Alumni Juliet Flesch

It’s hard to imagine that the Faculty of Education at the University of Melbourne didn’t have a full-time professor for the first three decades of its life. The Faculty, founded in 1923, seventy years after the establishment of the University, initially was still opposed as Education wasn’t deemed a real academic discipline.

Fast forward to the present and the situation is very different. Now consistently ranked among the top five in the world, Education at Melbourne has been transformed from a one-man Faculty under John Smyth to a flourishing graduate school achieving a status that few would have predicted.

Committed to Learning by Juliet Flesch details the first one hundred and ten years of the discipline of Education at the University of Melbourne, bringing to life those whose vision and hard work since its early beginning have brought such success to the faculty.

Commissioned by Emeritus Professor Field Rickards, Dean of the Graduate School from 2004-2017, Juliet embarked on what was set out to be a three-year journey but as an experienced author with a dozen books and many more academic papers and book chapters to her name Committed to Learning was completed in record time.

With a long and complex history, extensive research was required demanding hours spent reading through decades of University Council and Faculty minutes and complete runs of the Teachers’ College journals such as The Trainee. Lengthy conversations either face to face or over the phone were conducted and many cups of coffee were enjoyed while interviewing retired members of staff, including Emeritus Professor Kwong Lee Dow, Dean of the Education Faculty from 1978 to 1998, then Deputy Vice-Chancellor to 2003, and Vice- Chancellor through 2004 who provided wonderful anecdotes and great photos and above all, says Juliet, “insights and suggestions based on his extraordinary knowledge of the Education scene in Melbourne, Australia and the world in general.”

Naturally there were challenges along the way. In the pursuit of information and photographs to complement the book, Juliet sought out living retired members of staff. However, getting access to staff records including those who had been deceased for years proved to be unexpectedly challenging. According to Juliet it wasn’t always this way.

“In the 2000s I simply went to HR and requested a file that I could consult on the spot, using a spare desk and computer in the Raymond Priestley [building]. Between 2005 and 2016 I could have the files sent to the Cultural Collections Reading Room in the Baillieu Library. After 2016 I could see them only by appointment in the Alan Gilbert Building and a Compliance Officer had to sit in the room with me for the whole time. Luckily, I’d done most of that part of my work before then.”

To complicate matters further, a recent regulation that requires every single person in a photo to give permission for an image to be published meant Juliet had to chase up retired people who appeared in group photographs, simply because they were standing next to the person she was writing about. All of them, though surprised at being asked, were happy to be identified and appear in a University history.

Committed to Learning is a wonderful achievement, highlighting that adversity can be overcome. Proving that despite being seriously undervalued and under-funded as an academic discipline in its early days, having gone through reviews, changes to University administrations, State and Commonwealth government intervention, amalgamations and dissolutions, the history of Education at the University of Melbourne is one of steady progress with successful outcomes.

Juliet Flesch is an Honorary Fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. She worked for over 30 years as a librarian, first at the National Library of Australia and then for almost two decades as the foundation Principal Librarian (Collections) in the University of Melbourne Library.

In her histories, she has always tried to pay due respect to the people who make the work of the academic staff possible, like Education Librarian Olive Battersby, as well as noting the contribution of such women as Emma Smyth, wife of the first Professor of Education and pioneer John Smyth. It has been equally important to make clear the contribution of women in academic life: in the case of Education, what emerges is that, although for far too long there was no woman Professor of Education at Melbourne, there were many, like Barbara Falk, whose teaching is remembered by her students to this day.

Committed to Learning illuminates the experiences of an entire faculty community, rather than just cataloguing important people and events. Juliet has pieced together scattered bits of information into a coherent and eloquent narrative, which can be purchased through Melbourne University Publishing (MUP) with a 25% discount for online purchases offered to alumni.

Juliet is author of From Australia with Love: a History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels. Minding the Shop: People and Events that Shaped the Department of Property and Buildings 1853-2003 at the University of Melbourne Life’s Logic: 150 Years of Physiology at the University of Melbourne, Transforming Biology: A History of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Melbourne, 160 Years/160 Stories, written with Professor Peter McPhee and 40 Years/40 Women: Biographies of University of Melbourne Women, which was published in 2015 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the United Nations International Women’s Year. Committed to Learning is published by Miegunyah Press.