After a year acting as HASSE’s Associate Dean – Teaching and Learning, Associate Professor Nathan Wise has been appointed full-time to the role. UNE Communications sat down with Nathan and spoke with him about his new role.

How did the arc of your career bring you to UNE, and the ADTL role?

I came to UNE in 2009. I was briefly manager of the DE Hub Research Centre, which focused on best practices in distance education. That gave me a foundation in UNE’s approach to distance education, pedagogy and practice. In 2010 I shifted over to History as a casual contract teacher for several years, before gaining a substantive role in 2013 as a Lecturer in Public and Applied History, and eventually moved up to the position Associate Professor.

My disciplinary area means that I focus a lot on public engagement and supporting members of the public to engage in history. I encourage people to pursue their own historical research and writing, and try to break down barriers between academia and the public. I ran the Arts in the Pub series and Brave Conversations in Armidale, and I’ve run many internship programs to help people find their feet in historical research or lay a foundation for future careers as historians. I’ve built many relationships between UNE and stakeholders around Australia, including with museums, archives and the like.

I see “applied history” as recognising the broad value of all forms of history. I think that there’s value in all forms of history, whether it’s family history, autobiographies, genealogy or fictional representations of history. All these things have different types of value to different audiences. It’s about understanding and respecting that value and promoting it in ways that get people to engage. For example, I’ve just been talking to a student about the possibility of turning their autobiography into a film. History takes diverse forms: it doesn’t just have to be delivered in a scholarly book.

A few years ago I started thinking more about the pedagogy and practice of teaching, and how we teach history. When the opportunity came up last year to act as Associate Dean – Teaching and Learning, it seemed like a good opportunity to deepen that line of thought.

I really like the diversity of the ADTL role. We’re the most diverse faculty in UNE: our Bachelor of Arts has 39 different majors. There’s a thousand different things going on at the same time; every week is different.

And I’ve been at UNE for 14 years now, and have no plans to leave anytime soon. My wife Jenny and I both work here. I’m a historian of labour, and view work as central to our lives. When we have a happy workplace, we have happy lives. When we have an unhappy workplace, it’s crippling. For me, it is imperative that we have happy, healthy workplace cultures. Facilitating this culture has been central to much of my work. That’s really what motivated me to take on this position – I want to work with people to foster the processes and policies that support staff agency and initiative, and build a workplace that people are happy to be in.

What do you consider to be the Faculty’s major challenges and opportunities?

We know there’s a sector-wide decline in the Arts and Humanities. We know that that public interest in the Arts and Humanities began declining around 2012-2013. We are told by students that they are concerned about the lack of a vocational direction if they study the Arts, although many students continue to study the Arts for the Art’s sake. They want to learn and discover, and that’s great. But we’re losing those students who want to study for a career. So we’re taking active steps to accommodate that student cohort.

For example, we need to keep the student cohort who wants to study History for History’s sake, but we’re also reaching out to that cohort who wants the career. There’s a lot of work going on in that space and new courses that are in development. We’re taking that vocational mindset as a starting point: for students who might study this course, what are the careers they might be thinking about?

With so much student and political pressure to make university a place of training for the workforce, is there still validity in the old idea of university study as providing a grounding in critical thinking, and equipping people with meaning and purpose?

That’s what we’ve been excelling at; that’s where our current student cohort is here for. I’d say that’s one of our greatest strengths at the moment, and that we’ve survived because of it. But we know that our numbers are dropping off. We need to protect our current cohort while building more vocationally-oriented courses, or blending the two approaches.

There are things we are mindful of, like the digital revolution. Pretty much every discipline in the faculty is looking at ways that it can incorporate digital skills, including things like computer science, blending the Arts with sciences, twinning humanities with the sciences. Students are saying that they want to pair a love of history, or a love of Creative Arts with an interest in the sciences or a specific interest in neuroscience or computer science or data science. And a lot of that is driven by the desire to prepare for a career.

That means that a lot of people here are thinking about how they break down the silos to get a lot more interdisciplinary thinking. We have a new major in Creative Futures, which blends creative arts, writing, theatre, performance and communications with units in computer science. So it will be teaching students about the fundamentals of programming and the capabilities of artificial intelligence. We’re developing a new Masters of Strategic Leadership and Emergency Management, which is inter-faculty, and we’re developing a Master in Creative Arts, which again, draws heavily on vocational elements and will be cross-faculty. So we’re working to break down traditional silos and barriers and facilitate cooperation, collaboration, across the faculty and the university.