Australian history: neither fad nor fading

Posted on March 1, 2012


Convict era icon: the historic Richmond Bridge near Hobart,Tasmania

Will our next generation end up knowing enough about the land they live in and what it means to be Australian? 

That question has become an early contender in public debate about the possible long-term impact of student course choices under the new demand-driven higher education system.

While he admits Australian history may no longer be the most popular area with some of today’s students, La Trobe Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, Tim Murray says: ‘It is important for us as a nation that students have a good grasp of our history’.

The challenge for educators, he adds, is to change any such perceptions by redesigning courses that make Australian history more relevant for students in the 21st century.

And La Trobe – which has one of the leading higher education history programs in the country –remains committed to achieving that. Despite recent concerns, first year numbers are holding up very well at the University.

Six hundred undergraduates are studying Australian history on five campuses this year. Professor Murrays says 350 of them are on the Melbourne campus and 250 at four regional campuses:  in Bendigo, Albury-Wodonga, Shepparton and Mildura.

Professor Broome: new two-year rotating curriculum

Best first-year enrolments in four years

Head of History and leading Aboriginal historian, Professor Richard Broome, says more than 330 of the 600 were first year students enrolled in two subjects, with eight Australian history subjects being taught at all levels.

‘In fact, in our first-year Australia subject on the Melbourne campus, student numbers are the best in four years: 193 compared with 172 last year. We have had to cancel only one subject this year due to lack of student interest.’
Professor Broome says Australian History enrolments at La Trobe are about twenty per cent of all history students. La Trobe’s Australian history and total history enrolments are among the largest, if not the largest, in the country.

He says this year’s Australian History offerings are Global Migration Stories; Australian Aboriginal History; Australian Environmental History (online); Art and the Environment; Australian Colonial History; Community History; Heritage Studies; and History of Australians at Work.

Under a new two-year rotating curriculum model about to be introduced, (of which more later) eight subjects will be available next year. These are still being finalised, but one will be  ‘Australians at War’.

New curriculum for changing times

Australian History has always been among La Trobe University’s strengths.  Many of its staff are world-recognised researchers, teachers, commentators and authors in the field.

With some of its lectures a global ‘hit’ on iTunesU – peaking at 80,000 downloads in one day – and its pedigree as Australia’s only Pulitzer Prize winning History Program*, La Trobe is in the final stages of planning a whole new history curriculum starting from next year.

‘Our track record shows that La Trobe History has always been big on quality and innovation, and we are working hard to maintain that edge,’ says Professor Broome.

‘As part of our curriculum redesign we surveyed first and second year students. There is clear enthusiasm among students for the discipline, and for choice and diversity.’

The new curriculum is likely to be based on a series of six distinct pathways:  studies of the ancient world; Europe, the Americas; Australia in the world, Empires; and Art History. The aim is to offer a series of rotating subjects over two years to provide students with subject diversity and consistency over their degree.

‘In any one year we will teach four subjects at first year and 16 per year at second and third year levels, with some core and key subjects available every year,’ says Professor Broome.

History in international context

‘With the challenges of an increasingly crowded and globalised world – from the Euro meltdown and Wall Street sit-ins to ethnic and religious conflicts in many regions – a good grasp of history taught in an international context is more important than ever for Australia to successfully negotiate the years ahead,’ says  Professor Broome.

‘Employers in both government and private enterprise tell us this; and students say they want to learn their history in a new, relevant and more coherent way.’

All up, La Trobe University’s History Program is one of the largest in Australia. It has more than 3,100 students on five campuses this year – a figure that has remained fairly constant for the last five years.

Students can come to grips with the background to many of the world’s major problem spots and emerging nations, including Brazil, Africa and the Pacific region. And students from many other academic areas, including Business, International Relations and Health Sciences, also take history subjects as electives.

‘Students like the wide range of choices offered at La Trobe. And they like to work closely with our researchers, many of whom are leaders in their field, because they can see the inherent interest and relevance of what they are doing,’ says Professor Broome

Some key facts about La Trobe History

● La Trobe History’s award-winning researchers, authors, and commentators include Australian historians Professors Marilyn Lake and Richard Broome, Associate  Professor  Katie Holmes and Drs Tracey Banivanua Mar, Robert Kenny and Clare Wright; Europe specialist Dr Stefan Auer; Americanists Professors Tim Minchin and Diane Kirkby and  Dr Claudia Haake; and young scholars Drs Roland Burke and Ian Coller. Key associates include Emeritus Professors David Day, Alan Frost and Inga Clendinnen; and Drs Patrick Wolfe and John Hirst.

● La Trobe academics featured in the Australian History iTunesU Podcast Collection include Professor and Dean Tim Murray, Professor Chris Mackie, Professor Marilyn Lake, Professor Richard Broome and Dr Marina Larsson.

●  La Trobe historians played a key role in pioneering a new way of writing history, described as ‘ethnographic’ or ‘social’ history. This led to a more exciting approach to teaching about the past and, to this day, the only Pulitzer Prize (the late Professor Rhys Isaac,1983) ever awarded in Australia for work in the discipline.

Australian Aboriginal History – now available to the world on iTunesU

‘Australian Aboriginal History’, a second year subject, has been launched as an iTunes U Course, offering lectures and readings every week while it is taught during first semester.

‘Aboriginal-settler relations from the outset were one of the most difficult things both sides faced in their daily lives, and today little has altered,’ says subject co-ordinator Professor Richard Broome.

‘This subject explores how relations unfolded in several frontier case studies – early NSW and the Northern Territory in more recent times. It helps to explain the basis of relations today’.

The subject is being taught from the Melbourne campus, and is also offered to regional students at Mildura and Shepparton.

iTunes U Courses is a new delivery method from Apple Corporation which allows a worldwide audience to access freely available course teaching material through iTunes at the same time as students, regardless of location or enrolment.

La Trobe University is the first Australian university to provide content on iTunes U courses, joining a community consisting of universities such as Stanford, Oxford University and Yale University.

For full details about Australian History Courses at La Trobe click here

Australian Aboriginal History course on iTunes U