Best Teacher: Melanie Oppenheimer

Melanie Oppenheimer is a professor in the School of International Relations and History. Having come to Flinders University fairly recently, she has quickly made a name for herself as one of Flinders Best Teachers. She sat down with ET editor Laura Telford for a chat about what makes her a teacher so many students love.

It is not very often you can claim your history professor used to be a professional actress, created a podcast series, was a school teacher, an opinion writer, and a highly decorated historian, but Melanie insists that she ‘has always loved what [she] has done’ at different periods of her life. She had always enjoyed history at school and was ‘always surrounded by people who worked in the field’ but she ‘fell in love with acting’ while completing a BA as an undergraduate, when UNE [University of New England] opened a drama department. From there she went to drama school in the United Kingdom and acted professionally for a few years. Melanie spent two years working on the Crawford Productions Carsons Law but  decided to go back to her first love of history so she ‘could use [her] brain’. At that point she went back to university, completing a Masters and PhD and ‘it went on from there’. Melanie says she didn’t really intend to go into academia and that she simply ‘fell into it’. That said, when Melanie puts her mind to anything, she has proven time and time again that anything is possible.

Melanie says ‘there were moments when I could have walked away and done something else’, but one thing she is particularly interested in is how history is used on film. ‘I have always been really interested in documentary film making and trying to allow history to be credited on film’. This is something that many Australians have seen firsthand, particularly this year in the centenary year of the Gallipoli campaign. She goes on to assert that ‘[film] is how students learn these days’, which is why Melanie sees documentary film making as such an important vehicle in which to learn. ‘As historians I think we need to be engaged with that medium so that we can try to tell history the best we can. I think there are a lot of documentaries out there that are crap and that is why we need to be a part’ of its making, so that students can see film as a useful tool for teaching. Melanie has done just that and she was the historical consultant on the successful WWII documentary that screened on ABC in 2011 Girls’ Own War Stories. Moreover, Melanie says she ‘still has things [I] wants to say [and through film and other ways] I can do that’. Good historians, she says, always have something more they want to say.

Melanie currently holds the Chair of History within the School of History and International Relations. Her research areas include the role of voluntary organisations and the history of volunteering and voluntary action, with a particular interest in wartime. This passion stems from the days when Melanie was trying to come up with a thesis topic while at university, acknowledging that it was all thanks to her grandmother and an item of clothing: ‘I was digging through trunks in the attic and came across these overalls which fitted me perfectly, and started wearing them’. Her mum told her they were her grandmothers World War II overalls. Melanie says her grandmother was a ‘Red Cross VAD  [Voluntary Aid Detachment] who served on the British aircraft carrier Glory and she spent three months sailing around the Pacific, picking up ex-prisoners of war’. It was Melanie’s grandmother’s efforts, and the efforts of people just like her on which she based her thesis. Melanie says that during the Second World War women made up just over 32% of the paid workforce ‘and that was great’, but she speculates what was the rest doing? ‘They were doing unpaid labour and volunteer war work’.  It has only been in recent times that researchers have become interested in volunteering and it is an area of increasing importance, ‘increasingly the barriers of [paid and unpaid work] are being blurred, particularly with unpaid internships and apprenticeships’ Melanie stated. Furthermore ‘when people retire, they are increasingly turning to volunteer work’ to keep busy; and that is where research such as hers is needed.

When asked what her favourite class to teach is, Melanie says both her first year introduction to Australian history topic and her third year history topic that focuses on migration to Australia in the 20th century have been fun to teach. However when she moved from NSW to take up the Chair in History at Flinders in SA, she had to radically change the way she went about teaching the introduction course. ‘I had to rethink the way I taught 19th century Australian history because I am suddenly in a state where it is not all about convicts or the origins of 1788. South Australian history [of white settlement] starts a lot later and has a very different perspective’. However, she says it was a positive experience because ‘I hate teaching the same stuff’. Melanie also adds that teaching the first years is always nice because they are ‘fresh and new’. Conversely however, ‘by second semester of third year, students know why they are here, they know what they have to do, and they are only taking the course because the want to’ which she says is fantastic.

With a smile, Melanie says the best thing about teaching is ‘the responsiveness of students, and being able to share a passion with them. I like people learning and I love the lightbulb moments students have’ when concepts and ideas all come together. On the flipside, laughing she says the ‘endless marking’ is the worst part of her role. On a serious note however, she says it is the ‘students who don’t care or who aren’t interested, or who I can’t get to care. Sometimes a student doesn’t know why they are in a class, and that is fine but if you are unhappy, withdraw before the deadline, you pay a lot of money to be here’ and if this isn’t for you ‘go and find what makes you happy’.

Melanie has been called ‘seriously interesting and friendly’ as well as ‘an excellent teacher who makes boring classes fun’ by her students. Ever gracious, when told that students had voted her one of the uni’s best teachers, Melanie says ‘I’m stunned. I have only been at Flinders for two years and only teach a few classes but I’m thrilled and surprised.’

As students, we can forget that our professors are people as well, when asked about how she juggles classes and a work/social life Melanie says ‘it can be a struggle, but … I make a plan and stick to it. When I have a deadline I get up at 5am to write. I think about what I write and about what I do a lot and I love it. So I make time for it; if you make time for something you will get something out of it’. Outside of teaching, Melanie has a school aged child so seeing her through her education is a big part of her life. In addition, she confesses ‘I love going to the theatre, I love snow skiing and I love travelling’ and her guilty pleasure is a ‘good cup of coffee’.

Finally, her best advice for students is to find something you love, always be open to new adventures and take the path less trodden, listen to those older and wiser in your life, and ‘always finish what you start and don’t worry about money; it will all fall into place eventually.’

Words by Laura Telford