Q&A with Lynette Russell: An AHA early career researchers series

The Australian Historical Association‘s network of Early Career Researchers has commenced a Q&A interview series with Australian historians. Here, we repost their interview with Australian Women’s History Network member Lynette Russell.

Lynette Russell

President, Australian Historical Association

Monash Node Director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence in Biodiversity and Heritage.

1. Your original training was in archaeology. What was it that drew you to archaeology, and why did you shift your disciplinary focus to history, anthropology and sociology?

I have always had a great interest in the past, and in my teens I was drawn to Robert Graves’ I Claudius and Claudius the God, both the books and the BBC television show. I really thought that I’d end up studying ancient Rome and Greece but when I got to university I discovered Aboriginal archaeology and Pacific histories, which captured me. Within in my first year I had switched to an archaeology, anthropology, history major. The history that I excelled at was what we used to call ‘ethnographic history’ and that really led me into wanting to study interdisciplinary histories, which heralded my shift to Australian and Aboriginal histories.

I also found that archaeological fieldwork was not for me, I am just too fussy, always scrubbing my nails and wiping my face. I learned something important about my limits, I’m afraid it was literally too dirty for me! In addition, my kids were really young and fieldwork meant I had to leave them, whereas with archival research I could often take them with me, or at least not need to travel quite as extensively.

2. How have your personal history and, in particular, your Indigenous heritage and the means by which you found out about your Indigenous heritage, shaped the questions you ask of the past?

I always knew I would research my family’s history, in fact at one point I thought it would make a good postgraduate thesis, but my very sensible supervisor saw how problematic that might have been. Imagine asking someone to mark your own history! So I waited till I’d finished the PhD then I threw myself into it; it was a wonderful, exhausting, emotional journey that I am very glad is behind me. Twenty-plus years later I realise it frames so much of my work, and my intellectual pursuits, so in a sense it will always be there shaping the direction of my work.

3. What are the big questions that fascinate you and inspire your work?

I will always be driven by wanting to understand Aboriginal responses to colonial contact/ disruption. Broadly described as agency, I am ever-fascinated by how and why people respond as they do, and all the complexities within this.

I remain interested in the content of historical discourse, in addition to the bigger questions of how we know what we think we know. It is this sociology of knowledge that really excites me. I love to think about race, class, gender and so on, and consider how these have played out over time. I am also very interested in seeing how academic history (and I include archaeology) is ‘consumed’. It is so thrilling to watch as the recent ancient dates for Madjedbebe were established, and to hear the Mirrar peoples’ description of working with the team and how it has affected their own stories about their past.

The thing that probably most excites me right now is trying to understand, map and comprehend cross-cultural contact, not just the last 229 years but the last 1000 or so, which means I am going to move into using sources that are Dutch, French, Indonesian and so on.

4. Do you have intellectual heroes? Which historians and which books have had the greatest influence on the way you research and write?

You can’t write the sort of history I write and not recognise your debts. Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan, obviously, have been hugely influential. Patrick Wolfe as a source of inspiration and he constantly challenged me to be a better writer, better thinker, in fact better person.

The person who has played the greatest role in my intellectual development was Edward Said. I never got to meet him, one of my life’s regrets. Said, not without critique, affected my thinking, making me much more theoretical than I expected to be, but also more political.

5. Have you had mentors over the course of your career? How important are they?

She probably wouldn’t even remember I was a student of hers, but Martha Macintyre. She was a lecturer in anthropology at La Trobe, she taught me and she inspired me. I saw that she was also a mother, partner, gardener and much more and she seemed to have a sort of balanced life that I knew I wanted. She suggested I take a chance and leave La Trobe and go to the University of Melbourne to do my PhD. She even set up a meeting for me to meet Professor Stuart Macintyre to work out my next steps, I was never more terrified and yet I have never looked back.

I have been incredibly fortunate to have as my life partner a fellow academic, so we have had the chance to mentor each other over the past twenty-five years. This has sustained me in ways too numerous to count.

6. What is the role of the Australian Historical Association and the role of the president? As president, what legacy do you hope to leave on the association and the history profession more generally?

It is a privilege to be the President of the AHA, one I don’t take lightly. I really want to be approachable, especially to ECRs, and share what experience and expertise I might have with them. I also hope that we as a discipline might be more collaborative, more interdisciplinary; I want to see people working across and through the HASS sector.

7. What advice can you give to history ECRs about their careers?

Lots of people will tell you to plan your next move, they may well be right. But I have never had a career plan, so much of what I have achieved has come from intuitively trusting my instincts. I took jobs in the beginning that I didn’t really desire, often having to travel very long distances to work but I chose this rather than stay at the one institution and hope something came along. Eventually I very prematurely and optimistically applied for something that was really beyond where I was at. While I did not get the job I applied for, someone on the selection panel saw something in me and offered me a two year post-doc. I seized it with both hands and  made it work. I was incredibly lucky, but I also worked very hard.

Take every opportunity you can. Work with new media, blog, write, tweet, get your thoughts out there.

Don’t let the bureaucracy get you down, being a good scholar is about more than ticking boxes.


Lynette Russell is the Monash Node Director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence in Biodiversity and Heritage (Monash Indigenous Studies Centre). She has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Melbourne and has taught and researched in the area of historical and anthropological studies for over twenty years. In 2015, she was visiting fellow at All Souls College Oxford.

Her research is interdisciplinary and involves history, archaeology, anthropology and museum studies. Her books include: Hunt Them, Hang Them: the ‘Tasmanians’ in Port Phillip, 1841-42 (with Kate Auty, Justice Press, 2016); Roving Mariners: Aboriginal Whalers and Sealers in the Southern Oceans 1790-1870 (SUNY Press, 2012); Boundary Writing: Living Across the Boundaries of Race, Sex and Gender (ed. University of Hawaii Press, 2006); Appropriated Pasts: Archaeology and Indigenous People in Settler Colonies (with Ian McNiven, AltaMira Press, 2005); A Little Bird Told Me (Allen and Unwin, 2002); Colonial Frontiers: Cross-cultural interactions in Settler Colonies (ed. Studies in Imperialism: Manchester University Press, 2001); and Savage Imaginings: Historical and Contemporary Representations of Australian Aboriginalities (Australian Scholarly Publications, 2001).

Follow Lynette on Twitter @lynetterussell.

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