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Reflections on early historical thinking

Dr Nathan Wise

Associate Professor in Public and Applied History

University of New England

At UNE, teaching commences in this first week of March for our Trimester One units. In our foundation history unit, HINQ100: What is History?, there is a remarkable blend of students with diverse backgrounds and experiences. There is the typically large group of school-leavers, who come from all over Australia to start out fresh with their university courses. And they study side-by-side (both on-campus and online) with many of our postgraduate students (such as students of the Graduate Diploma in Local, Family and Applied History, or our Master of Arts students), who are taking HINQ100 to either learn about the practise of history or to enhance their research and analytical skills. 

To help gently ease students into the pattern and culture of study, our first week begins with a simple reflective task: ‘write about one of your earliest memories of thinking historically’. While this has been the task I’ve set for a number of years now, the responses never cease to amaze and fascinate me. In particular, it’s clear that stories shared by family and friends plays a central role in inspiring early historical thought. Many students reflect on the stories their grandparents told them about growing up ‘in the old days’. For some, childhood visits to the old historic home of a family member or friend encouraged them to ask early questions about ‘the past’. While for others, historical objects in and around their home (or the home of a family member or friend) sparked many questions about how those objects were once used.

I often think of historical research as being a solitary experience, of sitting quietly in the archives trawling through old documents, before returning to my computer to write a history. But throughout almost all those student responses, it is clear that historical thought is so often inspired by social interactions. We share stories with each other, we walk around, touch, see, and talk about physical history, and together we can examine and discuss the artefacts of the past. This also got me thinking about the value of both public and scholarly historical conferences, lectures, seminars and workshops, and how they serve a similar purpose. It all serves as an important reminder of the value of talking about history; when we come together to talk about the past, in whatever forum, it ignites our imagination and sets us up for an exciting historical journey.

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