Day in the working life of a (retired) historian: Patricia Grimshaw

Our series exploring the working lives of feminist historians continues with Emeritus Professor Patricia Grimshaw describing a day in the life of a ‘retired’ academic.

8.30am: I begin my working day by checking emails. This is later than was usual at other stages of my career. When I had young children at home I often rose an hour or two before breakfast and the school rush to review a lecture or complete some marking; later in life, to read huge piles of paperwork for an important meeting. Although I have retired, life in retirement is not quite as I once imagined. I left undergraduate teaching and committee duties behind – the teaching with regret – expecting total freedom to pursue elective research and writing. Instead, I find that the many unsung tasks expected of academics are not so easily left behind.

I receive numerous email requests for undertakings that were integral to full-time employment yet clearly continue, as does my ongoing sense of responsibility for these apparently minor yet essential professional duties. I routinely receive invitations to referee papers submitted to journals, review books, examine theses, read manuscripts for publishers and write references. Such requests are best answered promptly before they drift off the computer screen and out of the mind.

screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-2-56-42-pmToday I agree to Labour History’s request that I review Judith Smart and Marian Quartly’s Respectable Radicals, their history of the National Council of Women in Australia. (I bought a copy at the launch and admired their bold coverage of this underestimated style of women’s political lobbying that began post-suffrage.) I also agree to a request from Studies in Church History (published by Cambridge University Press) to referee a paper on the Church Missionary Society for their forthcoming special edition on ‘Christianity and Empire’. I am not sure I am the best reader for this particular paper but perhaps more specialist readers have already refused them.

Next, I respond positively to a senior historian’s request that I support the nomination of a talented female scholar to the fellowship of the Australian Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia; admission to the learned academies appears to most academics a very tortuous, almost medieval, process, and well they might think so! I note with pleasure a message from the Australian National University announcing the successful examination of an innovative PhD thesis in anthropology on the wives of Samoan LMS evangelists in the western Pacific. I examined it a month or two ago. It was the work of an indigenous Samoan, Latu Latai, one of a number of talented Pacific Island scholars emerging in a field that was once almost totally dominated by white historians.

10.30am: I travel by tram from North Carlton to the University of Melbourne to attend a third year review of the progress of a PhD candidate; Joy Damousi is the principal supervisor and I serve as associate supervisor. Our colleague, Sean Scalmer, chairs the meeting, bringing the valuable eye of the experienced historian to the thesis.

Marie Stopes birth control clinic in caravan with nurse, circa late 1920s. Image via Wellcome Images.

The postgrad, Natasha Szuhan is using hitherto neglected archival material to examine social reformers and scientists who promoted fertility control in Britain from 1900s to the 1960s. While the core primary sources are in English archives, on research trips she has been able to read and photograph extensive material that, together with the helpful range of contextual sources available through the Internet, made it possible for her to undertake the topic from her home base in Melbourne. The postgrad submitted a full first draft for our consideration and was well positioned for her expected completion date due before her scholarship expires.

The desired ‘timely completion’ of postgrads is expedited through these annual reviews that, rather than being intimidating, operate, students often say, to support their active engagement. Postgraduates’ commitment to the discipline is particularly inspiring given recent cutbacks in Humanities jobs in the tertiary system. When I first started supervising a senior colleague advised against offering students too much guidance. The postgrads with genuine excitement about research would complete their theses anyway, he said; others would soon discover other pursuits for which they were better suited. Now supervisors take great pains to assist their students, who also have enviable opportunities through the University system for acquiring skills to make them multi-skilled for today’s workforce. I appreciate my involvement with such postgraduate students who keep me linked to cutting edge research and whose enthusiasm for history is infectious.

screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-3-29-33-pmAfter the meeting we had a quick look around the newly renovated building that the School has moved into, called Arts West, adjacent to the Baillieu Library. It is apparently state-of-the-art design with ample teaching facilities and spaces for students that the old building lacked; there are fine views from the upper floors, a treat in flat Melbourne. Outside, this new building towers over its neighbours, including the iconic Old Arts Building that huddles in shadow opposite it. I will ‘hot-desk’ in a room for honorary fellows. I expect I will need to arrive early in the day to secure a computer, or work at home while trying to avoid its many mundane distractions. An exception to my evasion of domesticity is my happy days of grandchild care, a bonus for the retired.

12pm: Janet McCalman, Shurlee Swain and I meet for lunch at University House (the staff club) for lunch. Janet has arranged this so we can discuss her intention to head up an Australian Research Council LIEF (Linkage Infrastructure Equipment and Facilities) application that she hopes to submit in April next year. The project aims to create a Victorian Historical Population Register based on linked data from Victoria’s world-leading registration of births, deaths and marriages from 1853 to the present day. The tentative title, ‘ARCHER’, is in honour of William Archer who was the architect of Victoria’s vital registration system. The LIEF scheme is a co-operative venture that relies on cash and in-kind contributions from academic institutions and other industry partners, to which the ARC provides additional funding; it is most often utilised by science and medicine for equipment.

Janet has already consulted many Victorian universities and institutions and has elicited enthusiastic responses within the profession. Shurlee and I offer advice and support for what we see as an amazingly significant contribution to the state’s history that would in turn open fresh initiatives, including in population and health studies. These are incredibly complex applications to mount but Janet is optimistic; she has been the lead Chief Investigator on a number of large and highly successful collaborative ARC projects. I used the opportunity to update Janet and Shurlee on planning directions of a committee of Melbourne women who are working to establish a women’s heritage museum. The state government and the Melbourne City Council have evinced interest and realistic objectives for space, funding and programmes are well in train. We are planning a website which I’ll ask the AWHN to post when it’s available.

2pm: Later in the day than expected I get to some writing, revising a draft outline for an article I am co-writing with the historian-cum-criminologist, Julie Evans, and Hannah Loney, who is completing a PhD thesis on women in East Timor. She has undertaken some valuable research assistance for the paper. Julie has been the lead CI on an ARC Linkage project based on settler/Indigenous relations in nineteenth-century Victoria called ‘Minutes of Evidence’; the lawyer Mark McMillan, criminologists Nesam McMillan and Jennifer Ballint, and the Deakin historian Joanna Cruickshank and I were participants.

Aboriginal women and children, Coranderrk Station, Victoria, circa 1900. Image via National Library Australia.

The paper considers structural justice and Aboriginal women’s assertion of lawful relations with the Victorian state from the 1850s to the 1880s. Co-writing has its joys – not least that it keeps us focused on the task – but how to reach the final product takes some thought. For the first time in my case we are making use of Dropbox that is very user-friendly. We have a way to go. Joanna Cruickshank and I are drafting a related book for Brill (Leiden) called Women of Faith on Aboriginal and white mission women; Joanna is making the running. Weighing guiltily on my mind is a chapter due soon for Anna Clark who is co-editing a collection for Routledge with Sophie Loy-Wilson and Alecia Simmonds entitled Testing the Boundaries: Reflections on Transnationalism in Australian History. I am contributing a chapter on women’s history and I’m uneasy as I’m not exactly sure what I will say, despite the fact that I gave a paper at a workshop Anna ran last year at UTS. I must have said something relevant to the topic! It can’t stay on my guilt list much longer.

6pm: There is a rich offering of public talks, exhibition openings and celebrations at the University in the early evening timeslot, facilitated by the Internet’s capacity to advertise times and places. Today I make my way to the bookshop called Readings in Lygon Street where Stuart Macintyre is to launch Andre Brett’s new book, Acknowledge No Frontier: The Creation and Demise of NZ’s Provinces 1853 to 1876, published by Otago University Press. The book emerged from his doctoral thesis for which Stuart was supervisor and I the associate supervisor. Given its attention to the early settler history of New Zealand, my country of origin, it was a particular pleasure to see the topic recast within fresh historical approaches. The launch was a happy event, attended principally by Andre’s loyal friends from the postgraduate community and numerous family members who had travelled some distance to be there. Then home for dinner and finishing Stan Grant’s compelling autobiography, Talking to My Country.

Looking back over this blog I realise afresh how much the Internet and social media have transformed the academic profession. It has enriched immeasurably academics’ capacity to undertake research, to communicate, network, learn and teach. I think of the not so distant computer-less past when academic matters moved at a more leisurely pace and it seems like another age. Communication between members of department and head were usually via personal interaction through small meetings and encounters in corridors or the tearoom. It was the mail delivery around morning tea that united us together in one place, and brought the Faculty and indeed the outer world to our attention; responses might be delayed or sometimes evaded for a considerable time, especially for those academics who also refused to have answering machines on their office phones! Conversely, the technical revolution has made the academic project a pressured experience in which staff members are expected to excel in every area in every way in every year, constantly urged to cultivate not just a professional but public profile. There may be impressive tall buildings arising on campus, but the ivory tower has gone forever!


screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-11-12-55-amPatricia Grimshaw is a Professor Emerita at the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne. One of Australia’s seminal scholars in gender and colonial history, she has published numerous articles, monographs and edited collections, including Missionaries, Indigenous Peoples and Cultural Exchange (2010) with Andrew May, Britishness Abroad: Transnational Movements and Imperial Cultures (2007) with Kate Darian-Smith and Stuart Macintyre and Women’s Rights and Human Rights: International Historical Perspectives (2001) with Katie Holmes and Marilyn Lake. She is a Fellow of both the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

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