Emerging Historians Q&A—Tyson Retz

Retz - AHA photo

A/Prof. Tyson Retz—AHA member since 2013.

Today’s Q&A is with Tyson Retz, Associate Professor of History Education at the University of Stavanger, Norway. He completed a PhD in history with joint supervision from philosophy at the University of Melbourne in 2016.

1. How did you come to be a historian?

I didn’t set out to become a historian. I knew from my first day at university that I wanted to be a scholar. Towards the end of my degree in International Studies at the University of Adelaide, I considered my options in French studies, Asian studies and political philosophy. Though a substantial chunk of my degree had been in history (the degree in International Studies had compulsory history courses and I studied history almost exclusively during a one-year exchange at a French university), pursuing a higher degree in the discipline was not on my radar. I did in fact begin an honours degree in politics exploring theories of nationalism in the Chinese context. I returned from France thinking with the simplicity of youth that there were enough Europeans studying Europe, and that I might better be off concentrating my efforts closer to home at the beginning of the ‘Asian century’. A kind and generous lecturer, Gerry Groot, reached out and encouraged me to go to China to learn the language and combine it with my background in French. None of this happened because midway through that year, 2008, I was offered a position as research officer to a select committee of the South Australian Legislative Council. I had done a parliamentary internship the previous year, and was asked on the basis of the report I had written.

I relocated to Melbourne after that and enrolled in a Master of Teaching, judging it wise to gain a professional qualification while deciding on a topic for a research degree. Things from then developed according to their own momentum. My training as a secondary school history teacher introduced me to concepts of historical thinking, among which was empathy. This concept seized my attention as an ideal candidate for further examination, combining as it did my interests in history, philosophy and politics. Stuart Macintyre agreed to keep an eye on my progress and planted the idea that I reintegrate my natural allies in history and philosophy when I expressed an interest in taking the project to the doctoral level. I became a historian when I came to appreciate that the historical method is both the most open and exact of the human sciences. Defending history’s status as a discipline has been a concern of mine ever since.

2. Tell us about your PhD research

I investigated the concept of empathy in historical studies, beginning with the way that it became a central component of the ‘new history’ that emerged from changes to the English school system in the 1960s. The thesis (and now book) moved on to examine empathy’s origins in German historicism and the relation of that tradition to the philosophy of history of R.G. Collingwood, whose doctrine of re-enactment has long and mistakenly been described as a concept of empathy. A final part returned to the educational scene to delineate the implications of empathy’s development in different traditions of historical thought.

The project was a dual exploration of empathy’s educational and intellectual history. Given its basis in the history of ideas, I had to strike a balance between diachronic description and synchronic analysis. I have always been impressed by philosophers who write in the historical mode and historians who write with conceptual acuity. This approach (I resist the idea that it was interdisciplinary: it employed the historical method to explain the development of a concept across various fields) gave me a varied stock of material with which I was able to publish during my candidature.

3. Why does it matter?

That is for others to decide. I can point out that I identified inadequacies in empathy’s methodological formulation and, I hope, provided a matrix for practice and further research. I can also observe that, in addition to researchers in history education, my work has found an audience among intellectual historians and philosophers of history. I describe myself as an intellectual historian and philosopher of history with an expertise in history education, and I place them in this conjunction for good reason. A problem I noted in entering the field is that a large portion of research in history education operates in isolation from the history discipline that it purports to represent. This is understandable given the preponderance of psychological and economical models in educational research. I swam against this tide by rooting my investigations of empathy not in modern-day thinking about the concept, but rather in empathy’s emergence and development in the history of historical thought, defending the idea that history provides us with a tremendous resource for holding up to analysis present-day mindsets, beliefs and practices.

In a research environment where ‘impact’ can count for more than insight, I take empathy to denote a historical comportment truly open and ready to learn from the past. What is empathy, after all, if it is not suspending one’s own thoughts and feelings in order to capture and enter into those of another person? I’ll be satisfied if I have said something useful about how this applies to people who lived in the past.

4. What are you researching now or intending to do next?

I have a background in French that empathy’s German pedigree consigned to disuse. My next project examines how France’s religious and philosophical traditions shaped the country’s historical culture from 1750 to 1850. There is a long-held view that the Enlightenment displaced religion as a way of understanding the past. I begin with and critically evaluate the idea that the secularisation of historical thought should be understood as a transposition of beliefs and patterns of behaviour from the religious to the secular sphere, rather than a transition from a religious to a secular worldview. The period saw the attempt to obliterate the national religion, its rehabilitation alongside the furthering of republican principles in Napoleonic rule, a Catholic revival and Restoration, and finally the triumph of the republican ideal. All the while, a form of historical consciousness was being developed that codified the disciplinary procedures of a strictly scientific approach to investigating the past. As with my work on empathy, this concept of ‘historical consciousness’ will be isolated and placed under particular scrutiny as perhaps the most indiscriminately used concept in present-day historical discourse.

A second topic that I am soon to explore comes under the auspices of a European Research Council project based at Tallinn University, where a group of intellectual historians are investigating the way in which changing attitudes towards progress in interwar Europe affected the political imagination. I have proposed a study of how British liberals influenced by different forms of idealism reimagined the relationship between past and present in putting forward their visions of politics.

Smaller projects include a biographical sketch of a Melbourne French teacher who did much to promote French language and culture in Australia, an analysis of historical thinking concepts needed for studying different scales of time in history, and the methodology of historical reenactment.

5. What do you love about being a historian?

Being paid to read and write. Even on the slim PhD stipend, and after having earned a decent wage as a secondary school teacher, the feeling was never lost on me that I was enjoying a tremendous privilege. Part of this feeling was knowing that I belonged to a long line of thinkers who had wrestled with the same problems that I was discovering in my books, which I borrowed en masse and consulted daily for inspiration and enlightenment. I have met scholars who say that they rarely visit the library. To me this is unfathomable. Libraries are the physical expression of the life of the mind and to be protected at any cost.

Historians are masters in delineating continuity and change as well as in attributing significance to things past and present, though I must appeal that this comment not be taken to suggest that historians know any better what the future might hold (I am always perplexed at history talks how seamlessly the questions shift from historical explainer to crystal ballist). That feeling of belonging to something much larger continues to mark my days. This is my favourite part of being a historian: the connection with great thinkers and great ideas. Historians study people and their complex relations with the natural and social world. They pave ways between freedom and necessity, showing how human beings change their circumstances but also how their actions are constrained by circumstances. The best draw a relevance from a seeming irrelevance, a significance from an apparent insignificance. By reading them, the world in which I live is greatly enriched. Even better, I earn a crust by adding to that stock of human knowledge when I teach and write myself.

6. What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?

There is merit in the argument that I am no longer an ECR. I now enjoy the benefits of ongoing employment and can take a long-range approach to planning my various research projects, knowing that I will have the time and resources to complete them. Those dreadful nouns associated with ECR status—impecunity, insecurity, uncertainty, precarity, casualisation—have been replaced with their antonyms.

This is not to say that I no longer face challenges as a young scholar. There are the usual demands of having to maintain research productivity, win grants and form networks. But these professional pressures part and parcel of the job pale in comparison with the life pressures of being on the hunt for ongoing or at least medium-term positions that are all too few and far between.

Like most, I had to search high and low for a position and be willing and ready to uproot myself in the event that an application were successful. This took its toll. Every application was an emotional investment. One moment I would be imagining myself in northern Sweden pounding snow-clad running tracks, and the next surveying Brisbane’s property market and wondering how I would go lecturing in sandals. Exciting, yes. Destabilising at the same time, without a doubt.

I cannot say that I took to the long months of waiting for application outcomes particularly well. The focus and clarity of mind that saw me through my PhD seemed unobtainable. The feeling was that of floating, doing time, or being in no man’s land. With my energies directed outwards towards every possibility in all four corners of the globe, it became difficult to invest in the present and there was a looming sensation that I was waiting for life to begin, or perhaps recommence. With job applications under assessment everywhere from the Arctic Circle to Perth, relationships suffered. Am I too single-minded and uncompromising? How will I maintain my competiveness in the academic job market if I am not?

Have I answered the question? The most challenging aspect of being an ECR, if I am using the past tense, was living my life with one foot out the door.

The time that went into applications and searching for opportunities also nurtured a sense that I was falling behind on my research, making no real progress in my project beyond what was needed for a project proposal. The oppressive longue durée of the application process intensified the tick of the clock of postdoctoral eligibility.

But here I must acknowledge the huge benefit that I received from being employed after completion by my PhD supervisors Stuart Macintyre and Marnie Hughes-Warrington.  I had started a full-time secondary teaching post several weeks before submitting my thesis, worried about where my money would come from at the cessation of the Australian Postgraduate Award stipend, which in a manner peculiar to itself ceases the moment the work is completed (whereas timely delivery in other fields often means a bonus). It would have been difficult to get done what I did had I not been able to leave this and work on projects with Stuart and Marnie. In addition to paying my living costs, these contracts gave me a foothold in new areas and led to the publication of a joint article. Kate Darian-Smith and Volker Prott also softened the transition by hiring me as a tutor and course coordinator.

7. If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?

To the Athens of Socrates, playing the acolyte and beating Plato to the task of transcribing his teachings.

8. As a previous interviewer asked your supervisor: Sam Mitchell or Luke Hodge?

That is a mischievous question. Many scholars turn up their noses to sport and in some ways I sympathise with their scruples. There is no denying the vulgarity of commercialisation, the widespread culture of affected masculinity and the bad behaviour that goes with it. But I think sport is fundamentally good. In today’s disenchanted world, I delight in sport’s rituals and the almost religious experience of giving in to its symbolic codes. Separately, I know that whatever qualities I have as a scholar I earned through being a sportsman. The word university did not feature in my upbringing—I doubt I knew what universities were. But I knew through limitless hours pursuing my sporting dreams how to set goals and take steps towards achieving them, and there are a good many athletes whose mottos have served me as precepts.

I’ll do as a politician does and suggest that Ben Stratton has been that team’s most underrated player.


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