Prof Lesley Head FASSA FAHA new AAH Pres
Academy News, Australian Academy of the Humanities, 16 February 2021
Meet our new President
Our new President, Professor Lesley Head FASSA FAHA, took up the role in November 2020 after being elected to the Academy in 2004.
Professor Head is currently Head of the School of Geography at the University of Melbourne. She has contributed to international debates about relationships between society and nature and her most recent research has focused on the cultural dimensions of major environmental issues, including climate change.
In this first Academy newsletter for 2021, we take the opportunity to get to know our new President a little better via a short Q+A with Jeremy Lasek, the Academy’s Media Advisor.
Q. Congratulations on being elected as President of the Academy. Before we ask about your priorities for the next three years, tell us how you first became interested in geography and dedicating your life to better understanding what makes the world tick?
A. Thank you. I really became interested in my final years at high school when I had great teachers both in geography and history. That was when it clicked that there were so many important and fascinating issues to be explored. The best teachers introduced me to the idea of research as something I could do. I was also passionate about the environment as a teenager, but it was when I went to university that the intersection between archaeology and geography became clear to me.
Q. In response to being elected President, you noted the role the humanities will play in addressing climate change and global warming and identified this as one of your key priorities. What is the role of the humanities in addressing what you’ve described as ‘the biggest global challenge of our time’?
A. I would put the humanities’ contribution under the umbrella of understanding, interpreting and contributing to the necessary cultural change in this area. The humanities help people to talk about the issues, help understand and shift entrenched ideas, about the ‘cost’ of endless economic growth for example. The humanities share stories and express ideas through arts and cultural practice. The humanities also give us all a deeper understanding of the human experience of climate change in different places and times. If our government doesn’t urgently commit to an ambitious and defined strategy on climate change, Australia will be left behind. Right now, it feels like the community is ahead of the government on this issue. The recent shift in position from the government does give me some cause to be more optimistic.
Q. Coining a phrase often used by people in politics, the humanities is a ‘broad church’ covering a myriad of diverse disciplines. In terms of tackling climate change, what message do you have for our humanities community, many who may feel their individual contribution won’t make any difference?
A. I think of the Academy as being a collective. We should always be looking at the bigger picture through a collective view. In relation to tackling our current environmental challenges, I see the humanities as key players, and not just the overtly ‘environmental’ humanities. We have great potential to contribute to ethical questions, social justice questions, cross-cultural questions, and via our linguistic capacity, to name a few. Because we know a lot about how people have lived and are living differently, in different times and places, we are well placed to help imagine alternative responses and potential solutions.
Q. One of the five priorities in the Academy’s 2020-2025 Strategic Plan is to ‘reconcile and recognise’ by contributing to ‘national efforts to acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, histories, knowledges and practices as foundational to our national story’. What are your hopes as Australia continues the long journey towards reconciliation, and in a practical sense, what can the humanities do to support this important national priority?
A. This is a fundamental and deep commitment of mine. To date, the humanities have been vital in helping understand those histories and knowledges. But we also need to consider how we have been part of the colonising problem. How might we decolonise as an Academy? There may be structural issues we need to consider.
Q. Over the past 12 months our world was radically altered by the impacts of COVID-19, forcing us all to explore new ways to live, work and play. While there has been a great focus on responding to the pandemic through science, how important do you see the role of the humanities in helping the world to ‘build back better’?
A. A very good example of the contribution we are making is through the Rapid Research Information Forum in which humanities and science researchers are working together to address pressing questions about Australia’s response to COVID-19 as they emerge. The humanities has always been good at challenging basic assumptions and this in itself is an important contribution. In terms of ‘building back better’ there is still a long way to go, and we shouldn’t be too hasty in trying to get back to ‘normal’.
Q. When the previous Minister for Education announced radical changes to university fee structures mid last year, there was a considerable outcry that these changes were discriminatory against studies in the humanities. What would you say to the new Minister, Alan Tudge, if you had the chance to discuss this change in government policy?
A. If I was speaking with the new Minister I would remind him that the evidence shows there are just as many jobs in the humanities as there are in science. By choosing to discriminate against the humanities, the government is also punishing students of lower socio-economic status, many of whom choose the humanities as a pathway to tertiary education. However, I believe it is wrong to frame the issues as the humanities versus science. The whole university sector is having major challenges at the moment, and there are threats to research and scholarship in all areas. We need to work together, not in competition.
Q. You have flagged that one of your priorities during your time as President will be supporting humanities researchers at the early stages of their careers. How can these leaders of the future be better supported?
One of my greatest fears is that if we do nothing, we risk losing a whole generation of early career researchers. The Academy already provides a lot of support through scholarships, grants and awards. This is an area I believe we all need to turn our attention to, and quickly. I’d be very happy to hear from the Academy’s Fellows and all of our stakeholders about what we can do to provide the increased level of support that is so badly needed.
Q. The Academy has been around for 50 years and was built on deep traditions of Learned Academies which have existed around the world in various shapes and forms for centuries. What do you see the role of this Academy in the 21st century?
A. We are living in a rapidly changing world and we need to use everything in our power to better understand the changes we’re going through and to share those learnings. It is important that we demonstrate our usefulness and show people we really can make a difference.
Q. The Academy has recently begun to adopt the use of the acronym SHAPE in place of HASS to describe the collective disciplines of humanities, arts, and social sciences. What do you like about the term SHAPE and do you see it becoming our equivalent acronym to STEM?*
A. Yes, it is a new term and I am still getting my head (and tongue) around SHAPE. I certainly believe it is more flexible and dynamic sounding than HASS. We need to remember it took about 10 years for STEM to become embedded in our vernacular and so I believe shifting from HASS to SHAPE is well worth a try.
* SHAPE stands for Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts for People and the Economy, STEM for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
Q. It was remiss of me not to have asked how you coped during Melbourne’s long lockdown last year? It must have presented some enormous challenges. What were your take-outs from the whole experience?
A. After 11 months working from home, I’ve only just returned to the office in the past week, and slowly, more and more people are returning to their workplaces in Melbourne. I have been fortunate that I have a good workspace at home, but I know it has been a struggle for many academic staff and students. I have certainly missed interacting in person with my colleagues. I think the past year has shown us all that we can all work differently and I hope we never go back to flying as often as we did for short academic meetings that can easily be conducted online. This will certainly help reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. I think the overall ramifications of the changes in how we work will take many years to manifest.
Q. Let’s hope 2021 is smoother sailing. What are your hopes and plans for the year ahead?
A. I believe we are still in for a bumpy year in the university sector and I’m afraid there will be more pain to come. For our society, while there are some positive signs ahead, we should not be complacent. We shouldn’t expect to bounce back too quickly, and it is good to pause and reflect on what we have learned about society in the past year. Let’s not miss the opportunity to do things better.