Before undertaking an International Fellowship with the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC), Dr Mathias Thaler admits his expectations around Sydney as a city were tied to common images of tourism – the sun, the sand, the surf. Travelling from Scotland, where the winters are long, his expectations were both happily affirmed – and transcended.
“What surprised me a lot was how beautiful the natural surroundings within the urban setting are,” Dr Thaler says. “One of my favourite things to do, after a long day writing, was to take long walks on one of Sydney’s wonderful beaches.”
Exploring Sydney’s beaches and buzzy food scene “felt like a real treat”, Dr Thaler says. Within days of taking up his fellowship, he was also struck by the open and stimulating academic environment at the University.
I was blown away by the incredible friendliness of colleagues and the great facilities at SSSHARC. Participating in the workshops allowed me to push my research onto a higher level.
A politics and international relations scholar, Dr Thaler’s expertise focuses on political violence and the place of Utopia in realist political theory. He was drawn to work alongside Professor Danielle Celermajer (Sociology), an academic whose work he had long admired, describing her as “the ideal academic host”.
“Professor Celermajer is not only incredibly generous with her time, she is also a serious and engaging scholar, whose critical feedback is always, almost uncannily, on point,” he says. “I feel extremely grateful for everything she has done for me, and look forward to future collaborations, some of which are already on the way.”
By combining “concentrated bouts of reading and writing” with workshops featuring other experts from a range of disciplines, Dr Thaler could test his emerging ideas and debate others.
The greatest value for me has been the ability to get to know new perspectives that would otherwise not as readily have been available to me. SSSHARC’s fundamental strength, for me, seems to reside in its transdisciplinary approach to global problems.”
Conducting research in the Southern Hemisphere was also a welcome experience for Associate Professor Timothy McCall of Villanova University, another SSSHARC Fellow. He escaped Philadelphia’s searing summer for a temperate Sydney winter.
Associate Professor McCall‘s work explores the transformative role of war upon clothing and material culture in 16th century Italy. Like Dr Thaler, he too was greeted by a distinctly supportive academic culture.
“It was great to spend two months in Sydney,” he says. “I was very much impressed by the University. Everyone was extremely welcoming, at SSSHARC and also at the Sydney Policy Lab where I spent a week or so.”
The art history expert was compelled to apply for the Fellowship after years of working collaboratively with Dr John Gagné (History). Grappling with the challenges of different time zones and teaching schedules meant progress on an essay was incremental.
The opportunity to work together in the same place at the same time allowed the pair to focus their efforts and work in a sustained manner. Through daily conversations, they discovered other research areas of shared interest.
Encouraged by SSSHARC Director for Semester 2, 2019, Associate Professor Julia Horne (History) to “think bigger”, the scholars began to “see some of the larger stakes and resonances in the project”. What began as an essay is now being developed into a book.
“The SSSHARC Fellowship provided the ideal opportunity and venue to do a lot of reading and workshopping," Associate Professor McCall says. “While in Sydney, I had hoped to get significant work accomplished on two essays. The project shifted, though, and we spent time conceptualising the book and working through a few stumbling blocks.”
Based in the centre’s recently refurbished offices, Associate Professor McCall benefited from the immersive scholarly experience in other ways. He presented a lecture on campus and held a masterclass for postgraduate students; formed a number of new academic connections; workshopped ideas with other researchers; and took up engagement opportunities, giving a talk at the prestigious Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Having completed their fellowships earlier this year, both academics believe their time at SSSHARC was fruitful, advocating for future cross-disciplinary research experiences.
“Truly engaging with a number of experts that come from different academic disciplines is a rare thing in our hectic world. I am very glad I could be part of the ongoing work in Sydney, and hope to return at some point,” Dr Thaler says.