Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Remembering Rhys

When Jim first asked me whether I would like to say something today,—as a postgraduate student who worked with Rhys—I had no hesitation. Indeed I felt privileged and honoured to contribute.

But I became quite nervous when I received an email with a list of today’s speakers, which reminded me of the influence and significance of Rhys to so many people and in so many ways. I felt intimidated. I tried to think how I as a student who has known Rhys for what is a comparatively short period of time could add to what already would be said.

Yet, ironically, what comforted and re-assured me in my state of panic was the fact that I would be speaking about Rhys.

It took me back to the moment when we first connected as historians. I had just submitted a paper for review at a historical journal and forwarded it to Rhys to read.“It is wonderful, moving, sensitive, perceptive . . . I am full of admiration,” Rhys wrote to me, “It gives us so much to talk about.” And indeed, it did. It was the beginning of our conversation.

Two months later came the reviewer’s comments, which to put it bluntly tore me apart. I will spare you and me with the details, but I was devastated and started questioning what I was doing in and with my writing.

But thanks to the support of people like Rhys, who gave me the confidence to believe in myself, I stuck to my approach and to my paper, which last December was published by a German journal in the same format that Rhys had originally read.

My point is simple. Rhys made me feel like I had something important to say, and he gave me the confidence to do so. A priceless gift for a postgraduate student!

It is priceless because we occupy a strange in-between space. Of course, academics themselves occupy a liminal space within society—perhaps increasingly within academe itself. But postgraduate students occupy a strange in-between; as budding academics, we are not quite staff, not quite student.

On one hand we are part of the department, part of the discipline, part of the profession. On the other hand, we are not. We are still apprentices, waiting for our right of passage into the profession by following the rituals and traditional rules of the discipline. We are not quite there yet. Naturally, this in-between causes insecurities and self doubt.

Rhys saw and felt that in-between.

He challenged and contested the natural rules of our discipline. Initially I was going to say dissolved the rules, but that might be misinterpreted. But there was certainly a dissolution of rules and structures that had become habitualised and reified.

Our interaction was not about me the student and him the professor. It was not just about him generously offering knowledge and me receiving knowledge. Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of that—I benefited greatly. His generosity, in my view (there will be many view on this I am sure) was his openness to the possibility that he, too, may learn something from our interactions. And, his enthusiasm about this possibility.

Through our conversations—our interactions in the in-between—I experienced History(ing) as an imaginative and creative process, taking risks to connect with people in the past, taking risks to find the means of expressing and communicating that connection to others.

I felt the power of sharing of knowledge and learning by unmasking the seemingly obvious in Life, in text, in language. This unmasking—as well as the finding of ways to express and communicate it to others—is a moment of pure joy, of excitement, of eureka. Another precious gift from Rhys. A gift, which I try to share with my own students as a tutor and teacher, which makes my conversation with Rhys a continuous one.

Damir Mitric, La Trobe University