While growing up, Karen Filewood helped her mother with the family tree; now she’s embarking on her own research projects as an Honours student at the University of New England (UNE). As part of her studies she’s pursued the topics that most fascinate her: from scouring lone grave burials in her local area, to investigating a tragic yet little-known nineteenth-century steamship disaster, and more.
Here, Karen tells Sarah Trevor why she loves learning about the past, and shares some helpful pointers for studying history at the tertiary level — particularly for those who’d like the flexibility of studying off-campus.
IH: What degree/course are you studying at UNE?
Karen: Bachelor of Arts Honours.
IH: What made you decide to undertake this course?
Karen: I am passionate about my subject and during my past study with UNE, I found the history staff very supportive and knowledgeable.
IH: What drew you to studying with UNE in particular?
Karen: Having only completed my schooling to year 10 (and that was quite a while ago!) I found their Advanced Diploma history course was designed for an absolute beginner such as me. I liked how the units were extremely flexible in catering for whatever aspect of history you are interested in. Being a regional university, it is one of the closest to my residence.
IH: Do you study on campus or off campus?
Karen: I study off campus. Studying from home allows me the luxury of being able to research at home to my own timetable, as long as I meet the due dates of my assignments, naturally. The online delivery of course material allows me to look ahead in planning my research, ordering books, journal articles etc. from UNE’s Dixon Library. I enjoy participating in online discussion forums with my supervisors and other students from the same unit. I can be sure my calls or emails will be returned promptly and I am always interested to know of research and employment opportunities, grant funding or student internships which are posted online.
IH: What are you hoping to pursue career-wise once you’ve completed your studies?
Karen: There are so many areas where my skills and studies can take me, so essentially I am ‘going with the flow’ and see what opportunities arise. I would love to be given the chance to work as a historian or in historical archaeology, as an author, or perhaps even as a UNE lecturer — something where I can continue to learn, as well as teach others about history.
IH: What subjects/majors are you currently studying?
Karen: As I’m doing Honours part-time and am in my first year, I’m doing coursework such as comparing and evaluating past Honours papers and discussing the qualities of particularly inspirational articles on history. I’m also in the ongoing process of gathering material to complete my thesis.
IH: How are you finding history?
Karen: I couldn’t be more passionate about it if I tried!
IH: Had you studied history at all before this course?
Karen: Aside from schoolwork, I began my formal history education at UNE with the Advanced Diploma of Local, Family and Applied History. Then went on to the Bachelor of Historical Inquiry and Practice and have now moved on to Honours.
Informally though, I grew up helping my mum research family history when it became particularly popular in the 1980s via the Australian bicentenary and haven’t really stopped since.
IH: What’s been your favourite history unit so far and why?
Karen: That’s extremely difficult as I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of them. If I must narrow it down, it would have to be a tie between HIST313 Crime, Protest and Reform in the British World 1780–1840 and HIST338 Australian Frontiers. Both these topics revealed how extensive the overall power, politics and economics of British and Australian colonial governments affected the people of those countries.
Primarily though, I consider it such a privilege to gain insights into the everyday life of the people and the conditions under which they had to try and survive.
IH: What’s been the most surprising or amazing thing you’ve got to learn about so far?
Karen: I’m amazed at how much of a paradox history is. Everyone uses history, not just professionally but in everyday life, often without realising it. It is closely connected to identity, from the individual to national, and there can be extreme and often emotional reactions to it. Often confused with nostalgia, it can be lost forever, rediscovered, ignored, withheld and very easily manipulated. We can also pick and choose what we wish of it to keep and so it becomes heritage in its many forms. A lot of effort goes into keeping some history hidden away or controlling knowledge of it and just as much effort can go into venerating it, until it is taken completely out of context.
IH: What are some skills you’ve developed throughout your studies so far?
Karen: Information literacy, communication, contextualisation, problem solving, social responsibility — particularly when I discover sensitive information, flexibility, broadmindedness, and an overall sense of maintaining a high standard of research and impartiality.
IH: Have you undertaken any research projects?
Karen: My first and ongoing research project is called ‘Who’s Buried in Your Backyard?’. It began around eight years ago and involves locating, documenting and researching lone graves in the Coffs Harbour Local Government Area (LGA). I had to place a geographical limit on my research area as I have evidence of around 85 of them! At present, I have discovered around a quarter of them, but most I can only trace to the property as the markers or headstones are missing. I used this research and adapted the course content of HIST333 Waking the Dead to do the undergraduate research unit HUMS304 under Dr Andrew Piper’s supervision.
For my Honours thesis, I’m researching the effects of a collision between two steamships, the SS Keilawarra and SS Helen Nicoll, near the Solitary Islands, on 8 December 1886. The repercussions of the disaster, which resulted in the loss of around 40 lives, were felt from a personal level to nationwide. These included an outpouring of private and public grief in various forms; condemnation of the crew for taking life preservers, rushing the lifeboats and abandoning the women and children; and the introduction of new maritime legislation in at least two states. Under the supervision of UNE’s history guru and Honours Coordinator Dr Matt Allen, and Head of Archaeology and maritime archaeologist Dr Martin Gibbs, I’m very much looking forward to putting my thesis together.
IH: Why do you think it’s important to undertake formal tertiary study in history?
Karen: Without history we have personal, public and institutional amnesia. Anyone who has any type of position of responsibility, particularly when it involves the upkeep, development, promotion or portrayal of an area and its people, also has an obligation to know and understand how, what and whom their actions will affect.
As Dr Frank Bongiorno stated in a speech a couple of years ago: ‘… without a knowledge of history, public servants can engage in nothing more than situation management. … It invites us to consider evidence rather than the vibe of the thing, or what makes us feel good, or ashamed or proud’.
IH: What would be your tips for anyone thinking of studying history?
Karen: The mention of university study can sound intimidating but don’t be afraid to jump in and have a go. You will have help every step of the way from staff, lecturers and other students just like you, as well as workshops to help with essay writing, the disability support section and counsellors.
Once you start, be prepared to go on a fascinating journey as you smile, laugh, cry, or express amazement, confusion, outrage or anger on the research and narratives you discover.
Your time is your own and your reward will be equivalent to the time and effort you put into your studies. Keeping that in mind, don’t select multiple units to complete at once if you tend to stress or have other commitments such as work. I was quite happy to do just one unit at a time, at my own pace. This gave me the opportunity to get thoroughly involved with the topic and do a decent job on assignments, even though it took me longer to finish the course.
For external students in particular, discipline in putting aside time for study and research is essential. Don’t decide to go out partying all night when your assignment is due the next day and it’s not finished, or take an eight-week overseas holiday to a destination without internet connection!
IH: What do you like most about studying at UNE?
Karen: The flexibility UNE has in all areas and being able to share my passion with other like-minded people.
IH: Would you recommend UNE for other students interested in studying history?
Karen: Yes, absolutely! The encouragement, support and friendliness of everyone is invaluable, the range of subjects available is quite wide and the quality of teaching couldn’t get any better. UNE has just been ranked at first place, ahead of Charles Sturt University and the Australian National University in Humanities and Social Science by Uni Reviews for 2016. I don’t think it gets much better than that!
IH: Is there anything else you’d like to add about either UNE or your studies there?
Karen: UNE recognises the work volunteers do for their community through the New England Award. It is a points system, based on volunteer work the student undertakes for their community during their studies at UNE. Once 1000 points are reached that student can apply for the award in time for their graduation. This is a great initiative for students who put in an extra effort to do volunteer work, not to mention looking good on a resume. I really appreciate the acknowledgement of my extra-curricular activities, which included a research project, committee involvement, researching and holding annual Halloween cemetery walks and a portion of paid work.