Q&A with Melanie Oppenheimer

From prime time television actor to academic, Professor Melanie Oppenheimer describes her varied and fascinating professional life. She discusses the similarities between acting and academic history – both require the capacity to deal with rejection! She recalls tutorials with Russel Ward at the University of New England and describes her pioneering work on the history of voluntarism in Australia. She also gives some wise and heartfelt advice to ECRs.

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Melanie has been the Chair of History at Flinders University since 2013. She previously held positions in Australian History at the University of Western Sydney (now Western Sydney University) and the University of New England. From July 2016 to June 2017, Melanie was Dean of the School of History and International Relations. She is a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Her research interests include the role of voluntary organisations and patriotic funds in times of peace and war; the history of volunteering and voluntary action; and gender and imperialism. Her ARC funded projects include soldier settlement schemes post WWI; a history of the 1970s Australian Assistance Plan; Meals on Wheels; and sustaining volunteering in Australia. Melanie has written six sole authored books including the centenary history of Australian Red Cross, The Power of Humanity. 100 Years of Australian Red Cross, published by HarperCollins in August 2014. Her book, co-authored with Bruce Scates, The Last Battle: Soldier Settlement in Australia, 1916-1939 was published by Cambridge University Press in November 2016. Most recently, she co-edited (with Mandy Paul and Margaret Anderson), SA on the Eve of War with Wakefield Press in 2017. Melanie is a current member of the ARC College of Experts. Melanie is editor of History Australia, with Flinders colleagues, Associate Professor Matt Fitzpatrick and Dr Cath Kevin. This year she will take up a year-long appointment as Visiting Professor in Australian Studies in the Centre for Pacific and American Studies at the University of Tokyo.

1. Before you were an academic, you were an actor, including a two-year long role as Sarah Carson, the protagonist’s daughter on a major Australian TV production called Carson’s Law. Can you tell us about the similarities and differences between acting and writing history? Why do you think you have been able to be successful in two fields that appear, on the surface, to require quite different abilities?

I spent around 5 years as a professional actor in the 1980s, training in London after being part of the first cohort of students to study Drama at my alma mater, the University of New England (UNE). However, when I was starting out as an academic (I was appointed as a Level A at the University of Western Sydney, Nepean to teach Twentieth Century Australian History in 1995), I never mentioned it, I kept it very quiet as I thought it would work against me, that I would not be taken seriously. It has taken me 20 years to ‘come out’ as it were! I guess now that I’m a Professor of History, I finally have the confidence to discuss it openly as I’m proud of my achievements in that ‘first’ career. I was so passionate about acting and believe that it has made me a better historian. I believe nothing is ever wasted in this world, we are always learning and endeavouring to do the best we can wherever we end up.

Lorraine Bailey & MO, Carson's Law, Mother & Daughter, 1982

Melanie Oppenheimer with Lorraine Bayly in prime time television drama, Carson’s Law, 1982-84 

In practical terms, the vocal training I received as an actor has been invaluable in the delivery of lectures and seminars, making sure I don’t strain my voice, being aware of my ‘audience’, keeping them entertained (or attempting to), modulating the voice, reaching the back of the lecture theatre etc. My voice has always had a ‘lighter’ tone but being aware of that has helped me in my teaching and public engagements. And even after all these years, I always write out my lectures, talks, keynotes, whatever it is I might be doing, which is a direct link back to being an actor – learning the script!  Being an actor, too, has provided me with a certain resilience to bear up against adversity and rejection in the university and broader academic environment. I mean if being a historian/academic today is tough and highly competitive, think about what it’s like for actors! There are similarities with both professions – actors and historians are essentially storytellers, they use different resources and methods to communicate but when you boil it down, it’s about the story, the characters, and how one interprets the evidence – be it a script in the case of an actor or archival documents for historians – it’s about creating the narrative.

2. You did your Bachelor of Arts at the University of New England in the late   seventies and early eighties. What was that experience like? Were any of the legends of that history department, like Russel Ward and Miriam Dixson around, and did they influence you?

When I think back on it, the History Department at the University of New England was in its heyday then (although as a young and naïve 17-year-old student, I was unaware of this). I remember tutorials with Russel Ward (squeezed into his office as was the custom, about 6 of us) that were a little scary to say the least; lectures in Australian Labour History with Bruce Mitchell in the A1 Lecture Theatre; and Miriam Dixson was in her prime with the commencement of her innovative women’s history course and the publication of her book, The Real Matilda: Women and Identity in Australia, 1788 to the Present (1976). I always loved History at school and majored in it at university but I got the Drama bug in second year and that was the main influencer for me at that time in my life. Later in the 1980s, when my acting career ‘went bung’, I returned to UNE as a part-time external student and completed a M. Litt., under the supervision of Carl Bridge. It was in this period where I ‘turned’ to History. It was also the time I managed to secure a Research Assistant position at the University of Sydney, working for Roy MacLeod. Walking back onto a university campus again, I was ‘hooked’. And I have never left!

3. A lot of your work has been concerned with the communities that operate outside the boundaries of politics and paid work. Tell us about the importance of telling the stories of voluntarism, and about the ideas and aspirations that underlie your academic research.

My interest in voluntarism goes back to my M. Litt dissertation. I was looking around for a suitable topic and used a cache of papers of my grandmothers from her time as an Australian Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) during World War II. I was particularly interested in her role as Deputy Commandant of a group of ten VADs who sailed on the British aircraft carrier, HMS Glory, to pick up ex-POWs at the end of the war. My grandmother had passed away long before I commenced the thesis but I interviewed the remaining ‘Glory Girls’ who still lived around Sydney and used these sources to frame the thesis. As I say to my Honours students, it’s all about finding a gap and I discovered a huge lacuna. When I wrote my thesis in 1986/87, there were no studies on voluntary labour during WWII (with the exception of Carmel Shute’s highly critical article published in 1980) or WWI for that matter, let alone studies on the roles of women and wartime voluntary organisations such as the Australian Red Cross, YMCA, Salvation Army and the thousands of small patriotic groups. This was where the bulk of women’s wartime activity on the home front actually occurred yet the history books were largely silent, preferring to focus on women’s exceptionalism, breaking down barriers in the paid workforce and the women’s auxiliary services. These are, of course, critical studies and well deserved but they only tell part of the story. I just had to keep going. I went on to do my PhD at Macquarie University, commencing in 1992 under the supervision of Jill Roe. I examined the role of civilian volunteers on the Australian home front during WWII, later published as All Work. No Pay. Australian Civilian Volunteers in War. This book was short listed for the NSW Premiers’ History Awards in 2003. Using the theoretical framework of voluntary action (William Beveridge) and the moving frontier (Geoffrey Finlayson), I argued that World War II was one of the ‘high points’ in the development of voluntary action and volunteering in Australia. Since then, much of my work has continued to explore its importance in the shaping of economic, social, cultural and political frameworks of Australian society – something largely ignored in the standard historiography.

4. You have moved from Sydney to Armidale and then to Adelaide during your career; a mobility that is common to many history academics. Has it been difficult to manage those relocations, or have they been a positive experience?

I have a low boredom threshold and like to constantly challenge myself – perhaps this might be self-evident in the selection of my careers – acting and academia – not the easiest of professions! I went to drama school in London, then lived in Melbourne for Carson’s Law, so when I think about it, I’ve moved around quite a bit. I’ve always relocated by choice and made sure the experiences are positive, even if sometimes things don’t work out like I had hoped, there are always benefits. I guess I’m a glass half full type of person which helps. I also have a very supportive partner (who isn’t an academic) and who has had to relocate his job each time, so perhaps you should ask him!

5. Which historians have had the greatest influence on the way you research and write?

 Because my topic was ‘new’ and part of an emerging field, I didn’t really have anyone to ‘follow’. That made it very hard in the beginning and I struggled to get my work published. However British historian Frank Prochaska was influential and Jill Roe certainly was an inspiration. More recently, with the expansion of the field of voluntarism and volunteering, and in particular historians of the broader Red Cross Movement, I have found a group of scholars from around the world who I can connect with and be inspired by. I have long been a fan of Margaret Tennant, the NZ historian of social welfare and the NZ Red Cross and now there is a wonderful crop of younger scholars coming through who are working on various aspects of Red Cross history, and I read and follo w them with great interest. I’m thinking of Rosemary Wall, James Crossland, Sarah Glassford and others.

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

Mentors are crucial. Early on, Bruce Mitchell (who became my step-father) was so important, indeed if it wasn’t for his encouragement and support, I probably would not be writing this piece today. Jill Roe was another. She believed in me and was always so positive about my work – that I had something significant to say and that it did matter – despite the fact that I was forging a path that most historians had not yet found or recognized as important. It is actually quite scary when you’re starting out if your topic, your approach, is not the norm. Working on volunteer labour in the late 1980s and 1990s was not easy. Having an article published in Labour History by then editor Terry Irving was an important step for me, and then having the support of Greg Patmore to edit an edition of Labour History in 2002 on voluntary labour was, on reflection, a crucial time for me.

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

 It’s a long journey. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. You are in it for the long haul. Remember to keep in touch with the passion that set you on the path as a historian in the first place. If you feel you are losing touch, then do something about it. And if, by chance, you’ve found yourself on a different trajectory, then go with it. As we move through life, things change. What seemed important when you are 25 appears less so at 35 and so on. Secondly, keep in touch with the evolution of the university sector. Our work place is in a constant state of flux, the goal posts change rapidly, often with little notice. Ensure you keep up with the changes, the new demands, and make them work for you. Stay in touch. Have a five-year plan. Thirdly, it is tough, it’s always tough, resilience is a key. And don’t be put off, if you believe in what you are doing, and you find blockages or obstruction – find a way around it. Those ahead of you don’t necessarily know it all!

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