The 2017 Dr Russell Cowie excellence in history education award

During four decades, Dr Hamilton (Russell) Cowie (1931-2015) was the most influential force in history education in Queensland. His impact was multi-faceted. He was a brilliant and innovative teacher at both secondary and tertiary levels, led the development of inquiry-based syllabuses, pioneered a new era in history textbooks, helped found the state and national history teacher associations, and presented countless lectures and workshops at conferences.

Known affectionately to all as ‘Russ’, he was a towering and legendary figure in teacher education, admired by the legions of university students whom he nurtured into their professional lives.

Russ was the inaugural patron and life member of the Queensland History Teachers’ Association. He was promoted to Associate Professor by the University of Queensland and in 2013 was honoured by the nation with the Medal of the Order of Australia.

Dr Russell Cowie ‘Excellence in History Education’ Award 2017 was presented to Ms Julie Hennessey, Brisbane Girls Grammar School, by Dr Brian Hoepper (QHTA Patron) and Ms Pip Macdonald (QHTA President) on the 28th September 2017 during the 2017 National History Teachers’ Conference. 

Certificate citation: “Awarded to Julie Hennessey for excellence and outstanding leadership in History education. She is recognised by the Queensland History Teachers’ Association as an innovative and dynamic History teacher. Julie Hennessey has inspired her students to become passionate History scholars and has dedicated herself to sharing her expertise with her peers through generous service to the wider History community. Her commitment to her students and to the wider History community through years of service to the QHTA and other organisations is greatly appreciated.”


Acceptance speech by Ms Julie Hennessey

To be presented with this inaugural History Education award named in the honour of Russell Cowie is a very special tribute.

Everyone has a story of a teacher or teachers who touched their lives, who inspired, who made a difference. Russell Cowie was one such teacher in my life.

I was a student of Russ Cowie in 1981 (36 years ago) – as a Dip Ed student at the University of Queensland. However, I had come across Russ six years earlier (in the mid-70s) when I was a school girl and bought one of his many books – it was called Frankfurt to Fra Mauro: a thematic history of the Modern World.

It was a striking book – black cover with a silhouette of an Apollo space vehicle dimly lit in the solar light. It was futuristic – it captured the imagination. The title itself was an enigma – Frankfurt to Fra Mauro – it invited you to question – what is this about? What does this mean?

‘Frankfurt’ was a reference to the Frankfurt Assembly of 1848 which failed to attain its objectives of a united Germany and the ‘Fra Mauro’ – is a land formation on the moon that the Apollo 13 astronauts failed to reach in 1970. So here was a history text whose two bookended events were based in failure but within and between lay a rich panorama of failures and triumphs; catastrophes and achievements of what Russ called “the imperfect but ever-resourceful species the scientists have labelled homo sapiens”.

Within those 690 odd pages was a grand historical narrative told through engaging text, good quality photos, maps, extracts from primary sources; sections labelled: ‘research and report’, ‘discuss and decide’, ‘writing maketh an exact man’ (sic); ‘further reading’. At the time (1975) it was way ahead of the game.

And likewise, Russ’s reputation preceded him.

In 1981 when I was a Dip Ed student, Russ was introduced to the entire Dip Ed cohort, of some hundreds in Mayne Hall during orientation, as ‘Mr Chips of the Dip Ed program’ – a reference to the 1939 film Goodbye, Mr Chips about a beloved aged school teacher and former headmaster.

Russ did not disappoint – he was a dynamo – he exuded passion, enthusiasm, high-energy and high-interest; he challenged and cajoled his students.

And he totally caught us off guard in our first lecture when he would address individual students by name. (We later learnt that he would obtain our photo IDs from the University and study the entire cohort – some 150 students before we arrived.)

Russ strode around the lecture theatre – he commanded attention and he received it. But it he was no actor – he didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk. Every year he would return to Toowong State High and teach a class to ‘Keep his hand in the game’.

Russ taught us well and conveyed to us what later we referred to as Cowie-isms:

  • Copying from an OHT is one cognitive step above breathing
  • Tour to be sure
  • Coverage is burial
  • Jug to mug (not what you want)

And woe betide, if you missed a lecture – it was noted and you were personally summoned to a catch-up tutorial in his office. I know. I too was duly summoned after a no-show.

Russ would say to me again and again – “punctuality is part of excellence”. In my last year of university I got into a very bad habit of submitting assignments late. The penalty he would tell us all was that you can’t receive any more that the bottom student of the cohort. So while he would grade my late work and mark it on its merits the rule stuck. So when I received my final results for university (in those days published in the paper) I received for the subject History Curriculum under Russ my first ever 4 (equivalent to a pass). Initially I was a bit shocked but he had followed through. There were no favours granted. He was a man of great integrity, yes a stickler for the rules, but rules based on sound principles.

Teachers touch eternity. Russell Cowie touched generations of teachers and their students. Russ was a teachers’ teacher. He was a great man and a great educator – a man of principle, imagination, passion, enthusiasm; he was committed to and care for his students, making them think and question.

In his name, I accept this award with great pride and honour.

Julie Hennessey, 29 September 2017