do what we love.


Jenny Gregory AM is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Western Australia.  She has published widely on aspects of urban history, town planning and heritage.  Her most recent books are the edited collections, A Historian for All Seasons: Essays for Geoffrey Bolton (with Stuart Macintyre and Lenore Layman, 2017), Seeking Wisdom: a Centenary History of the University of Western Australia (2013), and the Historical Encyclopedia of Western Australia (as editor-in-chief, 2009).  She also wrote City of Light: A History of Perth Since the Fifties (2003), Claremont (with Geoffrey Bolton, 1998), and Building a Tradition: A History of Scotch College (1996).  Her PhD thesis focused on the making of middle class suburbia.

Jenny is currently President of the History Council of WA, an Executive Member of the National Trust WA, after years as Chair (2008-2010) and President (1998-2007), and a Board Member of Australia Day Council WA. She was awarded a Centenary Medal (2001) for her services to heritage and was made a Member of the Order of Australia (2010) for service to the community as an historian and academic and through the promotion and preservation of local and regional history in Western Australia.  She is deeply committed to the protection, conservation and interpretation of the heritage and history of Western Australia.

1. Tell us about your background.

I grew up in Sydney, went to school at Ascham, then went to the National Art School, Darlinghurst, until I moved with my parents to Perth during the late sixties mining boom. After a summer of mucking around, which included a fabric design business with a friend from Art School, quite a few parties and a stint working in a chemist shop, my father ‘encouraged’ me to join the Commonwealth Public Service. I had the good fortune to join the Commonwealth Employment Service. The CES in Perth was then rigorously separated by gender (for both staff and the unemployed) and my main tasks were to find work for women and girls on a case-by-case basis, as well as to provide career counselling for school leavers.  In my last year with the department I administered an excellent training scheme for women returning to the workforce.  My eight years with the department involved very fulfilling work that seemed to make a difference to people’s lives.

Public servants were then encouraged to gain tertiary qualifications and I began an arts degree at UWA part time while working with the CES.  We were given time off to attend lectures and had our fees paid (this is pre-Whitlam when students had to pay to attend university).  Then the first of our two children was born.  I was keen to return to work part-time, but the Commonwealth Public Service did not then permit part-time work.  Instead, with the help of my husband, parents and friends and complicated child minding/swapping arrangements, I went back to uni part-time, another baby arrived, and I eventually completed an honours degree in history and then a PhD.

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

Not one moment, rather a conjunction of moments.

As a child, after my Enid Blyton phase (Famous Five, Island of Adventure etc), I turned to historical novels and especially remember loving Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novels set in Roman Britain, in ancient Greece, and those based on the Arthurian legend. Geoffrey Trease’s In the Land of the Mogul fascinated me too. I loved doing jigsaws (especially art puzzles) and still do – the absorbing challenge of finding the right pieces, putting them together and making order from chaos.  It’s not dissimilar from the historical process.

At school, my favourite subjects were English and History, in that order. I remember two history teachers, both women. One seemed very old, but the other was young and glamorous — her dress sense had a big impact on fourteen year olds!

At home, my father and my mother, in particular, had a strong sense of history and the encyclopaedia was frequently pulled out during discussions over dinner.  There were also the stories of my father’s family and a fascinating but failed Chancery case in the 1920s because of ‘the bar sinister’.  As well, my maternal grandmother lived with us for several years and she was a great one for family stories – all delivered in a strong Glaswegian accent.

At university, I originally planned to major in sociology and do social work.  A happy accident — a timetabling clash — led me to major in history. I did a terrific unit ‘Rise of the West’ with Geoff Bolton, who was a wonderful lecturer. But it was Tom Stannage, who supervised my honours dissertation and then my PhD thesis, who cemented my love of history. I remember a moment when I was so immersed in my research that I started to imagine — almost to really see — Perth of the 1920s as I drove through this city en route to the Battye Library.

3. Why did you become an academic historian?

The encouragement of two academic historians at UWA.

Pen Hetherington, who tutored me in a second year European history unit, commented on one of my essays, ‘come and see me if you’d like to improve your marks’.  I did, she explained how to structure an argument in an essay — a revelation — and asked what I wanted to do.  I said ‘I want to do what you do’ – thinking of tutoring.  She, who had twins and had faced many obstacles in her academic career, told me that it was very difficult to get an academic post, especially for women. Thanks to her advice, my marks improved and I went on to honours.

Tom Stannage ran the first year Australian history unit. I hadn’t done Australian history so, as I was planning to write my honours dissertation in that area, I sat in on the unit. It was structured around debates in history and I loved it. Of course, Tom was an inspirational lecturer, later winning the inaugural Prime Minister’s Award for University Teaching. When I began my PhD, I started tutoring in the unit and was given the opportunity to run a six-week special topic, one of his innovations.  That, plus the fascinating research I was doing, sold me on becoming an academic historian.

4. Why do you think it is important to study history?

I believe that it is impossible to understand the present if you have no knowledge or understanding of the past.

5. Why did you choose to focus your research on Western Australia? What can the rest of the nation learn from WA’s experience?

I chose to focus on WA history because I wanted to know about the place I lived, particularly as it seemed very different from Sydney where I’d lived for most of my life. As well, at a practical level, as the mother of two young children I didn’t feel able to travel for research. But that was no hardship.  I’ve found the history of WA to be endlessly fascinating.

Western Australian is huge, a third of the continent, and its size has meant that, for much of its history, it has been isolated from the rest of Australia.  Its history displays significant points of difference from that of the Eastern states as the following examples show. The West saw some of the earliest contacts between Australia and the outside world that harnessed Australian resources (with the Makassan trepang industry operating from at least 1600) and some of the earliest European explorations of Australian shores (predominantly by the Dutch from 1616). The Swan River Colony was founded as a free settlement and only later relied on British convict labour. Convictism remained an intrinsic part of Western Australia society well after it had ceased in NSW and Tasmania.  The region experienced Aboriginal-European conflict for longer than most of the nation. And for more than a century Western Australia has witnessed resource booms that at times have bankrolled the nation.

6. Are there particular challenges in being an academic historian from the West?

Oh yes!  I think it was first Geoff Blainey and then Geoffrey Bolton, who wrote that Australian History is always written ‘From the Hume Highway’.  Things have improved, but I would tend to agree with the general sentiment.

Having lived much of my life in Melbourne and Sydney, I found it particularly galling when I first started attending conferences on the east coast.  People would ask you where you came from.  When you said ‘Western Australia’, they looked at you in wonder as if you’d flown in from Mars.  Even today, on the news that I have flown in from Perth, I am sometimes met with widened eyes and raised eyebrows: ‘Gosh, that’s a long way.’

But as well as perceptions, there are real difficulties posed by distance. The length of the flight, four or five hours to Melbourne or Sydney, is nothing. But the cost of flights is another matter.  Research and personal funds need to be carefully allocated.  Is it worthwhile to fly east for a meeting or for a symposium or conference that lasts for only a day or two? Because of flight schedules, I’ll have to leave the day early and stay an extra night.  Considering the university’s emphasis on international rankings, should I forego attending the AHA conference and instead attend that international conference in my field?

This all means that, despite Skype and email and despite hosting conferences in the West, it is difficult for academics in Western Australia to keep in regular contact with colleagues on the east coast – those all important face-to-face meetings and chance encounters are all too rare.

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

There have been enormous changes.  My student years were heady years of great intellectual stimulation. When I was an honours student, Marxism was big and I remember being taken aback by the fierce jargon-laden arguments of a Marxist comrade in our historiography seminars. EP Thompson’s injunction to ‘rescue the poor and oppressed from the enormous condescension of history’ had a powerful impact on me, and I still feel a thrill as I write those compelling words. Around the same time, with the rise of second-wave feminism, there was also the long-overdue emergence of women’s history and I became aware of the need to ‘read across the grain’. Then with the research of historians like Henry Reynolds and the rise of Aboriginal history, the potential for historical research to have a public impact became clear.  I well remember the stir created by a paper Henry gave at the first AHA Conference I attended in Melbourne. Since then we’ve had post structuralism and post modernism. I dislike the jargon that accompanied post structuralism and distanced academic writing from those outside the academy.  I prefer to write for a wider audience.  I have considerable interest in post modernism, but have often wondered how much it really differs from much that EH Carr wrote in What is History?  Most recently, the history of emotions has offered a fascinating new area of historical research. With the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions located at UWA for the past seven years, I’ve been able to attend some of its seminars and conferences and have found its insights really useful in analysing my research into urban protest.

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

Within the constraints of workloads and deadlines, freedom — to make my own choices in research and teaching.

9. Your least favourite thing?

A sense that so much time is wasted in reinventing the wheel, especially in university politics.

10. Do you have intellectual heroes? Which historians and which books have had the greatest influence on the way you research and write?

No real heroes, but plenty whose work I admire greatly. In terms of historians, Tom Stannage had the greatest influence on the way I research and write.  He encouraged me to use my imagination.  For the rest, it’s a bit of an international urban history grab bag; E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, Richard Sennett’s The Uses of Disorder (1970), Lenore Davidoff’s ‘Landscape with Figures’ (1976), Dolores Hayden’s Grand Domestic Revolution (1981), Janet McCalman’s Struggletown (1985), Kerryn Reiger’s Disenchantment of the Home (1985), as well as the work of urban history colleagues in Australia, especially Graeme Davison, Peter Spearritt, and Rob Freestone.

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

I’ve had a number of mentors in different stages of my career over the years; Tom Stannage, Norman Etherington, Trish Crawford, Geoff Bolton, Margaret Seares, Krishna Sen. I’m very grateful for their advice, encouragement and assistance, but in the end it’s up to you to forge your own path.

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

I didn’t ever really have a plan for my career.  But I could never resist a dangled carrot.  I was on contracts for many years and didn’t get tenure until 2001. In the late-1990s when opportunities were contracting at UWA and in the sector generally, it seemed likely that there would be no new contract in History for me. The astonishing opportunity to become Director of UWA Press came up. I took the plunge and so began a fascinating eight-year career in publishing, until I was called back to the Faculty. My advice is to seize opportunities, do what you love, and work hard.


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