Presenting the Past – Week 12 in History Beyond the Classroom

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Photo by Tracey Trompf from http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/catherine-freyne/3976124
One week behind, I’m afraid….Last week we were very fortunate to have as our guest speaker Catherine Freyne. Catherine Freyne is a historian and media producer now working at the City of Sydney. She previously produced the groundbreaking Hindsight documentaries at ABC Radio National (http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/hindsight/). Other projects she has worked on include the Dictionary of Sydney (http://home.dictionaryofsydney.org/), 80 Days that Changed Our Lives (http://www.abc.net.au/archives/80days/) and Against The Tide: A Highway West (http://www.againstthetide.net.au/). Catherine studied Australian history at UNSW. For her work in radio she has received two NSW Premier’s History Awards – a remarkable achievement.
Catherine talked about the many projects she has been involved with, and why she is so passionate about public history. She also talked about her new role at the City of Sydney which has allowed her to explore so many more new ways of thinking about history and its collection and presentation.
She particularly engaged students with her explanation of how her team at the ABC recreated history on Pitt Street and in Hyde Park when making the Hindsight program, Good Sex: The Confessions and Campaigns of W.J. Chidley (http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/hindsight/good-sex—the-confessions-and-campaigns-of-w.j.-chidley/4605590), and also raised the bar on thinking of good public history apps when talking about the Against the Tide which is still in development and which Catherine contributed to in 2014. The app allows users travelling along the Parramatta River on the Rivercat to make choices about what kinds of histories they are interested in, and hear of the experiences of different groups of people in different voices.
Catherine quoted her former colleague Dr Shirley Fitzgerald who said when accepting the 2014 Annual History Citation that in her work as City Historian (1987-2009), she had been primarily motivated by this question: who gets access to precious urban public spaces, and why? History allows us to think about how that allocation has changed and evolved over time. Catherine responded engagingly to students’ questions about how to get the balance right between “important” history and “interesting” history, and told us of her sense of history as political both in giving voice to the marginal and marginalized, but also as giving us a richer sense of the present. Though she lamented the end of Hindsight, she also noted that students should tune in to Earshot, Radio National’s new general documentary slot which still broadcasts history features each week (http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/earshot/).
Following on from Catherine’s talk, we had a workshop on the problems and challenges that students were facing in getting their project designs off the ground. These ranged from the need for some technical advice, to dealing with creative differences and emphases between themselves and the organisations with whom they were working. While we couldn’t always come up with clear and easy answers, students learned to appreciate that there might be ways to work around some of these problems.
We also returned project proposals. Students were asked to outline their work with their chosen organisations and sketch out their ideas for their major project that has grown from that work. These proposals were a treat to read and mark. I’ve never enjoyed marking as much as I did this time around, a sentiment echoed by Michaela Cameron who also helped me assess them – and we have never given out such high marks! The work students have been doing with their community-partners has in most cases been extremely important, fascinating, and often heart-warming (you can glean some of this through the blogposts by students on this site). Their reflections on this work and how they plan to approach the major project were also thoughtful, creative, and provoking, and reflected a real engagement with the work they were doing, and the groups with whom they were working. One unexpected side effect of situating ourselves “outside the classroom,” I reckon, was the clarity of the prose of students. Not having to shoehorn or situate their work amid other scholars’ frameworks seemed to liberate students to write clearly, directly, and thoughtfully. The proposals were simply a joy to read. Really looking forward to their reflective diaries and their major projects now, due in November.

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