Reaching out: Professor Tom Griffiths

Every month I’ll be interviewing a humanities, arts or social science academic who engages extensively with their wider community, asking them about the kind of outreach they do and why they feel it’s important.

Our guest today is Professor Tom Griffiths, W. K. Hancock Professor of History and Director of the Centre for Environmental History in the School of History, Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.

What is your area of research?

History of all kinds – especially Australian history, Aboriginal history, environmental history, modern history, world history, the history of Antarctica and the writing of non-fiction.

What kind of outreach do you currently do? (E.g. media articles, radio and television interviews, public lectures, personal website/social media/blog, books for a general audience.) What’s your favourite type and why?

I write for the general public.  Historians are lucky because they can rely on a general readership as well as an academic one, and the best scholarly books are also accessible to a popular audience.  Occasionally I have had to fight for the book within the narrowing culture of the corporate university, which tends to favour ‘peer-reviewed academic journal articles’.  Of course they are important too!  But there is no more rigorous review process than to offer a whole book for wide and enduring scrutiny.  Fortunately, historians understand this and remain ardent champions of the book as the pre-eminent academic achievement of the humanities scholar.

It is exciting to discover that a book has a life of its own and generates opportunities for all kinds of other outreach – interviews, public lectures, writers’ festival talks, social media, maybe film, and even good old-fashioned correspondence with readers who take the trouble to read deeply and then write to you.  There is a great hunger for meaning out there, and people turn gratefully to those who don’t dumb down their intellectual passions.  I aim to write books that will find their way to a bedside table because there they might enter dreams.

Why do you undertake these outreach activities (why do you think they’re important)?

Conversations with the general public – through interviews, talkback radio, letters, lectures and speeches of all kinds – are a source of inspiration and learning for me.  They are a wellspring of ideas, and in some ways they are also the subject of my scholarship.  What is the nature of historical consciousness?  How do people feel about the past and what influence does it have on their daily life and the way they think and behave?  How can historical thinking deepen our wisdom and even enhance our enjoyment of life?

Who is your main audience and why did you choose to focus on them?

Serious readers, both inside and outside academia, are my main audience.  I meet these people on campus, in town, over the dinner table and at writers’ festivals – and even when I’m out bushwalking or following a pilgrimage trail in Europe, as my recent book, The Art of Time Travel, relates.  (It begins with a story of a conversation with three French walkers about historians.)  People who read seriously think differently and deserve our encouragement and attention.  It is getting harder to win time for deep reading from the frenetic digital world, but I think there is also a fascinating resurgence in the popularity of books.  Books are also a privileged entrée to the spoken world of stories and ideas, thus a writer is also a performer and a teacher.

How did you get started with your outreach? What was the first thing you did?

I guess that my first long-term job was as an ‘outreach’ historian. For over five years from my late twenties I was employed as Field Officer at the State Library of Victoria and my job was to deal with the public over matters of history and to encourage people to donate diaries, letters, photos and archives to the state’s Australiana research collections.  It was known as ‘the cup of tea job’ because it took me into the lounge rooms of Victoria to discuss the future of family papers.  I found that people were very interested in how their own experience, and that of their forebears, related to the history of the nation and the world.

In your book Slicing the Silence, you juxtapose essays on the human history of Antarctica with your own diary entries written on the voyage from Hobart to Casey Station. Why did you choose to structure the book in this way and move away from a traditional ‘academic’ text?

I am trying to seduce my reader into turning the page!  I think a personal account can sometimes secure a reader’s attention.  The challenge then is to taken them into a deeper, satisfying exploration of ideas from other times.  On my Antarctic trip, being on the ship enables me to reflect on the history of voyaging in the Southern Ocean; seeing the ice for the first time makes me think about how much ice there is and how did we discover that; arriving at an Antarctic station prompts an investigation of life in small, isolated communities trapped for months in polar darkness, and so on.  Good history is always a dialogue between the present and the past.

Your new book, The Art of Time Travel, focuses on the work of historians and profiles 14 of Australia’s most eminent historians. What drove this project and why was it important to you to highlight historians’ work to a wider audience?

I think something magical happens in the writing of great history.  Just what that magic is, or might be, can be explored by looking over the shoulder of gifted historians at work.  I wanted to show that writing history is a highly creative act and that its artistic aspirations are perfectly consistent with the quest to represent the past truthfully.

What are some of the important things you’ve learned about what works well and what doesn’t in terms of outreach? Do you have any memorable stories about outreach activities that went either really well or really badly?

Although I’ve emphasised the written word in my responses here, I spend a lot of time preparing and giving talks.  I’ve spoken in Rotary Clubs, school rooms, scout halls, community centres, lecture theatres, museums, on a soapbox, under a canopy of stars, balancing on ships voyaging to Antarctica, close to the Greenland ice cap and in the Commonwealth Parliament, and I’ve always benefited from researching my audience beforehand.  Who are they, what are they interested in, how comfortably are they sitting, can they hear me and can they see my pictures?  Three good rules are: respect your audience, address them with enthusiasm and trust the power of a true story.

I was moved by the response to one of my essays in a small community that suffered in the Black Saturday firestorm.  I wrote about that event, putting it in historical perspective, in the week following the fire and the essay seemed to fill a need.  The community of Steels Creek in the Yarra Valley lost ten residents and two-thirds of its homes, and with the loss of their computers people shared photocopies of the essay.  The digital became document.  This led to an invitation to work with the community in capturing their stories and helping them to recover a sense of their shared identity over time.  In collaboration with them, we produced two books and a film.  That original essay was awarded the Alfred Deakin Prize for an Essay Advancing Public Debate, and the $15,000 prize money went to the Steels Creek project, and the book royalties to the community centre.

What benefits do you think your outreach has had for your work (both research and teaching)?

It often fundamentally shapes the character of the research.  Outreach doesn’t just come at the end of good social inquiries; it is part of the formative dialogue.  And I hope it enables my teaching about history to be more engaged with my own place and time.

What personal benefits do you think it has had in terms of developing your skills?

The wonderful thing about being a writer, scholar and academic is that you are a life-long learner.  The great skill of the historian is to be a careful and compassionate listener – to past voices, often lost or silenced, and also to the testimony of the present.  ‘Outreach’ constantly throws one into the deep end.  Those unexpected audiences are great teachers!


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