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The Best Work in History Illuminates Life Now: An Interview with Angela Woollacott

Angela Woollacott is the Manning Clark Professor of History at the Australian National University, an elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, and the Australian Academy of Humanities, and a former president of the Australian Historical Association. Hernew book Don Dunstan: The visionary politician who changed Australia (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2019) was supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery grant. She has published widely in the fields of Australian and British Empire history; women’s history; colonialism, race and gender; biography, transnational and political history. She is currently on the editorial advisory board for the Historical Research and Publications Unit at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; on the editorial advisory boards of three academic journals and has recently served on an advisory panel at the Reserve Bank of Australia for its new generation of banknotes.

What books are you reading now?

Daily life as an academic necessitates becoming a promiscuous and, to some extent, cursory reader. It seems that I always have several books part-read, despite my natural inclination being to finish one before starting another. The idea of reading an entire book in a leisurely way, in a comfortable armchair, often seems remote. For the course that I am currently teaching on 19th century Australian history, right now I’m dipping into Iain McCalman, Alexander Cook and Andrew Reeves (eds.), Gold: Forgotten Histories and Lost Objects of Australia (Cambridge UP, 2001). In order to develop my ideas about my next research project, I am in the midst of Tracey Banivanua Mar, Decolonisation and the Pacific: Indigenous Globalisation and the Ends of Empire (Cambridge UP, 2016). In my pile of upcoming deadlines, the book that I am reviewing for an Australian literary magazine is Margaret Simons, Penny Wong: Passion and Principle (Carlton, Vic.: Black Inc., 2019), a biography of the current Leader of the Opposition in the Australian Senate. And, of course, there is always a novel for which I wish I had more time. At the moment, it is Andrew Sean Greer, Less (Abacus, 2017), the 2018 Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

What is your favorite history book?

I hate to pick just one favourite, because there are so many that I admire. But, if it must be just one, a book I often tell students about is Judith C. Brown, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (Oxford UP, 1986). In piecing together the story of Sister Benedetta Carlini, Brown demonstrates the possibilities of imaginative historical research. She shows how exciting an unlikely archival find can prove to be, and provides a model of taking a limited quantity of archival evidence, and spinning a rich historical monograph from it through contextual material and vivid writing. In quite a short book, Brown explicates early modern convent life and acts of resistance; patriarchal control and officious administration within the Catholic church; and the fabric of social life in regional Italy, including fears and superstitions people of the valleys held for those of the mountains. Sister Benedetta’s sexual relationship with another nun is the dramatic core of the narrative. Yet part of the book’s richness is that the sex cannot be understood without grappling with the role of supernatural visions in religious belief and practice. 

Why did you choose history as your career?

Looking back, it’s almost as though history found me. I was always an avid reader, a habit nurtured within my family. But as I was in the first generation in the family to have the privilege of a university education, my parents were not surprisingly pleased when I studied law, and less enthusiastic when I dropped that to pursue research in history. Nor was I any more certain than they that it could lead to remunerative work. I just kept following one opportunity after another, starting with an Honours degree in History (a fulltime, disciplinary-specific fourth year that is a peculiarity of Australian universities). Next came a research position at a museum of political history, then post-graduate study in History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, followed by a fortuitous appointment as an Assistant Professor in History at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, Ohio, immediately after I completed my PhD. 

When I chose to specialize in History as a discipline, it followed on from an interest in Political Science. Political Science’s preoccupation with paradigms had never sat very well with me. History offered the full explanations, the fascinating stories, and the fabulous breadth of topics and questions. And it is as gratifying and rich a discipline to me now as it was when I started out—albeit a discipline that has had many twists and turns along the way.

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

Curiosity and a vivid imagination help. And a willingness to spend many hours in the archives, persistently going through box after box. Perhaps most of all, historians need to care about literature and writing. There is always the debate about whether history is a social science or a humanities field; in fact, it is both. But because we are in the humanities too, more than some of the other social sciences, we need to pay attention to the grace and flair with which we write. 

I’ve heard it said that historians were the shy ones at school: just wanting to hide in the library reading a good book. There may be a grain of truth in that, but we also need to be engaged with the current world, because the best work in history illuminates life now, even if not in superficially obvious ways.

Who was your favorite history teacher?

I benefitted from inspiring teachers both at school and university, and again I hate to pick just one. But I will mention one seminar in my postgraduate program that was especially stimulating. During my time as a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the 1980s, the History Department was fortunate to have as a visitor Professor Robert Darnton of Princeton University. He came for one term and offered a seminar in Cultural History and Anthropology that was capped (I think at 12) and evenly split between History and Anthropology graduate students. Word got out quickly and enrolment filled up within days; fortunately I signed up early. Each week we read one work of history and one of anthropology, connected by theme. It was a fascinating intellectual experience, and I learnt so much. It was fun to interact with the anthropology graduate students, and wonderful to get to know Robert Darnton – including at the casual dinners most of us went to following the seminar. Cultural analysis was the new buzz in historical methodology in the 1980s (we all became afficionados of Clifford Geertz’s ‘thick description’), so it was a very timely educational experience which enriched my work. But it also opened me up to other interdisciplinary approaches, so that I became interested in the ‘linguistic turn’ when that erupted in the 1990s. I felt fortunate to have had that seminar. 

What is your most memorable or rewarding teaching experience?

Like many academics, I truly enjoy lecturing, and tutorials (Australian for discussion sections) can be wonderful when they go well. Marking (Australian for grading) is not my favourite part! When I think about memories of teaching across my career, some students spring to mind. Naturally, a few very bright and talented students stay with you, especially when they pursue academic careers and one can take pleasure in tracking their progress. But others stay in one’s mind too. There are a few whom I recall particularly because of the life experiences they shared with me—survivors of family trauma. Also I remember a student who chose to study despite enduring a terribly debilitating terminal condition, which made every aspect of study challenging; his interest in history seemed to help him keep going, which was very moving.

What are your hopes for history as a discipline?

We seem to be at a moment in the historical discipline when scholars are seeking to reconcile national historical frames with global, international, transnational and world history. I’m hoping that we can move forward fruitfully, recognizing that national frames are inevitable, and global and transnational ones are indispensable for understanding the past and the dynamics of change. 

On another note, as a long-term stalwart of women’s, feminist and gender history, I hope that we can maintain the vital insights that feminist methodology has given to the humanities and social sciences. Certainly conferences and journals in the field are flourishing, but I worry that women’s and gender history courses have been dropped from university curricula. We need to keep presenting these approaches and insights as a core part of undergraduate education.

More broadly, we need to reclaim history’s importance in the public intellectual domain. Biography and war histories do well in bookstores, but they are often most of what you find in the section labelled “History.” Historians must actively participate in the arenas of public discourse, to promote the vital role of our discipline in civic society.

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

I’m not a collector per se. I do own some rare books, but obtained them when I was researching particular topics. For example, years ago, I was interested in the history of the early 20th century birth control movement. I bought some books by Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger from second-hand bookshops, and still have them – it’s a mini-library of early birth control advice! Right now, though, I’m not sure what will stay in my library and what won’t. The School of History here at the Australian National University will move into a new building in about six months. It’s shaping up to be a beautiful, striking building. But the offices are all half the size of my current office, and I’m going to have to dispense with most of my filing cabinets and around half of my books!

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career? 

Being a historian is a very rewarding and privileged life. I’m often aware of how fortunate I am to have a well-paid career pursuing my intellectual interests, and spending a lot of time reading things I find interesting. When I look at people in the corporate world, I thank my lucky stars. Apart from following my own interests, spending one’s life at a university (albeit various ones) means that there are always stimulating events to attend. 

Of course, teaching has its pains (grading) as well as its pleasures. The best part of teaching, for me, is supervising good PhD students. It’s so rewarding to work with mostly younger historians, passionately pursuing their own intellectual creations, and to watch their success.

The most frustrating thing about being an academic is the workload, and the near-impossibility of having any reasonable work-life balance. It helps to have, as I very fortunately do, a partner who is also an academic and is understanding and supportive. But the demands on us are extreme, and it is very difficult to juggle them. Teaching is enormously time-consuming, and we get virtually no professional rewards for it. Promotion is always based on research and publishing, but managing to publish when one is also teaching, supervising, sitting on committees, reviewing books and manuscripts for others, writing letters of reference etcetera, means a major overload. And email is the rock of Sisyphus!

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

The discipline has changed in so many ways. Subjects that were radically transformative when first emerging (such as Black and Indigenous history, women’s/feminist history, history of sexuality, postcolonial history etc.) in the 1970s-90s have become more or less mainstream. As a feminist historian, I’m a bit sad that thematic women’s and gender history courses have lost their popularity—though just today in a discussion class one student commented that she has enjoyed gender being a recurrent theme in our course this semester, rather than the one week at the end she thinks is now typical. 

Looking back there were moments when the field was riven by heated and personal debate—such as over the ‘linguistic turn’ and post-structuralist theory in the 1990s, and here in Australia what we call the History Wars of the same decade over the extent of frontier warfare here in the 18th– 19th centuries. Presently we don’t seem to have such exchanges, and little theoretical discussion, other than parsing the terms global, transnational, world and imperial and their implications. 

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

I quite like the oft-quoted notion that the past is a foreign country. It suggests that, no matter who you are, you need to do the research to explore the past, and to be open to surprises and discoveries.

What are you doing next?

My latest book just came out two months ago. It’s a biography of an Australian politician who was a leading progressive reformer in the 1960s – 1970s, and it’s published by Allen and Unwin, Australia’s leading trade press. I’ve never done a trade book before, and it’s been quite an exciting ride! The book went into a second printing less than a month after it came out. There have been two launches, each by a nationally-prominent political figure. I’ve been on the program of one writers’ festival and will do another. And it’s been very widely and positively reviewed, with considerable newspaper coverage and radio interviews. So I think now I will just sit back and read some books by other scholars for a while!