Q&A with Christina Twomey

We start our 2017 Q&A series with Christina Twomey, Professor and Head of History in the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies at Monash University, who shares with us how she became an academic historian and compares her coming of age in the 1990s with the current celebration of the ‘history nerd’. She reminds Early Career Researchers to be intellectually generous and to grow a hide like an elephant! The perfect Q&A to begin the academic year.


Christina Twomey is a Professor and Head of History in the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies at Monash University. She is the author of three books, A History of Australia (2011, co-authored with Mark Peel), Australia’s Forgotten Prisoners: Civilians Interned by the Japanese in World War II (2007) and Deserted and Destitute: Motherhood, Wife Desertion and Colonial Welfare (2002). Christina has also published widely on the cultural history of war, with a focus on issues of imprisonment, captivity, witnessing, the photography of atrocity, gender and memory.

1. Tell us a bit about your background.

I was born in Queensland, and began my education there. By the time I finished secondary school I had lived in New South Wales, Malaysia and Victoria. I was lucky enough to get into MacRobertson’s Girls’ High School, a selective entry school for people who didn’t care about sport. That school rescued me from a 1980s outer-suburban Melbourne version of Summer Heights High.

I commenced, but did not finish, an Arts-Law degree at the University of Melbourne. After completing a B.A. (Hons) there in 1989, I worked for a few years in a series of graduate positions in the federal public service and private enterprise. Returning to the University of Melbourne in 1992, I graduated with a PhD in 1996.

2. Was there a moment when you discovered your love of history?

At school, I was very good at mathematics and thought I would go down the science path. It turned out that my facility for sciences began and ended with maths: I just simply could not get my head around chemistry and physics. I was also learning Indonesian, and became obsessed with Raden Adjeng Kartini, an aristocratic Javanese woman passionate about the education of women and girls in turn of the century Dutch East Indies. Here was a topic I actually cared about. So in my final year of school, I ditched everything except maths and Indonesian and enrolled in a suite of subjects I had never before studied in any depth: history, politics etc. My parents were appalled but the die was cast – I had found my intellectual home. Politics was too schematic; history, on the other hand, appealed to me as a discipline that took seriously forces that are bigger than the individual, yet found space for people too.

3. Why did you become an academic historian?

To be a historian wasn’t an obvious career choice for me. I was the first person in my family to go to university, and there was an assumption that after I had finished my undergraduate degree, I should get a job. So I did, but I was miserable and missed the intellectual work of doing history. After two years, I took what was  – for me – the bold step of leaving full-time work and enrolled in a postgraduate degree. I cannot even say that doing a higher degree had been on my radar before that time.  My boredom at my job was so intense, and my yearning for history so great, that I managed to figure out that there was a degree called a Masters.

I consider my postgraduate years my real introduction to university life. With a scholarship, I was able to partake in all the extra-curricular activities that had eluded me as an undergraduate. I joined the Melbourne Historical Journal collective, we established a postgrad seminar and dinner club, I tutored and gave guest lectures, attended conferences and formed a reading group of postgrads from different universities across Melbourne. I loved all of it. I knew for sure by then that I wanted to be an academic historian. The question became: would academia have a place for me?

Some people are capable of assuming that everything will be all right, that something will come along. I’m not one of them. I don’t know how you explain that difference in attitude – perhaps it is confidence. Whatever the cause, I was always worried that it might not work out.

I finished my PhD in the mid-1990s: it was a horrible period for attempting to get an academic job. (Every generation thinks their time was grim in that regard – but count how many historians now in their late 40s have academic jobs.) At great expense, I went to explore possible alternative careers with an employment consultant, who ran all these tests and declared: you should be an academic. There was nothing doing in history, so I applied for and got what seemed to be the next best thing, a job as a researcher at an industrial relations think tank. Patricia Grimshaw (bless her) said: “what are you doing that for?” She arranged a one-year contract for me doing research assistant work and teaching gender relations at the University of Melbourne.

There was a fork in the road at that point. I was offered a 3-year position as a researcher on an ARC grant that Pat Grimshaw and others had won at the University of Melbourne, or a postdoctoral fellowship at Deakin University. Some of my contemporaries thought I was bonkers to pass up a job, even a temporary one, at a sandstone. I took the freeway to the postdoc and have never regretted that choice – it was a chance to do my own work, on a second project, and to spread my wings a bit. After that, I was appointed to a lectureship at the University of Adelaide. You have to be prepared to move around a bit and you will discover that it’s actually good for you to do so.

4. Is there a theme or a burning question that inspires your historical research?

I wish there was. It always seems that other people have great stories to explain what motivates them. When I went for the job I now have at Monash, someone on the interview panel said: “so, deserted wives, civilian internees, prisoners of war, it’s all so miserable – what is the big question you are trying to answer?” Many years later, I think I can say my work is driven by a desire to understand the social consequences of dislocation, the cultural impact of war and changing initiatives to alleviate misery. It therefore seeks to influence three areas of vital public and scholarly debate: the legacy of war, the implications of humanitarian actions, and the factors that shape responses to human suffering.

5. How has academic history changed since you began your career?

Early career researchers have higher expectations, of themselves and others, and there’s a lot more administration!

In retrospect, my generation came of age in a very down-at-heel time and that influenced our attitude. There had recently been a quite deep recession and we were pathetically grateful for any scraps that fell from the table, in terms of employment opportunities. A lot of people left. Rather than encouraging a collective approach, I think the severely restricted opportunities led to a more individuated sense of career. There was a consensus that jobs were rare, and if you ended up with one you were just so lucky that you put your head down, bum up and hung on. It took a very long time to get any sort of promotion and you certainly didn’t ask for one.

The seriousness with which ECRs now approach their careers at once surprises and delights me. I love that they have confidence in their calling and demand more of the profession to train and guide its newest recruits. Social media has facilitated networking and knowledge flow in amazing ways.

There’s a celebration of the “history nerd” that would have been unthinkable when I was a postgrad. People then were more interested in cultivating an appearance of serendipity than ambition.

The rivers of gold in research money have given some lucky few people opportunities for a lot of travel and research assistants much earlier in their careers. I hope that they make the most of it, because there will be years when they will be busier, the grants dry up, and there will be a need to teach, research and run things. It can get a bit hectic.

6. What is your experience of being a senior woman in the academy?

That’s an interesting one.

I did not expect that the sexism would get more intense the further you climbed. Everyone loves a bright young woman and is prepared to open a lot of doors for her. If she stays at relatively junior academic level, the love can be life-long. Once you reach a certain level of seniority, and you are prepared to own that authority and not put up with rubbish, it can be quite a different story. The gatekeeping, slights and put-downs would make your hair stand on end. They make for great dinner-party stories, but as with every good joke, there’s always a sting in the punch line.

7. What is your favourite thing about being an academic historian?

Pretty much everything. When I was younger, I loved learning how to teach, how to move on from a PhD to develop second and subsequent research projects, to publish a book, to win grants. There are many years early in your career when everything seems new and there are so many challenges and hurdles to overcome – there is a very long learning curve. You have to like pushing yourself, I think, to stay on an upward trajectory.

Having just come off a research fellowship, I’ve rediscovered the good things about teaching. I’ve mostly taught out of my area of specialisation, and there is a benefit in continuing to read widely in all sorts of fields. Students also help you to keep it real (eg: “you are just like my Mum, she’s not embarrassed about anything”), but getting fan emails when someone has really liked your lecture is pretty hard to beat!

I even like administration. Once you’ve conquered the standard demands of a teaching and research position, there are opportunities to learn how to run things. It’s not for everyone, of course, but I really enjoy knowing about policy, governance, strategy and management.

I should also say that being an academic historian has allowed me to combine a career and family responsibilities. I had three children in the first six years after finishing my PhD, and I think it would have been difficult to cling on in a different type of profession.

8. Your least favourite thing?

There’s a balance to be had between furthering your own career and being a good academic citizen. Some people don’t feel an obligation to do the emotional work that makes an environment collegial. Others refuse the unpaid things that make the wheels turn – refereeing, examining theses, mentoring, giving feedback. I find that disappointing sometimes.

There are a lot of articles on the internet about “learning to say no”. In my experience, some people need to say “yes” a bit more.

9. Do you have any intellectual heroes? Which historians have had the greatest influence on the way you research and write?

I’m not much of a heroes or favourites person, but there have been scholars who have shaped how I think about and write history.

I have probably read Joan Scott’s “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” several hundred times. That really is a stellar piece of work and was very influential in the way I applied poststructural analysis in my PhD (it was the 1990s). One of the examiners thought it was absurd to combine what she called ‘the new cultural history’ with more traditional social history, but I stand by that decision.

Ellen Ross’s Love and Toil: Motherhood in Outcast London 1870-1918 and Linda Gordon’s Heroes of their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence Boston 1860-1960 are stunning social histories that place women and the working class at their centre and provided me with a wonderful model during my PhD research. I also read a lot of work by Carolyn Steedman, Catherine Hall and Leonore Davidoff. British feminist historians, in particular, were very influential in the way I thought about the relationship between gender and class.

I sometimes find real inspiration in the work of anthropologists. Ann Laura Stoler’s work has been useful for thinking about race and desire, and about archives. Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman’s work on trauma has also been instructive and insightful for me.

Straying outside of history was important for my work on photography. Scholars such as Barbie Zelizer and Abigail Solomon-Godeau helped me consider images in new ways. I read a lot of Susan Sontag and W.J.T. Mitchell’s What Do Pictures Want sharpened my analysis too.

Closer to home, Marilyn Lake and Stephen Garton have been key figures. You can’t write about war and Australian society without engaging deeply with their analysis of it. Stephen has been busy with other things for a few years now, but I do hope that one day he returns to writing history.

10. Have you had mentors over the course of your career? How important are they?

I have been very fortunate to have three excellent mentors – Pat Grimshaw, Joan Beaumont and Barbara Caine. You don’t often hear those three people mentioned in the same sentence but they have been absolute rocks to me. In my experience, mentoring often works best when you or the mentor no longer work in the same institution. The distance creates better advice. Mentoring is an odd relationship in many ways – universities try to formalise it, but informal connections are far more meaningful. If your mentor is good, they will give you fearless advice that you may not want to hear. Listen to them anyway. If the relationship is of long standing, and you trust the person, they will have your best interests at heart.

11. What advice can you give to history ECRs about their careers?

Careers seem linear only in retrospect. In the early years, everything feels contingent, and for the most part it is.

Try and get some international experience – either as a postgraduate, a postdoc, or on a visiting fellowship.

Get away from where you did your PhD – it’s important to walk into a new building as a grown-up.

You don’t have to work 7 days a week or every evening. If you are, the cost is too high. Decide which things you can do flying by the seat of your pants.

We’ve all missed out on things – whether it is having a paper offer accepted for a conference, an article published in a particular journal, landing a much-wanted job, a book contract, a grant. Failure is part of the process. You have to get used to it and grow a hide like an elephant.

It’s as important to give as to receive. To put it another way, be generous. Return the favours and grace once extended to you.

Q&A with Anna Clark

In our final Q&A for 2016, Anna Clark, Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Co-Director of the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney, discusses how her intellectual heroes and mentors have shaped her approach to history and what she loves about being an historian. 

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Q&A with Clare Wright

Clare Wright, Associate Professor, Principal Research Fellow and ARC Future Fellow La Trobe University, shares how she discovered her passion for history and what continues to inspire her work. This is the first in a Q&A series with Australian historians. We will ask a selection of historians, from both inside and outside the academy, to reflect on their careers, in the hope that their experience and advice will be of benefit to Early Career Researchers.

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