Alt banner image

Hooked on history: A career in researching & teaching public history

We all love learning more about the past, but what opportunities are out there for pursuing history at the tertiary level? Here Sarah Trevor chats to Janis Wilton, a public historian and Inside History contributor, about her wonderfully varied career in history, her love of teaching and her advice for people looking to pursue their passion for the past.

Janis Wilton is an Associate Professor in History in the School of Humanities at the University of New England (UNE) where, for over 30 years, she has taught and researched in local, family and applied history. She is retiring in July this year.

IH: How did you first become interested in history?
This is a memory exercise. This is always odd for someone who has spent part of her professional life asking for others’ memories. What narrative will I construct? Family stories (and silences) as a child, perhaps a little. History at school – it was information and facts. I did that well and so tumbled into history at university. There, definitely, a couple of inspirational teachers.

History was no longer facts and information. It was questions, ideas, problems, challenges, stories.

And history teaching involved performance (one lecturer stood on the front desk and declaimed), engagement, humour.

Then, after university, the clinch pin: I got paid work interviewing European refugees about their experiences. I met and heard people who had lived through the histories I had studied in books. I was hooked. This was back in the early 1980s.

IH: What are your teaching areas and/or research interests?
Janis: Oral history is a core with its invitation to listen and hear how individuals experience, remember and interpret their pasts. It is accompanied by exploring and applying the variety of sources and forms that can be used to interpret and present the past to different audiences: history and museums, the (hi)stories objects can reveal, walking and talking the past through audio tours, history through art, family history, community history. My teaching and research interests focus very much on public and applied history.

IH: Of all the projects/research you’ve undertaken, which are you most proud of?
Janis: This is a bit like asking who is your favourite child! Different projects have opened different doors, provided different insights. Usually, in the doing, they are spaces of challenge and lack of confidence. On completion they have sometimes amazed.

For example, did I really work with a team to produce a book, a travelling exhibition (22 venues across three states), an online database, a website and much more on the Chinese in regional New South Wales? How did I manage to engage with the histories of people buried in the Maitland Jewish Cemetery, including understanding the Hebrew inscribed on their gravestones, and gather together insights into their individual, family and community stories to produce a book flanked by an online database and wonderfully upstaged by an artist’s responses to the cemetery site and its emotive power?

The Cemetery was reconsecrated in 1979. Courtesy Australian Jewish Historical Society Archives.
The Cemetery was reconsecrated in 1979. Courtesy Australian Jewish Historical Society Archives.

What about standing with recording equipment at the annual Maitland Show to capture the sounds of chooks clucking, screeching and flapping in order to inform an interpretation plan for that site? And there are quite a few other projects – different topics, different formats, a variety of audiences. So, not so much proud of a particular project, but amazed at the diversity and, perhaps, wondering whether so much diversity might be achieved at the risk of depth.

IH: What’s your favourite topic to teach and why?
I enjoy the stimulation of engaging students with different forms of public and applied history with perhaps a particular delight in opening the worlds of oral history, history and museums, and local, community and family histories. The pleasure comes from providing frameworks and ideas for students to pursue their own research projects and to explore creative approaches to interpreting and presenting history. The pile of marking is always daunting but is tempered by the often creatively unexpected paths and products pursued by students.

Objects come alive, individual memories provoke new questions, community stories challenge national accounts, streetscapes echo with different pasts.

IH: Why do you think it’s important to undertake formal tertiary study in history?
Janis: History is a discipline based on a package of skills, knowledge and practices that have evolved over time. Good historians have conquered these skills and carry them as their tools of trade. They then use them in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes. Tertiary study in history ensures that students learn, practice and apply these skills, knowledge and practices.

Tertiary study in history also engages students with the variety of ways in which historians research and present history, and opens doors on unexpected, challenging and stimulating approaches and topics. It should broaden and excite, provide confidence, and equip graduates with skills for life and work.

Image courtesy State Library of Victoria.
Image courtesy State Library of Victoria.

IH: What are UNE’s strengths for those interested in studying history?
Janis: UNE has a unique suite of named history courses from undergraduate through to research higher degrees. There is diversity in the topics available, and the courses are carefully structured so that learning is a gentle, challenging and stimulating journey.

There is the opportunity to specialise as well as to dip into a smorgasbord of different periods, geographical areas, and historical approaches and topics. The emphasis is on balancing skills and knowledge with questioning, interpretation, and creativity.

For more information visit Study History at UNE.

Courtesy State Library of Victoria.
Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

IH: What are some of the practical skills that studying history at UNE offers?
Janis: An emphasis on developing the skills, knowledge and practices required by good historians is embedded in all history units taught at UNE. There are also units dedicated to specialist practical skills including, for example, writing history for different audiences, heritage conservation research and practice, oral history interviewing and interpretation, locating and understanding different types of sources, putting history on display in exhibitions, documenting and interpreting sites of remembrance. UNE also offers individual research projects and professional work opportunities for both undergraduate and postgraduate course work students.

To survey the units available visit the Study section of Study History at UNE.

IH: What sorts of topics have your students explored in their research projects?
Janis: History students at UNE can undertake supervised research projects as undergraduate, honours, and postgraduate students. The period of study varies from 1 trimester to 3 years (the latter for PhD students). In the last few years, the following are among topics explored by students with whom I have worked:

  • The life and death of a rural school in Tasmania.
  • A family memoir: researching and writing history as creative fiction.
  • Remembering a children’s author: an oral history study.
  • Retelling the historical narrative of a particular site through an audio walking tour.
  • The rise and fall of a sugar plantation in a particular locality in Queensland.
  • Interviewing soldier sons.
  • Using objects to reconstruct the lives of the Bounty women.
  • A Murdi history of Weilmoringle.
  • Chinese market gardening in Australia and New Zealand.
  • Australia’s family historians: who they are, what they do and their motivations.
  • Public memorialisations in a particular locality in Queensland.

Importantly, many UNE history students present their research in journals, books, websites, exhibitions and a variety of other forms and media.

For examples of other postgraduate and honours research projects visit: UNE History: Our People – Students.

IH: What’s something you’ve learnt from the students?
Janis: I am regularly humbled by the commitment, ideas and creativity of students. So often they bring to their study of history at UNE a wealth of previous experience and immersion in particular areas of interest. They then use their study of history at UNE to extend, sometimes upend, and often creatively reconfigure their existing and new work. I get introduced to topics that are new to me.

I learn about people and places I otherwise would not encounter. I appreciate different styles of learning, writing, thinking and presenting. Teaching at UNE has always also been a learning experience for me.

Courtesy State Library of Victoria.
Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

IH: How does UNE make it easier for people studying by distance?
Janis: UNE is one of the longest, if not the longest, standing university in terms of the delivery of distance education. The majority of UNE’s history students are external: they study from home and at a distance.

In the 21st century this is achieved through each unit of study having its own dedicated website. These websites deliver teaching and learning materials, resources, online lectures, and they provide a variety of online discussion forums in which students can share ideas, problems, questions and resources with each other and with staff.

Teaching and learning is backed up by an administrative system, library and other resources that provide support and information.

For more details visit: Australia’s best online uni.

IH: What would be your advice for anyone looking to study history?
Janis: Ask yourself why you want to study history: for a professional qualification? for personal interest? for volunteer work with a local society? for all of these, and/or other, reasons?

Browse the different courses available. Look for courses that offer a good package of skills, knowledge and practice; a range of historical topics and approaches; strong records in history teaching; and, if relevant, pathways to further study, and opportunities for individual research projects.

Talk to current and previous students of history courses: see what they recommend.

Contact relevant staff related to the course you are considering. Ask questions. Seek clarification.

Don’t hesitate to apply once you find the course that suits you.

This is the final part in our series on studying history at UNE. Read the other two instalments here:

Join our mailing list