Tuesday, 20 November 2012

MORE will mean WORSE?


I have spent far too long looking for this quote. This is Kingsley Amis, June 1960 in Encounter Magazine in an article called 'Lone Voices' (page 8). Naturally I think he is wrong...but we do still regularly hear scholars reminisce about the time there were fewer students and they were all smarter than they are now.......back in the 1990s, the 1960s...or in this case, the 1940s.

"I want to drum the fact ... into those who are playing what I have heard called the university numbers racket, those quantitative thinkers who think Britain if falling behind America and Russia by not producing as many graduates per head, and that she must catch up by building more colleges which will turn out more graduates and will give us more technologists (especially them) and more school teachers. I wish I could have a little tape-and-loudspeaker arrangement...set to bawl out at several bels: MORE will mean WORSE."


Saturday, 17 November 2012



Look what happened recently....


I graduated.

Universities of whose future?



A report recently splashed across the pages of Australia's media claimed that universities were "a thousand year old industry on the cusp of profound change".
It is an old trope. Universities are often seen as "ossified", as an Australian federal minister once put it, and slow to adapt. Ernst & Young's report, University of the Future, uses pictures to underline the point. Page one features two children with an iPad (the future); page two contrasts this with a cloister, no doubt intended to represent an Australian university

Read more at
http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=421819&c=1

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Reflections on Benjamin's Theses Part 3: what sort of redemption?


Benjamin contrasts the 'chronicle' (which does not distinguish between 'major' and 'minor', significant history and insignificant fact) to 'history' - or historicism, which is shortly to be critiqued.

Only a redeemed present enjoys, or receives, the fullness of history. That is, an 'unredeemed' present, one where the victors of the past are still in control because we have not yet fixed their errors, cannot fully understand its past. That kind of present will only see the parts of the past that benefit its victors. When the present seeks to fix the errors of the past, the past unfolds fully.


III. A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past-which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation a l'ordre du jour — and that day is Judgment Day.

Reflections on Benjamin's Theses Part 2: A Weak Messianic Power

A Weak Messianic Power

What is the relationship between happiness and time, happiness and history?

If we believe the world is getting better, why don't we envy the future?

This is because, Benjamin argues, we don't envy what will come, but we regret the things that might have happened - pasts that have permanently passed. Things that could have happened, but didn't.

When we look at the past, our evaluation of it is bound up in judgements about how that past should have been. When we think about how it should have been, that is where we locate the promise of happiness. If only such and such had happened in the past, we would be happy.

So we, in the present (and in every present, including the ones that came before), have this 'weak messianic power', this responsibility to redeem humanity from the should-haves of the past. And still, we don't look to the future, our redemption is bound up in the past that (in the present) we will fix.



That means that the people of the past have a claim on us, we are their weak messiahs who (before we even existed) promised to fix the the things they did wrong, or failed to do.

It is hard work.



II. 'One of the most remarkable characteristics of human nature,’ writes Lotze, ‘is, alongside so much selfishness in specific instances, the freedom from envy which the present displays toward the future.’ Reflection shows us that our image of happiness is thoroughly colored by the time to which the course of our own existence has assigned us. The kind of happiness that could arouse envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, among people we could have talked to, women who could have given themselves to us. In other words, our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. The same applies to our view of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. Historical materialists are aware of that.



Monday, 27 August 2012

Reflections on Benjamin's Theses: Part 1, The Puppet


I am teaching historiography at the moment and it is causing me to reflect on Walter Benjamin's 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' published as the last item in Hannah Arendt's collection of Benjamin's work Illuminations and reproduced on this website.

This is therefore the first of a series of reflections. Hopefully I'll get through each thesis. Benjamin's theses are just numbered, but I am going to give them titles. This one I am calling The Puppet.

The Turk was a chess playing automaton that toured in the eighteenth century, beating humans at chess, exposed as fraudulent in the nineteenth century - it was in fact a puppet, worked by master chess players.



Benjamin - who loves metaphor, it must be said - imagines this puppet to be historical materialism, which beats every other argument - we will come to understand how and why it beats every other argument better as the theses unfold.

But what is interesting in the first thesis, is the puppet master: a hunchback. Arendt in her introduction helps us out here. The little hunchback, she explains, is a mythical creature from Benjamin's German childhood, the source of pain and misadventure - mothers would say "did that naughty little hunchback trip you?" that sort of thing.

We should recall when this was written - January 1940, when the alliance between Hitler and Stalin was just months old and uncertainty hung over Europe. The pain and cost of historical development was exceedingly clear.

In the midst of this pain and uncertainty, Benjamin seems to be beginning to articulate a belief in causality, a longstanding preoccupation of German thinkers. Historical materialism defeats all other arguments to be sure, but it is a costly victory, for it is driven by the source of pain and misadventure, the little hunchback.

The place of theology here is interesting, a reference I suspect to the replacement of the medieval metanarratives with new metanarratives of liberty and revolution, whose language veils their theological nature. Perhaps we will see more about this later.

I. The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called ‘historical materialism’ is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight. 

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Swimming in history



The most numerous moments are the discomfort, the fatigue of a forced march through a grim historical region of petty and faded motives, one that is in fact too close to the historian-traveller. This is what Michelet calls 'rowing' ('I am rowing through Loius XI. I am rowing through Louis XIV. I swim laboriously. I am rowing vigorously through Richelieu and the Fronde'). Yet the plunge involves an incomplete assimilation of History, a failed nutrition, as if the body, thrust into an element where it does not breathe, found itself stifled by the very proximity of space.

- Roland Barthes, Michelet, p.22 

Monday, 20 August 2012

PhD awarded, Thesis Online!

Somehow in all the excitement I forgot to put the important news on the blog that has recorded my progress since 2008 Thesis done, PhD awarded, dissertation online at http://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/handle/2123/8606

Monday, 16 July 2012

Homoerotic research in Canberra



In the university tradition in Australia, research was relatively new and the PhD was seen by many as a crass, inferior and American substitute for the British MA. The ANU was criticised for various things and one was that it was the nation’s PhD factory. The university’s own staff felt the weirdness of their position. At the very first staff seminar, this poem was read:

When they ask whom we teach at this place
Don’t prate about research, my brother
Throw the question right back in their face,
The Professors here lecture each other.



There was something rather homo-erotic about it all, it seemed, as the national capital gathered esteemed men together to do nothing but research.


Dons elsewhere, in prefatory odes
Claim the spur of wife, mistress or mother.
We need no such Freudian goods –
Our Professors inspire each other.


And, within academia, research for the ‘national good’ did not yet make academics feel they were achieving anything 

Let the State Universities grind,
Pulling graduates till they smother,
Our alumni will be refined –
We’ll confer our degrees on each other.



This ambivalence to the ANU in its early days has some more serious foundations. After the revelations of the horrors of Nazi science during the Second World War and public understanding of the effects of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many intellectuals leaders – Ian Clunies Ross among them – were concerned to protect science’s civilising capacity by separating it from direct military intervention.


In 1949 the CSIRO handed all military research to the defence department. The ANU was a little too closely aligned to government strategy for the peace of mind of some leaders.

Poem found in the archives: NAA/A9221/2 Establishment of ANU Correspondence LG Melville

Friday, 25 May 2012


Hannahland has been sadly neglected lately, but I have been busy busy busy. Here is one of the things I've been working on....



Monday, 2 April 2012

Real world problems

"Some of us have been working on real world problems for years. Problems like poverty, imperialism, inequality..."


"No truly civilised society would sell education to its young any more than it would sell breastmilk to babies or bandages to the bleeding".

Terry Eagleton, 27 February 2010, King's College London

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

A place worth going to?

"Suppose we manage a real equality of opportunity in Australian education. We still have to make the university a place worth coming to."

-- Eric Ashby, 1946

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Exclusive social inclusion

Some of my current work is in social inclusion in higher education - and history in particular. This is a big thing at the moment, as the government is taking active measures to ensure universities pay attention to their long-standing tendency to perpetuate social and economic hierarchies. I'm a believer in the aims of inclusion.


As a person working on three separate projects at the University of Sydney that relate to social inclusion, I was pleased when my university was offering five scholarships of $1,000 each to assist people wanting to attend a conference on social inclusion in tertiary education. I didn't apply, however, because the conference itself costs $2308.90 if you register early. There are no discounts for students or other less wealthy participants. I don't have a spare $1,300 and I wouldn't want our important project money to go to such a thing either.


But it got me thinking about the cost of conferences and the use of money in higher education.   Compare this social inclusion conference to our annual Australian Historical Association (AHA) conference - a worthy organisation to be sure, but not one that carries the ideals of 'inclusion' in its very title. Full registration is $350 if you're early, $435 if you're late and $150 if you're a student. That is around $2,000 less than the conference on social inclusion.


What does each conference assume?


The AHA:

1. Encourages junior scholars by lowering the price (they also offer bursaries).
2. Assumes scholars will pay for themselves. Even if from project funds, the expectation is modest. That is, it assumes money is for research, not for conference attendance.


The Social inclusion conference:



1. Discourages junior scholars or 'less important' participants, presumably to ensure only the 'important' attend. Not exactly an inclusive approach.
2. Assumes universities, organisations, research grants etc will pay for scholars to attend. We know this because $2,300 is not exactly the sort of fee individual academics will happily take out of their family budgets for a work thing.


Being exclusive about social inclusion seems more than a bit silly. But the assumption that higher education as a system has a spare $2,300 for - how many participants do they think will attend? 500? More? - is really wrong.


Scholars talking together about crucial issues like social inclusion is very important and conferences are not just holidays. But the AHA shows they can be run modestly and to the purpose, not exploiting one of the most significant contemporary issues faced by tertiary education for private gain. 


I wonder how much money, intended for research and teaching, ends up profiting other sectors through this sort of thing?

Monday, 12 March 2012

A technological elite dictating policy?

"The present writer will conclude with the observation that while a receptive climate of public opinion, in the formation of which the university has much direct and indirect influence, is essential to the development of a socially adequate technology, public opinion must also be allowed to be the final arbiter of the uses to which such technology is put. The existence of a technological elite dictating policy to a lay population so illiterate technologically as to be incapable of critical appraisal of such policy would spell the end of democracy. It is not difficult to see the seeds of such a situation in many communities, including Australia, today"


- submission to the Murray Committee on Australian Universities, 1957 (NAA, A10663/CAU/SCI/12)

Knowledge, Nation, Democracy: their Connections in Post-War Australia

Draft abstract for AHA conference (theme: Connections). Do let me know if you have comments or suggestions.


In the 1940s and 1950s, when nation building was a key priority and democracy seemed a precious and fragile ideal, the Australian government supported several mechanisms that would nurture knowledge.

As Tim Rowse and others have demonstrated, experts and the knowledge they wielded began to inform parliamentary decision-making in new ways in this post-war era, giving Australian democracy a new set of tools and interests.

The connection between knowledge and democracy, however, went still further. In addition to the value now granted to mastery over existing knowledge, the Commonwealth government sought to create and support organisations that would pursue research, forging the new knowledge needed in the complex social, diplomatic, medical, industrial and economic environment that emerged after the war.

Organisations that were established, transformed or funded in new ways in this period to facilitate research include the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, the Australian Council for Education Research, the Australian National Research Council, the Australian Pacific Territories Research Council, the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Atomic Energy Commission, the Australian National University and then, after the 1957 Murray Review, universities.

While each of these initiatives represents a distinct mission, considered together they constitute a significant project on the part of the Federal government, to pursue knowledge at a national level.

How are they connected? This paper considers this knowledge-producing project as a whole endeavour, exploring the type of nation and national priorities that it represents.

For many political and civic leaders, a central priority was the protection of democracy. While often discussed from a Cold War perspective, the connections between knowledge, nation and democracy were also considered on a different scale, tacitly invoking, I argue, an older republican ideal: Plato’s ‘philosopher kings’.

This project has been conducted with the support of the National Archives of Australia’s Margaret George Award.

Monday, 5 March 2012

What is Hannah doing now?

'What now?' is the question I've been asked over and over the past two weeks. The answer is a bit complicated: fragmented, even, perhaps.


1. Historical Research project: ‘Knowledge, Nation and Democracy in Post-War Australia’. National Archives of Australia. Margaret George Award.


2. Historical Research Project: 'Taking a longer view of widening participation: toward a history of social inclusion in higher education in Sydney, c.1945-1975.'
The University of Sydney. Widening Participation Grant.

3. Educational Research and Development Project: Diversity and Difference: History Students and Social Inclusion.
The University of Sydney. STEP Grant. With Mike McDonnell (CI) and Tim Allender

4. Part-time work, University of Sydney: social inclusion in history and the humanities. Developing and maintaining partnerships with disadvantaged schools to encourage diverse students to study history. Help extend this work into English and Cultural Studies. With Mike McDonnell.

5. Casual work, New Cambridge History of Australia. Project management.

6. Honorary Fellowship, NSW State Library. Starts in May.