Celebrating a career of engagement and achievement

Yorick Smaal reviews the recent symposium celebrating historian Shurlee Swain’s impact across different fields of research and on multiple generations of scholars.

I initially encountered Shurlee Swain’s scholarship as a young undergraduate at the University of Queensland in the mid-1990s. Written with Renate Howe and published in Kay Saunders and Raymond Evans’ collection Gender Relations in Australia, ‘Fertile Grounds for Divorce: Sexuality and Reproductive Imperatives’ was the first piece from Shurlee’s corpus of scholarship to shape my historical thinking in a diverse range of fields cutting across welfare, childhood, and genders and sexualities.

A few weeks ago, and more than two decades since that fateful encounter with a faceless book chapter at the university library, I was honoured to attend the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne to celebrate Shurlee’s long and distinguished career. During the day, esteemed scholars, early career researchers, students, practitioners, policy makers and community groups alike recalled fond memories and powerful experiences, highlighting Shurlee’s significant contributions to intellectual and public life over many decades. 

Graeme Davison began the event, providing a rich and reflective overview of a career spanning five decades across academic and advisory roles. As Graham took the audience on a journey through Shurlee’s engagement and achievement, I was struck by how influential her work has been for a generation of Australian historians.

Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 7.39.41 PMShurlee unearthed a ‘meaty bone’ during her early investigations into welfare histories, Graham observed, and one that she continued to chew by refining her methods and questions. Noting the general quality and breadth of her scholarship – her honours thesis caused quite the sensation among examiners – he singled out Shurlee’s intellectual endeavours on single mothers and adoption as among her finest contributions to scholarship. Always ready to collaborate, Shurlee tackled these histories from both sides, asking difficult questions of the dispensers and recipients of care and welfare. She was a sympathetic participant and critical observer, Graham explained, and her histories hummed with a quiet anger at past injustices and inequalities.

Shirleene Robinson discussed Shurlee’s impact and influence on early career researchers noting how Shurlee’s histories of child welfare in Australia and transnationally had inflected her own practice. She provided an influential model of how history can shape the public sphere, Shirleene remarked, and a framework for scholars working collaboratively with state subjects with sensitivity, compassion and close collaboration.

In my own paper, I offered some thoughts on what a historical reflection on the prosecution of the sexual assault of boys in institutional settings might offer to contemporary debates about child protection. Prompted by Shurlee’s ongoing engagement with the intersections between welfare, law and the sexuality, I made my observations in the spirit of an historian’s engagement with the present – an endeavour on which Shurlee has embarked with particular distinction.

Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 7.40.33 PMFrank Golding and Leonie Sheedy from Care Leavers Australasia Network demonstrated how Shurlee’s research and partnerships made very real impacts for those children subject to the care of the state, the churches and charities. They noted the class and ethnic ideologies underpinning welfare work and talked with compelling power on the experiences of parentless children. Frank and Leonie emphasised the importance of children’s otherwise silent voices, noting Shurlee’s leadership on the find and connect project and her contributions to scholarship in an emerging era of testimony.

Kildonan Research Officer and ACU PhD student Sharron Lane spoke on the archives of welfare agencies and the state, noting their particular significance for care leavers. She discussed the nuances of official records and the multiplicity of emotions that might be found there by those seeking access to the written records – and conspicuous absences – of their childhood. The interdisciplinarity and connectivity of Shurlee’s work, Sharon observed, had the power to inform and transform archival policy and practice.

Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 7.47.53 PMTurning from the past to the future, Naomi Wolfe, Nell Musgrove and Heather Holst each testified to Shurlee’s influence on their personal and professional development. Now with Launch Housing, Heather noted how Shurlee’s teaching and scholarship influenced on her professional practice, including the habits of rigour, hard work, and the importance context and trajectory in the policy sphere.

Nell talked to the personal and professional relationships many have forged with Shurlee over the years. She has the ability to see the necessary developmental steps for students and early career scholars as they refine their historical craft, Nell said. Naomi Wolfe paid tribute to Shurlee’s engagement with Indigenous staff and students. Shurlee recognised shared journeys and shared knowledges, played a crucial role in the cultural engagement of both curriculum and research methods, and offered a safe place for students to develop and learn.

The day’s final panel consisted of collaborators and colleagues from different institutions.

Renate Howe reflected on Shurlee’s early teaching at Deakin and Melbourne University, lauding Shurlee’s integration of social history and social work into other history courses at a time when those fields were still in their infancy.

Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 7.47.22 PMChips Sowerwine recalled Shurlee’s ability to shape history courses into human experiences. Her skill was in leading students from the pastoral to the general as they grappled with difficult concepts around bodies, genders, and sexualities.

For Pat Grimshaw, Shurlee’s legacy was as a woman in history, especially during the 1980s when men were likely to occupy senior positions within the academy. Pat observed two significant themes in Shurlee’s scholarship: new left social work and social history which she grounded in both empiricism and emotionality, and her work on religious history as lived human experience. Ellen Warne acknowledged Shurlee’s contribution to ACU since 1994. Shurlee related her teaching to real people and delivered her classes with flexibility and diversity. I learnt a few things along the way that I now intend to integrate into my own teaching practice.

The final remarks were left to Shurlee. With typical grace and humility, she reflected on the role others had played in her own professional development and scholarly thinking. Her thoughts prompted us to think about the ways in which history can transform real lives – among students, teachers, policy makers and the community – and to value life’s most precious experiences – the human relationships we share with family and friends.


Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 7.38.01 PMYorick Smaal is an ARC DECRA Research Fellow and an Associate Investigator on the ARC-funded Laureate Fellowship the ‘Prosecution Project’. Yorick is an historian with particular interests in sex and gender, crime and punishment, and war and society and has published widely in these areas. His forthcoming book Boys, Sex and Crime (Routledge, 2018) examines young males as victims and offenders of sexual assault in Australia and the United Kingdom between 1870 and 1930. He is also investigating with Mark Finnane the history of courts-martial in the Australian forces and is author of Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific, 1939-45: Queer Identities in Australia in the Second World War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

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