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Q&A with Tamson Pietsch (Empire of Scholars)

Empire coverTamson Pietsch (2013) Empire of Scholars, Manchester: Manchester University Press

Q1: What is the Empire of Scholars about?

At the start of the twenty-first century we are acutely conscious that universities operate within an entangled world of international scholarly connection. Empire of Scholars examines the networks that linked academics in Britain and the settler world in the age of ‘Victorian globalisation’. It argues that in the 1880s universities in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa began to look for new ways to connect with ‘universal’ scholarship, instituting travelling scholarship schemes, leave of absence programmes, and appointment practices that enabled academics working in the colonies to forge and maintain close personal and informal ties with their colleagues in Britain. These networks became crucial to the way that universities in Britain and the settler world operated, and to the making of knowledge in them, helping to map a ‘British academic world’ that extended far beyond the borders of the British Isles. But although it was expansive, this was a world that was also highly raced and gendered – excluding women, scholars of colour, and according only a minor place to Europeans and Americans. When we think about the global world of universities in the twenty-first century, we need to pay close attention to these informal, expansive, and exclusionary networks, for they helped shape the uneven geographies that condition higher education today.

Q2: What got you started on this line of research?

In retrospect the germ of this book was sown when I was an undergraduate at the University of Adelaide. In the seminar room there, fading photographs of past history professors adorned the walls and written after all their names were the letters M.A. (Oxon). I cannot have been anything but dimly aware of this at the time, however, when some years later their path to Oxford was one that I too followed, I began to wonder.  Beginning my doctoral studies, I had wanted to write about ideas. I wanted to know what they meant to people, where they came from, and how they got made, particularly in the context of the British Empire. But aware of my own passage to Oxford, and with the Adelaide professors still staring down at me, it seemed impossible to do this without thinking about the people who made knowledge, and the institutional structures and contexts that made them. I realised that before I could write about ideas I needed to know a lot more about the worlds that produced them – and academia seemed an obvious place to begin. So Empire of Scholars is in many ways about the unequal social and material conditions that underpin the making of ideas. It is my attempt to understand the system of which I am part, the traces it has left upon me, and the disparities that continue to characterise it.

Q3: What has been the most surprising finding for you in researching Empire of Scholars?

I was surprised by just how connected colonial scholars of the 19th and early 20th century were to British academia. I had grown up with the idea of the ‘tyranny of distance’ combined with a form of cultural cringe which saw academics who migrated as second class scholars who couldn’t make it in Britain. But this was not the story I found in the archives. Many of the academics who took up posts in settler universities were prize-winning students who were attracted by the opportunities and conditions of professorial posts in a range of disciplines that had not yet established themselves in British institutions. Moreover, utilising their personal networks, they stayed in close touch with academia in Britain, sending their students back, visiting frequently, publishing in British journals, and also in many cases being later appointed to senior posts. I realised we need to think in new ways about the way distance worked in the past.

Q4: How has this research contributed to your knowledge about the role of academics, higher education and universities in society and politics?

My research on universities in the late 19th and 20th centuries – a period of increasing global connection, in which universities struggled to adapt themselves to new kinds of knowledge and technology – has influenced the way I understand today’s higher education sector. It’s helped me realise that the knowledge economy is not just a product of twenty-first century globalisation. Its origins lie in the cross-border intellectual alignments that developed along the routes of global empire and trade in this earlier period. The questions they asked (about legitimacy, internationalization, the purpose of a university, and access to name a few) remain equally pertinent in the rapidly shifting world of higher education today. Thinking historically about universities has also shown me that universities have always been in the process of change. They have always been engaged in a dynamic relationship with the local and the global. Thinking historically, therefore, might both help us think deeply about the role institutions such as universities play in societies, while at the same time guarding us against nostalgic appeals to a non-existent golden age. I have brought these perspectives to my writing about higher education policy for the Guardian Higher Education Network, the Times Higher Education magazine, The Conversation UK, and on my blog: Cap and Gown.

Q5: Does this relate to your current research interests and how?

I am developing my research in two new directions, both of which examine the relationship between mobility, knowledge and higher education that I first considered in Empire of Scholars. First, as part of my ARC DECRA project at the University of Sydney (‘Global Republics: universities and the origins of the knowledge economy’) I will explore the ways digital technologies might be used to map the global spaces of intellectual production and exchange forged by the transnational connections of scholars in the twentieth century. Second, I am also working on a project that examines ‘global education’ in the interwar period. It focuses on the 1926 ‘Floating University’ – a ‘round the world educational cruise’ that saw the moving space of the ship as one in which students could be educated to be citizens of the world.

Q6: What advice do you have for those interested in researching higher education (the role of academics and universities) in modern times and also in different parts of the world?

I have found it useful to pay attention not just to what higher education practitioners and institutions say about themselves, but also to what they do – to their practices. Academics are often strangely reluctant to turn their critical eye upon themselves, and yet it seems to me extremely important that they do so. Thinking historically about universities is powerful in this regard – it shows us that they are institutions that have always changed, it points to the social and political roles they have filled and tells us a lot about from where their legitimacy has come.

About Tamson Pietsch: ‘I completed my undergraduate studies at the University of Adelaide in Australia, before working in academic publishing and then as an Aide and speech-writer for the Governor of Victoria. Awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in 2003, I travelled to the University of Oxford where I completed my DPhil and went on to hold the Sir Christopher Cox Junior Fellowship at New College and teach as Lecturer in Modern History at Corpus Christi College. I joined Brunel University in 2011 as Lecturer in Imperial and Colonial History. From July 2013 until September 2016 I will be on research leave, as ARC DECRA Fellow at the University of Sydney.’



  1. […] on the blog of  the European Research Area Collaborative Research Network (ERA-CRN), where you can read me waxing lyrical on such heady subjects as universities, networks, history and academic […]

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