Week 7 in History Beyond the Classroom

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Dr. Tanya Evans, Macquarie University

In week 7 in History Beyond the Classroom, we got yet another perspective on community engaged pubic history. Fresh from winning a prestigious NSW Premier’s History Award on Friday night, we were lucky to get Tanya Evans. Tanya was also busy this week, since she is current President of the History Council of NSW (http://www.historycouncilnsw.org.au/about/), and had a packed schedule of events for History Week (http://www.historycouncilnsw.org.au/history-week/)
Tanya, who now teaches at Macquarie University, started her career by doing her Honours in History at Edinburgh University, followed by an MA in Women’s History at the University of London, followed by a PhD, also at London. Though an academic historian, Tanya told us that when she moved to Macquarie from the UK she began to describe herself as a public historian who also happens to specialise in the history of family, motherhood, poverty, and sexuality. For Tanya, the line between academic and public history is too blurred to make a distinction, which arguably should not have to be made at all.
Tanya is passionate about researching ordinary people and places in the past and, more importantly, incorporating ordinary people and places in the process of her research and the construction of historical knowledge. She also loves teaching and producing public history and working in teams. In fact, Tanya helped me think through some of the challenges of teaching this unit because she also teaches a capstone community history unit at Macquarie (which has a requirement that all students complete a community engaged unit of study before they graduate), but one that is focused on collaboration between students, too.
Tanya has also curated an exhibition, writes for general as well as academic readers, politicians and social policy makers and she makes radio and television programs based on her scholarship. Tanya is a regular contributor to the popular show “Who Do You Think You Are?” both here and in the UK. She consciously tries to pitch her work at a variety of audiences because her research is targeted at disrupting people’s assumptions about the history of the family. It questions supposedly ‘authoritative’ or ‘commonsensical’ knowledge about family life in the past.
Her three books so far have been about the history of ‘illegitimacy’, poverty and philanthropy. And, as noted above, as testimony to Tanya’s commitment to community history, her last book, Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales, won the NSW Premier’s History Prize for Community and Regional History (http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/about-library-awards/nsw-premiers-history-awards). The book was a history of Australia’s oldest surviving charity, The Benevolent Society, and she wrote this in collaboration with family historians while relying on the support of the charity over several years in order to do so. Tanya was as interested in the lives of the family historians she met while doing research for this, and wanted to track how their own research has changed the way they think and live, too.
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Tanya is dedicated to the democratization of historical knowledge, and her commitment showed in her talk to the class, as well as the essay we read based on her most recent venture: an edited collection called Swimming with the Spit published by New South, which is a community history of the Spit Swimming Club at Balmoral Beach (https://spitswimclub.org/), and has just hit the newsstands everywhere….( https://www.newsouthbooks.com.au/books/swimming-spit/). Tanya shared some of the stories she accumulated while interviewing various prominent female swimmers in the club’s history, and discussed how they wanted to shape their own stories. In doing so, Tanya reminded us that though local history is often disparaged, in fact, just about all history is local history in some way, and the real questions revolve around the meaning(s) we make of those stories.
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Finally, Tanya talked a little about her interest in presenting in different media, noting that she wrote drafts of her latest work as blog posts, which allowed for an exchange of ideas and community input. This led nicely into our class discussion of the community work that students are doing, and the major projects they are starting to think about. In the meantime, Tanya is also already starting to write a history of motherhood in Australia from prehistory to the present (!) while continuing to research the different ways in which family history is practiced. We’ll look forward to more innovative approaches, and award-winning research.

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