First Class: History Beyond the Classroom

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HSTY 3902 – History Beyond the Classroom is now underway again in 2016. Thanks to those who made it to the first class yesterday. The sites that I referred to in the introduction are as follows:
For the blog from last year that has student reflections on the course, as well as evaluations from community partners and lecturer and tutors, see the blog posts below.
You can also view the class website that showcases some of the student projects from last year at:
You can also view a summary of the course in the first issue of SOPHI magazine, which can be accessed here:
And please feel free to join me on twitter at: @HstyMattersSyd and also our new facebook site:
If you are an enrolled student, you can find a tape of the introductory meeting here, which contains some important information about the unit:
I look forward to seeing you all next Monday.

History Beyond the Classroom, 2016

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Welcome to another year of History Beyond the Classroom – the second year we have taught it. With the benefit of the pioneering work of the students, lecturers, and community organisations from last year, hopefully we can make it even better than last year.
As mentioned in a previous blog, feedback from last year was overwhelmingly positive. Please see my summary and the results of the feedback at:
As I mention there, in response to feedback, this year I have set earlier due dates and staged deadlines for choosing and working with community organisations, and Michaela Cameron will come in earlier to speak to students, along with some of the students from last year, and we are also requiring weekly posts of diary entries so we can keep a closer eye on everyone’s progress and development (including some mandatory blogging!).
I will also be sure to include much clearer guidelines on expectations about the community work and the projects in the initial discussions and throughout. I will also provide clearer guidelines to our community partners as well and keep in touch with them from an earlier date. Hopefully, clearer guidelines will also help students navigate the time commitment that a few students felt was onerous.
This year, we now have a number of examples to draw from in terms of engagement, and also more links with organisations who are familiar with what we are doing. These will remain options for students, but students will still be allowed – and encouraged – to choose their own organization.
Some students struggled in their initial dealings with community or local organisations. We will certainly try and smooth the way this time, but it is also worth noting that many students in their reflective diaries and their feedback have said that these initial starts and false starts were one of the most important parts of the learning experience in this class – that it wasn’t always easy to “negotiate” a project, but they felt a tremendous sense of achievement when they pulled it off.
I have also put the readings together in a course reader this year, and we will try and divide our time in tutorials a little more effectively between the lecture readings, and projects.

New Website Showcasing the Work of the Class of 2015

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We are pleased to announce that thanks to the great work of Michaela Cameron, we now have a beautiful website up and running where you can view the brilliant community-engaged public history work of the students from HSTY 3902: History Beyond the Classroom, in 2015. Well done to all, and thanks Michaela.

Feedback from our Community Partners

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I recently reported on student feedback for the unit HSTY 3902: History Beyond the Classroom (see: The feedback we have collected from the community and local organisations that students have worked with over the semester have been overwhelmingly positive, too. While survey results are still coming in, we have heard from fourteen of our thirty-three partner organisations, or just over 40%.
Over 90% said they were satisfied with the way in which our history students engaged with the organization, with one neutral on the subject, and one unsatisfied. Over 70% were happy with the amount of information they received about the course, and why students were engaging with the organization. One was neutral, and two others said they would have liked to have known more about the course. Gratifyingly, all of the organisations who have responded so far said they would be interested in working with history students from the University of Sydney again next year.
For most students, the community engagement was the best part of the course. See their comments here:
Some of the qualitative comments from partner-organisations are listed below, but highlights included a note from Gay Hendrickson, from the Parramatta Female Factory Friends, who said that student Michael Rees was making a “real difference” to the organisation and “his approach was exceptional in the way he related to the individuals involved.” “I would also like to commend you and the University of Sydney for providing a subject with practical experience of history in action as well as making a real difference to communities such as the Parramatta Female Factory Friends.”
Mary Oakenfull of the Marrickville Heritage Society wrote that they appreciated the “deep interest and assistance” and “genuine enthusiasm” of student Margaret Bester, and “hope to have an ongoing relationship” with the History Department and the University of Sydney. And the North Parramatta Residents Action Group reported that Katya Pesce was delightful to have on board, her enthusiasm and dedication was a joy to be around….It is great to know that Katya has become so engrossed in our campaign that she has asked to stay on and help outside the course.”
And Sharon Laura of the West Connex Action Group, Haberfield/Ashfield, wrote about Lucy Hodgkinson-Fisher that: “I was delighted and surprised by her thoughtfulness and integrity, by her pursuit of information from many others, as well as from me/us. I have been blown away by what she has produced – it is insightful and timely. Her project really has connected a past community struggle to a present day battle by residents. Good on you all at Sydney Uni and good on Lucy. Thanks.”

Continue reading “Feedback from our Community Partners”

Reflections and Feedback from History Beyond the Classroom

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As the dust settles on the academic year, feedback for our History Beyond the Classroom unit of study has continued to come in (HSTY 3902). We’ve been a little overwhelmed by the positive responses from students, guest lecturers, and our community and local partner organisations. We’ve now got back our Unit of Study Survey (USS) results, and we are in the midst of surveying our community partners. In an effort to be transparent, I’ve written a brief summary of the salient points from this feedback below, followed by a full report of the results, and comments (note, I’ve now separated out our community partner feedback into a different blog post, that can be found here:
Thirty of thirty-eight enrolled students responded to the USS survey, or roughly 80% of the class. Of these, 97% reported that they were satisfied with the quality of the teaching, with only one person “neutral” on the question. Significantly, 100% of students strongly agreed or agreed that the content of the unit “encouraged/stimulated their thinking and helped to develop an enhanced diversity of ideas, attitudes and approached to an beyond the subject matter.”
The positive qualitative comments to the question “What have been the best aspects of this unit of study?,” noted below, speak for themselves. I’ll only say here that students’ enthusiasm for the course was reflected in the results of their work, which was outstanding. In over twenty years of teaching, I have never seen such overwhelmingly impressive work. Students have inspired and energized me throughout the semester, as much as they have obviously enjoyed the course too. While many students noted it has been the best course they have ever taken at Uni, which is lovely to hear, I should also point out that it has been one of the most enjoyable courses I have ever taught! It has been such a treat and privilege for me to see students’ enthusiasm and intellectual development, and to watch these projects grow to fruition.

Continue reading “Reflections and Feedback from History Beyond the Classroom”

Chifley College Year 11 History Prizes

What do the Roman Colosseum, the Emperor Commodus, Roman aquatic displays, the Atlantic slave trade, and Lee Harvey Oswald have in common? They were all topics of prize-winning research by Chifley College Senior Campus students for their Ancient and Modern History Year 11 Historical Investigations.
The essay competition is held in conjunction with the Departments of History and Classics and Ancient History at Sydney University, and judged by academics from both the modern and ancient disciplines.
Sydney University and Chifley College Senior Campus have been working together for the past two years as part of an equity program in order to encourage students to achieve academic excellence and to consider University as an option.
In 2014, together we instituted a new Year 11 Essay Prize, and this year the Department of History donated book voucher prizes of over $300 for the winners and runners-up – prizes that were matched by the school. HSIE teachers at Chifley College organised an amazing prize ceremony and invited aspiring Year 11 students, current Year 12 students, and the parents of the students competing for prizes.
Charles Tan was named the winner of the 2015 Sydney University Ancient History Essay Competition, one of the school’s top prizes for a Year Eleven History Student.
The prolific reader and writer about Ancient History issues was praised for writing an essay that “was well-written and well-presented, and does a great job of complicating our more popular ideas of history by looking at the ancient evidence and the history of conflicts between Christianity and Paganism in the Roman world”.
He said that he got the idea for his historical investigation from a film study of Agora, and wanted to explore the factors that contributed to the conflict between the Roman Empire and the developing Christian faith and the ways that the growing political influence of Christian bishops in Alexandria turned the Christian Church from a religious body, to a major political power. The judges thought the examples chosen to do this showed Charles was “thinking like an historian” and was “well-researched and argued, the essay showed good attention to the historiographical debate and had a really strong conclusion.“
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Prize-winner Charles Tan
Juliana Campbell, the winner of the 2015 Sydney University Modern History Essay Competition, explored development of the transatlantic slave trade up until 1750.
According to the Sydney University judges, her essay “was impressively coherent, comprehensive, and well-written. Campbell’s explanation of the shift in the status of Africans in colonial America due to changing demands for labour demonstrated a sophisticated historical analysis. It demonstrates both sound knowledge of the content, and a sophisticated University-level approach to the topic.”
Prize-winner Juliana Campbell
Other notable essays included Charles Tan’s exploration of the assassination of JFK which was awarded 2nd place in the Modern History competition. In the Ancient History competition Varonica Paulo’s investigation into interpretations of Commodus and Precious Ibekaku’s study of the Colosseum were both awarded 2nd Place. Juliana Campbell was awarded 3rd. The judges agreed that it was hard to separate the essays and that they all showed the hallmarks of great historians in the making…
On Friday, October 23, I travelled to Mount Druitt with a new group of volunteer history students for the prize ceremony. We learned about the great work students were doing in their other HSIE subjects, and got a chance to talk to students about University life, and also to parents and relatives about University options for their children. After the formalities, we also got a chance to talk informally with the current Year 12 students.
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Michael McDonnell congratulates Juliana Campbell with Dianne Harper looking on.
Precious Ibekaku, who received second place in the competition, spent some time talking to current students at Sydney University, chatting about school and university life. She believes that the chance to work alongside university students, and have them support her in her studies, provides an opportunity “to get a feel for what University will be like. It’s really useful, it makes me think about what I will do after my HSC, and helpful in setting goals for academic success. Most of all though, because of these conversations, I know I will be welcomed when I come to University and this makes the whole process seem less scary”. The judges said that her essay was “written with flair, with a good critical evaluation of a range of sources, and makes a convincing argument that the purpose of Roman aquatic displays was not just entertainment but political.”
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Precious Ibekaku with her father, Ray
As well as the essay competition, the partnership between Chifley College and Sydney University includes a mentoring program with History Extension students as well as regular visits of senior students to the university campus. Starting in December last year, for example, University of Sydney students Natalie Leung, Rachael Simons, Thomas Boele, and Elizabeth Miller all volunteered to mentor History extension students, and worked closely with Year 12 students Ema Pikuana, Brieanna Watson, and Shaun Mudliar over a series of visits between the school and Uni. Natalie and Rachael are pictured below with Ema, Brieanna and Shaun in Manly, where we enjoyed an end of program day out.
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Chifley College Students Shaun, Ema, and Brieanna, with Sydney Students Natalie and Rachael, at Manly
In 2014, three Chifley College Senior Campus students received E12 scholarships for undergraduate degrees at USYD, and a number of 2015 students have been awarded conditional scholarship offers, dependent on their HSC results, including both Brieanna and Ema – successful graduates of the Extension history mentoring program. We are looking forward to having them both here to study history next year and wish them well on their last exams!
This year, Thomas Walker, Natalie Leung, and Shayma Taweel will work with History Extension students Juliana Campbell, Charles Tan, and Marieka Hooymans on their projects. We are looking forward to hosting them here at the University on Friday December 4 to refine topics and do some library research.
Special thanks must also go to the wonderful teachers at Chifley College Senior Campus for their efforts in organising these programs, the prize ceremony and their warm welcome to us, especially Dianne Harper, Robert Pecovnik, and Terri Katsikaros. We are inspired by the teachers and students every time we visit. Many thanks for the great day out at Chifley College. And many congratulations to all the prize-winners and essay writers – an impressive and talented cohort!

History that Matters: Week 13 in History Beyond the Classroom

The view from Fort Michilimackinac, now Mackinaw City, Michigan. Or a view of Anishinaabewaki? Whose lands? Whose Perspective? Whose History? (Photo by author)
Our last formal meeting in HSTY 3902 History Beyond the Classroom took place on Monday, October 26. Students presented on their community work and major projects, reflected on their experiences, and we had a fun end-of-year party to cap it all off. In their presentations and reflections, the students once again impressed each other, me, as well as visiting colleagues from the History Department at Sydney University. Many thanks to all who came along to hear about their work.
Hannah Forsyth also joined us from ACU, where she has been coordinating a similar course. Hannah and I dreamed up this unit of study together several years ago while working on our Social Inclusion program. Teachers at the disadvantaged schools we worked with asked us to help get their students out of the local ‘bubble’ that they were in. Hannah and I also came to realise that our own Uni students (along with us) often seldom left the ‘bubble’ they were in. We were keen to think of a way to push students out of the comforts of the classroom and engage with communities and groups with whom they might not normally interact and to think of the challenges and opportunities of history from a different perspective than the traditional essay allows.
The origins of the class in our social inclusion efforts has meant, I think, that engagement has been central to what the students have been doing which, in turn, has meant the students are all doing local or community-engaged history as much as they are doing public history. The two do not necessarily always go together, but the students have convinced me that in combination, community-engaged public history makes for a more grounded, meaningful, and accountable approach to the past, one that challenges the hierarchies of academic history in many different ways – and often in ways that I did not foresee happening.
The blog posts written by students throughout this semester testify to the meaningfulness and transformative effect of doing community-engaged public history. This was only reinforced when Hannah asked students how their work this semester has enriched their sense of history, or made them think differently about the place of history in the world.
Students immediately noted that working with “real people” demonstrated how personal history could be, and how important it is to so many different kinds of people. They could also see how many different ways people use history, and just how different those ways could be from “academic history.” Indeed, many students said they understood now in a more tangible way the different roles of history and how it works in practice (and one or two noted that they could now see history as a career – they could finally answer that question “what will you do with a history degree!).
Some of the students working with organisations that didn’t have a specific historical focus also said they felt they were doing important work documenting these organisations and their activities, and that history could be about this history in the making, not just preserving sources or telling stories about the past. One noted how important it was to do this, because she felt that no one else would do so, and it could be lost. And even while it was frustrating at times, and not always historical in nature, students could see how our historical skills could be useful in non-historical settings, and with non-historical organisations.
The students’ work with different kinds of organisations also seemed to democratise their view of history. “History is everywhere,” they declared, and not just where historians (or archivists) say it is. One student noted that his work made him realise that this was a great opportunity to reclassify what constitutes history – to query what we normally value. Working with community groups helps us “decentralise historical importance and what we should consider important.” Additionally, “local history shows us what is important to generations of residents and how important their history is as well.”
Significantly, some students noted that they realised for different individuals and groups, history could be “therapeutic,” and they could see how people used history to “reshape themselves and their world.” One student said her community-engaged work made her feel like the course was helping her to help other people.
In the end, because they saw how seriously others took history, the students said they learned to take it seriously too. Indeed, many noted they had spent far more time on their work for this class than any others they had ever taken, that they “got involved more,” because they saw just how important their work was to other people – that it “mattered.” This was only reinforced as students realised that other students and non-students were interested in what they were doing, both inside and outside the University, and that unusually, they were also keen to talk about what they were doing in their history class! Suddenly, their work was not just about getting a good mark, “going through the motions” of writing an essay, or even developing skills. There was much more at stake, and several students noted that they came to realise that the history they were doing was about much more than themselves.
You can see why I’m more than a little sad about the course coming to an end. The students in HSTY 3902 have impressed, inspired and energised me from the start. I’m sure that many thought I was a little mad when I explained what we would be doing way back in Week One. Likely some still think so! But this group has persevered, thrown themselves into their work, and pioneered a way forward for future classes.
Along the way, they have not been the only ones learning. This course and the students’ work has made me think very differently about my own work, made me question my relevance as an academic historian, and forced me to acknowledge that we have much more work to do to make our work accessible, to think about our responsibilities as historians, and to be more accountable for the histories that we write.
The class might have ended, but I’m very much looking forward now to reading students’ reflective diaries, and seeing their major projects come to fruition. Stay-tuned…

Presenting the Past – Week 12 in History Beyond the Classroom

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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 ( Other projects she has worked on include the Dictionary of Sydney (, 80 Days that Changed Our Lives ( and Against The Tide: A Highway West ( 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 (—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 (
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.

Students and Communities Make History Together

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Proposals came in from students last week detailing the extraordinary and fascinating work they have been doing with their chosen local/community organisation for HSTY 3092 History Beyond the Classroom. The proposals also outlined the major projects that have grown out of that work and which students will be working on over the next month. We were amazed at the work they have been doing and the ideas they have come up with for their major projects. Some of these I have blogged about already at: Students themselves have also blogged about their work, and I have urged them all to tell us more about their partnerships and projects. Check back regularly for more updates.
For now, it is worth noting that our thirty-eight students are working with a total of thirty-four organisations around Sydney and regional NSW. The organisations vary enormously in purpose, scope and activities, and are listed below. Web links to the organisations can be found on our blogroll.
Historical Societies
Marrickville Heritage Society
Campbelltown-Airds Historical Society Inc.
The Glebe Society
Hills District Historical Society
Canada Bay Heritage Society
Lennox Head Heritage Society
Australian Railway Historical Society (NSW BRANCH)
The Haberfield Association
Blue Mountains Historical Society
Historic Sites
Quarantine Station
Civic Theatre, Scone
Rockdale Market Gardeners
Sports/Community Groups
Ashfield Polish Club
The Temple Society
Hurlstone Park Wanderers Football Club
Parramatta Basketball Association
Rotary Club of Waitara
Powerhouse Youth Theatre
Trading Circle
St Mark’s National Memorial Library
Redfern Legal Centre
Hope Worldwide and the Gumine Community of PNG
The Whitlam Library
New South Wales Writers Centre
Activist/Political Groups
No West Connex Action Group
North Parramatta Residents’ Action Group
Parramatta Female Factory Friends
Pride History Group Oral History Project
Schools and Indigenous Histories
Aboriginal Heritge Office
O’Connell Public School
Cammeraygal High School
Holy Cross College, Ryde
Willoughby Old Girls

Public History Project Updates – Week 11 in History Beyond the Classroom

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Our class reconvened this week after the AVCC break and public holiday last week. While difficult to get restarted after the break, and with only three weeks left in the semester (hard to believe), I’ve been inspired anew by some of the amazing projects that students are developing. Proposals were due on Friday, and a first glance over them revealed some thoughtful and exciting initiatives. This was only confirmed in class, where we discussed projects in small groups then heard short presentations from individuals brave enough to talk about their work to the class.
Up first was Steph Beck, who has already blogged about her project here: We learned about her amazing journey to Melbourne to visit the rarely-used archives of the Temple Society (, her horror at discovering the damage to some of the documents there by a fire (pictured above), and some of the marvellous discoveries she made in some of the files. She has documented a little of her physical and metaphorical journey into the foodways of the fascinating Temple Society on her instagram account at: But recognizing that some of the older members of the society may not have easy access to the internet, Steph has also been thinking about how she can make her major project – an annotated collection of historical community recipes that span three countries and over one hundred and fifty years – more accessible to all of the community. A book publication awaits…
We also heard from Mitchell Davies, who has also just blogged about his work with the Campbelltown and Airds Historical Society ( at: Mitchell, a lifelong resident of Campbelltown, is keen to bring together his love of local history with his teacher-training work to inspire a new generation of high school students to learn more about the interesting past all around them. Mitchell regaled us with some of these tales, including the story of Fisher’s Ghost, which animates much of Campbelltown’s community history, and has inspired an annual Festival Mitchell is keen to use the social media platform Tumblr to bring these stories alive for students, but also to showcase the thoughts and work of those who work at the Historical Society.
Michael Rees also spoke about his work with the Female Factory Friends Michael, who also blogged about this recently at, recounted his first meeting with the Friends at a rally at the NSW Parliament House in Sydney as they presented a petition to save the Heritage Precinct in Parramatta (pictured below). He spoke about his steep learning curve about Parramatta history, and the various political and cultural interests at play in the controversy, and how that raises interesting challenges for presenting particular versions of the past at this critical juncture in the campaign to save the Heritage Precinct.
Finally, we also heard from Erin Gielis, who is working with the Rotary Club of Waitara ( Erin spoke of her engagement with the Club and how influential it was in shaping her own experience of community and the broader world to which the Club gave her access. She also brought to light the different kinds of challenges – and opportunities – students faced when working with non-historical organisations. The Waitara Club is relatively young, formed about thirty years ago. Though interested in the past, they have not had the chance to do much with their history and few of the members feel qualified to write it, and so the field is wide open for Erin to help them fill that gap. She has been interviewing members, past and present, and thinking about different ways of presenting this history via their website especially. Erin also raised important issues about the kinds of purposes such a project serves in not just documenting the activities of such an important community organisation, but also in drumming up interest and support for its survival in the future.
I hope I got everyone. Needless to say, these were inspiring stories of adventures in community history that could be of lasting impact. Students have certainly inspired me. After holding out for years, I’ve finally joined the twittersphere in order to get the word out about these great projects. Join me at for updates about these great projects.
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