R.D. Watt Building

At SSSHARC questions are the focus

11 February 2021
By Susan Wyndham, SSSHARC Journalist in Residence
Unless you’ve attended a SSSHARC “huddle” or “ultimate peer review”, you might find the terms mysterious, amusing or even a little alarming. They have an interesting history that helps explain the purpose and achievements of the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre.

SSSHARC is entering its fifth year with the uncertainties that follow a hiatus enforced by COVID-19 but with plans to continue its work in modified and some expansive new ways from its headquarters in the handsome R.D. Watt Building, which was completed in 1916 to house the School of Agriculture.

Nick Enfield, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney and Director of SSSHARC since 2017, said the centre’s aim remains what it was in the beginning: “to have a unit within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences that is able to attract people, establish a certain reputation internationally, and highlight the fantastic research that has always been done in the faculty”.

Professor Nick Enfield

SSSHARC Director, Professor Nick Enfield

As well as hosting Visiting Fellows from overseas, Enfield said: “One of the internal functions of SSSHARC is that it brings researchers across the faculty more to collaborate. We favour proposals that involve collaboration and multiple people and teamwork.”

Another of SSSHARC’s principles is to apply research methods to seeking solutions to real-world problems – social, cultural, legal, political, environmental and so on – and its meetings often bring non-academic practitioners to present their perspective. There have been theatre directors, social workers, military officers, artists and many others.

The centre was established by Duncan Ivison, then Dean of the faculty and now Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), and Will Christie as Associate Dean (Research). SSSHARC ran for almost two years under the Dean’s direction, funding projects but without staff or structure.

Lessons from a vacuum-cleaner millionaire

When they advertised for a Director, Australian-born Enfield had recently joined the university after working in the Netherlands as a staff scientist with the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics.

“I was terribly spoilt there but also exposed to really unfettered research activity, people getting together and working on what they thought would be best for trying to solve problems.” Enfield said. He had experience using funding for group projects involving different disciplines. “So I came here with a very interdisciplinary hat on. It was important to get people round a table talking about common issues in a charitable way.”

An expert on the languages of mainland Southeast Asia, Enfield had also benefited from funding for a symposium from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York. Richly endowed by a vacuum-cleaner millionaire, the foundation plans events years in advance, requires applicants to visit New York to workshop their proposal, and has staff to organise everything unrelated to research.

SSSHARC does not have such resources, but Enfield aimed to relieve researchers of extraneous work. He also wanted to get away from the usual “mail-drop idea of research funding, where you send your fully formed idea and it’s accepted or it’s rejected. Instead let’s talk about it. All these conversations happen when the committee is considering the proposal. We have rounds where, instead of writing a full application, we bring them in to pitch it to us.”

While developing a new grant application process, making it “a development and mentoring opportunity”, SSSHARC also experimented with different types of activities, partly based on Enfield’s personal experience in Europe.

He named the “huddle” after informal gatherings that literally huddled round a table to workshop an idea. SSHARC huddles are carefully planned and initiated by one or more people with overlapping interests. They bring together a small group from various departments and institutions – and sometimes non-academics – to discuss a topic for a day.

Participants at the ‘Can there be an affirmative feminist boys studies?’ SSSHARC Huddle

Participants at the ‘Can there be an affirmative feminist boys studies?’ SSSHARC Huddle held in December 2019. Photo credit: Dr Shawna Tang

“Huddles are about that early stage where you’ve been thinking about something but you’re not quite ready to start,” Enfield said. “We want to get people over that line and at the end of a day they can articulate on paper where they want this work to go.

“In research one of the most important and difficult things is articulating the research question. You need to say what evidence you are going to try to collect and what principles you are going to apply when you’re analysing it.”

An “opponent” in the best sense

The ultimate peer review is specifically for Sydney University academics who have written a book and want to improve the manuscript before it goes to a publisher. They invite an outstanding international scholar to read the manuscript, come to Sydney and present an oral critique in front of invited academics and students who join in the conversation. Often the visitor also gives a master class or a public lecture.

“For me the ultimate peer review is grounded in the practices you see in Europe in PhD defences, as we call them,” Enfield said. “When you finish your PhD you have to defend your thesis against an opponent. It’s adversarial in the best sense, that you get the attention of somebody senior to you, and they look closely at your work and pick it apart to make it the best it can be.

“We don’t do that in Australia but I was inspired by that as a process. I thought students get that for their dissertations, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all got it for our books just before we submit them. Often it results in a much better product.”

SSSHARC has offered other types of activities including off-campus retreats, and pop-up research labs that allow groups to work uninterrupted for several weeks. Global symposia have brought together local and international participants to address a problem of global importance over several days of presentations and discussion. There are also collaborative projects with other university bodies such as the Marie Bashir Institute and Sydney Nano.

“Huddles and peer reviews have been, so far the most successful of our activities because they’re lean and mean, they’re amorphous, they’re quite clear and people can jump in and jump out,” Enfield said. “For other reasons like budget these types of agile activities are a good investment, a good solution to the multiple constraints we have.”

From thought bubble to research question

Enfield has worked closely with Claire Stevens, who as Senior Project Officer has done SSSHARC’s important behind-the-scenes organisation and communication. While he was on study leave for six months in 2019, Julia Horne became Director as well as holding her positions as University Historian and Associate Professor of History.

Now Professor of History, she said she didn’t understand what a huddle was when she started the job. “But I soon learnt that it was a really distinctive offering of SSSHARC which other humanities and social sciences centres around the world didn’t have.

“Often ideas that go out to be funded by the Australian Research Council start off as much more unformed thought bubbles a year or two or three beforehand. SSSHARC huddles are structured conversations to develop ideas into substantial research questions. It was that principle of the thought bubble ‘in conversation’ that really attracted me, partly because I’ve had so many thought bubbles myself.”

On a visit to Oxford while at SSSHARC she met the Director of The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), Professor Philip Bullock, to discuss future collaborations and she shared her “epiphany” about huddles. “You could see the lightbulbs going on as he realised that the huddle is such a good simple idea.”

Horne thought it was important to develop SSSHARC’s philanthropic potential, well before COVID-19 struck university budgets. One move was to invite potential donors to sit in on some huddles and the university’s Advancement team agreed that “the notion that people who give money could be at the beginning of an idea might be extremely appealing”.  

As University Historian Horne also wanted to develop the SSSHARC website and create a record of the first three years’ achievements. She engaged this journalist to interview recipients of funding about their research.

From a total of more than 50 huddles, ultimate peer reviews and other activities, we covered 20 projects in articles that are on the SSSHARC and FASS websites. A remarkable range of topics sometimes met the SSSHARC criterion of addressing real-world problems too well.

Australia was consumed by bushfires in late 2019 while Ole Wæver, a Danish political scientist, was a SSSHARC fellow working on climate change as a security issue. Coronavirus was spreading around the world as anthropologist Holly High gave an interview about collaborating with her husband, a veterinary epidemiologist, to study a bird flu outbreak in a village in Laos.

Sydney Ideas Talk Hope vs fear

Sydney Ideas Talk Hope vs fear: cilmate change as a security issue. L-R: Associate Professor Charlotte Epstein, Councillor Jess Miller, Ms Olivia Arkell, Professor Ole Waever. Credit: Ash Berdebes

As with much of the university, SSSHARC’s momentum was interrupted by the pandemic. A suspension of travel and live meetings, plus budget cuts, meant many plans were postponed or cancelled.

The only ultimate peer review in 2020 was done by Zoom without an audience. Chris Hilliard, Professor of History, spoke about his manuscript on censorship in the late 19th and 20th centuries with Duncan Ivison, who is a philosopher as well as Deputy Vice-Chancellor, and Adrienne Stone, an expert in constitutional law and freedom of expression at the University of Melbourne.

Despite the restrictions, Hilliard said the review process was successful, helping him clarify some ideas, and “was an early signal to me that Nick was doing interesting things in SSSHARC”. 


Hilliard was appointed as Deputy Director of SSSHARC in late 2020, a new position that is an optimistic sign for SSSHARC’s future. Originally from New Zealand, with a PhD from Harvard, he joined the University of Sydney in 2004 and maintains a strong international network. Part of his role is to help with overseas engagement and philanthropic strategy.

He has also worked with Enfield and Stevens to adapt SSSHARC’s core mission to new conditions, whether meetings are face-to-face or virtual. Several overseas fellows have been invited for later in 2021, if possible. As well as continuing to run huddles, ultimate peer reviews and larger research ventures, SSSHARC will be a base for the university’s scholars who have an Australian Research Council fellowship, offering physical working space and mentorship, and running their events.

“I think the answer is we can continue because so much of what SSSHARC does is about talk,” Hilliard said. “It’s not about paying for people to go into a lab or an archive, it’s about helping them think through their research questions or refine their arguments.”

Also important to SSSHARC is Lee Wallace, Associate Professor in the Gender and Cultural Studies Department and Director of Research Development (Humanities) for the faculty. As she explains her role, alongside Anika Gauja, Professor of Politics from Social Sciences, “I work with researchers at every level trying to help them achieve their ambitions, particularly funding ambitions”.

Wallace has had funding for a huddle and an ultimate peer review. She has also had ARC fellowships and knows how isolating long-term research can be, so she appreciates the collaboration of SSSHARC activities.

“I would like to see many more people take up these opportunities,” she said, encouraging anyone at the university with a manuscript close to completion to apply for an ultimate peer review. She and her polite poodle are often found in the SSSHARC office, where she sits on interview committees, and helps write ARC applications. 

“Nick’s always happiest when there are people working here, and the space doesn’t feel owned by any school or department,” she said. “We share knowledge about how we do what we do and how SSSHARC fits within the complex institution that is a university, and other things like academic publishing, that we know now at this end of our academic career, but we didn’t know then.

“There’s so much to learn that I especially like to see early and mid-career researchers engage in these protocols and mechanisms that are pulled together by SSSHARC.”

Enfield is proud that, after four years of innovation and adaptation, “SSSHARC contributes to a culture that’s more proactive, more imaginative and more group-work oriented”. Whatever the next challenges, the work will continue.  

This article is part of the 2020 SSSHARC series on how the humanities and social sciences can help us see the world in new ways.

Susan Wyndham

Susan Wyndham. Credit: Nicola Bailey.
Inaugural SSSHARC Journalist in Residence

Related articles