2022 ECR Survey Results and Agony Aunt!

Hello from your terribly tardy ECR reps!

This blog post has been only hours in the writing, but months in the planning. It was always our intention to share the results of our ECR Survey much sooner than this, and we’re sorry that this hasn’t been possible before now.  

In many ways the considerable delay of this blog post can be seen as representative of the general thrust of the survey results – our cohort, by and large, are facing overwork and overwhelm, are time-poor, money-poor, and just generally struggling to stay on top of the pressures and pain points of life in 2023 while also trying to remain competitive for jobs, prizes, and grants.

Even though we haven’t been able to properly write up this post until now, the results of the survey have been guiding the program and advocacy work we have been doing since we finalised the survey last year. We are finding ways to build cohorts and help you connect with your peers, are working with the 2023 AHA conference committee around the provision of childcare at the 2023 AHA conference, and have plans for more additions to the Skills for New Historians seminar series.

We are already in the process of producing a new series for this blog, based on the common pain-points and paradoxes highlighted in the survey responses. We’ll work with our colleagues at the AHA, along with our other professional networks (academic or otherwise) to produce the best advice and guidance possible.

We are also making it easier than ever to get all your troubling questions answered without exacerbating the Imposter Syndrome too much. Introducing the ECR Agony Aunt! Don’t have access to mentors? Or just don’t feel confident to ask them certain questions? This anonymous advice line can help you get answers. We will ask the tough questions to important people and share the answers on our socials and this blog.

We do know that these supports only scratch the surface of the issues facing our ECR peers. As the survey results demonstrate, a lot of our cohort are having to overcome considerable structural, financial, emotional, and professional hurdles to maintain their involvement in our research community.

The results show that only a very small percentage of survey respondents are in secure employment, even short-term secure employment. Only five identified having ongoing employment, both in and out of academia. Of those in fixed term employment, almost half were in positions of only 2 or less years. A significant percentage (56.4%) are unemployed or casually employed both in and out of academia. The amount of people with a research allocation – meaning they were receiving funding or compensation for research activities – was small, suggesting that a vast majority are not compensated for conducting the research necessary to further their careers and make them competitive for jobs. It’s pretty safe to assume that most of these people will be in some other form of employment in order to survive, further reducing their ability to produce research outputs.

These results are painfully unsurprising and reflect the state of academia and the history discipline more broadly. These unsurprising results are complicated, though, by how many of our survey respondents identified other marginalising factors impacting upon their already difficult career progression. The responses highlighted three key areas of structural inequality:

Race and Identity: One respondent stated that they had moved out of the History Department of their institution due to their experience of racism from colleagues. Another participant revealed that they had been bullied due to racism and shared that this bullying has had a negative impact on their research output that has been difficult to account for in applications for academic jobs. 60% of respondents who identified as ‘culturally or linguistically diverse’ reported that their backgrounds had impacted upon their career.

Access and disability: Access issues were apparent in three distinct ways: caused by disability or other health issues, lack of financial resources, and by distance. Some participants who identify as having a disability responded that additional financial support would help to overcome some of the impact on their participation in academic life, however most identified time as the most significant limiting factor, stating they find themselves unable to keep up with the output of their able-bodied peers, and the expectations of the industry. In theory the notion of ‘relevant to opportunity’ would mitigate these issues, although communicating these limitations to potential employers or funding bodies poses a fraught task.

For those for whom distance, or regional living, was an impacting factor, there is considerable overlap with the last category:

Family/carers responsibility: The influence of family and carers responsibilities were similar to those of respondents experiencing disability, in that time was a significant influencer of their academic opportunities. Respondents in this category indicated they were only capable of performing reduced hours to fit around caring roles, and the lack of childcare in academic contexts made travel for research/conferences/other networking opportunities limited or difficult. Several respondents also identified that they lack employment opportunities due to being unable to relocate because of carers and family responsibility.

Overall, the difficulties facing this cohort of respondents in undertaking research and networking tasks compared to those who did not identify with any of the above categories is alarming. They risk reinscribing outdated hierarchies of privilege and reducing crucial diversity and intersectionality within our history discipline.

We’ll share more detail of the survey responses throughout our planned blog series. For now, let’s just say that reading the responses to the survey was bittersweet – so many of our own fears, concerns, and complaints were reflected back at us. Some respondents bared their souls and shared their dismay and despair with admirable honesty. We know there is only so much we, as fellow ECRs, can do to improve the circumstances of our colleagues and peers, but we take the passion for change into every moment where advocacy is possible.

Hopefully, if nothing else, we can increase the sense of community, solidarity, and support amongst our ECR cohort and peers, and ensure that everyone feels they have a place to go, a shoulder to cry on, and a friendly ear in times of crisis and confusion.  People to help us push through the imposter syndrome, enforce celebrating successes, and remind each other of how incredibly unreasonable the metrics we are measured against are.

We’re with you.

Anna, Ebony, Rohan


Delayed introductions!

Apologies for the much-delayed introductory post! We trust that any of you currently struggling to exist in the world will be understanding and accepting of why this is a tad late…

Hello from your 2022-2024 ECR representative team – Ebony Nilsson, Anna Temby, and Rohan Howitt! We are thrilled to be serving as ECR reps for the AHA and are already working on some programs and projects that we think will serve our cohort well.

It is a strange time for ECRs. After the upheaval the university and public history sectors have experienced in recent years there are some small glimmers of hope on the horizon – more jobs are being advertised, research trips are possible again, as are in-person conferences. But alongside these positive aspects, the pandemic environment has both highlighted and entrenched many of the structural issues ECRs face when pursuing an academic career, and those experiencing these inequalities are feeling more and more excluded and isolated from the history environment.

The three of represent a broad range of ECR experience and each brings a unique perspective to the role – one of us is commencing an ongoing position (woo!), one of us is on a fixed-term contract, and another is casual. Between us we have care and family responsibilities, disabilities and chronic illness, and face other structural impediments to career progression. Despite this, we know we could never claim to be truly representative of the broad and diverse backgrounds of the AHA ECR cohort, which is why we are conducting a survey to help us fill potential gaps in our own understanding and experiences.

We are approaching our term with a determination to demystify and diversify the ECR experience – to foster solidarity and community, and advocate for our cohort fearlessly. We’ve all at times felt that we were out of our depth in the academic landscape, and we want to help empower our peers to embrace an “ask smart people silly questions” approach. It’s not always easy to admit you’re not au fait with what appears to be common knowledge and trying to google things like DECRA and NIT and ROPE often confuses more than it clarifies.

We will create spaces for this kind of open, non-judgemental discussion and even connect you with those smart people to ask your silly questions to (particularly important for those of you without institutional support)! Our continuation of the Skills for New Historians Seminar Series (link) kicks off on Monday 24th October with The ARC for Dummies: Demystifying Research Funding for Historians in Australia.

We are also acutely aware of how many of our peers feel isolated from the history community, either through distance, opportunity, or the lingering influence of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are working to introduce some research-based writing groups to help connect people to others in their discipline that they may not normally interact with (more details soon!). We are continuing our incredibly successful ECR/HDR mentoring program with our postgrad reps Ruby Ekkel and Simon Farley, which we will be running again in 2023.

We are also going to start sharing the news, accomplishments, publications and successes of our cohort more on this blog – giving you the chance to share with us the things you are proud of and allowing your community to celebrate with you! All of this community-building work will also filter into the ECR conference experience and as we reimagine how we can make the conferences revitalising and fruitful spaces for ECRs to connect and network.

This is just a small sample of what we have planned – we will wait on the responses to the survey to fully develop these ideas! You can always contact us with any suggestions, feelings, thoughts, or concerns at aha.ecr@gmail.com. You can join our Facebook group and follow us on Twitter.

Skills for New Historians: The ARC for Dummies: Demystifying Research Funding for Historians in Australia

Monday 24 October, 3:30-5pm 
Online via Zoom 
Register now.

We’re delighted to be able to continue the Skills for New Historians seminar series established by the previous ECR Rep team. If you’re not already familiar with it, Skills for New Historians is an online seminar series for discussing some of the key skills and knowledge postgraduate and early career historians need to consider as they move into new phases of their careers. Each seminar is convened by the ECR reps and presents an opportunity to ask learn vital intel, ask questions, and get to know your colleagues, both early career and more senior. Previous seminars have tackled topics such as book proposals, peer review, and non-academic careers, among many others. Recordings of many of these seminars are available to current AHA members here

The next instalment of Skills for New Historians is dedicated to the often-bewildering world of research funding. What is the ARC, what funding schemes does it offer, and what are the eligibility requirements for these schemes? What do terms like ROPE, NIT, and rejoinder actually mean? And what alternatives are there to the ARC when it comes to funding for historical research by ECRs in Australia? This seminar provides an opportunity for ECRs to ask anything you’ve ever wanted to know about the ARC or the wider research funding landscape in Australia. 

You can submit questions anonymously in advance or participate in the discussion during the seminar. While this seminar is targeted at postgraduate and ECR historians, it is also a welcoming environment for scholars at all career stages to participate. 

For this seminar, we’ll be joined by:

Maddie Barton (Senior Research Officer at Australian Catholic University) 
Ruth Morgan (Director of the Centre for Environmental History at the Australian National University)
Claire E. F. Wright (ARC DECRA Fellow and Lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney)

This seminar will take place on Monday 24 October at 3:30-5pm. 

Registrations are essential. To register, go to the Seminars page on the AHA website, log in using your membership details, and scroll down to Seminar #8: The ARC for Dummies. This will take you to a Google Form to register for the Zoom link and to anonymously submit questions for discussion by the panel. 

Have your say! AHA ECR Pulse Survey 2022

Hello from your 2022-2024 ECR representative team – Ebony Nilsson, Anna Temby, and Rohan Howitt! We are grateful for the opportunity to serve as ECR reps – Anna enjoyed it so much the first time that she decided to do it again. We’ll be sure to introduce ourselves properly soon.

We already have some great projects in the works that we look forward to sharing with you all, but to ensure that we are actually engaging in work that will benefit our cohort as much as possible we’d like to invite you to complete a short survey to help guide our representation and advocacy over the next two years.

The survey is not just for those pursuing an academic career – we would like to hear from all our history peers, regardless of your career trajectory or plans. We would like to invite late-stage HDR candidates and also early mid-career researchers to contribute your thoughts and opinions – the more data we can use to drive our work the better!

This is completely voluntary, and able to be done anonymously if you choose. We do encourage as much honesty as you are comfortable with, as it helps us to really understand the myriad difficulties facing ECRs in the current academic climate. If you’d like to see the results of 2020’s survey you can view that here.

If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to reach out to us at aha.ecr@gmail.com.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Ebony, Anna, and Rohan

Skills for New Historians Seminar: Commissioned Histories

Now that we’re well and truly into 2022 (eek!), we’re thrilled to announce that the Skills for New Historians Seminar Series is back! Our term as ECR Co-Representatives is winding down, but there are still some areas of modern academic life that we want to shed light on and have a conversation about. This month’s seminar is one such area. We know that the academy is a tough place, that permanent, secure work is no guarantee, and that we often have to look for opportunities to earn money. And of course, teaching and RA work continue to be important sources of paid work, but what else is out there?

This month, we’re looking into commissioned histories — essentially, being contracted by an external organisation to write a history. But how do we find these opportunities? What do commissioned histories look like? And what do external organisations really want from the historians they hire? Our expert panel will speak to these questions and more:


  • Skills for New Historians: Commissioned Histories with Professor Melanie Oppenheimer, Dr Stephen Townsend, and Emma Cross
  • Thursday 28 April, 1.30-3pm AEST (via Zoom)
  • To register, log into the seminars page of the AHA website, and scroll down to the bottom to find the registration link.

The seminar will be recorded and the recording afterwards available in the Members Only section of the AHA website.

Registrations close Wednesday 27 April. Having problems logging into the Members Only section of the website? Contact Bethany, the AHA’s executive officer, at executive@theaha.org.au

Skills for New Historians is open to ECRs and HDRs who are members of the AHA. If you’d like to join in and aren’t a member, head over to the AHA website where you can renew your membership, or become a member for the first time.

If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch. We’re looking forward to seeing you!

ECR/HDR Mentoring Scheme 2022

Hello ECR friends and welcome to 2022! It’s great to be at the top of a new year, ready to jump into the work and opportunities that await us. And yet, the tough times roll on. 2021 did not, unfortunately, magically solve all the problems that dominated 2020, and our sector feels just as unsettled and uncertain as ever. But we had some great things happen in 2021 as well — after being cancelled in 2020, our history community was able to come together virtually for the Annual AHA Conference, making us all very proficient in Whova and Zoom. The Skills for New Historians Seminar Series was a smashing success; supported in particular by the AHA President Professor Melanie Oppenheimer, ECR and HDR members were able to hear from experts in various aspects of academic life. (Remember that most of those sessions were recorded and are available to rewatch by logging into the AHA website!) And in conjunction with HDR Representative Joshua Black, we ran the first ever ECR/HDR Mentoring Scheme, pairing HDR candidates with ECRs, strengthening ties between these communities. We’re thrilled to announce that the scheme will run again in 2022!

Unsure how this works? It’s pretty simple, really! This is a scheme that matches ECR mentors with HDR mentees, creating space for HDRs to ask questions, address and talk through your concerns with a person who’s recently been through the process, who can offer you advice on navigating academia in this tricky climate, and who can (help you) reflect on contemporary approaches to historical research. And for ECRs, this scheme allows you to develop your own mentoring skills (something that was highlighted in the ECR survey at the end of 2020) and hopefully to take those first steps towards future supervision opportunities.

It will run from February to November 2022, and is for AHA members only. Make sure to head to the AHA website if you’d like to renew your membership, or sign up for the first time!

What you have to do: Complete this Google form, making sure you let us know if you’re signing up to be a mentor (ECRs) or a mentee (HDR). The form also asks what areas you’d like to focus on in the scheme — please do let us know what you’re thinking! Examples could include:

  • career development. How do you make the transition from being a candidate (and perhaps on a scholarship) to working in the field, whether that’s through teaching, research assistance, or something else. When should you start looking at postdoctoral fellowship applications?
  • writing help. Need an extra set of eyes on a paper? Would you like feedback on your writing from an outsider? Do you struggle with how to structure an academic article?
  • publishing. How do you start publishing from the thesis? What is the process of transitioning a completed thesis into a book? When should you start approaching publishers? How do you know which publisher is right for you and your project?

The relationship between mentors and mentees will look different from pair to pair. Each mentor/mentee will find their own balance, depending on what a mentor can help with, and what a mentee would like help with. Be as honest as you are comfortable with, so we can make the best matches between applicants and ensure your respective expectations align as closely as possible!

We (the ECR and HDR reps) will then go through the responses to match mentors with mentees. Now that Zoom is now so widespread we are less concerned with where mentors/mentees are located, but if you would prefer to meet in person, let us know so that we can take that into account when making pairs.

Meeting every six to eight weeks is sufficient: this means that, by applying to this scheme, you should be prepared to meet your mentor/mentee at least six times over the year. However, if you find that you’d like to meet more often, please do! This is a self-directed program where you and your mentor/mentee can take the reins and create a schedule and list of discussion points that work for you both. We will be checking in throughout the year to make sure that things are running smoothly, and we are of course available to take questions or to field concerns should anything pop up. Otherwise, we trust both parties to work and communicate with each other.

Applications for this scheme close Monday 31 January 2022, and respective pairs will be notified in February. Feel free, of course, to contact us or Joshua Black (aha.postgrad@gmail.com) if you have any questions, concerns, or thoughts. We are always here to help!

Still need convincing? Here’s some feedback from last year’s participants…

HDRs (Mentees):

  • “[Mentor] provided specific and expert feedback on my work. [They] met and exceeded my hopes and expectations.”
  • “Joining the scheme was one of the best decisions I made this year, I hope that you continue to run it and other people get the same benefits from it that I continue to receive.”
  • “undoubtedly, as a PhD student, I’ve learned a lot from [mentor] on how to organise my research article for publication better.”
  • “I strongly support the idea of running this programme in the future again and wish more and more scholars from different areas of history can join it. “
  • “[Mentor] is a highly intelligent and generous scholar whose mentorship was a game changer when I started my first academic position after completing my PhD”
  • “I came away from each session with a deeper understanding of, and more clarity around, each of the topics we covered. I know that I’ll be checking my session notes for helpful tips in the future. I absolutely recommend that this scheme is run again in the future.”
  • “Overall, I found these meetings extremely beneficial for understanding the competitive nature and expectations of the academic world.”
  • “I definitely have benefited from being in this program and heartly recommend this mentorship scheme to other HDR/ ECRs.” 

ECRs (Mentors):

  • “These one-on-one mentoring sessions are very important because they enable a safe and honest space to be formed, away from academic performative language or carefully curated/monitored fora. This is where knowledge can be shared with no specific agenda in mind, except but to build one another up with practical tips and advice.”
  • “volunteering is very important. Overall, between emails, zoom, preparation and reading, this may have taken me 15 to 20 hours so it is not onerous but ought to be taken seriously.”
  • “We discussed a range of academic issues, e.g. how to write up book proposals, five-year plans, developing a strong research narrative, and applying for grants. Despite our historical fields being very different, we discussed broader subjects like writing and research methods.”
  • “It was an absolute privilege to mentor [mentee] and an honour to be part of this scheme. I would highly recommend it run again in the future.”
  • “I did not have set expectations about the mentoring program, and this helped to keep the catch ups unstructured and responsive to what [mentee] was working on at the time.”
  • “I think there is benefit to mentoring someone from the same discipline and helping them through the PhD in any way possible. I also learned a lot in the process about how to facilitate working relationships with the mentee, and especially during difficult times.”
  • “I felt I was able to help my mentee with general advice on academia, and as a person with whom they could speak about academia, but who wasn’t directly involved in their PhD.”
  • “I would most certainly recommend this scheme in the future, it’s a fantastic scheme. It gives junior scholars the opportunity to meet ECRs, and builds their network. It’s also an clearly defined opportunity for ECRs to give back to other scholars.”
  • “I did read one of [mentee’s] thesis chapters, and gave [them] feedback on how could rewrite the research as a journal article. Again, [they] planned to speak with [their] supervisor about this, but wanted to use our mentoring sessions to brainstorm ideas in advance. Using this approach, I felt I was able to help [mentee] with specific concerns as they arose during the year, and also provide more informal advice and support from someone who had recently gone through the HDR process.”

AHA Conference: ECR/HDR Day

As we all scurry away working to finish our conference papers for next week (just me?), it’s important to not forget about the great day of events that have been planned for our ECR and HDR communities on the first day of the conference week! Before the opening address and keynote from Shino Konishi beginning at 5pm AEDT on Monday 29 November, there’s a whole bunch of sessions for us to jump into — make sure to log into your Whova account and add these sessions to your agenda to start planning your week!

9am — 10.15am AEDT | ROUNDTABLE Digital Archives: What and How

Chair: Imogen Wegman

Speakers: Richard Neville, Tim Sherratt, Nick Schapowal and Alana Piper

Get the low-down on the latest developments in the world of digital history. What is available? Where is it located? How do you access it?

11am — 12.15pm AEDT | ROUNDTABLE History Work Outside the Academy

Chair: Georgia McWhinney

Speakers: Peter Hobbins and Cathy Perkins

We know our history degrees can be applied to so many jobs… but what possibilities are there?

1pm — 2.15pm AEDT | ROUNDTABLE Publishing in Popular Media

Chair: Chelsea Barnett

Speakers: Georgina Arnott, Frank Bongiorno, Alecia Simmonds, and Alan Vaarwerk (Kill Your Darlings)

Disseminating our work to non-academic audiences has always been important, but the current climate has only exacerbated this need. This session is organised by your ECR co-representatives in line with the successful Skills for New Historians Seminar Series. In it, we speak to both emerging and established scholars who have forged a path in this space, as well as Alan Vaarwerk, an editor at Kill Your Darlings, to talk about what editors really want from contributors.

3pm — 4.15pm AEDT | ROUNDTABLE Publishing in History Australia

Chair: Kate Fullagar

Speakers: Editors of History Australia

Hear from the editors of History Australia about the ins and outs of academic publishing.

or… | ROUNDTABLE Bursary Meeting

Chair: Tim Rowse

If you were one of the lucky recipients of the AHA/CAL Bursary, head along to to this session with Emeritus Professor Tim Rowse for discussion and feedback!

AHA Conference: Social Catch-Ups

Hi pals! We’re right in the middle of November (um, how?) which means that the 39th AHA Conference is only a few weeks away! After a Covid-cancellation last year, and a Covid-delay this year, we are itching to hang out with our history community and listen to some ace papers. Of course, check out the conference website for the schedule and program!

While border closures and Covid uncertainties have meant that the conference is running virtually, easing restrictions in each city mean that we’re able to catch-up in person in each capital city … and we’re so excited to be able to see each other again! With the help of some generous people in our HDR/ECR community we’ve managed to organise social events in each city. Check out the details below … and also, keep an eye on the Conference Whova app, as all the details are listed there (and you can RSVP, too!).


General Event

When: Thursday 2 December, 6.45pm AEDT

Where: Camperdown Memorial Park, Newtown

Contact Person: Lisa Ford and Conference Organising Committee


When: Thursday 2 December, 7.30pm AEDT

Where: Burdekin Hotel (rooftop), 2-4 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst

Contact Person: Chelsea Barnett / Jarrod Hore


When: Thursday 2 December, 8pm AEDT

Where: Fathers Office, 249 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne

Contact Person: Hannah Viney


When: Thursday 2 December, 6pm AEST

Where: The Ship Inn, Cnr Stanley & Sidon Sts, South Bank 

Contact Person: Tristan Moss


When: Tuesday 30 November, 6.45pm AEDT

Where: King O’Malley’s Pub, 131 City Walk, Canberra

Contact Person: Laura Rademaker / Joshua Black



When: Friday 26 November, 11am ACDT

Where: Food Lore Café, ground floor of the UniSA MOD building, North Terrace adjacent Morphett Street Bridge, Adelaide, (across from the City West tram stop)

Contact Person: Jade Hastings

General Event

When: Monday 29 November, 4.30pm ACDT

Where: Room 10.2, Flinders University Victoria Square Building, 182 Victoria Square (to watch Conference welcome and Shino Konishi keynote), followed by dinner at Treasury 1860, 2 Flinders Street, Adelaide, from 6.15pm ACDT

Contact Person: Romain Fathi


General Event

When: Monday 29 November, 3.30-5pm AWST

Where: University Club (verandah), Hackett Drive, Crawley (cash bar)

Contact Person: Jane Lydon


When: Monday 29 November, 10.30am AEDT

Where: University Club, Dobson Road, University of Tasmania Sandy Bay Campus

Contact Person: Imogen Wegman

We hope to see you there!

Skills for New Historians Seminar: Reviewing Books, Films, and More

We are so pleased to be able to bring you the next instalment of our seminar series! Don’t that if you’d like to check out any of our previous seminars that you may have missed, head over to the AHA website: log in, and then head to “Member Resources” and then “Seminars” — all the recordings are there for you!

One of our intentions with these seminars has been to explore and shed some light on the different tasks that working historians complete, especially when those tasks aren’t widely discussed. This next seminar really hits that nail on the head. Reading, engaging with, and reviewing other scholars’ work is a crucial part of the historian’s job, yet it’s not something we often discuss in detail. How do you write a thoughtful, thorough, and useful review of a monograph, in (usually) no more than 800 words? How do the reviews you write differ according to the publication you are targeting? How do you engage with other forms of history-making (ie, films, museum exhibitions, or something else entirely) to interrogate its meaning while honouring its form? Our expert panel will speak to these questions and more:

  • Dr Zora Simic (UNSW): on writing book reviews for academic and non-academic publications
  • Dr Charlotte Greenhalgh (University of Waikato): History Australia book reviews editor
  • Dr James Findlay (University of Sydney): History Australia “history off the page” reviews editor


  • Skills for New Historians: Reviewing Books, Films, and More with Dr Zora Simic, Dr Charlotte Greenhalgh, and Dr James Findlay
  • Tuesday 24 August, 3–5pm AEST (via Zoom)
  • To register:
    • Log into the AHA website
    • Go to Member Resources / Seminars
    • Scroll down to Seminar #6 and click through to the Google Form, and complete!
    • Registrations close Monday 23 August

Having problems logging into the Members Only section of the new website? Contact Bethany, the AHA’s executive officer, at executive@theaha.org.au

Skills for New Historians is open to ECRs and HDRs who are members of the AHA. If you’d like to join in and aren’t a member, head over to the AHA website where you can renew your membership, or become a member for the first time. The seminars will be recorded and the recording made available to AHA members.

If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch. We’re looking forward to seeing you!

Skills for New Historians Seminar: Non-Academic Careers

Our seminar series continues! We are so glad that you all are loving these seminars as much as we are! A huge thanks, of course, to the guest speakers we’ve asked to be part of them each month, but also huge thanks to our audience, who come along and ask such interesting and thoughtful questions every time.

Before we announce details for the next seminar, some exciting news! In case you missed it, the new AHA website is LIVE! It looks great, is super user-friendly, and has taken a lot of work to get here. What is especially exciting is that the recordings for past seminars in this series are now available on the website! If you’d like to catch up on our past sessions on Digital Histories, Book Proposals, or the Peer Review process, you can now access them to watch back. Simply log into your member account, and then go to “Member Resources” and then “Seminars” on the dropdown menu. 

Now, for the next seminar!

In putting together this series, we knew we needed to acknowledge the very tough climate that the Arts, and the University sector more broadly, are currently in. It’s never been easy to secure an academic job, but with Covid-19 keeping international students away, and reduced government funding meaning job cuts, now seems an especially difficult time. It’s becoming increasingly common (and necessary) to move from the PhD or the postdoctoral fellowship to different kinds of work. But this doesn’t have to mean giving up on research, publishing, or keeping in touch with your academic community. It also doesn’t mean forgetting all the skills you developed and honed during your PhD. This month, then, we’re focusing on work outside of – or, perhaps, alongside – the academy, and speaking to people who have successfully secured these kinds of positions in three different fields: university administration, the public service, and the GLAM sector. These recent grads will tell us all about their work in these fields, how they secured their positions, and if/how they balance continuing to publish and engage with their academic communities:

  • Dr Emma Gleadhill, Faculty of Arts Research Officer at Macquarie University
  • Dr Emma Sarian, NSW State Insurance Regulatory Authority
  • Dr Mariko Smith, First Nations Assistant Curator at the Australian Museum


  • Skills for New Historians: Non-Academic Careers with Dr Emma Gleadhill, Dr Emma Sarian, and Dr Mariko Smith
  • Friday 16 July, 4—6pm AEST (via Zoom)
  • To register: please note the new process!
    • Log into the AHA website
    • Go to Member Resources / Seminars (see the pictures above!)
    • Scroll down to Seminar #5 and click through to the Google Form, and complete!
    • Registrations close Thursday 15 July

Having problems logging into the Members Only section of the new website? Contact Bethany, the AHA’s executive officer, at executive@theaha.org.au

Skills for New Historians is open to ECRs and HDRs who are members of the AHA. If you’d like to join in and aren’t a new member, head over to the AHA website where you can renew your membership or become a member for the first time. The seminar will be recorded and the recording made available to AHA members.

If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch. We’re looking forward to seeing you!

Skills for New Historians Seminar: Peer Review

Friends — thank you so much for making this seminar series such a wonderful event! We’ve so far had three amazing seminars on Digital Histories, Book Proposals, and the DECRA, and each of them have been led by generous scholars and attended by an enthusiastic and curious group of ECRs and HDRs. We’re thrilled to announce our fourth seminar, which will follow in the same vein!

Peer review is a fundamental part of the academic experience — our papers, grant applications, and books get sent to unknown (to us) readers, who pore over these texts to decide whether you get published, funding, or a good review. It’s fundamental … and yet can be a personal, intimate experience too, as we often pour so much of ourselves into our writing. A good review can be elating, whereas a bad review can be debilitating. There are few formal guidelines or frameworks through which to approach reviewers’ reports, and dreaded Reviewer 2 can strike at any moment. How do we go about this process? At the same time, there are no formal lessons on how to be a good reviewer. How do you give constructive, thoughtful, helpful feedback … without becoming Reviewer 2 yourself? Our next seminar will explore all things peer review from both sides of the table, with two experienced speakers:


  • Skills for New Historians: Peer Review with Professor Kate Fullagar and Associate Professor Lisa Featherstone
  • Tuesday 1 June, 3–4.30pm AEST (via Zoom)
  • To register: please email executive@theaha.org.au by Monday 31 May

Skills for New Historians is open to ECRs and HDRs who are members of the AHA. If you’d like to join in and aren’t a new member, head over to the AHA website where you can renew your membership or become a member for the first time. The seminar will be recorded and the recording made available to AHA members.

If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch. We’re looking forward to seeing you!

Skills for New Historians Seminar: The DECRA

We are pretty excited to announce the next instalment in our “Skills for New Historians” seminar series! We’ve already had two great sessions on Digital Histories and Book Proposals, with generous speakers giving valuable information to our attendees. Thanks to all those who have participated so far! If you’d like to catch up on the sessions, they’ve both been recorded and will be uploaded to the new AHA website, to be launched soon! Stay tuned — we’ll announce when the the website is ready and the recordings are able to be viewed. (Note: member log-in required.)

For our next seminar, we’re turning our attention to another part of ECR life that we all hear a lot about and know is important, but can be difficult to navigate: the DECRA. Yep, we’re talking ARC funding. You may have read the posts on this blog about “Dismembering the DECRA“, but want even more information, more transparency. Just what is the DECRA? How do you get one? Why is it so important? Who are the College of Experts, and what do they do? Our panel of speakers will share their perspectives to answer these questions and more:


  • Skills for New Historians: The DECRA with Professor Bronwen Neil, Professor Amanda Nettelbeck, Dr Emma Gleadhill, and Dr Tristan Moss
  • Friday 30 April, 3–5pm AEST (via Zoom)
  • To register: please email executive@theaha.org.au by Thursday 29 April

Skills for New Historians is open to ECRs and HDRs who are members of the AHA. If you’d like to join in and aren’t a member, head over to the AHA website where you can renew your membership or become a member for the first time. This seminar will not be recorded.

If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch. We’re looking forward to seeing you!

Skills for New Historians Seminar: Book Proposals

The first seminar in the recently-established “Skills for New Historians” series for ECR and HDR members of the AHA was held last week, and what an afternoon it was! Huge thanks to Alana Piper and Tim Sherratt for giving us an insight into the world of digital histories. It was two hours chock-full of information, tips, and resources, and was a great way to kick off the series. We’ll be adding a recording of the seminar to the new AHA website (to be launched soon!), so stay tuned — we’ll announce when it’s up and ready to be viewed! (Note: member log-in required).

We are delighted to be able to announce the second seminar, now open for registration, and it’s a big one. The Book Proposal. Just how do you write one? What are publishers looking for? How do you choose the best publisher for your work? This upcoming seminar will feature a panel of three speakers immensely qualified to address these questions and more:


  • Skills for New Historians: Book Proposals with Professor Melanie Oppenheimer, Dr Nathan Hollier, and Dr James Keating
  • Tuesday 30 March, 3 — 5 pm AEDT (via Zoom)
  • To register: please email executive@theaha.org.au by Monday 29 March

Skills for New Historians is open to ECRs and HDRs who are members of the AHA. If you’d like to join in and aren’t a member, head over to the AHA website where you can renew your membership or become a member for the first time. The seminar will be recorded and the recording made available to AHA members.

If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch. We’re looking forward to seeing you!

How to… Promote Yourself in Academia

In this post Jatinder Mann (Hong Kong Baptist University) offers some tips on self-promotion in academia, outlining his experience of using four of the major online platforms. The opinions expressed here are not intended as an endorsement of any of the platforms mentioned, but provide a personal view of their benefits and limitations.


Following on from one of my previous blog posts on ‘How to … Survive in academia until you secure a position (some personal reflections)’, I thought it would be useful to write another one on how to promote yourself in academia. Through training courses and discussions with friends and colleagues, I have come to use several platforms to promote my work and activities. I primarily use Academia.edu, ORCID, LinkedIn, and Twitter towards this end. I will make some general points about them and then take each in turn, talking about their benefits and limitations.

The first general point I would make—without sounding too much like someone who works in marketing—is to be consistent about your brand, which is ‘you’. So, ensure that the information you have on different platforms is up to date and consistent. Inconsistencies in things like your publication record can look unprofessional. It can be a little time-consuming updating various platforms, but the benefits I have seen come from this—be it research collaborations, invitations to give talks, expressions of interest to publish in the book series or journal that I edit, etc.—more than justify it. Another common benefit of the platforms I use compared with my staff web page is that I have control over updating it and can do so as many times as I like. Another collective benefit of platforms such as Academia.edu, ORCID and LinkedIn is that the information you have on them can be a very useful reference point when you are working on job or funding applications. So, even if there might be some significant time investment upfront when setting up your profiles, you will hopefully find that it saves you time in the future.

I will now look at each of the four platforms that I use in turn, focusing on some of their benefits and limitations.


I was introduced to this platform by a friend and former colleague in the United Kingdom after I had been awarded my PhD in 2011. You can view my profile here to see what kind of information you can include on it. At that time the site was completely free. I found it particularly useful as it acted as a de facto webpage for me as I was no longer a PhD student at the University of Sydney and had not yet started working on my postdoc at King’s College London. Another thing I really like about it is that you can see when people search for you on search engines and come across your profile, and where they are searching from. This is particularly useful when you are applying for jobs, as you can see that people from a particular institution you have applied to are searching for you. You can also see when people read papers you have put up on the site. However, the site has since become monetised, which has resulted in certain features now only being available to those who pay for a ‘Premium’ membership. Out of principle I will not sign up to this. But because I spent so much time over the years building up my profile on the site I do not have the heart to close it. And I still appreciate being able to see when people look for me on search engines.


I found out about this not-for-profit platform from a friend and colleague of mine at the library at my current institution. You can view my profile here to get an idea of what information can appear on it. If you have an ORCID profile you can provide your ORCID ID (a unique 16-digit code) to publishers, and the outputs they publish will automatically be included in the list of publications on your profile. Many publishers will also include ORCID IDs in the print and PDF versions of articles and other outputs, providing readers with a direct link to your profile. I have to say that I have become quite a big fan of this site, not least because it has various sections which Academia.edu does not. These include ‘Employment’, ‘Education and qualifications’, ‘Invited positions and distinctions’, ‘Membership and service’, and ‘Funding’.  However, Academia.edu has certain features that ORCID does not (non-refereed publications and media interviews), which for me at least necessitates having profiles on both. Another benefit of ORCID is that you can include your ORCID ID on funding applications, which means assessors can view more detailed information that you might not be able to include in your application due to formatting and space constraints. One thing though that ORCID does lack compared to Academia.edu is the ability to put up a profile photo of yourself. Some might think this is not a bad thing, but I personally think it is a good idea for people to put a face to a name.


I was introduced to the benefits of LinkedIn at a training course I attended in 2013 when I was at King’s College London as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Like many academics I thought at the time that LinkedIn was more for people in the private sector. But the instructor at the training session made quite a persuasive case to create a profile, if for no other reason than for networking. You can view my public profile here (the private profile is only available to my connections). LinkedIn is probably the most useful platform for showcasing your employment history. Although ORCID also allows you to do this, an added feature of LinkedIn is that it provides space to go into more detail about what you actually did in each position you have held. I have found this a very useful reference point when working on job applications. Another feature of LinkedIn that I discovered from attending a networking event was the ability to post written work. This is something that I have really gone with and I have reached a much broader audience than I would have normally. A regular post that I put up is the fortnightly newsletter of my Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand Studies Network (ACNZSN), which has led to interest in opportunities mentioned in the newsletters as well as contributions for future issues. Another benefit of LinkedIn is the ability to list your skills. It also helps facilitate networking, which does sometimes involve some unsolicited approaches, but you can ignore these.


I joined Twitter in 2013 after a friend I made at a conference persuaded me of the benefits of using it. You can view my Twitter profile here. I now manage five Twitter accounts, so have certainly gone with it! However, unlike some people I only use it for work purposes, not personal ones. My main reason for this is that Twitter is a public platform (unless you have very high privacy settings, but then that defeats the purpose of it in my opinion), so anyone can see what you post. Keep in mind that potential employers very often look at applicants’ Twitter feeds before hiring them. The main benefit I have found from Twitter is being able to promote publications and presentations you have given and also publicise forthcoming events. Whenever I give presentations I make sure to include my Twitter handle so people can tag me on Twitter and put up any photos or comments about what they thought of my presentation.

I hope the above might be of some use in thinking about the different ways you can promote yourself in academia. If you have any questions about anything I have said, please feel free to email me at jatindermann@hkbu.edu.hk. And I would mention that there are of course other platforms out there which I am sure are really useful as well, but the ones discussed in this piece are the ones that I have used and am most familiar with, and therefore can talk about with confidence from my own experience.

Announcing: “Skills for New Historians” Seminar Series 2021

Now that we’re well and truly into the 2021 grind, we are so pleased to be able to announce another new initiative for 2021. Responses to the survey we circulated last year indicated that the ECR and HDR communities are searching for more development and guidance on the different elements that make up the life and work of an academic. We know ourselves that, both during and after your PhD, you can suddenly find yourself in the middle of conversations about postdocs, DECRAs, book proposals, grant applications … it can feel like learning a new language. This blog has a wealth of information about these various topics in the back catalogue (and we of course recommend you take the time to explore past posts!) but we also wanted to provide a forum where ECRs and HDRs alike can engage with the latest information about all these different branches, as well as a space where we can check in regularly with each other.

With that in mind, we’re thrilled to announce Skills for New Historians, a new monthly seminar series for ECR and HDR members of the AHA that will offer advice and guidance on academic life, and the various things we as emerging historians need to think about as we move into this new phase of our careers. You can expect seminars on developing your skills in relation to grants, publishing, and book proposals, to name just a few seminars we have planned … but we’ll also be thinking about careers and pathways outside of/adjacent to academia too. We’re thrilled as well that this series has the support of the Executive Committee of the AHA, and that our president Prof Melanie Oppenheimer will be coming along to them throughout the year! This is a great opportunity to get advice from not only experts in particular areas, but to meet and get to know a leading Australian historian who is the head of our representative body.

We’re kicking things off with a seminar that is important generally but especially timely right now: Digital Histories. Our limited travel abilities in the age of COVID have only emphasised the importance and possibilities of the digital world. Whether engaging with digital archives or using digital tools to analyse archives or promote research, the digital research landscape is an exciting and ever-shifting space that offers countless opportunities for historians. We’re delighted, then, to have two of the best researchers come and lead a seminar/workshop about the digital terrain: A/Prof Tim Sherratt (University of Canberra) and Dr Alana Piper (UTS).


  • Skills for New Historians: Digital Histories with A/Prof Tim Sherratt and Dr Alana Piper
  • Friday 5 March, 4 — 6 pm AEDT (via Zoom)
  • To register: please email executive@theaha.org.au by Thursday 4 March

Skills for New Historians is open to ECRs and HDRs who are members of the AHA. If you’d like to join in and aren’t a member, head over to the AHA website where you can renew your membership or become a member for the first time.

If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch. We’re looking forward to seeing you at our first seminar for 2021!

ECR/HDR Mentoring Scheme

Welcome back, ECR friends! It’s a new year and we’re really excited to kick off 2021 with a new initiative for ECRs and HDRs.

Responses to our ECR survey indicated that ECRs are looking to develop their mentoring skills to, amongst other things, start preparing for future supervision responsibilities, and to forge stronger links with the HDR community. With that in mind, we’ve been working with HDR representative Joshua Black to develop a new mentoring scheme that will take place in 2021. This scheme will pair ECRs with HDRs in a mentor/mentee relationship, creating space for HDRs to ask questions and get advice from somebody who has successfully completed their doctoral study in this recent, challenging environment, and for ECRs to offer advice about how they navigate the various elements of academic life.

This will be a scheme that runs from February to November 2021, and is for AHA members only. (Remember to head to the AHA website if you want to sign up for new membership, or renew it!)

What you have to do:

Complete this Google form, making sure you let us know if you’re signing up to be a mentor (ECRs) or a mentee (HDRs). The form also asks what areas you’d like to focus on in the relationship: so, ECRs, do you think you can help with publishing, for example? Or career development? HDRs, would you like help with networking, for instance, or how to look for funding? Let us know.

We’ll use these responses to match people together; the now widespread use of Zoom means that we’re less concerned with where people are located, although if you and your mentor/mentee are geographically close (and relevant Covid restrictions allow), do feel free to meet in person.

We think that meeting every six to eight weeks is sufficient; at minimum, that means that you should be prepared to meet six times by the end of the year. However, if you both find that you’d like to meet more often, then please do! This is a self-directed program, where you and your mentor/mentee can really take the reins and create a schedule that works for you both. We’ll be checking in throughout the year, and of course are here to take questions should you have any, but otherwise will trust both parties to work and communicate with each other.

Applications for this scheme close Sunday 31 January, with respective pairs to be notified in February. Shoot us an email or contact us on Twitter if you’ve got any questions!

ECR Survey Responses and Looking Ahead to 2021

Well friends, we made it to the end of 2020. This has been an incredibly difficult year for so many reasons, and quite frankly we all deserve a pat on the back for getting through it. And although the various hardships that have dotted 2020 of course won’t immediately cease on 1 January, we’re looking ahead to 2021 with hope for a smoother and less stressful year.

But first, we’d like to use this final blog post of the year to reflect on where our community is, and think through how we can move forward together in the new year. A key part of this exercise for us, your representatives, is reflecting and acting upon the ECR survey that was distributed in September and October of 2020. We were pretty chuffed to receive over 50 responses, so right at the top we’d like to thank everyone who filled it out — we really appreciate your taking the time to fill us in on what you are thinking and feeling in what has been (and continues to be) a very challenging time for our sector. The responses we received were illuminating and insightful, and have helped us to develop some new ideas and initiatives that we hope will foster networks amongst ECRs and with the AHA community more broadly, provide opportunities for career development, and give you more information about the various components of academic life. However, the responses also indicated just how tough it is to be an ECR (or PhD student) right now. Thank you to everyone for the honesty and vulnerability you showed. For anyone struggling right now, please know that you are not alone, and that you can always reach out to either Chelsea, Joel, or Anna if you need.

Our main takeaways from the responses to the survey are that:

  • a sizeable number of you reported having parenting or carer responsibilities, or having a disability or chronic illness, which affects the ways in which you engage with and experience the academy and the discipline.
  • community-building with other ECRs and the history discipline is seen as important.
  • there was a mixed sentiment about whether the AHA is doing enough to support ECRs. Some felt it is doing enough, while others were critical of what they see as, for example, a lack of support from senior academics or a failure to challenge escalating track record expectations for those applying for jobs and grants. Others wrote that they thought the AHA was “sort of” doing enough or that the question was difficult to answer, as they felt their interests were being represented but also that the AHA had limited capacity to affect change within institutions and government.
  • there is a clear demand for more concrete initiatives to support career development and opportunities, such as mentoring schemes, advice on publishing and job applications, grant-writing workshops, etc.
  • a number of you want to be more aware of career opportunities and pathways outside of academia.
  • many are anxious, frustrated, and concerned about the state of the sector and the difficulties of finding sustained and meaningful employment. These fears are not new but have been exacerbated by the events of 2020 and the ongoing crisis in the higher education sector.

We are using these findings to shape and inform the work that we will be doing over the remainder of our term as your ECR representatives. The AHA Executive Committee has been highly responsive to our reporting of the survey results, and is particularly concerned about the low morale and confidence in the sector reported by many respondents. We’ll be working with the Executive Committee in the new year to deliver a number of initiatives that we hope will provide both ECR and HDR members with valuable opportunities for career development, networking and community-building. We’d particularly like to acknowledge the strong support of AHA President, Prof Melanie Oppenheimer, in developing this program of member activities.

Initiatives already underway:

  • We have worked with the Australian Centre for Public History at UTS to redevelop their previous Research Assistant Database as a centralised register to facilitate connections between those looking to hire an RA and looking for RA work. The database will make ECRs available for RA work across the country and internationally more visible. The initiative also supports the Working Paper on Sustainable History, which was endorsed by the AHA Executive Committee in September 2020, and which calls for scholars to reassess their research travel needs and where possible consider hiring remote RAs as an alternative.
  • Applications are currently open for the AHA CAL ECR Mentorship Scheme, which provides six ECRs with a stipend, the opportunity to be formally mentored, and both academic and public avenues for publication. This scheme has been running for the past few years and we are not only happy that we can offer funding for 2021, but we are working with PhD representative Joshua Black to think through new schemes of small grant funding, for PhD students and ECRs alike, in the years ahead.

Initiatives we’re working on:

  • We are working with AHA President, Prof Melanie Oppenheimer, to produce a series of monthly online seminars and workshops focusing on career development, grants and publications, and more. This will be a great way to engage with senior scholars, build networks across the country with other ECRs and HDRs, and explore different facets of academic life in a difficult climate. The series will be a major program of member activities that responds specifically to the calls in the survey for more concrete initiatives to support junior scholars.
  • Stay tuned in early 2021 as we announce a new mentorship scheme that will provide ECRs with the chance to act as a mentor to an HDR scholar. The scheme will provide ECRs with experience offering support and guidance to an emerging scholar, and the opportunity to develop their mentoring skills to take into supervisory relationships. For HDR candidates it will provide mentorship from a person who’s just been through it, who can offer advice on navigating academia in this tricky climate.
  • We’ll be harnessing the blog to continue communicating with you more information about different opportunities, non-academic career options and pathways, and life in academia from a variety of perspectives, including those highlighted by the survey responses.
  • We are already thinking about the ECR session at the next AHA Conference at UNSW in November-December 2021 – if you have ideas, do get in touch!

We are really excited to get to work in 2021, putting these plans into place and working with the AHA Executive Committee and you, our ECR community, to try and foster a more supportive and positive experience for us all. Don’t forget that you can always get in touch with us if you have any suggestions for a seminar or blog post, or if you have any questions or thoughts about ECR life more generally. Most of all, we’d like to wish you all a safe, happy, and restful holiday break, and a wonderful new year celebration. See you all in 2021!

The below breaks down the responses from the survey (all kept anonymous, of course!). There were 53 responses in total. The survey was open to AHA members who are are ECRs or are ECR-adjacent, including those nearing the end of their PhDs.

1. How do you define your current career situation?

Early ECR32.1%
Mid ECR13.2%
Late ECR7.5%
Mid-Career Researcher1.9%
Finishing PhD24.5%
Did not answer/did not specify20.7%

2. How do you define your employment situation?

Casual/Fixed Term (Academic)50.9%
Continuing (Academic)11.3%
Honorary Unpaid1.9%
Casual/Fixed Term (Non-Academic)15.1%
Unemployed17.0% (13.2% current PhD candidates)
Continuing Part-time (Non-Academic)1.9%
Casual/Fixed Term (Unspecified)1.9%

3. Do you have an institutional affiliation (including honorary)?

Prefer not to say3.8%

4. Are you currently pursuing an academic career?


5. Do you identify with/belong to any of the following groups?

Parent/Carer Responsibilities35.8%
Disability/Chronic Illness18.9%
Non-Binary/Gender Diverse5.7%
Ethnic/Religious Minority1.9%
Prefer not to say3.8%
People who identified with two or more of these groups3.8%

6. Have you attended any of the AHA conferences? If not, please indicate why, if you’d like.

Did not answer9.4%

Additional comments (Yes):

  • Yes, but high cost has prevented respondent from attending more
  • Yes, but only because it fell in school holidays
  • Yes, but as an independent scholar it was expensive and isolating
  • Yes, but it is extremely difficult due to travel and registration costs

Additional comments (No):

  • Interdisciplinary scholar with limited funds who has to choose between conferences
  • Cannot leave kids
  • Too expensive
  • COVID cancellation prevented 2020 attendance 
  • Holds limited interest for those not working on Australian history
  • New to Australia and not integrated into Australian history community

7. Have you ever read the AHA ECR blog?


8. What are the main reasons you maintain your AHA membership? Please select all that apply. 

Weekly newsletter73.6%
Prizes, awards and funding opportunities69.8%
Conference attendance54.7%
History Australia subscription39.6%
Community engagement58.5%

Additional comments:

  • Feeling part of a community
  • Solidarity
  • To support the discipline
  • To build connections in the community
  • Job information
  • A way of maintaining connection to the profession

9. What are your primary concerns, or what do you believe are the biggest issues facing ECRs at present? This could relate to the university sector broadly, individual issues such as access, mental and physical health etc – anything at all that concerns you. 

Comments included:

  • Employment precarity / lack of opportunities / lack of stable opportunities
  • Uncertainty around the sector
  • Structural shifts have produced a reliance on ECR labour with lack of compensation/benefits
  • Attacks on the humanities and on research funding
  • Mental health
  • Grant-writing
  • Career prospects, amplified by COVID
  • Low quality of life compared to PhDs who move into non-academic work
  • Lack of action from senior colleagues and institutions to improve employment precarity for ECRs / lack of understanding of the pressures and stress for ECRs
  • Not enough postdoc positions or options before the DECRA
  • Reducing access to libraries which restricts ability to research
  • Severe imposter syndrome
  • People who benefit from current system need to fight for those who don’t
  • Lack of positions for First Nations scholars/people of colour
  • Lack of solidarity from people with ongoing jobs
  • Public value of the discipline
  • Difficulties in applying for funding without first having confirmed employment
  • Academics in regional areas being overlooked

10. Do you think the AHA is doing enough to support ECRS?

Prefer not to say20.8%
Sort of/it’s complicated 1.9%
Did not answer1.9%

11. If you responded “No” above, please provide some details, if you’d like. 

Comments included:

  • AHA as an organisation is conservative and slow to act
  • Recent report on casualisation an important initiative, but has not resulted in meaningful change
  • AHA does not speak out on issues of importance to ECRs
  • Mentoring opportunities wanted
  • “Sort of” – unsure what more the AHA could do to effect change within institutions and governments, or to create more jobs
  • Feeling alone and disconnected
  • AHA fails to challenge escalating expectations of ECRs applying for jobs and grants
  • “Difficult to answer” – there is individual effort to represent ECRs, but AHA dominated by the interests of mid-career and senior academics
  • Writing or other interest groups wanted

12. What areas do you think you would most benefit from in terms of support?

Transparent and honest discussions around academic wellbeing56.6%
Community engagement and solidarity56.6%
Opportunities for CV building such as mentoring post-graduates37.7%
Advice on career development52.8%
Advice on publishing54.7%
Advice on grants and post-doc applications56.6%

13. Please share with us any thoughts you have on how we, as your ECR reps, can act in support of you. Is there anything in particular you would like to see us do or accomplish? Would you like to see us expand platforms such as the ECR blog? Anything you can think of!

  • More collaboration/building solidarity, less on building competition
  • Publishing/grant-writing workshops
  • Resurrection/expansion of the ECR blog and its established series
  • Tighter relationship between ECR and postgrad reps
  • Honest conversations about what to do with a PhD beyond the academy
  • More engagement with those who transitioned to non-academic jobs
  • ECR reps at the forefront of online conversations re precarity
  • Social functions outside of AHA conferences
  • Seminars with non-academic history PhDs

AHA-Copyright Agency Early Career Researcher Mentorship Scheme

The Australian Historical Association is delighted to announce a new award for six Early Career Researchers in history. This award supports Early Career Researcher historians to develop their professional skills. Specifically, it will link Early Career Researchers with senior historians who will mentor them in the development of new and innovative works of historical scholarship, in the form of articles that will be published in leading journals. In addition to a journal article, awardees are required to publish a short article in an outlet such as The Conversation, Australian Policy and History, ABC News Online or another online forum, in order to enhance public awareness of their work, and of innovations in the field of history. This will develop Early Career Researchers’ professional skills in relation to research ‘impact’ and communication with a wide audience, attributes that are increasingly required by those working in academic and public history. All publications will acknowledge the Copyright Agency and the Australian Historical Association.

Amount of Award

Successful applicants will receive:

  1. A stipend of $1,500 AUD;
  2. Invaluable professional mentoring in the development of articles of historical significance;
  3. The chance to enhance their professional skills and develop their networks.


  1. Awards will be given to Early Career Researchers in history within two years of the completion of their PhDs. The date of the award of the degree must not be before 1 January 2019.
  2. Applicants must be members of the Australian Historical Association.
  3. Applicants must reside in Australia. Mentors may work in a different state or country to the applicant providing a case is made for the compatibility of the mentor to the applicant and how monthly meetings will take place (e.g. via Skype).
  4. Applicants must not be employed full-time by a university or public history institution when the application is submitted.
  5. At least three of the awards will go to applicants in states other than NSW, VIC and ACT in order to avoid the traditional focus on universities and public institutions in these states.
  6. One award will go to a regional applicant.
  7. Indigenous Early Career Researchers in history are strongly encouraged apply.
  8. No gender or age criteria are applied.

Conditions of Award

  1. Six successful applicants will be awarded $1,500 to support their work on articles of historical significance.
  2. Awardees will meet with their mentors on a monthly basis for six months.
  3. Awardees will write a journal article (approximately 7,000-8,000 words) for submission to a top journal in the field. This article must be submitted to an appropriate journal before the end of the six months of the award. Applicants may propose an equivalent alternative output appropriate to their historical field and career trajectory, such as a book proposal, with the backing of their mentors.
  4. Awardees write a short (approximately 800 words) article about the contemporary implications of their research for a general readership, to be published with an online platform, such as Australian Policy and History or The Conversation. This piece must be published by Wednesday 16 June 2021.
  5. Awardees will provide a written progress report to be submitted by Wednesday 16 June 2021.
  6. Awardees will acknowledge the Copyright Agency and Australian Historical Association in publications which arise from the mentorship. Publicity for the scheme will include a description of the work of the Copyright Agency and Australian Historical Association and, where applicable, a link to their websites.
  7. Awardees must advise the Australian Historical Association when they have completed their two articles and provide copies of them.
  8. Mentors must submit a written report advising the Australian Historical Association of the completion of the scheme and the achievements of the awardee during the six months of the scheme.
  9. Mentors must not have previously supervised applicants’ research work.

Application Process

Applicants must:

  1. Complete the application form.
  2. Provide a current CV (three-page maximum).
  3. Provide a written letter of support of their application from their intended mentor. The letter should include details of the ability of the applicant to complete the proposed articles, the innovation of the proposed articles, and a description of the type of in-kind support their institution is able to provide.
  4. Send their completed application form, CV, and letter of support to Chelsea Barnett, Joel Barnes, and Anna Temby at aha.ecr@gmail.com by Friday 29 January 2021.

Allan Martin Award

Opportunities for external ECR funding are not necessarily plentiful, particularly for those of us without an ongoing affiliation at a university. That’s why the Allan Martin Award is so important, and something ECRs should definitely consider applying for! Applications for 2021 are now open and close on 1 December 2020, so if you’re thinking about applying, it’s time to get to it!

The Allan Martin Award: a research fellowship for early career historians working in the field of Australian history. It’s an award of up to $4000, for an ECR historian to assist and further their research, whether in Australia or overseas. It’s available for all ECRs (within five years of the award of their PhD), whether academic, professional, or public. A more detailed outline of the terms and conditions, eligibility, and application requirements are available here.

(Edit, 5 November 2020: Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and associated border closures, the AHA and ANU have agreed to vary the conditions for the Allan Martin Award for 2021. The usual requirement that the award fund a research trip has been waived, so that (for instance) applicants may instead propose to undertake research in lockdown conditions or hire local Research Assistants to overcome interstate and international travel restrictions.)

To give you insight into how winning the Allan Martin Award can help your research and your career development, we spoke to two past winners.

Dr Peter Hobbins Principal Historian, Artefact Heritage Services, Sydney

Twitter: @history2wheeler

Winning the Allan Martin Award helped change my practice as a historian in two major ways. Most importantly, it furthered a desire to embed my historical practice more closely in the community. Secondly–and rather unexpectedly–it dramatically boosted my media profile as a professional historian.

At the heart of my Allan Martin Award application was a simple sentence: “the primary outputs from this project will not be mine”. I felt sure that those words would be my undoing. Instead, the judges understood that my ambition was to step outside of self-interest and share my passion for the past. My goal was to encourage community historians to research and write about the “Spanish” influenza pandemic, over the centenary year of 2018-19. It meant that I did write some outputs, especially a 5000-word footnoted website and–with Alison Wishart and Georgia McWhinney–a community-focused research guide. But more to the point, the funding enabled me to work with the Royal Australian Historical Society to take a series of 3-hour workshops across regional New South Wales to encourage local history projects. This “flu roadshow” was enormous fun, and I learned a huge amount from the community practitioners I met with. They are still contacting me! It was truly inspiring to have been funded to run a project that fostered the writing of history at a grassroots level, far from universities and from large cities.

While I had planned for some media interest during the project, I hadn’t counted on Covid-19. This meant that in 2020, I have been interviewed for well over 50 television, radio and print interviews about the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, including the Australian Story episode which attracted over a million viewers and another 500,000 views on YouTube. I was also pleased to be interviewed for the episodes of the State Library’s “The Gatherings Order” podcast series. One corollary of that exposure is that I now have a regular spot presenting history topics on Sky News. At a time when we are facing massive challenges to history–and the humanities–this is a chance to remind a large audience about the value of what we do, and why.

Having now served as a judge for the Allan Martin Award, I urge all early career historians to put forward a project that not only challenges you, but rethinks what the point of our profession might be.

Dr Ruth Morgan Associate Professor at the Australian National University, and Director of the Centre for Environmental History

Twitter: @ruthamorgan

Winning the Allan Martin Award in 2016 allowed me to delve into the rich holdings of the Mitchell Library and the Daniel Solander Library at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, where I set out to examine the botanical exchanges between the Australian colonies, British India and Kew Gardens from the late eighteenth century through to the turn of the twentieth century. Having the time and means to explore these materials gave me a greater sense of the range of human actors involved in such exchanges, and the connections between them that facilitated their correspondence. What made the experience even better was being able to learn from librarians, such as the incredibly generous Miguel Garcia, and great friends Jodi Frawley and Richard Aitken, who were kind enough to share their knowledge about these botanical collections.

Having just dusted off my Allan Martin Award application, I’m struck by just how ambitious my research program was! I am currently revising an article based on the Allan Martin Award research for the Pacific Historical Review, in which I consider the proliferation of the Australian blue gum in southern India in the second half of the nineteenth century. Of course, once I was in the Mitchell Library, I was also able to dig into the other environmental exchanges between the Australian colonies and British India. As a result, archival material on the horse trade with India is informing a book chapter on the traffic in camels and horses across the Indian Ocean. I also anticipate looking more closely into the desires for South Asian labour in the Australian colonies, the demand for which became increasingly informed by ideas of climate suitability, particularly in northern Australia.

I recall only too well that when I applied for the Allan Martin Award, I was extremely anxious about my career prospects. My contract was coming to an end and I was yet to hear the outcome of two major grant applications. The Allan Martin Award offered a lifeline of sorts, because it provided the means to get my first post-PhD project off the ground and into the archives. The application process was also important on its own terms, a valuable exercise in crafting the proposal, scrutinising collections, and communicating the aims of the project to librarians and archivists. I’m extremely grateful for the support of the Allan Martin Award and hope to see more early career researchers benefit from this scheme. 

Have your say! AHA ECR Survey

Although we are your ECR ‘representatives’, we’re conscious of the fact that everyone’s ECR journey is unique and influenced by many factors. With that in mind, we’ve put together a short survey for you to fill out. We’d really like to get a sense of what is important to you, what you’re most concerned about, and what we as your incoming AHA representatives can do for you over the next two years.

You’re under no obligation to fill it out, and you can remain anonymous should you wish! But the best way to make sure that we are working in your best interests is to know what those interests are. We also welcome members who are in close proximity to ECR status, in either direction.

We’re looking forward to reading your thoughts and ideas!

Anna, Chelsea and Joel

Introducing your new Early Career Researcher representatives

As we—Chelsea, Joel, and Anna—begin our term as joint ECR representatives for the AHA Executive Committee for 2020–2022, our first move is of course to say a large and resounding thanks to our predecessor, André Brett, for his hard work and exemplary representation over the past two years. André has been a consistent voice for early career and precarious scholars in academia, and he has carried the ECRs portfolio singlehandedly over his term. In addition to being the AHA ECR rep, André’s contribution to managing the Emergency Fund for Precarious Historians is both indicative of his advocacy for ECRs and other vulnerable scholars and a sure sign he won’t be going anywhere anytime soon! We hope that we can follow in his very able footsteps. 

The most obvious change that comes with this handover is that there are now three people sharing this role. The three of us have accepted the shared responsibilities of the position with the hope that our respective geographical positions (Joel and Chelsea are in Sydney, Joel is formerly of Melbourne, and Anna is in Brisbane) can help to capture a broader range of the ECR experience (while still acknowledging that this does replicate the emphasis on the east coast). We are all also at different points of the ECR stage: Chelsea graduated in April 2016, Joel in December 2017, and Anna had her PhD conferred in March 2020 (a COVID-delayed graduation ceremony is forthcoming!). We also hope that this range in experience can help to ensure that we are hearing and meeting the needs of all ECRs, no matter which stage they are at. 

We all came to this role with different aims and goals in mind, but the similarities in our agendas speak to the broader state of the current ECR climate. We hope to build community among early career scholars, to platform the voices and experiences of our marginalised cohort—those with disabilities, carer responsibilities, and from regional institutions—and promote an atmosphere of honesty and comradery with our peers. We are all deeply concerned about the impact of employment and social precarity on ECRs, having all experienced first-hand how insecurity negatively affects mental health, research productivity, and teaching quality. We hope also to work with the Postgraduate Representative, Joshua Black, and strengthen connections with the postgraduate community within the AHA, recognising the many overlaps between postgraduate and ECR experiences and scope for mutual support.

We take up this mantle at one of the most difficult times for the discipline of history, and for higher education generally, in recent history. The announcement in June 2020 from the Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, that the Morrison government would seek to overhaul the federal funding of university courses to focus on so-called “job-relevant” fields of study, would see the cost to students of humanities courses more than double, making them more expensive than courses in medicine and veterinary science. The government’s efforts to “pick winners” in more strictly vocational fields is not supported by the data on employment outcomes, which shows slightly better rates of employment for arts and humanities graduates than for those in science, mathematics, computing and IT. The proposal overlooks that the arts and culture sector is an economic force in Australia, contributing 6.4% of GDP in 2016/17 (agriculture, in comparison, contributed 2.7% in 2018/19). The government’s plans are not just an attack on the arts and humanities, but more generally represent a retrenchment of public funding to universities, with the government contribution to teaching costs to be reduced from 58% to 48%. For the first time in decades, universities would be reliant on revenue from student fees to cover the majority of teaching expenses. These cuts and the challenges they pose to our discipline come at a time when the sector is already in crisis from the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Large-scale job losses at a number of institutions (including at UNSW, Monash, Deakin, La Trobe, RMIT, CQU and Southern Cross) are a distressing reminder that academic job security remains elusive in the current environment. We are likely to be dealing the economic fallout of the pandemic and the consequences of the political response to it for a number of years. We fully support the last AHA executive’s call for the Minister to rethink the proposed changes.

We stand as a team ready to hear your feedback, suggestions and concerns. This blog will of course remain as a resource; we aim to add new posts on an at least monthly basis, and want to address your needs and desires, so if there’s something you’d like discussed in this forum, please let us know. The AHA ECR Facebook group will kick back into action, so if you’re active on that platform we encourage you to join and engage in conversation with your representatives and colleagues. And the AHA ECR Twitter account will continue to be active, sharing resources, asking questions, offering answers. We have also established a centralised ECRs email address, aha.ecr@gmail.com, so please feel free to get in touch with us there, too. 


Get to know your new ECR representatives!

Dr Chelsea Barnett

I am a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney. I completed my PhD at Macquarie University, for which I studied the representation of masculinity in Australian films in the fifties, and which became a book in 2019 (buy it, if you feel so inclined!). Right now, I am working on a cultural history of single men in Australian popular culture. 

Twitter: @chelseambarnett

  1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A not-too-hot day spent lazily wandering around Sydney Harbour, with good people and stopping for good food, is hard to beat. The day my football team last won the premiership, all the way back in 2003, was also close to perfect (go the Panthers!). 

  1. What is your greatest extravagance?

Clothes! I love fashion and can pretty much justify any purchase. 

  1. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

In my academic writing, it’s “indeed.” 

  1. Where would you most like to live?

I do love living in Sydney! If I had to pick another city outside Australia, though, it’d be London. 

  1. What is your motto?

When I was doing my HSC years ago, a particularly apt horoscope said the following: “Wishing on stars is wonderful, but there’s also nothing like a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach to daunting tasks.” I still refer to it today. (The shorter version is Amelia Earhart’s line, “The most effective way to do it, is to do it.”)

Dr Joel Barnes

I am a Research Associate and tutor in the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney. I’m currently working on a project examining the history of humanities institutions in Australia since 1945; my part of the larger project involves looking at the history of universities, at the types of humanities knowledge they have supported and fostered. I’m generally interested in histories of ideas, knowledge and institutions. I completed my undergraduate studies at Monash (longer ago than I care to recall!), and my PhD at Melbourne in 2017.

Twitter: @joelgbarnes

  1. Which talent would you most like to have?

I’d like to be much better at languages than I am. I’m always impressed by those who had good language training at a young age, and so can pick up new ones seemingly effortlessly.

  1. Where would you most like to live?

I grew up in Melbourne and have lived in London, Wellington and now Sydney. Still figuring that out, I guess.

  1. What is your most treasured possession?

I still have world globe that my parents bought me when I was about four. It’s now quite a period piece, with Germany divided, and the USSR and Yugoslavia still intact.

  1. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

I think we’ve all got weird writing tics. One of mine is to overuse “particular” and “particularly”. I’m in a constant process of training myself out of that.

  1. On what occasion do you lie? 

Never. *Raises eyebrows*

Dr Anna Temby

I’m a terrified, recent graduate from the University of Queensland, currently running the gauntlet of casual teaching/catching up on all the things I “should have” done/published during my PhD (to varying degrees of success), and trying desperately not to cry whilst comparing myself to all my amazing peers. I am an urban historian with a particular interest in municipalism, public space, and the nebulous concept of “public order.” I’m also expecting my first kid in December and have really enjoyed the rollercoaster of advice from “you’re destroying your career” to “well you weren’t going to get work in this climate anyway, so good timing!”

Twitter: @AnnaTemby

  1. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

My absolute inability to accept praise. 

  1. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Productivity. We’ve somehow managed to conflate productivity with “usefulness” in a way that is damaging to us all. Having a “work ethic” shouldn’t mean never putting your wellbeing first. 

  1. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“Just quietly.” “Not gonna lie.” “I don’t accept the premise.” “Uggggghhhhhhhh.”

  1. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

My cat, for sure. No bills, no job…she sleeps the sleep of the unoppressed—deeply. 

  1. What is your motto?

You do you, boo. 

Against Oblivion: Producing Pasts in Precarious Times

Today, History Australia has published a forum entitled “Doing History in Urgent Times”, guest edited by Yves Rees and Ben Huf (Yves has written for this blog before, most recently here). This forum was meant to be accompanied by a roundtable discussion at the Australian Historical Association’s 2020 conference, but that has been cancelled on account of the covid-19 pandemic. Michelle Arrow, one of History Australia’s editors, has organised an alternative: a series of blog posts responding to the forum. You can read the forum here—it is free for the next month—and the AHA ECR blog is very proud to host the first response by two ECRs affiliated with the University of Melbourne: Shan Windscript and Jimmy Y.

S Windscript FqtW1_RM_400x400

Shan Windscript, PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne in modern Chinese cultural and political history.

As we reflect on the state of academic precarity in the COVID-19 pandemic, the position of graduate and early career historians within the university remains increasingly tenuous. In Australia, as elsewhere, universities are rolling out COVID austerity measures, using the pandemic as the latest pretext for cuts to wages, conditions, and research positions. Precarious staff and graduate students, having long been the invisible backbone of the university, now face protracted unemployment. Our prospects for securing even casual contracts, let alone entering academia, are rapidly fading. Many of us have, in our double life as sessional tutors, now taught the last classes of our careers. Not everyone will make it to the end.

There has never been a more urgent time for historians to reckon with precarity in the neoliberal university. Yves Rees and Ben Huf’s newly-published article in History Australia, “Training Historians in Urgent Times,” offers a timely intervention on the possibilities for challenging academic precarity at the level of postgraduate history pedagogy. Drawing on Nicholas Bourriard’s relational aesthetics, Rees and Huf argue for the making of “micro-utopian” spaces as a means to “prefigure better academic worlds in the here and now” (21). Built around the principles of “inclusivity, collegiality, interdisciplinary and public mindedness,” these prefigurative micro-utopias can, as Rees and Huf argue, provide localised, everyday spaces of refuge from the effects of pervasive precarity. And within these temporary structures of care, new cultural narratives can emerge as new “historical storytellers” are cultivated and nurtured (7).

As precarious historians nearing the end of our PhD candidatures, we welcome Rees and Huf’s article. Yet these viral times have thrown up new questions about the capacity for prefigurative spaces to generate the collective political power needed for challenging a university sector reliant on precarity. In this response, we argue for the possibility of “solidarity in precarity” grounded in a contestation of power from the bottom up.

Multiple precarities 

J Yan zMuWc-Ua_400x400

Jimmy Y, PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, researching the transnational and imperial dimensions of the Irish revolutionary period of 1916–23.

PhD students who begin their candidatures with aspirations of entering academia sooner or later become “experts of precarity”. Most, and particularly those without stipends, spend the next few years struggling below the poverty line while trying to satisfy pressures for “timely completion.” To survive financially while continuing their research, they rely on periodic income from casual and fixed-term employment, taking whatever they can to pay their bills. Within the university sector, this often means shouldering mountains of unpaid labour hidden beneath an ostensibly attractive hourly rate. And such harsh conditions are further compounded for graduate researchers who experience discrimination, bullying, and sexual harassment in a sector well-known for its toxic workplace culture.

If, as Judith Butler holds, precarity is a condition constituted within a proximity to vulnerability, academic precarity particularly affects groups already made vulnerable on multiple other levels (Butler, 2009, p. 25). For women and racialised people, migrants, queer and trans people, people with disabilities, and Indigenous people, staying in academia means facing not only economic insecurity but also the day-to-day emotional, social, and physical challenges engendered by interconnected systems of violence. Tellingly, many Australian universities offer no Indigenous history courses.

At some point, usually in the dark hours before mental breakdown, many graduate students invariably confront the twin questions of “Why can’t I finish my thesis?” and “Why am I still poor”? This persistent anxiety over a future that may never come, a condition decades in the making, is now the norm. While some senior staff have characterised precarity as a baptism of fire, any ECR can testify that this condition in no sense disappears at the PhD finishing line.

The coronavirus crisis has exacerbated every facet of postgraduate precarity. As universities prioritise budgetary restraint, many students have suffered through the crisis without adequate support. At the University of Melbourne, postgraduate students have repeatedly been told to keep up with deadlines or restructure their research plans in the absence of universal extensions. International graduate students are particularly vulnerable after having been told by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to “go home.” Many have, without access to the government’s coronavirus relief packages, been left in financial and housing limbo. Australian universities have offered them little more than good wishes.

Yet, in the face of a persistent onslaught over decades against the democratic university, an alternative future feels increasingly unimaginable. Precarity, as the dominant condition of our time, collides with a sense of political fatalism and temporal contraction. As Enzo Traverso poignantly argues, the twenty-first century is a melancholic world of ruins where “concrete utopias of collective emancipation” have all but collapsed (2016: 7). It is now, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the neoliberal university.

Against this backdrop, Rees and Huf’s proposal for “building and participating in micro-utopias” as a pedagogical challenge to precarity represents a timely attempt to enact “the possibility of the world being otherwise” in the everyday’s “here and now” (20). Yet, as personal, professional, and disciplinary futures rapidly disappear alongside the contraction of history departments, the possibilities for such micro-utopias are themselves increasingly precarious.

Urgent history blog entry image 100763941_103551768052751_9087632202509844480_oAgonistic worldmaking

The neoliberal university is not insurmountable, and precarious subjects are not passive victims. As managements everywhere prepare to impose austerity, there has been an upsurge in grassroots activism led by insecure workers and students against cuts to jobs and conditions worldwide. Many salaried and precarious academics, including in Australia, have responded to the crisis by organising mutual aid programs for vulnerable colleagues.

More conventional forms of collective power and organising, including grassroots unionism, remain effective avenues for contesting precarity. By bringing precarious university staff together, union meetings provide spaces to speak openly about conditions, to vent concerns, and to articulate new forms of solidarity. At the University of Melbourne, the NTEU Casual and Sessional Staff Network, formed in 2018 and led by rank-and-file union members, has mobilised hundreds of casual workers and graduate students around campaigns for pay and conditions. Far from powerless and atomised, casuals have shown that small victories, such as over marking back-pay for tutors, are entirely attainable. Similar networks have mushroomed across the country, despite and against appeals by the NTEU national leadership to trade away jobs and working conditions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Postgraduate students, all but forgotten by their universities during the pandemic, have also found a sense of power in their shared precarity. At the University of Melbourne, PhD students, many of whom are also casualised workers, have been working closely with student and staff unions to fight for 6-month universal extensions. Their open letter has received over 600 (and counting) signatures, including from 80 supervisors, sparking similar campaign initiatives at other campuses across the country.

Solidarities forged ‘within’ precarity can facilitate the dissolution of supposed divisions between graduate students, casual academics and ongoing university staff. Although such solidarities are by no means automatic, the conditions of casual staff and the workloads of ongoing staff are far from counterposed. Staff at RMIT, the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne have recently passed “solidarity pledges” against the re-allocation of work from casuals to already overworked permanent staff. And casuals, graduate students, fixed-term staff, stood-down workers, and permanent staff spearheaded a successful “Vote No” campaign that defeated the University Vice Chancellor’s proposed variation of Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.

This revival of grassroots organising has brought together and consolidated an assemblage of precarious subjects ready to fight. Our prospects for arresting the downward spiral of the neoliberal university are tied to forms of collective power engendered not in spite of, but because of, our precarity. If Rees and Huf propose a praxis of prefigurative worldmaking, the realisation of these post-neoliberal futures is contingent upon taking back the university “from below” through a contestation of power. Perhaps what we need is agonistic worldmaking.

Conclusion: Precarious Utopias

Utopia is, as Thomas More envisaged, a non-existent place constituted within a lack in the present. Perhaps we are, within our precarious subject-positions, speaking from a location of non-being. There is, as it stands, no “tomorrow.”

As producers of the past in a precarious present, we need to (re)politicize the future as a horizon of collective possibility. Our predicament calls not for a retreat from “the political,” but for a continued de-naturalisation of given historical categories. As statues fall and sea levels rise, we have a responsibility to foreground narratives systematically excluded from the neoliberal university and its narrowing intellectual boundaries. We have already seen that the shrinking of the humanities threatens to close off the possibility for the emergence of these urgent critical historiographies.

What might new histories in these precarious and insurgent times look like? Perhaps our historical narratives themselves will become more precarious. Histories of fractured subjectivities and difference are as crucial at this moment as the more conventional concerns of identity and belonging.

Our utopias lie not within any optimism for the institution as it exists, but within a contestation of its terms. A challenge to insecure work and casualisation through new forms of collective power is well within the realms of possibility. Such contestations may allow us to generate transformative visions of postgraduate history training from within the ruins of the corporate university.


Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, London: Verso, 2009

Traverso, Enzo. Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History and Memory, New York: Columbia University Press, 2016

Rees, Yves and Ben Huf, ‘Training Historians in Urgent Times’, History Australia 17:2 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1080/14490854.2020.1758578

We would like to thank Max Kaiser for reading through a draft of this blog post and providing helpful feedback .

Shan Windscript is a final-stage PhD candidate in History at the University of Melbourne. Her thesis examines unpublished personal diaries written in the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76) – a period marked by widespread violence and popular political activism. Her research interests lie in modern Chinese cultural and political history, in particular the relationship between personal writing, revolutionary subject formation, and state formation. Her most recent article was published in January 2020 in Modern China, titled, “How to Write a Diary in Mao’s New China: Guidebooks in the Crafting of Socialist Subjectivities.”

Jimmy Y is a PhD candidate in History researching the transnational and imperial dimensions of the Irish revolutionary period of 1916–1923. His thesis examines the cultural translation of ‘Ireland’, radical political networks, and settler-colonial imaginaries in Australia during and after the Great War. His research has appeared in the Australasian Journal of Irish Studies, Labour History, and on the Irish public broadcaster RTE’s ‘Century Ireland’ page. Last year, he was the Seymour Summer Scholar at the National Library of Australia.

Why I’m choosing to leave academia

Today’s entry is by Tamara Cooper. You might remember her from a previous blog entry on chronic illness and research. Even before the covid-19 pandemic began, Tamara considered the nature of work within the higher education sector and decided to pursue a career elsewhere. In this entry, she explains why—and emphasises that we need to think in different and healthier ways about the employment options and career goals of higher degree research students.

T Cooper Profile Picture

Tamara Cooper.

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the future of the academy and the job prospects of current PhD students and recent graduates. Blog posts like @thesiswhisperer’s glorious anger at the need to reform the PhD and the academy, and @colourful_hist’s eloquent expression of the disruptive effect of the pandemic on career plans have been making the rounds. I have also seen numerous twitter posts wondering if now is the time to jump ship to other sectors such as education. About halfway through last year I made that exact decision, to re-train as high school teacher, and it seems like a good time to reflect on the reasons why.

Firstly, and I must stress this, I made this decision pre-pandemic, COVID-19 did not exist. I made the decision because I saw the university sector becoming more and more casualised, I was hearing stories of people spending ten years plus on casual contracts before landing a permanent job. I decided I didn’t want to do that, I was sick of being poor, I was sick of having to lean on my parents for financial support (though eternally grateful that I had that option). I had done the casual thing for years in retail and I didn’t want to go back. So, I made the decision to train as a high school teacher, I liked teaching and it seemed like a good fit for my personality.

At this point it would be best to tell you that when I left high school, teaching was always the plan. I took the advice of my godfather who was also a trained teacher. He told me to do my bachelor’s degree first, really get to know my teaching areas, and then complete my Graduate Diploma of Education. So that’s what I set out to do. But than I did my honours year, then I, out of curiosity, applied for some PhD programs and, to my surprise, won a scholarship to complete my PhD. At this point it seemed that I was bound for a career in the academy.

However, after a slightly traumatic run up to the end of thesis, I still shudder thinking about it, I started to wonder if I really wanted to stay in the academy. There seemed to be something toxic about the attitude to work, the style of work didn’t suit my personality, and I wasn’t enjoying it. Now don’t get me wrong, I love research and I love writing about history, but the metrics around how to do that in the academy seemed, to me, to sap the enjoyment out of it. That, coupled with increasing precarity, meant it just didn’t seem worth the effort to break into the industry. So, I made the decision to go back to the original plan, though I think I was the only one surprised by this decision. When I told my mum she just gave me that smug all-knowing look that mums do so well, and dad just nodded his head.

While I understand that training to become a high school teacher is not everyone’s cup of tea, I think there is merit in considering industries and sectors outside of universities for potential careers post PhD. There seems to be this prevailing idea that pursuing a career outside of the academy means you failed, or you somehow couldn’t hack it. Indeed, for some time I kept my decision quiet because of that reason; while I don’t agree with the idea, I simply didn’t have the energy to argue the point. Keeping quiet seemed like the least exhausting option. However, this thinking is ludicrous. We know that universities produce way more PhDs than there are positions for, even without all the challenges facing the industry. Yet, we continue to berate and downplay the achievements of those who seek careers outside the academy, we even call their career paths ‘alt ac’, like the academy is the only ‘real’ option.

I have heard of academic historians that look down on history teachers as not real historians, they deride academically trained historians who become teachers, but then turn around and complain that high school students are not being taught history properly. That old myths of history are being perpetuated within the school system, yet, they still refuse to engage with the system. It is the same logic that sees academic historians complain about the inaccuracies of popular histories while at the same deriding the efforts of historians who try engage with popular audiences. That said, the ability of historians to engage with popular history is hampered by a metric system that privileges elite journals over popular outputs while still insisting on public outreach (a rant for another time). However, I digress; my point is that we cannot continue to maintain this snobbery over the careers of PhDs.

While I recognise that I have only been involved in the education sector as a student, I have noticed a distinct lack of the competition that seems to colour the academic industry. In the lead up to making this decision I reached out to a couple of old friends who were teachers to discuss the day-to-day realities of being a high school teacher. They could not have been more helpful: they discussed the realities of their jobs, answered my somewhat stupid questions, and were all willing to help me with resources. My fellow education students in my classes are willing to share resources and help answer questions; there seems to be a sense of collegiality, despite the fact we are all going into the job market together. Don’t get me wrong, I have met some very nice and incredibly supportive people in academia, and have been incredibly privileged to have excellent mentors, but the conversations and interactions were always tinged by the fact everyone was competing for same amount of scarce jobs with very similar CVs.

The other thing I have noticed about the education sector, is the growing awareness of the fact that teaching is a JOB. It is something you do that pays the bills. Yes, it does attract a certain type of personality giving it the feel of a vocation and you may enjoy it a lot, but it is a JOB. In one memorable podcast I listened to for an education subject, the lecturer was discussing time management as being one of the biggest challenges for beginner teachers. She emphasised the importance of scheduling time in for relaxation, the importance of having time for yourself, and that by living and breathing the job you won’t be a better teacher. In fact, you will burn out, and you and your students will suffer. I have never seen this attitude in academia. There has always been this underlying attitude that you need to be constantly working to be a success, that taking time out is detrimental to your career. This seems contradictory and weird when you consider the wellness trends currently rife in academia.

And I know the education sector isn’t perfect. I too have read the reports about overworked teachers who are underpaid and not at all appreciated. People have told me the horror stories of the marking that teachers do. I do wonder if they have seen the marking I have to do as a casual tutor at universities; I wager it’s probably the same. But to me it comes down to this, life is full of stress, that’s the twenty-first century, you have to choose the stress that suits you. I know this the stress of academia does not suit me.

There is much more I could say on this topic. Before I made the decision, I did a lot of research on the topic, including job opportunities, wages, growth of industry etc, however, this is already longer than I planned so I will end on this note. I’m not trying to say we should all jump ship and become high school teachers, it’s not for everyone. However, neither is academia. We should be making decisions based on what is best for ourselves and the lives we want. The academy is in dire need of a shake up and it is exhausting to be searching for a job and financial security during this time. If you decide that you don’t want that exhaustion in your life, then so be it. There are plenty of viable and credible careers out there for PhD graduates. If you decide to jump ship you haven’t failed. It isn’t a sign you couldn’t hack it. You simply decided that you wanted something different in life. If you do stick it out on the casual contracts for years and then finally land the permanent job, good for you! I’m ecstatic for you. However, those who stay in academia don’t have more stamina than those who leave, and those who leave aren’t smarter for getting out. The only thing happening here is that people have made different choices, there should be no hierarchy of validity.

Q&A on “You Matter”, the AHA’s casualisation survey

Today I would like to welcome Romain Fathi and Lyndon Megarrity to the AHA ECR blog. Lyndon and Romain compiled the report You Matter: The Australian Historical Association’s Casualisation Survey, which was released last November. We’ve been meaning to sit down for a chat for a while, and I must confess it has been mainly my fault for the delay, but the upside is that the report could scarcely be more topical right now.

If you want to read the full report, please view it here.

N.B. This interview reflects the opinions and perspectives of Romain Fathi and Lyndon Megarrity regarding casualisation in the history profession, based on questions framed by André Brett. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Historical Association.

Romain FATHI - Copy2

Dr Romain Fathi (Flinders University)

Let’s cut directly to the chase. One respondent to the survey, who you quoted in your report, wrote “Our university is currently experiencing broad curriculum changes that are sudden and brutal, taking even the academics by surprise. When such restructuring occurs, casual staff and prospective students hoping to obtain scholarships are the first to be struck off the list as the money dries up” (p.23). Little could they have imagined the situation that the entire higher education sector finds itself in as a result of COVID-19 and the federal government’s refusal to allow public universities to access the JobKeeper scheme. What does this crisis mean for ECRs? How can they be expected to survive?

Romain: ECRs are certainly the most vulnerable in this context. They no longer have a PhD scholarship and a contract to protect them. Given the current restrictions, they can’t travel to conferences to present their work, network and become better known, they have little institutional support and perhaps not many “left over” copies of archival documents from past research trips that would enable them to sit down and write while the storm passes. In the best of times casual academic work is a precarious condition that Covid is making even worse, as universities brace themselves for significant revenue shortfalls that may or may not last. I’m afraid this isn’t a positive story for casuals in academia (or elsewhere) and I believe that like other Australians they should have been part of the JobKeeper program.

In fact, beyond everybody’s good health, I have two concerns with the sector’s response to Covid. First, as a non-native, I am surprised by the attitude of the Australian Government toward the education system: it appears to have a kind of ‘tall poppy syndrome’ that is unhelpful. Education is a major resource for any nation, let alone for top-ranking OECD nations who need a highly educated population to further enhance their development. Coal will run out eventually and brains – or their lack thereof – is an asset that will remain. They might as well be strong ones, well-educated, well-informed and, dare I say, independent. Therefore, the argument that a government shouldn’t come to the rescue to one of the nation’s most important resources is beyond my understanding. As a historian, however, I can see that this shift isn’t new and that it is underpinned by a financial approach to education that several governments, left and right, have encouraged in the last four decades. My second concern is that some business-oriented universities may use this crisis to impose strategies that might succeed in attracting more dollars to the coffers momentarily but will significantly downgrade the quality and content of the education received. Tertiary education should be our most prized and valued institution, a public good worth cherishing. Petition your MP, our votes count.

Lyndon: The impact of COVID-19 on the university sector and the ECR employment situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. Those are the hard facts of the situation and I wish that I was in a position to offer more hope and guidance. However, at some point, and it may be sooner than we imagine, there will be an improvement in job prospects for ECRs. It is at this very moment that the ECR and the job selection panel will have to meet each other half-way. The ECR must continue publishing and researching during this difficult period, but job selection panels also need to take into account the academic disruptions of COVID-19 when considering the skills and attributes of ECR applicants.

Megarrity LTM B&W

Dr Lyndon Megarrity (James Cook University)

We will return further to the COVID-19 crisis during our chat. Let’s talk a bit about preparing your report. Did any responses to the survey surprise or even shock you?

Lyndon: No. The survey mainly confirmed what I already know, partly through my own personal experiences of casualisation. The relative invisibility of casual academics compared to permanent academics, the lack of status within the profession regardless of years of casual teaching and research, and the precarity of casual work are themes which are familiar to most of us in this position.  I was not so much shocked but inspired by the resilience and continued enthusiasm of our survey participants for their chosen field.

Romain: As with Lyndon, sadly the responses neither surprised nor shocked me. I’ve been there myself and the worst part (I felt) was the isolation of not being able to speak your mind. If you criticise things too much (even if things are wrong) then work relationships may suffer and academic opportunities may vanish. So it’s like being stuck between a rock and a hard place where you can’t complain, which is all the more alienating as you may end up thinking that something is wrong with you. The level of resilience one can observe in the answers provided by participants to the survey is admirable. It is also saddening, because a nation should not treat those among its most educated citizens this way. Beyond the human aspect, from a purely economic point of view it’s not rational to train someone for 20+ years and let an industry casualise them. Some respondents had positive stories, for sure, others heartbreaking, but overall, the survey presented a fairly sombre picture. And that’s disheartening because we deserve better and we can afford to do better for casuals. What shocked me in fact wasn’t the type of responses to the survey but the level of relative indifference (beyond casuals themselves and the AHA) once the report was released.

Is there anything that, in hindsight, you wish you’d asked?

Lyndon: It was a fairly comprehensive survey, which covered a large range of economic, social and cultural issues surrounding casualisation. If it was being conducted today, the impact of COVID-19 would probably be the focus of some questions relating to employment options. However, what I am pleased with is the extent to which over 150 casual staff expressed their views, shared their experiences, and offered suggestions for improvement.

Romain: The survey’s questions were discussed at exec level and every member made useful suggestions. Of course, retrospectively, you always wish you had asked such and such questions. But we had to be mindful as well: casuals are asked to do so many things for free – subjecting them to a very long survey would have been dishonest, eating up more of their time. Some certainly wrote well over a page of comments. I wish we had asked them about the impact of casualisation within their family and social lives, and if they felt understood by others, non-academics in particular.

Another “in hindsight” question. Writing these reports is always an exercise in selection, so is there a topic or theme you wish you had emphasised more? Are there any points that missed the final cut that you’d like to share? Any great quotes from respondents that you simply could not fit?

Lyndon: One piece of advice from a participant that didn’t make the cut was the notion that one should “Live in a large city with several universities rather than a provincial town with only one university”. This is a legitimate perspective, because those lucky enough to live in capital cities have greater potential to secure contracts at multiple universities. But Australia is a large country, and moving from the regions to the cities is not easy unless you have secured employment first. Furthermore, the students from regional areas who want to learn a range of history subjects, and research regional themes, deserve to have those opportunities. Convincing business-oriented universities of that argument is an important task for the profession in general.

Romain: I believe Lyndon and I tried to provide a digestible synthesis that covered most (if not all) aspects of what respondents had discussed. Of course, we had to present the view of the majority and find a way to present it – just like the work of the historian, this selection can’t be perfect. But we did it with honesty and tried to present divergent views on some matters when they were expressed. You know, presenting the information in a “some said… while others said… but in general terms, the picture is…” kind of narrative format. Providing a broad picture of the casualisation experience was important and the quantitative part of the survey allowed for this to happen. One thing we had to be mindful of was protecting people’s identity – some respondents went into a lot of personal/situational details and it’s a small world. Sharing too personal a story could have, inadvertently, revealed someone’s identity, so we paid attention to that.

There are sometimes tensions between casual historians and their securely employed colleagues, with claims that each does not understand the conditions under which the other group labours. Is this fair? How can we ensure solidarity among historians to build better communities and workplaces for everyone?

Lyndon: I think our report indicates that casual and permanent academics are so far apart in terms of their conditions and status that misunderstandings and tensions are bound to occur sometimes, unfortunately. An egalitarian environment, in which casual, academic and admin staff gather together socially, at least for weekly morning tea, is a step towards building better communities and workplaces. Some of the older hands will “hold court”, of course, but morning tea (perhaps attached to a regular seminar series) can also become a forum where the achievements and work of casual academics are acknowledged formally and informally. A culture in which the teaching and research expertise of casual academics is valued should be fostered.

Romain: Some casuals said they felt truly supported by permanent staff and others, not so much. This is a space which clearly wasn’t black or white and very much depended on peoples’ situations. What is clear, however, is that permanent staff can make things better if they wish to, by making sure that casuals are paid for what they do and treated as well as possible, as well as being included in meetings or being provided with a desk/office.

This report and its recommendations are a positive step in the AHA’s advocacy for its casual members. But what, realistically, can an association like the AHA achieve? Is advocacy enough? How can we gain meaningful action on the recommendations?

Romain: The AHA is an association that doesn’t have coercive powers. It also has an executive with a healthy variety of views. I feel that this fight is far from over and I do encourage casuals and ECRs to run for election, be part of the AHA executive and create change, little by little. Lyndon and I will be putting to the vote a motion at the next AGM to reduce the membership rate of casuals of 15%. We hope that the next Executive will continue to work with historians in casual positions to ensure cheaper access to the conference as well.

A perennial source of complaint from casual and postgraduate members is the cost of conferences and memberships in Australia, a complaint not confined to the AHA. Are these complaints reasonable? Why are costs so high, and can they be reduced?

Lyndon: Membership rates reflect the large range of activities and goals pursued by the AHA, including the journal and support for conferences. Conferences are expensive to run and cater, and the conference dinner costs reflect the desire of the restaurant or caterer to make a profit on a three-course meal for, say, 80-120 delegates. I think we can acknowledge that while these various fees may be reasonable for full-time academics, they are less affordable to casual academics. In terms of conferences, I think it is important for conference convenors to consider ways of making AHA conferences more accessible and inclusive for casuals, and it is certainly an issue I intend to pursue if re-elected as a member of the committee.

Let’s now talk about the broader sector—what should universities be doing to ensure we do not have an entire lost generation of scholars?

Lyndon: A number of things come to mind. After a few  years of teaching and/or publication, casual historians should generally be given the status of adjunct lecturers. Not only that, but such adjunct lecturers should be given the capacity and support to apply for small grants. Too much emphasis is placed on large expensive ARC projects: more money should be spread wider among the historical profession to encourage individual research, especially among casuals. Universities also need to invest further in the publication process (e.g. subsidies to university-based publishers) to ensure that good research among ECRs and Mid-Career academics gets published and recognised. Finally, universities must recognise that the concept of “subject-cutting” is a self-defeating form of cost-cutting: amalgamating a large number of subjects into a small number of broad, hurried overviews is a recipe for fewer students, less scholarship and less employment for the next generation of historians.

Beyond the Covid-19 crisis, talking generally, are universities shirking their responsibilities to casuals?

Romain: Well that’s part of the problem and why universities use casuals: to have limited contractual obligations toward them. One avenue is to work on the terms of the contracts at University level, imposing better practices through the Enterprise Agreement of each institution. The survey has enabled me to see that things change here as well. Little by little, university by university. These improvements range from better rates for marking and teaching to conversion of repeated casual contracts to permanent positions. Advocacy and seeking representation are working. Slowly, but it is working. Historians know that social change takes time, but it’s no reason to be standing by.

Some of the advice in the recent blog post on job interviews emphasised that applicants need to explain why they want a particular job. Selection committees are well justified in making sure that an applicant will be an engaged colleague who is pleasant to work with. The reality for casuals, however, is that jobs are so scarce that many talented people will take any job to pay the bills, and they will make great colleagues. Nobody is holding out for the perfect dream job—we do not have the sort of job market where people can pick and choose where to apply. Do selection committees need to be more realistic about the context of their applicants?

Lyndon: I think that the selection criteria for academic jobs need to be rethought: the expectations for “leadership”, “publication in leading journals” and “innovative teaching” are such that many casual staff are unable to compete because their contracts do not allow them to develop those skills compared to long-term permanent staff. The pressure on PhD students to publish and teach well before they have submitted is becoming pedagogically problematic: the postgrad’s focus should be on learning and growing through developing the best academic thesis they can. The quality of the resulting thesis should guide employment and postdoc opportunities more that the quantity of publications, in my view.

A lot of recommendations for casuals suggest the importance of building community—not just for advocacy, but for mental health, connections, and sociability. Your recommendation 9(iii) suggests this. Many casuals, however, are already working lengthy hours for inadequate payment, trying to advance their own (unpaid) research, and have significant other responsibilities such as childcare or barriers such as disability. These networks can be great means of support, but they require even more unpaid hours and energy. Is a solution truly a solution if it just asks casuals to find even more hours in the day to add another commitment? How do we save casuals from burnout?

Romain: I think there’s no definitive answer for that one and this very much depends on peoples’ preferences. Networks, while they take time, are worth building. There is immense comfort in knowing that you can turn to several colleagues that genuinely care about you, your research and how you are going. Finding out who these people are and nourishing these relationships is so important – perhaps not so much for the career but to feel good about one’s community, feel engaged with the discipline and getting honest feedback or support. There are colleagues that have become friends and that I could call virtually any time to talk about anything and they really make my academic world a better place. But again, everyone is different and while I enjoy being part of a community of historians, some people prefer finding a community outside of their workplace.

Time to be frank: how long should casuals stick it out? Do you think there is a general rule of thumb? I ask this question not to suggest that it’s a failure to choose a non-academic career path—it quite obviously is not, and some graduates have no intention to enter academia or they find an academic career not to their liking. But, for many, it is the goal, and it is what they have trained to do. No amount of extolling other career paths can change the fact that they might consider it a failure to leave academia. What do you say to these people?

Lyndon: There is a difference between leaving a physical institution of employment (i.e. the university) and leaving academia. Many independent scholars are able to do good solid historical work outside the system through books, journal articles and other means. If you have fire in the belly and have something to say, you will find an audience for your work.

Romain: The survey suggested that the majority of respondents did not continue in casual academic work after three years post conferral. That’s what the data clearly showed. But data doesn’t talk and unfortunately the reason “why” is unclear because this wasn’t one of our survey questions: the finding was an observation based on respondents’ year of PhD conferral versus the number of years during which they have been a casual. After 3 years, there is a significant drop. I suppose that after several years, it becomes financially untenable to remain a casual in the academic sector. But I can only speculate. Some will get a full-time job or a postdoc in academia but those are the minority. You asked us to be frank so I’ll try to be just that. A PhD isn’t a thesis anymore, whether we like it or not. If you haven’t published articles in top journals, been to conferences, networked, taught, organised one or more conferences and done “all the things” by the time your PhD is conferred, your prospects may be limited, even more so if you are an international candidate because your Confirmation or Enrolment expires when you hand in your (unexamined) thesis, so you are no longer invited to stay in Australia. So in many ways, honest conversations about academic jobs need to happen from Day 1 into the PhD program and here academics have a role to play.  Most graduates with a PhD in history will end up in other sectors of the economy, and a good deal actually choose this and live a happy professional life.

I think it would be interesting to conduct a a “5-year post PhD” survey to see what people do after a PhD in History, where they live, if they use the skills they refined during their candidature, if they are happy with their non-academic job, how much they earn etc. I suppose – at least from what I have been able to observe around me – that the majority don’t stick around academia and settle for a stable job where their skills are valued. In this sense, the picture is perhaps less dark than we think. But for those who remain in the game, the pressure is there because it’s like gambling: the more you have invested, the harder it becomes to turn away from the card table. Overall, I recommend to any casual (and PhD candidates at an early stage of their candidature) to fully read our report and make that assessment for themselves, as there is enough data and views expressed within it for everyone to weigh up for how long they should pursue in the sector post PhD conferral.

We’ve talked a lot about the position of casuals and the challenges they face, but are all of our proposals and schemes really a desperate dance around the obvious—the only real solution for casuals is meaningful job security?

Romain: Yes it is. But it may have to be in another sector. There is a finite number of students per year, one has to be realistic. The major issue shown in our report is the way casualisation has become systemic rather than a positive variable of adjustment for each party. By this I mean that the experience of being a casual worker can offer benefits (training, money, flexibility – often something pointed out by the “newest” casuals in the survey) but when it becomes the only prospect, the negatives accumulate, as also pointed out by the respondents. Clearly, where there is proven recurrent work, casual positions ought to be converted to full-time positions. Overall though, if one looks at the amount of PhD graduates coming out of Australian universities, it is clear that there isn’t an academic position for each of these graduates and that seems to be the norm in other countries too. And this is why I believe that universities ought to develop a responsibility toward their PhD candidates: right from the get-go they should tell them that the likelihood of securing a permanent academic position is very, very thin. They may be scared to say that because they need PhD recruits to receive funding, but I think that’s an excuse not to actually address the issue and train PhD candidates for alternative careers.

Lyndon: In an ideal world, I would agree that meaningful job security is the solution to the problem of casualisation. Unfortunately, in the real world, it is clear that until politicians and more university leaders value the cultural and social benefits of social science and the arts, casuals in these areas will be the first to go and the last to be rehired in difficult economic times. Gaining wider awareness of casual circumstances, alleviating hardship, and celebrating academic achievements are all important elements of improving the plight of casual academics.

Romain: Graduates with a PhD in history have valuable skill that many workplaces look for: research skills, project management skills, organising skills, writing and presentation skills, interpersonal skills, resilience, etc. In other words, they are highly employable. Yet, at the end of the PhD, or even as an ECR, it seems that many find themselves wondering whether they are going to have a job at all – this wouldn’t provoke such fear of the unknown if graduate schools were providing professional training and preparing PhD candidates for post PhD life. Some of them are starting to do this, so here as well, change is coming.

So, you’re supervising your first research student…

Last week, the blog featured a selection of tips for approaching academic job interviews. This week, it’s time for some advice relevant to a different career stage: supervising your first research student. You’ve got the job, but how do you oversee an honours or higher degree research (HDR) candidate well? Many people simply draw on what they liked or disliked of their own supervisors, or on a few tips exchanged in hallway conversations—or learn by experience. Let’s demystify the experience a bit!

As with the previous entry, I must emphasise that I received these comments just before the COVID-19 pandemic made itself felt in Australian higher education. Right now, even the most experienced supervisors are navigating a very new supervisory environment. So, please keep that in mind. I received comment from the same five generous historians who contributed to last week’s entry—plus I roped in one more! Let’s start with her.

Vera Mackie (Senior Professor, University of Wollongong)

The key to a successful honours or HDR thesis is working constantly and consistently over the period of candidature. I always meet with my honours/HDR students once a fortnight (except when one of us is away on fieldwork or conference leave). We can supplement face-to-face meetings with e-mail, telephone or skype when needed. I have no strong feelings about whether to meet in an office, coffee shop or other place. The advantage of meeting in my office is that I have various resources close to hand on my bookshelves.

Once we have established the rhythm of our working relationship, I expect students to provide something in writing before each meeting. In the early days, this might just be notes on what they have been reading, dot points, a draft outline of a chapter or an abstract for an upcoming conference presentation. Once they start writing up, though, they will send me draft sections of chapters. I encourage them to think of these drafts as work-in-progress, as the basis for our discussions. If they submit a draft before our meeting, I try to provide feedback by the time we meet. I edit drafts quite closely for all students, particularly international students. I also expect drafts to be fully referenced right from the start. This is important for me in reading the drafts, so that I can follow up references for better understanding, if necessary. It is also important for the student, so that they are not chasing up stray references in the final hours and days before submitting their thesis.

Early on, I ask students to set out a realistic schedule for their work. In the case of honours students, this is the plan for just under a year’s work. I encourage them to write a schedule which includes having a complete draft about one month before the deadline for submission, so that we can take a month for editing and polishing. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way, but it is good for them to realise that a thesis is not something that can be written at the last minute – it really needs time for editing, polishing and redrafting. Similarly, I ask my PhD students to draft a schedule which involves having a complete draft at the three-year mark, leaving six months for editing, polishing and redrafting. (PhDs can go for four years, but in many cases scholarships are only for three-and-a-half years, and the timeline is particularly tight for international students.)

I try to work on the basis that the student is the one ‘driving’ the project. They are responsible for sending calendar invitations for meetings. At the end of each meeting, we will agree on a date for the next meeting, and agree on a goal for what is to be done before the next meeting. I try not to end meetings without agreeing on these commitments for the next meeting. Many universities advocate or mandate an agreement between supervisor(s) and student, which sets out the expectations with respect to frequency of meetings and other aspects of the supervisory relationship. Even if not mandated, this is an important conversation to have in early meetings.

At honours level, in particular, one may be supervising something which is not closely related to one’s own research interests. The most important thing for supervision, though, is helping the student to establish a workable regime for completing the thesis and to assist in developing writing skills (not only micro-level issues of grammar and style, but also macro-level issues of structuring a long piece of writing). It is a leap from undergraduate essays to an honours thesis, and an even greater leap from honours to a PhD thesis. This also involves encouraging the student to find their own ‘voice’ in writing.
The role of the supervisor is to provide advice and guidance on academic matters. When students are having other issues, it is good to encourage them to consult with student support advisors or counsellors, but it is ultimately the student’s decision to consult with these advisors. In some cases, it may be good to suggest students consult with learning support advisors. It is also good to keep in close contact with the honours co-ordinator or postgraduate co-ordinator. (The titles of these positions will vary from university to university.)

The supervisor-supervisee relationship is a professional relationship and not a friendship. While many supervisors and their former supervisees do go on to become friends and colleagues after the thesis, for the term of the student’s candidacy, this should be treated as a professional working relationship.

Katie Holmes (Professor, La Trobe University)

Supervision of honours or HDR students is quite different: honours is more like a sprint, HDR more like a marathon. But the supervision has some fundamentals in common.

Supervision is about a relationship. The power dynamics are skewed, but both parties have clear responsibilities. Talking about expectations up front is a very good idea. Even consider drawing up a ‘supervision contract’ that you discuss at the beginning of the supervision. It should include the responsibilities and expectations of each party. This can help keep expectations reasonable, e.g.: how regularly you meet, timeframes of the return work, how well developed you expect drafts to be, etc. If things start to go awry, or the student starts to expect more than you can deliver, you can then refer back to what had been agreed upon. The psychological dynamics in HDR supervision can be tricky; be aware that they will be there for both parties and that sometimes they might make the relationship difficult and unproductive. Most universities now expect ECRs to co-supervise a PhD to completion before they are allowed to be a primary supervisor. Make the most of this mentoring opportunity and discuss progress etc. with the more experienced staff member. A lot of research has been done on the supervisory relationship – take some time to read it and learn what works and what doesn’t.

A good supervisor offers both intellectual guidance and engagement, and usually some emotional support, but is clear about their boundaries. You are not their counsellor, or their mother/father, or friend. But it is important to know if a student is struggling emotionally or has significant life issues as it will affect their work and you might be able to direct them to appropriate help. The hardest part of a PhD is the emotional journey and students need to have good support networks in place to help them through it.

Encourage students to talk with other colleagues who might have specific expertise that is useful. Make use of the co-supervisor. Deep knowledge of the field is not necessary, but some knowledge helps. And supervisors might have to do some reading to make sure they have some grasp of the key debates or theoretical frameworks that the student is exploring.

Regular meetings, especially in the early stages, are very important. Make sure to set the time of the next meeting and what is to be done in between, before concluding a supervision meeting. I always meet in my office and ask students to email me a summary of the key points we discussed at a meeting, the next steps and the next meeting date. This way we are both clear about what has been agreed upon.

When students are commencing, I usually ask them to write a few thousand words summarising the key literature or debates in the area. This makes them engage with the historiography early on. Honours students need to start their primary research (whether Trove or interviews or archive based) early, but not so early that they don’t know what they are looking for or what questions to ask. Starting to write early and often is important. As the student progresses, set clear writing deadlines with them. There is a lot of pressure on students and staff for ‘timely completions’. If progress is unacceptably slow, there are often mechanisms such as progress panels where this can be addressed, and the onus is not just on the supervisor to make this call.

Don’t be hesitant about asking for help if you are worried about a supervision. Hopefully you will have more experienced colleagues who can offer advice. It’s better to swallow your pride and seek guidance, than allow a student who is not progressing well to flounder.

Simon Ville (Senior Professor, University of Wollongong)

Try to get experience as a second supervisor alongside a more experienced primary supervisor if at all possible. At first, meet in your office rather than a more informal or public location. Set out expectations from the beginning – most universities have a first meeting document that you can use. Ensure regular meetings occur, especially during the early stages of the candidature, and monitor your student’s progress.

How much should you know about the student’s topic? It depends, especially whether you are the primary or secondary supervisor. You will need to make your own judgement of how great an ability the student has to work independently. Be careful not to do too much – you shouldn’t be doing research for a student. Ensure that they respond to your written feedback, and be clear about their strengths and weaknesses.

Frank Bongiorno (Professor, Australian National University)

Supervisions – whether of Honours or Higher Degree Research students – are potentially intense and personal exercises. You do need to have good social skills to do it well; it’s not just about being ‘academic’ in a narrow sense. You need to be able to reassure, when reassurance is needed, but also to push someone along a little when they’re not meeting deadlines and falling behind. I usually supervise in my office, but on occasion, if things are going well with the candidature, we might sometimes meet over a coffee somewhere. But be sensitive to the possibility that there will sometimes be confidential or difficult matters that should only be dealt with in your office.

If the student is working in a way that’s not using your time effectively – for instance, you’re getting a barely revised draft a week after the last supervision – you need to say so. This kind of interaction can be hard because we’ll always be ignorant of many of the things going on in a student’s life, but it also has to be faced when things are not going well. Honours students, in particular, cannot afford to repeatedly go missing, or to wander off on a four-week research journey that goes nowhere. So it’s important to meet regularly, keep monitoring progress and intervene when necessary. In the end, it’s their project, not yours, but you do have a duty to warn on occasion, as well as support and share expertise. And keep an eye on whether they have all the support they need. Are there resources in the wider university that might help them? For research students, is their panel well-balanced, offering a range of perspectives and expertise?

At the beginning, agree to some ground-rules. How often will you meet? What do you expect of the student in the early period? A regular report? A formal agenda for each meeting? It’s best to make this explicit, and then to stick to it unless you mutually agree to change it for some reason. Probably not very long after a student starts their research, they’ll have more expertise on the topic than you. Don’t be intimidated. You have both knowledge and skills that your student won’t have, and these are often more valuable than lots of specialist expertise on the topic. The reality for most of us in Australian public universities is that we will have to supervise topics that are at right angles to our expertise. Of course, you will sometimes need to say: ‘I don’t think I have sufficient expertise to supervise this thesis’. But you also need show a reasonable flexibility because there are usually many more students than staff, and the topics being pursued will range widely.

Supervision can be incredibly rewarding, so it’s worth investing the time and effort in improving one’s performance. It’s also among the most difficult things we do as history academics. I’m always conscious of learning on the job.

Andrea Gaynor (Associate Professor, University of Western Australia)

Most Universities now mandate co-supervision so with any luck you will start out by co-supervising a student alongside a colleague with a reputation for excellent supervision. A good supervisor is one who gives the student room to develop the project and make it their own, while the student knows that the supervisor has their back and can be relied upon to provide good advice and feedback. It is important to have a discussion at the outset about expectations, and develop a mutually satisfying way of working together. This includes setting limits around the reading of draft work, and establishing who has responsibility for initiating the paperwork associated with the program, as well as scheduling meetings.

Regular meetings are a must. Some people have a set day and time at regular intervals; others set the schedule according to the timeline for submission of written work. It is best to insist that prospective students have adequate preparation for the degree and time taken to establish this at the outset is generally well spent. It should become apparent within the first 12 months of a full-time PhD candidature whether the student is up to the task; if not, it is better to move to either downgrade to a lower degree or terminate the candidature than allow the process to drag on for potentially another three years or more with heartache on both sides and an uncertain outcome; how this is done will depend on institutional rules and processes. While early changes are possible, the topic should be well established by the end of the first (full-time equivalent) year and major changes after that point are likely to interfere with timely completion. At least one of the supervisors should have some broad expertise in the topic but even non-expert supervisors can provide useful input in the form of critical review of written work, suggestions for methods and approaches transferable from other areas, and general research mentoring.

Stuart Macintyre (Emeritus Professor Laureate, University of Melbourne)

(André’s note: I am not impartial here. The first person I thought to ask when seeking input for this entry was Stuart. He was my PhD lead supervisor and the experience was, in a word, excellent.)

A good supervisor is supportive, encouraging, provides timely advice, is realistic, encourages the candidate to fulfil their potential. I don’t think it is necessary to have direct expertise on the topic; indeed, too close a knowledge can smother the candidate and restrict the rewards of discovery as well as the opportunity to come to their own understanding of the topic.

At the outset, I think it is important to ask the candidate how it is they decided to embark on the thesis, and how it fits within their career intentions. An honours student might well have no intention of pursuing postgraduate research; a postgraduate might not be wanting to pursue an academic career. But if they articulate their expectations, then it is possible to get them to see the thesis as more than an exercise in research and writing, and to think about the possibilities for acquiring ancillary skills, dissemination, and collegial life. That’s also the time when the supervisor should make clear their own knowledge and interest.

My own practice is to conduct supervisions over coffee in a quiet corner of the staff club, but I’m conscious there might be occasions when greater privacy is needed. A first step is to set the frequency of meetings, and keep to it, while emphasising that email and other opportunities should be used to maintain contact.

Both supervisor and candidate need to be clear about their mutual expectations; that is where questions of excess on both sides can be resolved. And the same holds for habits and style. Some candidates submit rough drafts; that is fine but I think it important to emphasise you want to see finished prose and finished references as soon as possible. Quick feedback is paramount.

The supervisor is familiar with the tasks of planning and execution. The candidate has probably never before attempted to write a thesis of this length and will benefit from advice on practical aspects such as bibliography, the search for sources, note-taking and the logistics of the exercise.

It is critical to win the candidate’s confidence. My most difficult supervisions have arisen where the candidate comes with predetermined conclusions and resists consideration of alternatives. All too soon you find a resistance to consider the alternatives and an excessively polemical treatment of the literature that does not accord with the candidate’s predilections; indeed, you find yourself seen as an obstacle to the thesis the candidate is determined to write.

A supervisor plays the role of the experienced researcher looking over the shoulders of the candidate as they enter into the process of intellectual discovery. The candidate will almost invariably acquire a detailed knowledge of the topic that surpasses that of the supervisor – that is one of the rewards of supervising research. The supervisor will contribute guidance on the practical skills of writing a thesis, time management, facilitating the research (field trips, advice on seminars and conferences, advice on professional development, etc.). Most of all, it is a partnership that sustains the discipline.

So, you’ve got an academic job interview…

It’s well past time to kick the AHA ECR blog back into life. Back in February and March, I collected advice from historians in Australia on two topics for early career researchers: how to approach academic job interviews, and tips for your first honours/research higher degree supervision. The COVID-19 crisis rapidly overwhelmed all other business, and some of this discussion felt a bit on the nose to publish. Perhaps it still does. But sooner or later (very later?), this will regain relevance. So, let’s do job interviews first. I post this as a reference for the future, as few jobs are being advertised right now. Please note that all of the content below was written before Covid-19 seriously affected our universities and the academic job market.

Most people find job interviews pretty intimidating. It’s hard enough just to get on the shortlist, especially when history positions at Australian universities get so many applications. And once you’ve made it that far, what do you do? This entry is especially for those of you who are preparing for your first interview, and for people who feel like they’ve not performed well in interviews so far. There is no magic trick to make a selection panel fall in love with you—as will be clear from some of the respondents differing with each other on a few points—and there will often be preferences and institutional politics you cannot possibly know. But with any luck the comments in this entry will help you build confidence.

Stuart Macintyre (Emeritus Laureate Professor, University of Melbourne)

Much depends on the composition of the selection committee, though the applicant can hardly be expected to know that in advance. It is likely to include academics with a direct interest in the field advertised, but also others who might well be looking for greater versatility.

It is common for selection committees to prepare and allocate generic questions on teaching experience and approach, research record and intentions, etc. These questions are likely to be formulated using the selection criteria; but it means the person asking the question is not necessarily the person with the greatest interest and understanding of that aspect of the duties. Accordingly, responses are best directed to the committee at large, as opposed to concentrating on the questioner. It is always helpful to elicit follow-up questions, these helping to go beyond the generic nature of the interview. I think track record (and indications of the trajectory of the applicant’s career) take precedence over ‘fit’ – but it is helpful to spend some time looking at the school and program’s curriculum, research interests, etc. and to light upon distinctive features. That way you can show you have given thought to fit. I think video interviews make it harder to establish rapport, though a good chair should assist.

I think it is helpful to prepare notes in advance, formulating the salient aspects you want to emphasise; though using these notes can make for a somewhat wooden self-presentation. The key phrases will stick in your memory. Similarly with questions: formulate them but don’t force them on the interview and be prepared to take up any signals during the interview.

I’m most impressed when a candidate engages my attention. (Along with other members of the committee, a day of interviews can become wearisome, and it is sometimes hard to maintain concentration.) Without overselling yourself, try to communicate why you think this particular appointment attracts you and why you think you would make a good colleague.

Andrea Gaynor (Associate Professor, University of Western Australia)

Panels for academic teaching and research positions will often ask for an example of a unit you would like to develop and teach, so it can be worth fleshing out some possibilities that would work in the context of the institution you are hoping to work for. Panels will also want to hear you convey the excitement of your research, and may also want to know how you go about combining the demands of teaching and research. You would definitely want to be able to explain why the position is attractive to you and how the role fits with your career plan – the panel will be looking for a candidate who genuinely wants this particular job, and not just any vaguely relevant post. Astute panels will also be looking to hire people who are not only excellent researchers and/or teachers, but also great colleagues, so they may ask how you have managed disagreements, and how you go about working in a collaborative environment. It’s useful to be able to provide particular examples (without naming names!). Every selection panel I have been on has asked candidates whether they have any questions and I think it is a good idea to have some of these prepared, if there are indeed things you might reasonably want to ask of the panel. The panel’s answers can help you decide whether you really want the position, and your questions can help to reinforce the impression that you have taken the time to really imagine yourself in the position, as an ongoing commitment rather than a remote prospect. Do also come with a clear idea about when you would like to start.

Katie Holmes (Professor, La Trobe University)

Expect a question about why you want the job and what you have to contribute – try and make it clear why your track record and research fits with the institution. If it’s a teaching and research position, you will get questions which cover both areas. Consider how you’d answer a question about your most difficult teaching experience, or what some of your main teaching challenges have been and how you addressed them. What are your research plans and your research trajectory: where would you like to be, research wise, in five years? Take the opportunity to sell the importance of your research and why it matters. Universities like to hear about research impact so think about that, although as an ECR no-one will be expecting your research to have had major impact yet.

If you possibly can, ask your peers and/or supervisor and/or experienced staff member, to give you a mock interview. Take this seriously and use it as an opportunity to practice how you respond to questions. Ask for critical feedback. If you are going to be interviewed via a video link or phone, practice that mode. In both face to face and video interviews, be conscious of your body language and what you are conveying. Watch this TED talk for some really interesting ideas about ‘power poses’ to help get your energy flowing ahead of the interview.

Do your research. Know what the job will be, what you might be teaching, where the synergies are with other staff members, what the university demographic is (and if you can’t find that out easily, ask it in the interview). Make sure you’ve looked up who the panel members are and, in a face to face interview, make sure you look at them all and don’t focus too much on one person. One of the key challenges of remote interviews is that it’s harder to ‘read’ the room. Don’t make the mistake of talking too much. If you have a half an hour time slot, practice within that time and don’t spend too long answering a question when you know that the committee will have other things they want to ask you. For a remote interview, dress as you would if it were face to face – it helps get you in the mode.

Always have at least one question prepared that you want to ask – it shows you’ve thought about the position and are genuinely interested. Don’t ask about workloads unless it’s a question about the teaching/research workload balance.

The most impressive interviews are the ones where the candidate is well prepared and conveys energy and enthusiasm for the position.

Frank Bongiorno (Professor, Australian National University)

I wouldn’t claim to be a very accomplished interviewee, but I think I’ve generally done best when I’ve had time to prepare thoroughly, and when I feel that I’m a pretty good fit for the job and the department. I also suspect I tend to do a little better when I rate my chances poorly, as I relax more and find it easier to articulate my case.

I’m more often on the other side of the table these days, and I’d say there’s nothing more important than being able to explain why you want the position. It will often be the first question you’re asked and, if you can’t answer it, it will likely create a poor impression. It’s the equivalent of an introduction to an article, or perhaps an abstract: if you can’t manage it, that usually means you’re not really sure of what the research you’ve done is really about.

There’s no harm in trying to anticipate the questions in your preparation, and in having a practice session with a friend or family member using those questions. Remote interviews will have their own challenges, such as the technology and the general difficulty of reading the room. If that’s what you face, it would be best to practice that way. I was part of a panel a while back interviewing an overseas candidate remotely and I was surprised when he asked for time to consider each of his answers – I suppose he sat silently, taking notes, for 30 seconds or more after each question before answering. It seems to have worked because we gave him the job!

I’d also do whatever you can to uncover local knowledge. If you seem to know nothing of the institution, including what the staff – possibly your future colleagues – are researching, an interview panel might read a career of future disengagement into it. For similar reasons, make sure you know what courses are being offered in the department, so that you can make a case about where your expertise might fit in – and also, again, so that you look interested. We all like to have people show interest in what we do, and members of job panels are no exception. Remember, you’re being interviewed for a position that, if it’s continuing, could be for a long time for all concerned, and those interviewing you will want to be assured that you’ll be a good colleague. Yes, they want to hear about your research, and your teaching plans, but they’ll also be looking for signs of flexibility and proportion. Your research is important but it’s not the only game in town!

Simon Ville (Senior Professor, University of Wollongong)

As a committee member I have frequently found that my view of who is strongest on the shortlist based on the CV does not turn out to be the preferred candidate after an interview. Do your home work on the organisation – check their website, then take any opportunity to have a discussion with the contact person. This gives you a closer idea of what sort of person they are really looking for; this is not always self-evident from adverts.

During the interview, ensure you make regular eye contact. Don’t rush your answers or speak too quickly – appear thoughtful in the way you respond. Try to be the most positive, enthusiastic person in the room but don’t overdo that. While addressing questions to a reasonable degree, ensure you slip in points that you really want to make – treat it a bit like a media interview. Be honest about something you don’t know the answer to rather than stumble or struggle.

Make sure you know who’s on the committee and what their interests or perspective are likely to be. Expect the normal opening question: why are you interested in the position, what would you bring to it, what do you know about us. Do ask your own questions at the end – not too many – and take this as a further opportunity to reiterate your enthusiasm and to demonstrate your knowledge of the place.

Last: let your referees know you are being interviewed in case you are asked if it is okay to approach them.

COVID-19 and the Australian Historical Association

This is the entry I did not want to write.

It is with great disappointment that the Australian Historical Association must announce this morning that our annual conference will not go ahead on the dates scheduled, 29 June to 3 July 2020. The AHA will provide further details soon about the scheduling of the conference.

The organising committee at Deakin University has put in a great amount of work already. The conference was shaping up to be a lively event at the Geelong Waterfront campus and I hope you’ll join me in praising their efforts. They are grappling with a situation unprecedented in the history of our conferences, which began in 1981.

You will be pleased to know that our prizes, bursaries, and scholarships will be awarded as usual. The announcements will have to be done virtually. The prizes to be awarded are: the Kay Daniels Award, the Magarey Medal for Biography, the Serle Award, the WK Hancock Prize, the Jill Roe Prize, the Allan Martin Award and the Ann Curthoys Prize. The bursaries and scholarships to be awarded are: the Patrick Wolfe Early Career Researcher Conference Bursary; AHA/Copyright Agency Early Career Researcher Mentorship Scheme; AHA/Copyright Agency Postgraduate Conference Bursaries; AHA/Honest History AHA Conference Teacher Scholarship; NAA/AHA Postgraduate Scholarships; Jill Roe Early Career Researcher AHA Conference Scholarship Scheme.

The AHA’s annual general meeting normally occurs at the conference. This will, of course, no longer be possible. We must, however, hold our AGM and it will run online, with details to be confirmed in due course. This year is an election year: we need to elect the President, Vice-President, Treasurer, Honorary Secretary, five Ordinary Members, and PhD and ECR representatives. A call for expressions of interest will be circulated in April. Our constitution provides that if there is only one nominee for a position, that person is elected automatically.

ECR representatives have so far served for only one term each and I don’t plan to break that tradition. If you are interested in nominating for the ECR position, please feel free to get in touch with me if you’d like to chat about the role. You can send a direct message to me on Twitter (at either the AHA ECR account or my personal one) or email me at abrett@uow.edu.au – I’m more than happy to answer any questions you might have. This is not a requirement: you can nominate without saying a peep to me! But I want to be clear that I’m available for anyone who’d like to discuss the role.

I’d like to quickly open a more general COVID-19 discussion. This is a challenging time for everyone right now. Please be thoughtful and compassionate and keep washing your hands. I say this as someone who might outwardly appear an active, healthy, (relatively) young man—but one who ticks multiple high-risk boxes. Every action you take to limit the spread of the virus is valuable.

The people who run our universities face great challenges, and there are no easy or straightforward solutions. I grew curious about whether people at Australian higher education institutions think their universities have reacted adequately to date, so I ran a series of polls on my personal Twitter account for 24 hours from Monday evening to Tuesday evening (15–16 March). It’s a self-selecting sample, but the results are interesting.

The first poll got the best exposure: out of 105 voters, 46.7% are dissatisfied with their institution’s response, 19% are somewhat dissatisfied, and 34.2% are satisfied or somewhat satisfied (17.1% each). I then ran polls for staff, divided into permanent and precarious, and for students, undergrad and postgrad. All are more dissatisfied than satisfied. Undergrad students had the best rate of satisfaction but the sample size is too small to draw conclusions. Precarious staff are the most likely to be dissatisfied, which is unsurprising as too few universities have given clear indications of support for casuals. Interestingly, those respondents who consider themselves more “at risk” from COVID-19 than the general population were more likely to be satisfied with their institution’s response than those who do not, although both groups have a majority dissatisfied.

These are trying times to be stuck in insecure work and I’ll do what I can to promote fair and equitable treatment for casuals and ECRs. Universities talk a good game about how inclusive and community-oriented they are; we are going to find out who is actually serious. I do not envy senior management as they try to plot a way forward through profound uncertainty. But trust in university leadership is notoriously poor right now in much of our sector and the decisions in coming weeks will do a lot—either to regain that trust or damage it irreparably. Casuals must be treated generously. Postgrads, research grant recipients, and fixed-term staff, to name just three groups, will need requirements waived or altered, deadlines pushed back, and contracts or candidature extended. These circumstances are new, so the solutions must be original.

Please, everyone, be good to those around you. Our health is the most important thing.

Kia kaha (be ever strong),
Dr André Brett, current AHA ECR representative

The illiterate decision to shut down UWA Publishing

The University of Western Australia this week announced plans to close its esteemed press. Dr André Brett, the current early career researcher representative on the Australian Historical Association executive, addresses this news. The views below are mine, not those of the AHA or its executive—but I emphasise that I am making them in a representative capacity, because this press matters to early career historians.

UWAP logoUniversity of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP) is one of the most significant university presses in Australasia. A book published through UWAP is a mark of esteem for historians. Its catalogue makes Western Australian histories prominent among a diverse selection of publications so deep and rich that choosing to name a few luminaries feels invidious.

UWAP is also important to the life of other disciplines and literary scenes, not least poetry, for whom this publisher has been a standard bearer. It has made a point of telling indigenous stories and bringing diverse voices to wider audiences. It prints Western Australian narratives that east coast publishers often disregard. It has high production standards, and high standards for creativity and scholarship. Suffice it to say that the awards won by UWAP books each testify to the quality of its whole list. UWAP is an essential part of Australia’s literary landscape.

And yet, this week, the University of Western Australia’s deputy vice-chancellor (global partnerships) Tayyeb Shah issued a memo announcing that the press, in its current form, is to be shut down.

Shah’s memo is couched in managerial jargon about “strategic vision” and output alignment. It makes perplexing claims that suggest UWAP is not valuable because too few of its authors or their topics “relate directly to the university and its work”. This is specious. The cultural capital that UWAP accrues for the university is vast, unquantifiable—and, most importantly, irreplaceable.

You would think a DVC (global partnerships) would recognise that an esteemed publisher puts a university on the map. Evidently not.

We cannot let UWAP be dismantled quietly. UWAP is important to early career historians: not only does it publish so much of the scholarship that influences us, but it is also a prospective outlet for our own research. Publishing through UWAP is, for many new historians, a sign that they have “arrived”. For historians of Western Australia, it sits at the very heart of their work.

Sign the petition calling for this decision to be reversed. Share it. Tell your friends and colleagues to sign it. Make representations to senior management at the University of Western Australia, if you feel in a position to do so.

Few universities in Australasia can boast a press as respected as UWAP. To cast it aside is incomprehensible.

Emerging Historians Q&A—Thomas James Rogers

It has been a little while since we’ve done a Q&A with an Emerging Historian: our most recent participant was Gwyn McClelland in April. To revive the series there are few better than Dr Thomas James Rogers. Over to you, Tom!

Rogers - Tom June 2019

Dr Tom Rogers, AHA member since 2011.

I received my PhD in history from the University of Melbourne in late 2014 and am currently a historian in the Military History Section of the Australian War Memorial. I am towards the middle of my third twelve-month contract in this position. I’m very fortunate in that this is a full-time role, and I’ve had two extensions, but the contract uncertainty is still there. Hopefully it can be extended again!

How did you come to be a historian?

For as long as I can remember, I have had an interest in history. I blame medieval- and pirate-themed Lego, and the computer game Wolfenstein 3D, which I first played at the tender age of 7. I believe it was the original first-person shooter. Set during the Second World War, you play an American POW imprisoned by the Nazis in “Castle Wolfenstein”, and you need to break out—it’s extremely violent, and great fun! I know my dad regretted allowing me to play it at such a young age, but it actually sparked an interest in the real events of the Second World War, and I learnt a great deal in my school and local libraries.

History became an academic interest for me in Year 10. I was living in New Jersey at the time, and I had a fantastic US history teacher by the name of Douglas McKenzie. He encouraged us to think about the link between ideas and actions, something that has fascinated me ever since. It’s very easy to think of ideologies as things that other people have, but he forced his students to examine our own ideas about how the world works, and the individual’s place in society. This approach was an excellent way to enter into discussions of revolutionary-era and nineteenth-century US history. It has also served me well in studying the Australian colonies.

Then I went to university and didn’t want to leave. I had the usual blinkered undergraduate view of academic staff: they appeared to be living in a wonderful utopia of research, writing, teaching, and discussion. I was very fortunate to have three semesters’ worth of learning about the ancient Mediterranean with Professor (now Emeritus) Ron Ridley. At some point I visited the Old Treasury Building in Melbourne, and realised that nineteenth-century Australian history wasn’t boring. When I went into Honours, I did something that had been unthinkable just three years earlier: I wrote my thesis on an Australian topic. Well, a British-in-Australia topic: the Rum Rebellion of 1808.

Tell us about your PhD research.

My PhD was entitled “The Civilisation of Port Phillip”, and it was about the British settling in the Port Phillip District from 1835 to 1851. I began by thinking about how free settlers in the Port Phillip District had argued for separation from the colony of New South Wales, something they began agitating for very soon after first settlement. What a ridiculous topic! My education to that point had made me think that colonial political history was a story of white people. The Rum Rebellion that I had studied in Honours had not changed that view—legitimately, because it would be very hard to find or resurrect an Aboriginal view of the Rum Rebellion.

A few months in to my PhD, I realised that the real story was in fact the settlement itself. Settlement was an inherently violent process, one that was underwritten by a whole universe of tropes about Aboriginal people, free settlers, and convicts. That was where the story actually lay—Separation was barely even a sideshow in this reading.

My thesis therefore examined the rhetoric of free settlers. I came to see how the apparently benevolent words that free settlers used actually justified violence against Aboriginal people. A discourse about stages of civilisation justified taking the land from Aboriginal owners. It also justified beating down ex-convicts and importing poor “respectable” Britons to take their place. I had identified a conflict that echoed in the present, instead of a nineteenth-century version of the tedious Melbourne–Sydney tension I had started out to trace. That struggle was only the most superficial part of the story, of very little importance, merely the conquerors arguing about how to divide the spoils.

My thesis showed how the language of the settlement project was woven into everyday life in Port Phillip. At every turn, you could find settlers in fear that the settlement project would fail. Indeed, many settlers did fail, and many schemes to improve either lands or peoples failed. This is where I began to get into some really interesting work on these themes in other parts of the world, especially books by James C. Scott and Pierre Clastres. They fitted what I was seeing into a European intellectual history that was familiar to me.

I also started to understand postcolonial writers, like Edward Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, whose work I had read in various undergraduate classes, but had not really “got”. And that’s key isn’t it—I didn’t get it as an undergraduate because I had been surrounded totally by the settler colony and never considered “the other side of the frontier” in an intellectual sense. I hadn’t needed to, because I’d grown up as a white boy in a country explicitly founded for white men. Bruce Pascoe’s book Convincing Ground—taking its name from a massacre site in Western Victoria—was key in opening my eyes to this other side.

The term civilised kept coming up, in opposition to savage. Other terms also came up a lot: respectable, hostile native, friendly native. Often settlers could be seen using self-serving rhetoric, but what I found was more than simply opportunistic off-the-cuff statements. Instead, I found patterns of settler rhetoric that seemed humanitarian but actually justified the settler project. In some cases, settlers openly accepted the frontier killing of Aboriginal people. In other cases, their rhetoric justified what the late Patrick Wolfe called the “elimination of the native”. This was not necessarily killing, but the physical removal of Aboriginal people from their lands, and then the deliberate suppression and destruction of their cultures.

The thesis was passed without revisions, and went on to win the 2014 Dennis–Wettenhall Prize, awarded by the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne.

Why does it matter?

There are many fundamental misunderstandings about this country’s past. That is especially true of its nineteenth-century past. If my work can act against some of those in some small way, that would be a good thing.

Modern-day settlers no longer use the same words that free settlers used in the 1830s and 1840s. The basic settler project, though, hasn’t changed. If we want to understand modern Australia as a settler-colonial country, we need to look its foundation in the nineteenth century.

What are you researching now or intending to do next?

The thesis was revised and published as a book in February 2018 (The Civilisation of Port Phillip, available from MUP). So it has been some time since I have had a “big project”, but I have a few ideas!

At the Memorial, I have continued to research frontier violence in Australia, and I also work on research projects relating to Australians in the South African (Boer) War and the First World War. I have published on a number of topics: Aboriginal military service prior to the First World War; British Empire loyalty amongst Australians who went to the South African War; and the Coniston Massacre of 1928. One interest that I have been able to pursue is to show the links between the Australian colonies of the nineteenth century and the early years of the Australian federation in the twentieth. I think we often artificially separate the two, when in fact the links are quite strong.

What do you love about being a historian?

I am now a public historian, so in addition to producing peer-reviewed publications, I have had to hone my skills in writing for a wider audience. I am on the editorial committee of the Memorial’s history magazine, Wartime, and also write articles for it. I’m enjoying things that I didn’t do enough of as an academic historian: finding images to accompany text, doing media appearances, and acting as a historical advisor on exhibitions.

But I suspect your question is broader than that. Historians are keepers of knowledge about the past. My curiosity about the world is what keeps me going as a historian.

What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?

The ability to plan my life. And it’s not “challenging”, it’s downright soul-crushing. I am only able to do it because I have a support network. I am eternally grateful to my partner Jo, especially, for her unending support of my career choice.

Come on, were you expecting any other answer? “Flexibility” is a neoliberal con. It works for hobbyists and near-retirees who own their own homes and have financial security. It doesn’t work for young people. Universities in particular have been guilty of outsourcing the bulk of teaching to casuals. I did it for nearly seven years, before I was lucky enough to find employment elsewhere, and only then because I was able to move cities to do so.

I don’t know where I’ll be living twelve months from now. I don’t know where my income will come from. And because I am the less-employable one, my partner is also caught up in this limbo, and so is my son.

If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?

Er, any time after the invention and widespread availability of antibiotics. Or, maybe a visit to Genghis Khan. Either would be good, though I suspect the second one would end in me being killed.


Researching the Tariff Board: Finding Culture in a Surprising Place

Today we have an entry cross-posted with the blog of the Economic History Society of Australia and New Zealand (EHSANZ). It is by Henry Reese, a newly-minted ECR who picked up two awards associated with the AHA’s recent conference at the University of Southern Queensland. An AHA-CAL travel bursary supported his attendance, and he won the EHSANZ Postgraduate and ECR Development Prize for the paper he delivered. He describes his research and the challenges and rewards of working in an interdisciplinary setting—a cultural historian in the field of sound studies finding himself making a mark in the AHA conference’s economic history stream.


Source: Australasian Phonograph Monthly 1(7), January 1926, 2.

I was honoured to discover that I’d been awarded the 2019 Economic History Society of Australia and New Zealand Postgraduate and Early Career Researcher Development Prize. Like many others who were trained — and have long understood themselves — as cultural historians, I have been thrilled to integrate the material and economic into my understanding of the Australian past in recent years. The economic history stream at the 2019 AHA conference, deftly coordinated by the great Claire Wright, was a fantastic place to tease out the historical links between culture and economy in a constructive and warm intellectual environment. This session was a masterclass in how to fruitfully bring disparate fields of scholarship together. As you can read here, the stream’s panels were diverse, fresh and (for me) often downright thrilling. Presenters engaged with multiple facets of economic history from a slew of methodological standpoints. Postgrads and early career academics featured prominently, a good sign of the healthiness of the discipline.

The frisson of interdisciplinary is something that most postgrads face, for better and worse. It is the cousin of the perennial imposter syndrome that obtains in an academic environment in which we are expected to know everything. It’s something I’ve had to engage with plenty throughout my academic career. As a historian whose work is informed profoundly by the emerging field of Sound Studies, itself an inter-discipline, I have often felt the apprehension that comes with interdisciplinarity. A few years ago, I presented my work at a Sound Studies conference at Stony Brook, New York, where I found myself rubbing shoulders with a motley group of musicologists, anthropologists, literary scholars and even the occasional scientist, all concerned with the same big questions. It was an eye-opening experience. Everyone was equally a fish out of water, and this made for an open and exploratory intellectual space. One lesson of this experience is that, if efforts are taken to foster a respectful and reflexive environment, where multiple viewpoints and levels of expertise are welcomed, then the discomfort that comes with exploring a fresh area needn’t be a problem; rather, it can be productive. Conference organisers, consider this a challenge: be open and respectful of diversity. Postgrads, it’s worth remembering: we can’t know everything, but our views are valid and we’re much more competent than we might think.

The paper I presented at the AHA was entitled ‘Protecting the National Soundscape: The Gramophone Industry and the Nation in the 1920s.’ Whereas I had previously only ventured ankle-deep into this topic, now I had the chance to throw myself headfirst into the deep end of public battles over trade policy in the tumultuous interwar period. This was a paper I had looked forward to writing for several months as I polished off my PhD. My thesis, entitled ‘Colonial Soundscapes: A Cultural History of Sound Recording in Australia, 1880–1930,’ is the first cultural history of early recorded sound in Australia. Combining business history, the history of anthropology and sensory history with the close attention to context, performance and thick description that are the bread and butter of cultural history, I explored settlers’ changing relationships with the phonograph and gramophone over the first generation of this technology’s existence. By integrating recorded sound into the wider soundscape of Australia, I argued that the development of a modern outlook on Australian place developed in tandem with settler understandings of, and appreciation for, the fact of sound reproduction.

In my paper, I interpreted a 1927 Tariff Board inquiry into the duty on imported gramophone records as a cultural document, as well as an instrument of business policy. Perhaps this was one way of making the research task ahead of me tolerable. After all, it’s easier to read over one hundred pages of dry argumentation regarding recorded music imports if you understand the Tariff Board transcript as a document that was charged with the richness and spice of a courtroom drama! Here a small group of rich white men laid bare their prejudices regarding the gender, class and aesthetic tastes of the Australian consumer, which, I argued, were central to the eventual outcome of the inquiry. This was not just a debate over the value of imports compared to the locally manufactured product; it was an occasion when Australian business elites were called upon to adjudicate on the relative merits of musical taste in an anxious society. The bottom line: the Australian consumer, gendered female, was not to be trusted with the artefacts of mass culture; racialised American jazz music was an agent of cultural and musical decline; and compared to the older networks of wholesalers and music dealers preferred by the large gramophone importers, the modern, commercialised department store was no fit place to find musical uplift.

I had some firm precedents in my interpretation of the Tariff Board inquiry in light of wider debates about music, culture and Americanisation in Australian society. Kenneth Lipartito’s work on the expressive facets of business culture has been eye-opening for me, as has Toby L. Ditz’s artful interpretation of business correspondence, often a dry and formulaic tranche of source material, as evidence of the gendered performance of masculine identity. In the hands of both scholars, business is seen as influenced by, and productive of, wider cultural shifts in the society of which it is an integral part. In the Australian context, the work of Hannah Forsyth, Sophie Loy-Wilson, Melissa Bellanta and Julie McIntyre, among others, has been crucial in my thinking regarding the culture of business, and the business of culture, in a modern capitalist settler society. The gramophone trade, as a powerful axis of the so-called ‘culture industry,’ had an outsized impact on Australian tastes and patterns of consumption. It is worthy of deeper analysis using the powerful tools given us by such path-breaking business and cultural historians.

I was fortunate to receive an AHA-CAL Bursary for this paper. I encourage other postgrads to apply for the same at future AHA conferences. Through this scheme, each student is assigned to a senior mentor, who provides feedback on their paper. My mentor, Richard White, went above and beyond, and deserves credit in the shaping of my argument here. I am also extremely grateful to Hannah Forsyth and Jennifer Bowen for their generous comments on my paper at the conference. The final, and largest, thanks are due to Claire Wright, whose efforts to foster closer connections between economic and ‘other’ historians is paying fantastic intellectual and social dividends. Thanks all, and don’t hesitate to get in touch with questions or comments!

Henry Reese
University of Melbourne
Twitter: @HPReese

Chronic Illness and Research: Some Strategies for Co-existence

Today, Tamara Cooper reflects on an important topic: chronic illness and disability in academia. Positive talk about accommodating chronic illnesses and disabilities often runs well ahead of tangible actions—your ECR rep, André Brett, is legally blind and knows this all too well. Tamara draws on her experience of endometriosis to give suggestions to those postgraduate and early career historians who live with chronic illness or disability and work within a system that is not always sympathetic.

When I submitted my PhD thesis in March this year I found myself both mentally and physically fatigued. While some of this fatigue could be put down to the insanity of my rush to the finish line, on reflection a fair chunk of it was caused by endometriosis. Throughout my PhD candidature I was under the impression that my endometriosis had no tangible effect on my ability to write and research; it was only in the last six months or so of my candidature that I realised this was not the case.

For those who don’t know, endometriosis is a chronic, incurable disease that affects approximately one in ten women of reproductive age, though some suggest that this figure is well underestimated. The disease occurs when cells similar to the lining of the uterus grow outside of the uterus and on the surrounding organs and tissue. The main symptoms of endometriosis are severe cramps during menstruation and prolonged and heavy menstrual cycles. Unlike many diseases, the severity of the symptoms does not necessarily reflect the severity of the disease. It has on average a seven to ten-year delay in diagnosis from the onset of symptoms and the only way to diagnose it with any certainty is through surgery. For myself, I started showing symptoms at the age of twelve, but I was not diagnosed until I was twenty-three years old. This diagnosis and excision surgery was six months before I commenced my PhD studies.

This was not the end of my journey with the disease as anyone living with a chronic illness will tell you. The next step is figuring out how to live with the illness. Chronic illness does have an effect on the way you live your life, but it does not need to dominate it. Below I wanted to share with you some of the things that helped me to live with this illness while completing my thesis. It is by no means a comprehensive list of strategies but rather a start to the conversation of how to accommodate research and chronic illness.

Know your symptoms: While this seems straightforward, many chronic illnesses have wide and varied symptoms that manifest differently in different bodies. You need to take your time to learn how the illness is affecting you. For instance, it took me three and a half years of my four and a half year long dissertation to learn that fatigue is a major symptom of my illness and that I need to watch for and manage the signs of fatigue before it wipes me out.

Quality versus Quantity: On bad days I discovered I could achieve more in a focused three hours than in an unfocused six hours. So I would sometimes work intensively for a few hours without a break and then take the rest of the day off, instead of forcing myself to stay the computer all day. I also realised that on the really bad days that is was better to just take the day off to recover than try to push through and come up with material that I would only need to re-write later (after I had delayed my recovery).

Alternative Therapies: While pharmaceuticals are fantastic (you will never find me skipping a vaccine!) they are sometimes not enough to manage symptoms; when this happens, it is good to look at the alternative therapies that are available. I’ve found that regular remedial massages, as well as exercises like yoga and pilates, help me deal with the aches and pains of endometriosis. I know ladies who swear by acupuncture and Chinese medicine and others who use naturopathic remedies to compliment their medications. With chronic illness there is no one therapy to suit everyone, so try everything!

Diet: While it seems obvious, food can be central to managing chronic illness. One of the best things I did to help manage the symptoms of endometriosis was to pack myself off to see a dietician who put me on a Low FODMAP. This diet (when I follow it) has helped to drastically reduce symptoms like bloating and inflammation.

The culture of busyness: This is perhaps the hardest part of any chronic illness, juggling your medical needs with society’s constant pressure to always be busy. In academia, this is further exacerbated by increasing rates of casualisation and employment precarity. The simplest answer to this is to simply refuse the culture of busyness, schedule in time off, even days off. However, if you are casually employed this is not easy or even possible sometimes. But I still think it’s important to push back against this idea of constantly being busy even if it’s only small. Give yourself time to just be. This might mean taking a daily indulgent bath or perhaps making reading for leisure a priority. It might also mean taking some time to simply sit and let yourself breathe; whatever it means to you, own it and don’t let society make you feel ashamed for it.

As I said before this is by no means a comprehensive list of strategies – it is geared towards my own experience with endometriosis – but rather a conversation starter. Many people within academia live with chronic illness and many find it hard to juggle the demands of research against the demands of illness. I think the most important lesson that my thesis and my illness taught me is that I don’t need permission to be sick and that even though my illness may not be visible it is by no means less intrusive. At the same time, it does not need to define my life. To all my colleagues with chronic illness, we got this!

Trans and gender diverse inclusion in academia; or, why we need to get better at pronouns

Today’s blog post addresses an important topic for scholarly communities worldwide, not least our History community in Australia: how to turn stated commitments to inclusivity into real, meaningful inclusion of trans and gender diverse people. This contribution is by Yves Rees, a David Myers Research Fellow in History at La Trobe Recently, who was until recently known as Anne. It was under that name that they contributed to the third part of the recent Conversation About Casualisation.

For the past decade, I’ve been an active participant in Australia’s history community. I’ve worked or studied at four institutions across three states. This year’s conference in Toowoomba will mark my eighth AHA. I’m a former member of the AHA Executive. While cognisant of the many problems of corporatized academia, I also truly love the world of history-making. These are my people.

Over the past twelve months, I’ve also come out as transgender. I’ve lived as an openly trans person in my personal life for almost a year. At the same time, I’ve been slowly ‘outing’ myself in professional contexts. First I changed my pronouns on Twitter and in my academic bios. Then I started tweeting about being trans. This month I formally ‘came out’ at my university. I’m now using my new name for work email and Twitter. Yves has arrived.

This has been a terrifying process. Even despite my many forms of privilege, I still live in the shadow of the violent transphobia that pervades our world (and recent election campaign). Each step towards coming out has been a gut-churning leap into shark-filled waters.

In response, individual colleagues—both within my institution and around the country—have done their utmost to make me feel safe and supported. I’ve been showered with emails and messages containing heartfelt words that have given me newfound affection and respect for our community of historians.

For these gestures of solidarity, I am supremely grateful. (Though, it must be said, the vast majority of this support has come from women and fellow queers.)

But I’ve also come up against profound structural impediments to the full participation of trans peoples in the AHA and the broader academic community. Our conferences, publications and communication practices are all organised in a way that perpetuates cisnormativity and erases trans identities.

In 2019, this structural transphobia is no longer acceptable. As a community “committed to inclusivity with regard to … gender, gender expression and identity”, we can and must do better.

The costs of not doing so are grave. Entrenched stigmatisation and exclusion results in appalling health outcomes for trans and gender diverse (TGD) people. Recent Australian research suggests that almost half (48%) of trans youth have attempted suicide, while three-quarters have experienced anxiety or depression. Similar figures have emerged from overseas studies.

Last Friday was IDAHOBIT: the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia. In honour of this occasion, I offer a few suggestions for ways to challenge structural transphobia within the AHA and at our universities.


  • Event organisers: request pronouns during registration and display pronouns on nametags

We already ask for dietary requirements and salutations; why not pronouns? This is a simple practice with multiple benefits. Most obviously, it ensures that all people are addressed using the correct pronoun. No less importantly, it normalises the idea that pronouns (and gender identity) can’t be assumed. By disrupting the structures of cisnormativity, pronoun signalling is an important way of destigmatising and including TGD people. To date, I’ve only been to one academic event in Australia that adopted this practice (kudos to Holly Pich and Marama Whyte here). We need to make this commonplace.

  • Panel/event chairs: check pronouns before introducing speakers

Introducing someone at an academic event generally involves using their pronouns. In doing so, we tend to assume that a ‘female’ name implies she/her pronouns, and vice versa. For instance, “Mary is a lecturer in History at Lonsdale University. She has written three books on comparative settler colonialism.” But is Mary a ‘she’? We actually have no idea until we ask. So ask. Either literally ask the speaker, or check their bios to see what pronouns they use.

  • Event organisers: ensure access to gender-neutral bathrooms

Many universities now have at least some gender-neutral bathrooms. Are there any at your event venue? If not, can you make a temporary gender-neutral bathroom—for instance, using a disabled bathroom? This is not a perfect solution, as it risks compromising the hard-won access rights of disabled people. If your event is likely to feature more than a handful of TGD people, I would strongly encourage that you secure a dedicated gender-neutral bathroom, distinct from disabled facilities. And can you identify all these facilities in the conference program? Everyone has the right to use a bathroom where they feel safe. Ensuring this is possible for TGD people is an essential part of gender inclusivity.


  • Include pronouns in your email signature and Twitter bio

This is a straightforward way for cisgender people to show trans solidarity and disrupt the structures of cisnormativity. It will take two minutes and it will make life easier for TGD people every day. My La Trobe colleague Clare Wright took the leap on Friday; who else is game?

  • Do not question, refuse or remove ‘they/their’ pronouns in author bios

The use of singular they/their pronouns is not up for debate. They are part of our ever-evolving English language and have been in use since the time of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Yes, they can feel unfamiliar and hence take some getting used to. No, they are not ‘grammatically incorrect’. If an author has been brave enough to use ‘they/their’ or other gender-neutral pronouns, please respect their choice. Also ensure that copy-editors do not ‘correct’ the text to ‘she/her’ or ‘he/his’.

  • Recognise gender diversity on forms and surveys

Universities house a growing community of gender diverse people, who do not identify as either ‘male’ or ‘female’. These people are erased every time they encounter a form that adheres to a strict gender binary. We need to normalise data-gathering practices that recognise (and indeed, celebrate) the gender diversity that already exists in our world. In practice, this means including an open-text box in which people can describe their own gender (rather than being forced to tick either ‘male’ or ‘female’). It can also mean including gender neutral salutations such as ‘Mx’ (rather than ‘Ms’ or ‘Mr’).

A Conversation About Casualisation, Part Three

Today’s post is the third and final part of our series on a recent controversial article in The Conversation about casualisation. The first part, André Brett’s response to that article’s arguments, is here; the second part, Joel Barnes’s analysis of the underlying research, is here. All views expressed in this series are those of the authors and contributors, and do not reflect the views of their employers, the Australian Historical Association, or any other groups with whom they are affiliated.

Many casually-employed historians and early career researchers (ECRs) have strong opinions about an article by Dorothy Wardale, Julia Richardson, and Yuliani Suseno that suggests how to make casual academic contracts ‘better’. One problem, however, is that many casuals and ECRs have not the time to prepare detailed responses, especially when this labour will not be remunerated. Some fear that they will not receive new contracts if they speak out. This is why we so often do not hear casual voices in discussions of casualisation, or why those voices mainly appear on social media. There is a lot of anger and discontent about casual employment in academia, but those who are exploited the most are also those least able to protest.

For this reason, the third part of this series adapts an idea that emerged in a Twitter discussion between Effie Karageorgos and Imogen Wegman (follow the links for their previous excellent contributions to this blog). It is a compilation of short—or not so short—responses to the Conversation article by early career academics in History who are, or recently were, employed casually in Australian universities.

Effie Karageorgos:

The article claims that ‘many casual academics enjoy the flexibility of working across different institutions’. I now work at three different institutions. One of these is thankfully online, so the work can be done anywhere, but I often have to drive between the other two, leaving a class at one to quickly make my way to the other. I do not have office space at either institution, so I carry all of my class materials around with me during the day. One institution will not allow me to have a key to the classroom I teach in every week, asking me to call security every time I want to enter the room. I have taught at this institution since early 2012, and was trusted with a key until the end of 2018. I think fondly to the time when I had a desk at both institutions, but the demands on space have meant that I have not been attached to an office I can work in for a few years. I do not know anybody who enjoys this type of flexibility.

The article also claims that some ‘enjoy the flexibility of not having to fulfil service requirements such as attending meetings and annual performance reviews’. I have worked at all three institutions since early 2012, and feel that I am as much a part of those institutions as anybody else who has worked there for the same amount of time. I want to know what is happening in my workplace, and I want to attend meetings, but I need to be paid for my time.

When I am not teaching, I am researching, writing, collaborating with other academics, writing grant and job applications—the same things that any full-time or tenured academic does with their non-teaching time. The difference is I am not paid for that time, yet my publications will often be credited to the institution I work at the same way the publications of those who are paid for their research will be. A certain percentage of a full-time academic’s weekly load is specifically allocated to ‘research’ or ‘administration’. If universities are going to rely on casuals to teach many, or in some cases most, of their classes, they also need to truly acknowledge them as members of the academic community—as researchers—by including a number of paid research hours in every casual teaching contract. This would increase the already high publication output of casual academics and provide a solid basis by which the university could claim these publications. It would also—more importantly for the casual academic—demonstrate that they trust and value casual academics as much as they do other members of staff.

Kate Davison:

It’s hard to know where to start. It’s not simply a matter of poor conditions in an immediate and material sense (the kind that make it impossible to save, plan a holiday, plan to have children, pay rent, etc.) but the long-term slow burn psychological effect: having to explain to family members again and again why you still don’t have a permanent job, why you work on weekends and why this does not mean you are ‘disorganised’, waking up every day to give yourself a pep talk about why your research is important and worthwhile, but also—and perhaps more importantly—the gradual grinding down of your confidence in the eyes of your permanently employed peers. Relentless precarity makes me depressed.

Anne Rees:

In its attempt to be ‘balanced’, this article completely elides the violence of casualisation. The casualisation of university teaching is not a valid hiring practice associated with a mix of ‘concerns’ and ‘benefits’, but rather a system of exploitation inspired by profit-maximising logic that does great harm to academics and imperils the future health of teaching and research. I would urge the authors to take seriously the way in which casual contracts destroy the health and research capabilities of many of Australia’s (and the world’s) most highly educated individuals, who would otherwise have enormous potential to live rich lives and engage in knowledge production that benefits us all.

James Kirby:

This is a disturbing attempt to normalise casual labour in universities. The authors ignore that ECRs are particularly vulnerable to abuse under these contracts. I would agree that there may be some benefits; for instance, a semester of casual tutoring can be a good internship for a future career as a full-time lecturer. The problem is that full-time jobs have dried up in Australian higher education, especially for ECRs looking for postdoctoral fellowships and entry-level lecturing positions. Universities know that ECRs need job experience and are desperate to get anything teaching related on their CVs, so they can count on their unpaid labour and world-class expertise.

There are a number of holes in this piece, but I’ll note just a few:

1. ‘[Research shows that casual academics] regularly go beyond their contractual obligations’: This is an understatement. For a casual tutor to do their job, they must put in extra hours. A good example of this is where institutions pay tutors just 1 hour of marking for each student across a semester of work, including about 2 essays and maybe an exam or a class presentation. There is no way that all of this, including feedback and entering marks, can be done in that time. The same applies to provisions that allow just 1–2 hours of preparation time for classes.

2. Some casual academics ‘enjoy’ or ‘prefer’ having flexibility: I’m yet to meet an ECR who ‘enjoys’ their precarious work conditions. The authors confuse flexibility for inferiority—if casuals do not ‘have’ to attend meetings, it is because they are not invited or welcome in the first place.

3. Professional development opportunities are recommended: To be realistic, the only worthwhile professional development is proper job experience, including a full-time position allowing an ECR to focus on the course they are preparing and delivering. In other words, learning on the job, with an actual job.

Kirk Graham shared a document that he placed on record at the University of Queensland. It contains anonymous feedback from casuals that reveals the alarming conditions under which many have laboured. The below is a short selection of quotes, edited for further anonymity:

I received a very vague contract without hours or pay scales. I’d like to know why we’re being asked to sign vague contracts with no details and no clarity on how many hours and at what pay grade. Signing on the verbal promise I would get paid correctly felt pretty wrong.


My contract was incorrect, and this has remained ongoing. My pay situation has since been remedied, but it was a constant source of anxiety for the first eight weeks of the semester. I was frequently underpaid, despite numerous emails to staff; time and time again I found my bank account short. I often felt like I was ‘bounced around’ the office, so to speak, and nobody could (or would) help me. The School is becoming more and more reliant on their casual labour force but they seem to have a complete disregard, or a wilful ignorance, of the contributions we make and the work that we do to keep the School running.


We had to work without contracts for at least one subject, even though we repeatedly asked what was happening, with no response. [Three other problems listed.] I could go on. Everyone feels the same, but it seems I am the only one who has the guts to actually get angry about it. It seems nobody else will say anything because the job market is so competitive, nobody wants to jeopardise their career this early.


Casual markers and tutors are allotted hours of work at the beginning of the semester to which they must commit, but the School can reduce those hours arbitrarily. I think a lot of senior academics are simply blind to the material realities of precarity. Cognitive dissonance maybe, or a manifestation of survivor’s guilt?

Imogen Wegman:

For almost as long as I can remember, both of my parents have been self-employed. Throughout my childhood I learned a few key life lessons—take work when it is offered (even if you’re already busy), holidays are for other families, and if you get sick, that’s OK, but no one else will do that work so get ahead then catch up fast. Please don’t misunderstand, I experienced immense privilege in my childhood, love my parents dearly, and had a wonderful time. But I have always known the feast and famine of freelancing.

Today I, a self-professed genius (modesty is for the employed, not the jobseeker), find myself living in similarly precarious position. If I want a holiday, I will pay all the usual costs plus my own salary out of my own savings. If I get sick or am betrayed by my uterus and cannot leave the sofa for a day, I will not be paid. And if someone offers me work, I cannot afford to say no, because my contingency fund needs to be ready for the famine. There are few differences between casuals and freelancers, except the matter of choice. For most who have chosen to strike out alone, they have been allowed to balance out flexibility and autonomy, and all the pros and cons.

Casuals have not.

Let us not forget that in non-academic casual circles the precarity is just as real – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard ‘I lost my job, they just stopped giving me shifts’. Many casuals outside academia work multiple jobs, or are doing it to support their studies, or are studying in their few spare hours to get out of casual jobs. In this discussion we must not forget that excessive casualisation is a blight across all industries. At least in academia we usually know we have until the end of the project or semester. But that doesn’t make it a ‘better’ type of precarity, just different. The casual academic will go home to continue the work preparing a lecture that has to be finished, paid or not, or to work on their ‘publications record’ despite being utterly mentally wrecked. We can adjust our work hours to suit our lives, but that just leads to working on three jobs in one day.

Something has to give, and it’s the quality of the work. Every week thousands of research hours are lost as eager and keen researchers divert their attention away from exploring and communicating new ideas to explain (again, and somewhat ironically) how they have demonstrated that they have excellent time management. I despise how mercenary this system makes me. If I can’t afford the rent, no one else will pay it for me. More than that, it affects my loyalty to projects or institutions—there is little point in getting attached when you are paid by the hour. My tenured colleagues express sympathy and fight for reasonable casual pay rates, but in the same breath mention that the powers-that-be are developing a ‘research expansion plan’ that includes no extra hires.

But my concern is about more than my personal life in the gig-economy, it’s about the intellectual void this system creates. Those of us in the early years of academia aren’t fools, we know the statistics on our chances of staying, and when we leave we take our knowledge and our experience with us. If universities don’t actively encourage and support proper positions for ECRs, they are failing to create a succession plan. When several key staff members retire within a few months and step off the ladder, the diversity of knowledge, methods and backgrounds on the lower rungs is narrow. At the bottom of the ladder are the PhDs, holding it up for everyone else, reaching to climb onto that first rung. But the next occupied rung is far off the ground. With every round of promotions the gap between the groundlings and their senior colleagues grows. It becomes further to reach, a larger knowledge and experience gap to fill. A boss once told me that I should be training ‘myself out of a job’ by raising up my team members to take over from me. In casual roles, we fulfil many of the ‘essential selection criteria’ of junior faculty members, but miss developing the ‘admin’ skills – designing units from scratch, involvement with research/teaching committees, supervising students, all the things the authors of The Conversation article thought we must be happy to miss out on. We are not being trained to take over when the time comes.

Despite all my negativity, for me the system often works. I know my mental limits, I like being busy, I enjoy change. I am healthy, I don’t have dependents, 9–5 does not agree with me. Some of my work is outside academia and every side of my brain gets exercised. But those are all very personal reasons for why, in April 2019, this system is ok for me. Those are all things I’m thankful for, but they don’t give me the stability to develop healthy relationships, get hobbies, or to adopt a cat, let alone make it a sustainable career.

This week has seen the publication of some other important pieces on casualisation and precarity. Fabian Cannizzo blogged on the problems of being a ‘good’ early career academic. In the Campus Morning Mail is a short report that almost all universities in Victoria are dependent on a highly casualised workforce. The Age followed this with an article that includes Shan Windscript’s experiences of working for starvation wages.

There have, of course, been some unpleasant responses. It is one thing when these are comments from people outside academia who believe falsely that all university employees enjoy highly-paid, cushy, relaxed jobs. It is another when fellow academics who have been through these experiences tut-tut and tell casuals that ‘I got through it’. If your response is an implicit ‘I suffered and so should you’ rather than a refusal to let anyone else suffer, this says a lot about you—and none of it is good.

A Conversation About Casualisation, Part Two

Today’s post by Dr Joel Barnes is the second in a short series on casualisation in academia. You can read the first post, by Australian Historical Association Early Career Researcher representative Dr André Brett, here; the third post, which collects reactions from multiple casual/ECR historians, is here. As with the disclaimer on the other posts, the views expressed below are those of the author and do not represent his employer or the AHA.

A recent article in The Conversation has been the subject of significant online criticism of its efforts to justify widespread casualisation as a legitimate labour practice in universities. Casualisation, according to Dorothy Wardale and Julia Richardson of Curtin University, and Yuliani Suseno of Edith Cowan University, is here to stay; it just needs a few tweaks to make it ‘better’. In this post I examine the research underlying these claims, and seek to explain some of the misfires in the extrapolation from the authors’ academic research to The Conversation’s more popular format.

The article follows The Conversation’s usual practice of bootstrapping its content to peer-reviewed research published elsewhere. In this case, the underlying study, written by two of the Conversation article authors and another of their Curtin University colleagues, was recently published in Higher Education Research & Development. A second study also drawn upon remains unpublished. The authors’ research is the source of the claims that ‘many’ academics ‘enjoy the flexibility’ of casualisation, and that many casuals are ‘industry professionals’ with links to the—ahem—‘real world’. The study published so far is hyperlinked in the ‘Benefits of casual academics’ section, but is not mentioned in the text. This failure to show one’s working has contributed to a general interpretation of the article as based not in evidence but in managerial self-interest.

At the outset, Wardale et al. identify three explanations for the growth of casualised labour practices in universities. One is that such arrangements reflect wider trends in the economy as a whole. Another is the ‘flexibility’ casualisation provides, which according to the authors might benefit universities and casual academics alike. Third, casualisation allows universities to reduce labour costs. The last of these explanations is surely essential to understanding the incentives driving casualisation, but Wardale et al. seem relatively uninterested in examining its implications too closely. Had they done so more fully, it would have been difficult to miss the internal contradiction between the recognition that universities employ casuals as a cost-saving measure and the proposals at the end of the article to improve casualisation by tacking on a series of expensive extras—systematic interviewing, proper inductions, and professional development. These proposals would obviate the chief managerial appeal of the casualisation model, namely that it’s cheap. Although the proposals for ‘improvement’ give the Conversation piece its headline and central argument, they do not appear in the study so far published. Presumably they are a focus of the unpublished research, but if so one wonders if the authors’ reading of financial incentives will be any more persuasive in long form.

Instead of financial considerations, Wardale et al. focus mainly on ‘flexibility’. This item of neoliberal jargon by and large signals a gig economy paradigm that privileges the just-in-time needs of employers over the rights of employees to stable work and income. That ‘flexibility’ is in practice a managerial alibi rather than a genuine two-way street is clear from the way it is made to do too much explanatory work in the piece. ‘Flexibility’ is useful when ‘enrolments are fluctuating’, the authors tell us, citing a federal government report showing a 4.6 percent drop in enrolments between 2017 and 2018. This is hardly sufficient explanation for the nearly 50 percent increase in Australian universities’ reliance on casual contracts over the decade 2008–17 (from 15,646 to 23,205 full-time equivalent positions), nor indeed for universities’ reporting of an expected further increase in these contracts—rather than a drop—of 10.5 percent from 2017 to 2018 (actual 2018 figures are not yet available). ‘Flexibility’ is not the real explanation here; the basic fact of the cheapness of casual labour is.

At the same time, Wardale et al.’s reading of ‘flexibility’ warrants some examination. Of the two underlying studies, the one that can be assessed is an interview-based ethnography that makes a qualitative analysis of the positive and negative dimensions of casual academics’ experiences. In the interviews, ‘flexibility’ was indeed a value that respondents highlighted. It is often paired in the authors’ discussion with ‘autonomy’, ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’, and in fairness one should acknowledge that these qualities of academic life are among its chief attractions for many.

The research, however, has serious limitations. It relies on interviews with just fifteen casual academics at two Western Australian business schools. The dataset skews decidedly mature: only five interviewees were under 40 (just one under 30), five were in their 40s, and five were aged 50-plus. A significant proportion of these interviewees were ‘career enders’ easing into retirement with part-time academic work, or experienced ‘industry experts’ working in universities alongside other careers. Such respondents understandably privileged ‘flexibility’ over stability. Only six of the fifteen interviewees were in categories of experience in which casualisation was felt in predominantly negative terms, such experiences being overrepresented among younger respondents. The research describes a qualitative spectrum of casualisation experiences but makes no attempt to assess their representativeness. Thus the bothsidesism of the language of the ‘double-edged sword’—positives and negatives exist as logical opposites rather than as quantitatively measurable phenomena.

Such research methods are fine so far as they go, but they are inadequate to support the extrapolation from nine interviewees with positive views of ‘flexibility’ to the pseudo-quantitative claim that ‘many’ casuals have the same experience. The anomalousness of the business school context and the maturity of the interview pool blind the authors to the reality of casualisation more generally as a practice of systematic exploitation of the cheap and precarious labour of mostly young postgraduates and early career researchers. Most casuals are not experienced ‘industry professionals’ who enjoy a side gig doing a little university teaching. The negative side of insecure work is also likely to be felt most keenly by those with carer responsibilities, those with disabilities, and those who cannot fall back upon personal, spousal or familial resources. Women are as likely as men to be on casual contracts across the sector as a whole (counting both academic and administrative roles), but are underrepresented in more secure senior roles, and overrepresented in teaching-only and research-only academic positions, most of which depend on casual and fixed-term contracts.

In this wider context, the arguments of the Conversation piece have appeared to many as strikingly tone-deaf. The problem is one of extrapolating from a small and unrepresentative dataset, and of attempting to build arguments upon methodologies that do not support them. Mistaking the exception for the rule merely provides cover for managerial cost-cutting at the expense of quality teaching and research, and of casual academics’ financial stability, health and wellbeing. I hope Wardale and her co-authors will read carefully the heartbreaking story published recently in The Atlantic on the death of Thea Hunter, a promising historian whose life was destroyed by a broken system. Hunter’s story represents a far more realistic picture of the cruel realities of casualisation.

A Conversation About Casualisation, Part One

In today’s post, current AHA ECR representative Dr André Brett responds to a controversial recent article on The Conversation as the first entry in a series of at least three about the effects of casualisation in Australian universities-—in general and in History specifically.

I have been considering for some time commencing a new blog series, “Thoughts from the Representative”, to discuss issues relevant to historians who are Early Career Researchers in Australia and to give my perspective. This post is not officially the first in such a series, but it is offered in the same spirit: my reflections on a hot topic relevant to ECRs. It does not express the views of the Australian Historical Association (either the executive or as an organisation), my employer (the University of Wollongong), or anyone else with whom I am affiliated. What it does express is my current thinking, which will no doubt be of interest to those I represent.

Many of you will have seen a recent article in The Conversation by Dorothy Wardale, Julia Richardson, and Yuliani Suseno about casualisation within academia. Its claims and recommendations have provoked strong responses. Insofar as I can tell, these responses from historians in casual employment have been almost entirely negative.

This post is, therefore, the first of at least three. It offers my reflections upon Wardale et al.’s article. The second post, by Joel Barnes, engages with the research underlying the article and interrogates its framing. The third, based on an idea from Effie Karageorgos and Imogen Wegman, collects short reactions from casual academics.

Casualisation a defining experience of ECRs

My term as the Early Career Researcher representative on the Australian Historical Association executive committee has run for about ten months now. In this time, it has become clear to me that the biggest issue facing ECRs is casualisation and the extreme degree of precarity that defines academic employment currently. My position is officially ECR representative, not casual representative, but the preponderance of casualisation and insecure work is such that I might as well be both.

Most concerns expressed to me by ECRs could be ameliorated significantly, if not entirely resolved, by stable and secure conditions of employment. It is galling, then, to read an article on The Conversation that focuses on the maintenance of a destructive model of casual employment—and indeed paints it in a far rosier light than it deserves, one that confers multiple alleged “benefits”.

Casuals: not going anywhere?

A major issue with Wardale, et al.’s article is its premise, as articulated in the title, that casual academics a). are not going anywhere, and b). that universities need to ensure this does not affect learning negatively. This suggests the problem is casuals, not those who choose to employ them casually or that casual employment is inappropriate for the delivery of higher education. It is telling that the authors make no attempt to interrogate the background to casualisation or to question the systems that reinforce it. Rather, they give blasé gestures about it being here to stay, which of course it need not be. Anybody familiar with global university rankings and other metrics knows they form an unhealthy obsession for many decision-makers; if the leading metrics were reframed to punish institutions that hired academics on short-term and insufficiently remunerated contracts, the number of exploitative positions would decline rapidly.

Casual academics are at the coalface of academia. Undergraduate course tutors, who are typically casuals, have the closest and most sustained contact with students. What is their reward? They are treated as disposable. They receive poor conditions and disrespect. Pay is meagre and often late. Senior staff who must approve timecards often fail to do so before deadlines. The difficulties are legion—I have named just a few. The effects of casualisation on the quality of teaching are, of course, serious; Wardale, et al. are not wrong to be concerned about them. But the appropriate response is not to exploit casuals in a “better” way.

Benefits of casualisation?

I want to focus on the “benefits of casualisation” section because it is the most misleading. The authors appear to have assumed that the results of a very narrow ethnographic survey of a business school—one of the least representative of all academic environments—apply to casualisation and academia as a whole.

First, this section misidentifies the casual cohort. In disciplines throughout the humanities—and the sciences—casuals are not older industry professionals sharing their networks and offering students internships. They are younger academics who are vulnerable to exploitation and in a weak position to bargain for better conditions. Worse, as I have said before, appointments and promotions to more secure positions are rarely based on the work that casuals are actually doing: “To win grants or jobs, you need to work in your own time, for no recompense, to produce publishable research. The labour that pays your bills does not advance your career, while the labour that advances your career does not pay your bills. It’s a rort.”

Second, it is almost unbelievable that Wardale, et al. would describe it as positive that casuals go beyond contractual obligations routinely. This is negative: people are doing work and not being paid for it. The reasons for this are multitudinous. Marking must be done and insufficient remuneration is given for it. Personal pride is on the line: if a tutorial were prepared in the time allocated, it would be mediocre and reflect poorly on the academic, so they take extra time. Future job opportunities depend on good student feedback, and many students are unaware of the conditions under which their teachers labour (as an undergraduate, I assumed my tutors were paid at a level similar to their intellect, i.e. very highly). In part it comes down to the simple reality that some departments within Australian universities would cease to function if casuals worked only to the terms of their contracts. Casuals evince far greater loyalty to their students, permanent colleagues, and institutions than their institutions and some permanent colleagues will ever return to them. It is a disgrace.

Third, the authors suggest casuals enjoy not being required to fulfil service requirements within their departments. The reality is contrary. Casuals perform considerable service to their departments and disciplines, often for no recognition whatsoever. It is also clear that younger academics seeking a career and the security to achieve personal goals would readily attend meetings in exchange for better pay and conditions. I have never heard anyone say “I hate annual performance reviews so much that I would rather earn starvation wages”.

Fourth, I have to wonder if the sentence that “[m]any casual academics enjoy the flexibility of working across different institutions” is a joke. It is a sweeping generalisation presented without evidence, and it stands in contrast to the reality that anyone who works across numerous institutions finds their time frittered away with excessive commuting, convoluted online systems, multiple email addresses, divergent administrative expectations, and all the other problems that attend fragmented and insecure work.

Ask the wrong question, get unhelpful answers

Surely the core point should be that casualisation has created a large underclass of academics scraping together jobs simply to get by—bad jobs not designed with the best outcomes in mind for employees or their students. Casual academics work in a system that could remunerate them sufficiently to avoid poverty, overwork, mental health crises, and the like, but it is one that chooses not to. If employment is more stable and secure, academics can deliver better teaching and research. This cannot be achieved with a high level of casualisation. For universities to deliver high-quality education and fulfil one of their main purposes for existing, they must provide sufficient conditions for staff to deliver it. This is obvious.

It is perhaps telling that in trying to present the “benefits of casualisation”, Wardale et al. list a large number of disadvantages: casuals are excluded from scholarly communities, lack security or continuity, cannot access funds for conference or research travel, have no avenues for promotion, and struggle to obtain finance for mortgages and other purposes. Yet, even in stating this, Wardale et al. do not appear to appreciate the dire conditions that casuals endure. The article reads as “how can we best exploit casualisation?” rather than “how can we resolve the crisis of casualisation?” It has asked the wrong questions and, therefore, its suggestions are unhelpful.

Perhaps The Conversation should have commissioned casuals to discuss what might improve their situation and enable better teaching. Even though its business model emphasises connections between its articles and authors’ specific fields of research, a broader discussion of conditions within academia should sit within its remit as an outlet for insights on and from higher education. But I would not advise casuals to write for well-resourced publishers such as The Conversation that will not compensate them for their work. We all know that exposure does not pay the bills.

Emerging Historians—Gwyn McClelland

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Gwyn McClelland, National Library of Australia, 2015.

The latest participant in the Emerging Historians Q&A series is Dr Gwyn McClelland, whose doctorate was conferred by Monash University. He is currently an Associate, teaching at Monash and in 2018 at RMIT Universities in Asian and trans-regional History, Education (Bilingualism) and Japanese language.

How did you come to be a historian?

A few years after I had completed a short thesis in theology for my Master of Divinity, I remember meeting my supervisor-to-be for a coffee next to the library at Melbourne University and discussing my ideas for a PhD project, which I had developed to take my previous research further. I had not really thought hard about which part of the Arts Faculty it would be in, but my supervisor was very encouraging of my proposal. I vaguely thought I would be in Japanese studies. Only when I was accepted into my program did I realise my work would be (had to be) in History! I realised how appropriate this was and quickly began to enjoy the opportunity to enormously widen my understanding of historical methodologies and approaches in research. I am thankful for Monash University researcher Beatrice Trefalt’s encouragement of me to pursue the path of an historian.

Tell us about your PhD research

I utilised an oral history methodology which involved interviewing 12 survivors of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, including 9 who are Catholic. I interviewed around 10 other community members as well, to gain a broader insight into the modern community. I remember one interviewee invited me to his haircut – so I sat behind him, while he talked, and the hairdresser listened in too, to his discussion of his memory of the atomic bomb! Then we caught a taxi to his retirement home. Elements such as this part of the research process didn’t make it into my thesis, but it was moments like this I will never forget! I also appreciated the opportunity to meet like-minded researchers in Japan, including one who had in 2015 published a book about the Catholic narrative of the bombing, from the written record, rather than the oral.

I employed a theological framework that engaged with the testimonies shared with me, ‘dangerous memory’, as conceptualised by German post-war Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz. Various aspects of the interviewees’ memories of trauma at the time and after the atomic bombing suggest their memories are ‘dangerous’ for the status quo, in the US, in Japan, for the Catholic official Church and so on.

Why does it matter?

The Catholic narratives of the bombing were sidelined, or silenced for a number of reasons. Around 70% of the Catholic community around Ground Zero were killed by the atomic bomb, so one reason for silence has been the fracturing of this community. Another was the silence of the official church in Nagasaki. A third is the situation of double and triple marginalisation in which the survivors found themselves after the war (eg. ‘Worshippers of an enemy god’, irradiated and socio-economic prejudices). The research contributes to histories of marginalisation and shows the complex but significant results of atomic warfare, even for those who experience them as children. I contribute to a better understanding of the narrative of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and how the Catholic community who were to be found around Ground Zero experienced this bombing. As well, over the past seventy years, a plethora of research about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima has been produced, while Nagasaki has been relatively neglected.

What are you researching now or intending to do next?

I am presently writing a book out of the thesis, to be published by Routledge later this year in Mark Selden’s ‘Asia’s Transformations’ Series. The book will be titled Dangerous Memory in Nagasaki: Prayers and Protests within Catholic Survivor Narratives. Con-currently I am continuing my search for a position as a post-doc, researcher and/or teacher.

What do you love about being a historian?

It may be clichéd but I love the experience of discovery – my time at the National Library in 2015, where I was supported by a ‘Japan Grant’ was essential to my PhD thesis, allowing me the time to read in Japanese and to discover some of the nineteenth century narratives of the community I was researching. For an oral historian, finding supporting documents, including secondary sources and images is a great way to back up what you find in an interview. Oh, I have to mention another thing I really enjoy – in oral history it is a lot of fun to meet people and to talk with them.

What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?

The financial stresses for my family and I, which mean at the moment I am not sure about future holidays and keep putting off home projects. It is very difficult not knowing what will keep us going over the next university holidays, nor knowing with certainty how many contracts I might be able to land in the following semester.

If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?

I would like to go back to pre-1780s Australia, to see this continent as it was, especially the Birrarung (Yarra) river and the Woiwurrung region (now Melbourne). I think it would have been an amazing and beautiful area at the time.

Emerging Historians—Heather Clarke

Clarke - Heather in Volubilis

Dr Heather Clarke

My name is Heather Blasdale Clarke, I completed a professional doctorate in 2019 at the Queensland University of Technology.  I belong to a rare breed of historians who specialise in dance. Currently, apart teaching historical dance, I’m undertaking the things common to ECRs: writing journal articles, organising conference presentations, and preparing my thesis for publication.

How did you come to be a historian?

I have always been fascinated by history and the stories associated with places. My parents valued heritage and took me to all manner of historic sites; I distinctly remember from an early age visiting Macarthur’s Elizabeth Farm in Parramatta, and my father working on the archaeological dig at First Government House. I also grew up with a strong affinity to Australian folklore, to bush music, song and dance.  As a young adult I realised that there was a gap in our knowledge about early colonial culture: people assumed the harsh conditions of the colony would preclude all recreation. I questioned this assumption and discovered that not only were official balls held, but common people danced regularly. I was enthralled and inspired to read Grace Karskens’ The Colony and The Rocks,  Robert Jordan’s Convict Theatres of Early Australia, and Marion Fletcher’s Costume in Australia, all of which touched on social history and the importance of dance. In former times dance was such an everyday, mainstream activity that it could easily pass without mention – in our modern society where community social dance has essentially disappeared, it is difficult to appreciate the prevalence and significance of dance for our ancestors.

At various times throughout history, dance has been regarded as frivolous, sinful, and unproductive, largely due to the Cartesian dualism that privileged the intellect over feelings, emotions and experience, viewing the body simply as a vehicle to carry the brain. In addition, it was difficult to study dance in an academic manner because it could not be captured and examined. Advances in philosophy now recognise that dance provides its own  epistemology as a different way of knowing the world, and this linked to scientific investigations into the effects of dance (psychological and physiological) has opened enormous possibilities for academic research.

Tracing history through dance. A little known aspect of dance history is that the English country dance, the most popular form of dance in Western society from 1650 to 1830, captured what was happening is society in a remarkable way – important events, significant people, and popular theatre were all reflected in the names of dances. A striking example of this is the dance entitled Botany Bay which was published, along with the music, in 1788.  Dance is a exceptional way to study history as it allows both an intellectual and embodied approach. I became an historian of dance to explore Australia’s own story.

Tell us about your PhD research

Convicts dancing! Could that be true? Although it was known that popular culture had been quickly established in early colonial Australia, little was known of the details. My doctoral research explored social dance for non-elite people in the colony between 1788 and 1840 with a focus on the convicts and ex-convicts who comprised the majority of the population. This was possible through the distinctive set of records which monitored convict lives. Old Bailey court transcripts revealed that dancing was a popular and regular activity for the lower levels of society in London; medical journals on convict ships recorded the beneficial effects of encouraging regular dancing for the prisoners; and police incidents reported in the newspapers demonstrated that dancing was a established pastime in the colony. These findings were further enhanced by accumulating and analysing images of non-elite people dancing, examining contemporary literature and investigating the convict records. This comprehensive database was then utilised in a series of workshops to research the dances themselves. It was found that not only was dancing an exuberant activity, but it also had profound mental, emotional and physiological  benefits. For convicts torn from family, friends, and homeland, dancing encouraged a sense of belonging and community, binding strangers together with social interaction and shared memories of a common cultural experience.

Why does it matter?

This research presents a completely different perspective on Australian history and challenges many of the stereotypes of convict life. Given that history shapes how we view ourselves and our society, this insight into early colonial cultural and labour history has the potential to bring new understandings to our colonial past and the Australian identity.

Not only did the research uncover a lost culture of music and dance in a tangible way,  it also revealed the significance of dance as a way of coping with stress and displacement.  Dance provided a sense of identity, social connection, and at times a form of rebellion for people dealing with a difficult situation. This is supported by recent empirical investigations which highlight the benefits of dance reaching far beyond the physical effects.

It’s an example of history providing insights into how our ancestors endured, coped with oppression and celebrated, and how this can be relevant as a choice for today and into the future.

It’s noteworthy in being the first extensive investigation of dance for non-elite people in  eighteenth and early nineteenth century Western society in a field which has traditionally focused only on ‘high’ culture. It provides a guideline for further research into areas which have hitherto escaped investigation and points to ways in which sources can reveal  unexpected information.

What are you researching now or intending to do next?

I’m continuing to research convict music and dance, working on the website, preparing the thesis for publication, and wondering where to find a publisher. Many areas remain to be explored, such as the links between music, dance and convict theatre, and the influence of the popular ‘lower order’ culture of the convicts and the development of the Australian bush tradition.

A second project concerns the culture of music and dance which celebrated the life of Captain Cook. Hailed as one of the greatest explorers of his age, Cook used dance to maintain the wellbeing of his crew and as a means to communicate with Indigenous people. He was honoured in music and dance within his lifetime, and afterward his death was celebrated in the ballet The Death of Captain Cook. A book in time for the 250th anniversary is the aim.

What do you love about being a historian?

I love the hunt and uncovering lost knowledge. I love asking questions of the archives which have never been asked before – who would imagine the Old Bailey Court transcripts would reveal a vast amount of  information about 18th century dance? I love the intriguing  connections as we look back on the accumulated data and see a vivid and detailed picture emerging. Drawing the threads together and retelling the story and is infinitely satisfying.

What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?

The future is obscure and it’s unclear where to go next. Being heard is an issue, and the uncertainty of anyone actually being  interested. Finding the right publisher and the right audience seems to be incredibly challenging.

If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?

My whole existence has been immersed in Britain and the colony from 1788 to 1840, and although it would be fascinating to be there, I would choose London in 1651. This is the date of the first edition of John Playford’s The English Dancing Master was published  – the final year of the Civil War, Cromwell in power, and Charles II crowned in Scotland. We have the music, the instructions and the context, but we don’t know how people actually danced.

AHA casualisation survey and other items of interest

The Australian Historical Association is currently conducting a survey on casualisation in the History discipline, and its effects. The survey, which will be open until 31 March 2019, is open to members and non-members. We hope to get a wide range of responses and experiences.

abandoned antique architecture buildingPlease note that in the survey, “casual position” is understood broadly, so to encompass all employment that is not ongoing/permanent/tenured. This encompasses fixed-term, full-time, and hourly employment, and all other forms of precarious labour.

The survey is available HERE. Please feel free to distribute the link to other casuals working in Australian tertiary institutions. The more feedback, the better!

Your responses are, of course, anonymous. We anticipate that the survey will take 5 to 30 minutes depending on the level of feedback you wish to provide.

A report based on the survey results is anticipated to be delivered to the AHA executive committee in December 2019 for release in the new year.

Other updates

Don’t forget that abstracts for the Australian Historical Association annual conference are due tomorrow, Tuesday 12 March. The conference is in Toowoomba, hosted by the University of Southern Queensland, and it runs 8–12 July 2019. All information, including how to submit an abstract, can be found on the conference website.

If the prospect of presenting a paper fills you with dread, have a look at our recent blog entry by Lyndon Megarrity with tips on presenting at conferences. Hopefully it will be the encouragement you need to join us in Toowoomba. I promise we’re a friendly and supportive bunch!

If you are unsure whether to submit to a specific stream and your paper has an economic slant, remember that the Economic History Society of Australia and New Zealand offers a prize for the best paper by a postgrad or ECR that is presented in the conference’s economic history stream. The paper must be submitted before the conference, but you’ve got until 17 June to do that. The important thing right now is marking your abstract submission as relevant to the economic history stream.

Other prizes and bursaries are available; see the website. ECRs should note the Jill Roe Conference Scholarship Scheme, applications for which are due today, 11 March. Good luck to those of you finalising your applications!

How To… Present a Conference Paper

Submissions for this year’s Australian Historical Association conference, hosted in Toowoomba by the University of Southern Queensland, are due this Thursday, 28 February 2019 (new date: Tuesday 12 March 2019). For many postgraduates and early career researchers, presenting a paper can be a daunting experience. The good news: it need not be! In this entry, Lyndon Megarrity offers his tips for how to present effectively.

Megarrity LTM B&W

Lyndon Megarrity, adjunct lecturer at James Cook University, member of the AHA executive committee.

Does the thought of 400–500 historians creating a cacophony of noise in a conference venue fill you with anxiety and dread? Does the idea of getting up and presenting a paper seem like a fate worse than death? These are natural feelings: most of us suffer from nerves and anxiety as we try to make a good public impression.  However, good preparation and a thoughtful, positive attitude can help conference-goers transcend all those internal fears and doubts when they get up to deliver a paper.

Thoughts and Advice on Giving a Paper

  1. You can’t do everything in 20 minutes. In preparing your speech, either try to write a broad overview, or tell a story which sheds light on a wider theme.
  2. Stick to time. Generally speaking, AHA conferences give you 20 minutes for the formal presentation and 10 minutes question time. It is unfair on your fellow presenters and the audience to go overtime. Time yourself beforehand so that you know that you are under the time limit, thus avoiding a) having your presentation cut off abruptly by the chairperson before your conclusion; b) having limited time for questions if the chair lets you go overtime; or c) having people look at their watches and disengage.
  3. Include visuals (e.g. PowerPoint Slides). We live in a visual age, and sometimes a visual element to a presentation helps us to engage with a speaker and sit up and take notice. You may believe that you can get by on the strength of your powerful and expressive voice alone, but remember that there may be many people in the audience who are not immediately enthralled by your topic: you need to get them to pay attention and engage, and well-thought out visuals can do this.
  4. Vary your tone, and remember that while your topic may be old to you, it is new to others. Too many presentations are spoiled by the speaker speaking in a monotone and not making the most of that powerful instrument, the voice. In some ways, the conference presenter must be an actor, highlighting the most interesting parts of the story or theme so that the full significance of your research becomes clear to the audience.
  5. Remember your audience. You need to think how you would like to be addressed as an audience member hearing your speech. In writing your paper, try to avoid jargon and terms which might be unfamiliar to those outside your field. Further, a relaxed but engaged tone, and a willingness to gaze at different sections of the room at various times, will help you win the audience.
  6. Prepare but do not over-prepare. Ideally, you need to be familiar with the contents of your paper so that you can retain a reasonable amount of eye contact with the audience so that you are not just ‘reading’ the paper with your head down. Practise the paper several times but not so much that it seems stale (if it seems stale to you, it will sound stale to others). It is a good idea to rehearse the night before, but it is equally a good idea to give the paper a rest on the day of the presentation so when the times comes, you will approach it with some degree of freshness.
  7. Accept that mistakes happen to the best of us. You may mispronounce the surname of a famous historian, nerves might make you trip over a phrase, the PowerPoint slides may be placed in the wrong order, a question from the audience might stump you … these things happen. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Usually, it is best to try and move on with the presentation rather than drawing further attention to the ‘faux-pas’. Make a mental note for next time if it is something you can fix at the next conference with more preparation.
  8. Question time comes to us all. Question time is difficult and sometimes awkward, because you are being impromptu, without the help of a text. Your personal knowledge and background re: the topic and its context should help guide you through most questions. Give yourself some breathing space before answering a tough question. Be prepared to ask someone to repeat a question if you do not fully understand it. Be prepared (very occasionally) to admit that you can’t fully answer a question and perhaps throw the question to a relevant expert in the room. In addition, be on the lookout for the notorious ‘look at me’ questioner who is essentially advertising their own position on the topic rather than genuinely seeking information. In such situations, all you can do is be as graceful as possible and do your best to make the questioner feel that their contribution has been acknowledged.
  9. Reflect on the presentation. You’ve got through it! Well done! Think about the positives and how you can enhance them in future. Think about what was not so effective and how you might improve it for next time.

All information about this year’s Australian Historical Association conference, including how to submit a paper proposal, can be found on the conference website. There are a number of bursaries and prizes available, too.

How To… Be a Tour Guide

In our first blog post of the year, Dr Imogen Wegman provides a guide to tour guiding. Imogen, who recently completed her PhD in History at the University of Tasmania, talks about the joys and frustrations of leading tour groups, explains how it can improve your skills as a scholar and communicator, and shares some selections from her collection of memorable moments.

An older man stands in front of the cells in the Port Arthur Penitentiary, admiring the ruins of the stone walls and floors. He turns to his family, clearly proud about deducing the purpose of these small rooms. He declares them to be shower cubicles. As a tour guide, there are times to feign deafness, but some things cannot be ignored. I step forward, “Uh, sir, these were the cells, where the prisoners were kept, where they slept. Not showers.” He insists, pointing at the little stone shelf built into the wall, “Showers! For the soap!” His companions look on, uncertain who to believe. I try once more, this time showing him the illustrated information board. “See?” No. I would not be winning that battle. Another guest calls for my attention, and with some relief I move away.

Wegman 20180210_160818For the past six summers I have worked as a tour guide in Hobart, taking guests from the cruise ships that visit our harbour out to experience some of southern Tasmania’s heritage, culture and food. This was a welcome break as I researched and wrote my thesis. But it was more than a change of scene. I started tour guiding and my PhD in the same summer, and I quickly found it to be an extension of my academic work. With limited opportunities for teaching within the university, guiding is an effective place to practise communicating complicated concepts to the most general of audiences.

There are lots of different types of tour guiding – site-based, themed, multi-stop, posh, regular… I usually work on tours booked onboard, chosen by guests for the stops on the route. The compulsory part of my job is to get them all back to the ship on time and in one piece. I work alongside a coach driver (although a lot of companies use driver-guides), and any talking I do en route is up to me.

Like giving a conference paper, multiplied by fifty

Being a tour guide is not for everyone. You become a performer for a captive, but not always captivated, audience and it can be a confronting exercise. At any given moment, only half of your audience will actually be listening to you. They have come on this tour to see Australian animals or taste Tasmanian wines, not to get a history lesson. Your audience will probably have some retired academics, but it will also have young couples, eastern European oligarchs, American ranch owners, Indigenous peoples, children, and a shaky granddad sent on tour by a family who want someone else to look after him.

*murblemutter from the back of the coach*

Me: “Can everyone at the back hear me?”

Them shouting: “No!”

*Twiddles mic volume* “How about now?”

Them: “No! It’s not you mate, there’s a bloody rude woman on her phone and we can’t hear over her!”

The questions they ask won’t be theory-laden trip hazards, but they will reveal prejudices you need to decide how to address. In Tasmania I am regularly asked if this island ever had an Indigenous population. This is despite spending the first twenty minutes of the tour talking about the history of the island before 1788. Holiday brain is real, and it makes people forget everything.

You’ll need a thick skin – the grumpy uncle who thinks doing a PhD is a waste of time also goes on holiday, and doesn’t keep his views for the family table. My usual response to rudeness is to mentally catalogue that person and their behaviour as fodder for future dinner party stories, while tossing my head with an insincere laugh and walking away. I have an entire digital folder of amusing moments. Guests will also insist that they are right, which will equip you for dealing with those inevitable statement-questions at conferences.

How to get into it

My mother has been guiding for the cruise ships for years, and as the new season approached in 2013 she mentioned to her bosses that I could ‘talk under wet cement’. I accompanied a couple of tours to see how it worked, and then I was in. In my experience this is how a lot of the touring industry works – I have been offered tour guide positions based on an official application process, but have also seen a lot of emails from the bosses asking for new names to add to their lists.

Not everyone has a contact on the inside, but if you think you might like to get into tour guiding, start by looking on TripAdvisor for reviews of tour companies in your area, watching for clues about the guides they hire – reviewers often mention that their guide is studying if they think it affected the quality. Go on some tours and talk to the guides – they might tell you who to contact, and you’ll get a feel for how the companies operate.

Do I need tour guide training?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. In Tasmania there are no requirements of certification, but that might vary around Australia. Even if nothing is required, it is good practice to think critically about every tour you have ever been on – what did you enjoy about the guide’s performance, what not? If I have an experienced driver I’ll often ask for their feedback at the end of the day. Often companies are looking for employees with some kind of heavy vehicle license, so they can talk and drive at the same time, but walking tours around our cities are getting more popular, and site-specific tours don’t usually require any driving.

A couple have an album of their visit to Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary from a few years earlier. They are determined to recreate some of the photos.

Her: Where can I hold a koala bear?

Me: Oh, holding them stresses them out, but you can go and have a photo next to one.

Him: But we held one last time, here’s the photo. Is that somewhere else?

Me: No, that’s here, but the person holding it is an employee, and she’s holding a wombat, not a koala.

Her: So you know her? Why can she hold a koala bear?

Me: Well, it’s a wombat…

Her: No, it isn’t.

Me: Yes, it is. They’re from the same family, so they do look a little similar…

Her: But how can I hold a koala bear like she is?

Me: *exit left, with haste*

So, what do I talk about?

Some companies give their guides scripts to learn and recite, but the best companies will encourage you to do some research and find new stories to tell. I have the advantage of researching Tasmanian history, so there has been a direct conversion from my thesis into a commentary. Not everyone researches local history that can feed directly into their guiding however, but we are not bound by our research topics. As trained researchers, we have the skills to filter good research from bad, fact from fiction, and I would argue that this is what makes us valuable guides.

I focus on a narrative that runs from 40,000 years ago to the late-nineteenth century. As we drive this is broken up by discussion about local landmarks and smaller stories – non-Australians love hearing about the Bunnings Onion-Sausage debacle if we go past a prominent hardware store. I try to end each of my history bits at a key point, and then pick it back up later when there’s another stretch of road. I don’t usually tell them explicitly about my PhD unless it comes up in conversation, although I will sometimes mention that I’m a historian.

Listen to how your guests respond. The questions they ask reveal a lot. Some questions will tell you they just weren’t listening, but don’t take that personally. There are usually some engaged guests who ask for clarification or more information. Ask yourself if that meant you used too much jargon, or didn’t explain a fundamental concept? In my first tours I heard a lot of surprise that convicts would receive land grants, because I hadn’t properly explained that the earliest convicts sent to the colonies were young, fertile, healthy, and chosen to populate and build a new centre of British control. Generally I try to remain neutral, aware that every tour group includes a broad political spectrum. I am unwilling to spark off a fight in a fully-packed coach.

Find a balance between simplification and too much detail. Credit your group with some brains, and remember that often people think history is boring because of the way it’s told, rather than the content. Tell some humorous stories, a bit of mild gore, some adventure, but do what we are trained to do – use it to illustrate a larger point about the convict system, supply shortages, whatever part of the history you are up to. Practise using humour to make a serious point, but be careful and be receptive to the response. If something doesn’t work, try telling it differently next time – you will end up on the same route hundreds of times, use that to refine and hone your skills.

Be aware of what your guest is actually asking. They will ask questions that seem dumb, but consider what might be pushing that question – what basic principle might they not be familiar with? This applies also in academia, where we tend to assume understanding as we work with expert audiences, which can be frustrating for newbies to the field. View your topic as an outsider would. For Americans this might be the role of a governor within Commonwealth countries, for older Australians it might relate to mid-twentieth century school lessons about the ‘extinction’ of the Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples.

A conversation I have at least once every tour

A: I’m looking for Bus 7.

Me: Yep, you’re with me, on this one here.

A: This one?

Me: Yes, this is number 7.

A: You’re sure?

Me: Yes.

A: Honey, she says this is our bus.

B: Number 7? This one here?

A: Apparently.

B: This is our bus?

Me: Yes! Number 7!

B: Oh. OK.

This job has been met by some academics with scorn – recently on hearing that I had started a few regular jobs post-PhD, someone commented that I ‘must be able to stop with all that tour guide stuff now.’ But with every tour I am becoming a better communicator of history. I am nowhere near perfect, but I do credit this job with improving my written and oral storytelling skills. So, every time someone tells me they’d learned something new, has an engaged question, or asks for a book recommendation to learn more, I do a little happy dance because what I’m doing might just work.

School’s out for summer?

It’s Friday, 21 December 2018, and here at the University of Wollongong the corridors are very quiet indeed. I have not seen anyone all day down my end of Building 19, a notorious rabbit warren where usually at least a few lost souls are wandering around hoping to find a printer, a kitchenette, a classroom, or maybe just a way out. Office doors are closed and locked (I assume; I haven’t been randomly testing doorhandles). The classroom opposite my office is, for once, quiet. The only person to make tea today in the kitchenette nearest me is, well, me—this entry is brought to you by my fourth pot for the day of T2’s Morning Red blend.

brown wooden dock over body of water

I guess everyone’s already down by the water?

So, clearly, people have already skedaddled for Christmas. But what does summer and the holiday season mean for ECRs, especially historians in Australia? I put out a call for comments on Twitter a couple of days ago and solicited a few more from colleagues not on that platform. I have not been able to name everyone personally, but all the responses on Twitter can be read through the preceding link.


Overwhelmingly, it appears that summer is writing season. If even half the ambitions expressed come to pass, there ought to be a bumper crop next year of journal articles from our emerging historians. Jillian Beard notes that her first summer post-thesis is a busy one, with two journal articles and a fellowship application on the go. For some, the writing projects are even larger, extending to book manuscripts. Ben Wilkie, our most recent Q&A participant, is one of them. Ana Stevenson, another Q&A veteran, also has a book on the go, but she highlights one of the challenges for historians with appointments in the Global South: the holiday season gives her the opportunity to read books inaccessible in South Africa.

Working (no exclamation mark)

We all have our rent and bills to pay—indeed, for those without the security of an ongoing contract, this is probably the overriding concern. Will there be tutoring work next semester? Will funding applications be approved? The stress and anxiety of wondering where the money comes from is acute for many at this time. So it is unsurprising that some respondents are only taking a few days off before returning to teaching summer courses, or have lined up contracts to perform research assistance (RA) over the holidays. Poor Mahsheed Ansari mentions that there is still marking to do! Chelsea Barnett, whose Q&A went live in September, has RA and admin work because, as she puts it, there is “No rest for the wicked… or for ECR academics, apparently.”  Speaking personally, before I began my (fixed-term) appointment here at Wollongong, I spent my summers at the University of Melbourne performing as much RA as possible. Let me tell you, being in the old Arts West, now replaced by an inferior modern showpiece, on New Year’s Eve was even more surreal than being in UOW Building 19 right now (somebody just walked past my office! What is happening!).


Summer, hopefully, is not all work. Many respondents have carved out at least some time to rest—”rest, rest, and rest”, as Kim Kemmis says. Anne Rees is spot on about the need to resist “academia’s busyness culture” because “good scholarship requires a fresh mind”. But Anne also highlights that the ability to take leave and refresh the mind is a privilege of employment that not all ECRs possess. For people with appointments such as mine or Anne’s, we can take leave if we want, knowing that we will still have income over summer. For casuals, this season is often a poor one: every day taken to recharge the batteries is a day’s pay foregone. It speaks poorly of the modern university that the demands for greater productivity are not coupled with the means for a large portion of the academic workforce to have the rest necessary to produce quality scholarship.


But enough critiquing the modern university; we will all keep doing that in 2019, no doubt. It appears that those of you who are taking time off—by whatever means you have managed to secure it—are really looking forward to some solid reading. More than one respondent remarked on the opportunity to read fiction as a startling novelty. Ben Wilkie quips that he will be “reading a fiction book for once”. Effie Karageorgos, another past Q&A contributor, is keen to sit down with some Agatha Christie. I have been waiting to read Claire Coleman’s novel Terra Nullius since October: I took it on a flight but spent the whole trip writing, and have not had another opportunity to pick it up until this week. I have just reached the twist, and I can say that this book is a treat.


I am not travelling for the first Christmas in years—I’ve talked some of my family into visiting me. But many of you are off to see family. Others have foreign holidays lined up. Hannah Loney, a historian in Melbourne who is not on Twitter, wrote to me to describe two glorious weeks in Indonesia: time to read, to swim in the ocean, and to enjoy good food and drink. And now she feels refreshed, able to take on journal article submissions, book proposals, and teaching preparation. She notes that although it’s not great to lack paid leave, one perk of casual appointments is being able to just book the tickets and go. Certainly when I was at Melbourne Uni I did similar, making trips to New Zealand during quiet periods of employment without needing permission from anyone. Having paid leave is a delight, something I scarcely believe I am entitled to after years of casual contracts, but the associated paperwork is not a thrill.


It would be remiss of me if I wrote this entry without dishing out some congratulations. You might recall the recent call for applications for the Australian Historical Association–Copyright Agency ECR Mentorship scheme. All the applications received were of high quality, attesting to considerable talent, insight, and ambition. The panel of judges were delighted to award the six mentorships to Jillian Beard, Margaret Cook, Nicholas Ferns, James Keating, Mia Martin Hobbs, and Ryan Strickler. Some of them gave comments in reply to the summer activities tweet—it sounds like they will soon be getting stuck into the articles funded under the mentorship. I, for one, am really looking forward to what they produce. With any luck I might be able to shine a spotlight on it during 2019 with this blog.


Speaking of this blog, if you are interested in participating, please get in touch. I want to hear from you whether you would like to do a Q&A (either the series for ECRs or that for established scholars), write a how-to guide, describe a book or other object that changed your life, or propose a new feature. A number of people have suggested that a series on Academics With Children would be welcome, so I am keen to hear from scholars at any stage of their career, with children of any age, who would like to discuss experiences and issues facing parents in the tertiary sector. I am also interested if any reasonably well established scholar would like to write a “how to survive your first academic conference” guide for our newest historians.

Contact me, André Brett, at abrett@uow.edu.au if you’re keen.


Honestly, Mr Burns was on to something if you ask me.

It might be the holiday season, but email now if you wish; you won’t get an out-of-office reply. I will only be taking off the public holidays because I actually like working through summer. Heat is unbearable, the sun is not my friend, and I did not become a historian to spend time outside. You will find me tapping away on grant applications, book manuscripts, and book reviews—but, as a sop to the season, I might be doing it from my desk at home with the pleasant hum of cricket on TV in the background. I like my office in Building 19, rabbit warren though it may be, but installing a television might be excessive.

All the best for the holiday season. Go crack open a beverage of your choice (a beer for me), grab a good book (because it seems that’s what all of you want to do), and settle down somewhere comfortable (even if it’s outside). See you in 2019!

Emerging Historians—Dr Ben Wilkie

Wilkie - mugshot

Dr Ben Wilkie

My name is Dr Ben Wilkie, and I completed my PhD at Monash University. I graduated back in 2014. For work, I am sometimes a casual academic. I am also an Associate with the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Otago, Dunedin, and have been elected as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. I dabble in music writing and reviewing on a freelance basis, too, but mostly I’m busy at home being a dad to my eight-month-old son Harry.

How did you come to be a historian?

I came to be a historian through a series of happy accidents. At home, growing up, we had lots of books around, and we were encouraged to be curious about the world. Public education can be hit or miss in rural Australia, but at primary and secondary school I had some excellent teachers with a passion for history. I ended up doing two sets of VCE History. I wasn’t going to go to university, but all my good friends were leaving town for Melbourne and I had serious fear-of-missing-out. My first degree was to be a Bachelor of Music. In my second year, I had the chance to go on a tour of Russia and Scandinavia with a string ensemble—my first international trip!—and followed that up with a holiday in Germany. In Berlin, I was struck by the immediacy and presence of the past throughout the city, a landscape politicised in the extreme and scarred by history. It all inspired me. I remember getting onto a computer at the hostel we were staying and enrolling myself in a handful of history units for the coming semester. Six months later, I had decided to drop my music degree to focus on studies in History and Philosophy.

Undergraduate history would eventually lead to an offer from the university to do an honours degree with a scholarship, in which I started one dissertation—‘Music, the Virgin Mary, and Lay Devotion in Early Modern Florence’—and dropped it halfway through to do another topic, which was about Scottish migrants in and around my hometown in the Western District, Hamilton. This was a much more accessible and affordable topic for me at the time, and I did well enough to get a PhD spot with a faculty scholarship and later support from the Australian Postgraduate Award.

In between all of this were numerous near-total dropouts from my studies, personal crises, the first semester of a law degree, multiple aborted attempts to enrol in a Masters of Theology, regret that I never finished my B.Mus, and regret that I never finished that really great sounding first honours dissertation. I would be lying if I said the provision of scholarships to undertake honours and HDR degrees wasn’t a key factor swinging my decision-making as an early-20-something-year-old with very little idea of what he wanted to be when he grew up. So, yes, a series of accidents and wrong turns, and perhaps a few carrots along the way too.

Tell us about your PhD research

My PhD was, eventually, titled ‘Weaving the tartan: Culture, imperialism, and Scottish identities in Australia, 1788-1938’. In essence, it was a broad social and cultural history of the Scottish diaspora in Australia from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century, and I situated this story in a wider imperial and colonial context. One way to think of it is that I was seeking to add an Australian case study to the growing literature on Scotland and the Empire. In light of contemporary criticism of some of the ‘contribution histories’ and ‘ethnic biographies’ of the 1980s I wanted to return to some old ground and reframe the story of the Scots in Australia. I was particularly interested in Scottish migrations, business connections, and cultural maintenance, as well as the diversity of the diaspora itself in terms of religion, politics, identity, and so on.

Why does it matter?

It matters because, when it comes to the British Empire and the European colonisation of Australia, Australian historians have not been very good at drawing distinctions between the various national components of these phenomena. An exception might be the Irish and Irish Catholics, whose traditional association with the working class and the left side of politics perhaps made them more attractive to historians of a previous generation. Otherwise, the distinct English, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish relationships to Empire are overlooked in our historiography. And so my PhD and subsequent research responded to two concerns. First, historians such as Ann McGrath have encouraged us to untangle the component ethnicities homogenised as ‘white’ in the context of settler colonial histories, and where my work most strongly attends to this challenge is in discussions of Scottish-Indigenous relations. Second, the historian of imperial Britain, John MacKenzie, has long argued for a more nuanced, ‘four nations’ approach to British history and the history of the British Empire: this is where my emphasis on Scotland’s relationship and contribution to imperialism and colonialism fits in. Calls such as these have been heeded in many other contexts, but there was little on Scotland, Australia, and Empire, and so my PhD also attempted to fill that gap in the literature.

What are you researching now or intending to do next?

I’m expanding my Scottish research beyond Australia to other parts of the world, and I’m focusing on Scottish commerce, trade, and enterprise in the economic, social, and political development of Britain’s colonies. Right now, specifically, I’m looking at Scottish missionaries and commercial activities in central Africa in the late-nineteenth century. I’m hoping to secure some travel funding to really get into this topic, but otherwise I’ll just plod along as usual. Next year I’m giving talks on everything from Robert Burns statues in Australia and New Zealand, to Scottish pastoralists in the Western District of Victoria, to the Enlightenment in Scotland, so I think I’ll always be doing something Scottish.

I’ve also been dabbling in environmental histories—sometimes histories that intersect with my Scotland and Empire work, but mostly separate side projects. The first of these has been some work on the history of land management and conservation in the Australian defence forces, and I’ve published a bit on the Army’s restoration of the Puckapunyal Military Training Area, for example. The second is a bit more substantial: I’m writing a new social, cultural, and environmental history of the Grampians-Gariwerd national park in Western Victoria, and that’s due to be published as a book next year. Although, in the current research funding context, there is some instrumental value in topics such as these, I am mostly motivated out of sheer curiosity.

What do you love about being a historian?

Somewhere along the way, perhaps while still at high school, I read AJP Taylor’s introduction to The Communist Manifesto, and remember feeling enthralled by the analytic power of history, as well as the two very different perspectives on how history unfolds contained within the covers of that book. I was never quite convinced by the largely ahistorical approach to philosophical ideas that I had encountered to that point, and Taylor’s introduction to the Manifesto is a good example of how to historicise a subject, not to explain it away, but to provide a more complex understanding of what’s going on, and to highlight how deeply rooted such things are in the circumstances of their time. There’s a joke that the historian’s battle cry is ‘It’s complicated!’, but it’s true, and one of the things I love about being a historian is the opportunity and responsibility to have a go at teasing out these complexities. Often this means being content with messy explanations, sometimes it means contradicting the popular or politically convenient view of things, but ultimately being able to grasp nuance—to hold more than one idea in your head at the same time, as they say—is a rare gift.

What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?

The issues facing early career academics are well-rehearsed, and rightly so: precarity is the lived experience of most scholars active in historical studies as teachers and researchers, and we need to keep reminding the discipline of this salient fact. Casualisation continues apace. Metrics fever has infected even our peak representative bodies. Professional success seems to rest on who you know and how competent you are at filling out paperwork. All of that. But the most challenging aspect at the moment is finding allies. Something like casualisation elicits little more than a sympathetic sigh from our more established colleagues these days, if casuals are recognised as colleagues at all. There is no apparent motivation, at an individual and material level, for full-time, permanent academics to challenge the emergent status quo that has made life difficult for early career scholars; no one is standing around staff rooms complaining that they have to do research while a casual is teaching their units.

I think what we must do as early career academics is continuing to voice our frustrations and concerns, even if that means ticking off some senior historians and organisations along the way. At the same time, we need to resist giving in and playing their game. The most interesting research in Australian history is coming from early career academics, including PhD candidates, and bending our work to suit the needs of increasingly corporatised universities and hostile governments can only lead the discipline into stagnation. If this means ‘doing history’ outside the traditional pathways of academic history, which is an option many are fruitfully exploring already, then so be it.

If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?

I think the historical period I would go back to would be the eighteenth-century in Scotland sometime: The Act of Union, Jacobite rebellions, the Clearances, industrialisation and urbanisation, the Scottish Enlightenment, all of that. I wouldn’t live long enough to see it all, but these were monumental transformations, many of which we’re still dealing with. Of course, many places and many times can claim much the same, but Scotland is obviously a personal favourite of mine, and I wouldn’t mind a holiday to the Scottish Highlands right about now.

AHA–Copyright Agency Ltd Early Career Researcher Mentor Scheme

If you are a historian resident in Australia who is a member of the Australian Historical Association and received their PhD within the past two years (i.e. 2017 or 2018), you should submit for the AHA-Copyright Agency Ltd Early Career Researcher Mentor Scheme.

The scheme offers successful applicants $1,500 and the opportunity to develop new articles with the guidance of a senior mentor of their choice.

Full information about the award, eligibility, and how to enter are on the AHA’s website here.

Note that at least three awards will go to applicants based outside NSW, VIC, and the ACT, and that at least one will go to a regional applicant. Indigenous ECRs are strongly encouraged to apply.

Applications are due Friday 23 November 2018. Successful applicants will be informed in early to mid December. We suggest that in preparing timelines as part of the application, applicants should start the timeline no earlier than January 2019.

Good luck!

Emerging Historians Q&A—Tyson Retz

Retz - AHA photo

A/Prof. Tyson Retz—AHA member since 2013.

Today’s Q&A is with Tyson Retz, Associate Professor of History Education at the University of Stavanger, Norway. He completed a PhD in history with joint supervision from philosophy at the University of Melbourne in 2016.

1. How did you come to be a historian?

I didn’t set out to become a historian. I knew from my first day at university that I wanted to be a scholar. Towards the end of my degree in International Studies at the University of Adelaide, I considered my options in French studies, Asian studies and political philosophy. Though a substantial chunk of my degree had been in history (the degree in International Studies had compulsory history courses and I studied history almost exclusively during a one-year exchange at a French university), pursuing a higher degree in the discipline was not on my radar. I did in fact begin an honours degree in politics exploring theories of nationalism in the Chinese context. I returned from France thinking with the simplicity of youth that there were enough Europeans studying Europe, and that I might better be off concentrating my efforts closer to home at the beginning of the ‘Asian century’. A kind and generous lecturer, Gerry Groot, reached out and encouraged me to go to China to learn the language and combine it with my background in French. None of this happened because midway through that year, 2008, I was offered a position as research officer to a select committee of the South Australian Legislative Council. I had done a parliamentary internship the previous year, and was asked on the basis of the report I had written.

I relocated to Melbourne after that and enrolled in a Master of Teaching, judging it wise to gain a professional qualification while deciding on a topic for a research degree. Things from then developed according to their own momentum. My training as a secondary school history teacher introduced me to concepts of historical thinking, among which was empathy. This concept seized my attention as an ideal candidate for further examination, combining as it did my interests in history, philosophy and politics. Stuart Macintyre agreed to keep an eye on my progress and planted the idea that I reintegrate my natural allies in history and philosophy when I expressed an interest in taking the project to the doctoral level. I became a historian when I came to appreciate that the historical method is both the most open and exact of the human sciences. Defending history’s status as a discipline has been a concern of mine ever since.

2. Tell us about your PhD research

I investigated the concept of empathy in historical studies, beginning with the way that it became a central component of the ‘new history’ that emerged from changes to the English school system in the 1960s. The thesis (and now book) moved on to examine empathy’s origins in German historicism and the relation of that tradition to the philosophy of history of R.G. Collingwood, whose doctrine of re-enactment has long and mistakenly been described as a concept of empathy. A final part returned to the educational scene to delineate the implications of empathy’s development in different traditions of historical thought.

The project was a dual exploration of empathy’s educational and intellectual history. Given its basis in the history of ideas, I had to strike a balance between diachronic description and synchronic analysis. I have always been impressed by philosophers who write in the historical mode and historians who write with conceptual acuity. This approach (I resist the idea that it was interdisciplinary: it employed the historical method to explain the development of a concept across various fields) gave me a varied stock of material with which I was able to publish during my candidature.

3. Why does it matter?

That is for others to decide. I can point out that I identified inadequacies in empathy’s methodological formulation and, I hope, provided a matrix for practice and further research. I can also observe that, in addition to researchers in history education, my work has found an audience among intellectual historians and philosophers of history. I describe myself as an intellectual historian and philosopher of history with an expertise in history education, and I place them in this conjunction for good reason. A problem I noted in entering the field is that a large portion of research in history education operates in isolation from the history discipline that it purports to represent. This is understandable given the preponderance of psychological and economical models in educational research. I swam against this tide by rooting my investigations of empathy not in modern-day thinking about the concept, but rather in empathy’s emergence and development in the history of historical thought, defending the idea that history provides us with a tremendous resource for holding up to analysis present-day mindsets, beliefs and practices.

In a research environment where ‘impact’ can count for more than insight, I take empathy to denote a historical comportment truly open and ready to learn from the past. What is empathy, after all, if it is not suspending one’s own thoughts and feelings in order to capture and enter into those of another person? I’ll be satisfied if I have said something useful about how this applies to people who lived in the past.

4. What are you researching now or intending to do next?

I have a background in French that empathy’s German pedigree consigned to disuse. My next project examines how France’s religious and philosophical traditions shaped the country’s historical culture from 1750 to 1850. There is a long-held view that the Enlightenment displaced religion as a way of understanding the past. I begin with and critically evaluate the idea that the secularisation of historical thought should be understood as a transposition of beliefs and patterns of behaviour from the religious to the secular sphere, rather than a transition from a religious to a secular worldview. The period saw the attempt to obliterate the national religion, its rehabilitation alongside the furthering of republican principles in Napoleonic rule, a Catholic revival and Restoration, and finally the triumph of the republican ideal. All the while, a form of historical consciousness was being developed that codified the disciplinary procedures of a strictly scientific approach to investigating the past. As with my work on empathy, this concept of ‘historical consciousness’ will be isolated and placed under particular scrutiny as perhaps the most indiscriminately used concept in present-day historical discourse.

A second topic that I am soon to explore comes under the auspices of a European Research Council project based at Tallinn University, where a group of intellectual historians are investigating the way in which changing attitudes towards progress in interwar Europe affected the political imagination. I have proposed a study of how British liberals influenced by different forms of idealism reimagined the relationship between past and present in putting forward their visions of politics.

Smaller projects include a biographical sketch of a Melbourne French teacher who did much to promote French language and culture in Australia, an analysis of historical thinking concepts needed for studying different scales of time in history, and the methodology of historical reenactment.

5. What do you love about being a historian?

Being paid to read and write. Even on the slim PhD stipend, and after having earned a decent wage as a secondary school teacher, the feeling was never lost on me that I was enjoying a tremendous privilege. Part of this feeling was knowing that I belonged to a long line of thinkers who had wrestled with the same problems that I was discovering in my books, which I borrowed en masse and consulted daily for inspiration and enlightenment. I have met scholars who say that they rarely visit the library. To me this is unfathomable. Libraries are the physical expression of the life of the mind and to be protected at any cost.

Historians are masters in delineating continuity and change as well as in attributing significance to things past and present, though I must appeal that this comment not be taken to suggest that historians know any better what the future might hold (I am always perplexed at history talks how seamlessly the questions shift from historical explainer to crystal ballist). That feeling of belonging to something much larger continues to mark my days. This is my favourite part of being a historian: the connection with great thinkers and great ideas. Historians study people and their complex relations with the natural and social world. They pave ways between freedom and necessity, showing how human beings change their circumstances but also how their actions are constrained by circumstances. The best draw a relevance from a seeming irrelevance, a significance from an apparent insignificance. By reading them, the world in which I live is greatly enriched. Even better, I earn a crust by adding to that stock of human knowledge when I teach and write myself.

6. What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?

There is merit in the argument that I am no longer an ECR. I now enjoy the benefits of ongoing employment and can take a long-range approach to planning my various research projects, knowing that I will have the time and resources to complete them. Those dreadful nouns associated with ECR status—impecunity, insecurity, uncertainty, precarity, casualisation—have been replaced with their antonyms.

This is not to say that I no longer face challenges as a young scholar. There are the usual demands of having to maintain research productivity, win grants and form networks. But these professional pressures part and parcel of the job pale in comparison with the life pressures of being on the hunt for ongoing or at least medium-term positions that are all too few and far between.

Like most, I had to search high and low for a position and be willing and ready to uproot myself in the event that an application were successful. This took its toll. Every application was an emotional investment. One moment I would be imagining myself in northern Sweden pounding snow-clad running tracks, and the next surveying Brisbane’s property market and wondering how I would go lecturing in sandals. Exciting, yes. Destabilising at the same time, without a doubt.

I cannot say that I took to the long months of waiting for application outcomes particularly well. The focus and clarity of mind that saw me through my PhD seemed unobtainable. The feeling was that of floating, doing time, or being in no man’s land. With my energies directed outwards towards every possibility in all four corners of the globe, it became difficult to invest in the present and there was a looming sensation that I was waiting for life to begin, or perhaps recommence. With job applications under assessment everywhere from the Arctic Circle to Perth, relationships suffered. Am I too single-minded and uncompromising? How will I maintain my competiveness in the academic job market if I am not?

Have I answered the question? The most challenging aspect of being an ECR, if I am using the past tense, was living my life with one foot out the door.

The time that went into applications and searching for opportunities also nurtured a sense that I was falling behind on my research, making no real progress in my project beyond what was needed for a project proposal. The oppressive longue durée of the application process intensified the tick of the clock of postdoctoral eligibility.

But here I must acknowledge the huge benefit that I received from being employed after completion by my PhD supervisors Stuart Macintyre and Marnie Hughes-Warrington.  I had started a full-time secondary teaching post several weeks before submitting my thesis, worried about where my money would come from at the cessation of the Australian Postgraduate Award stipend, which in a manner peculiar to itself ceases the moment the work is completed (whereas timely delivery in other fields often means a bonus). It would have been difficult to get done what I did had I not been able to leave this and work on projects with Stuart and Marnie. In addition to paying my living costs, these contracts gave me a foothold in new areas and led to the publication of a joint article. Kate Darian-Smith and Volker Prott also softened the transition by hiring me as a tutor and course coordinator.

7. If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?

To the Athens of Socrates, playing the acolyte and beating Plato to the task of transcribing his teachings.

8. As a previous interviewer asked your supervisor: Sam Mitchell or Luke Hodge?

That is a mischievous question. Many scholars turn up their noses to sport and in some ways I sympathise with their scruples. There is no denying the vulgarity of commercialisation, the widespread culture of affected masculinity and the bad behaviour that goes with it. But I think sport is fundamentally good. In today’s disenchanted world, I delight in sport’s rituals and the almost religious experience of giving in to its symbolic codes. Separately, I know that whatever qualities I have as a scholar I earned through being a sportsman. The word university did not feature in my upbringing—I doubt I knew what universities were. But I knew through limitless hours pursuing my sporting dreams how to set goals and take steps towards achieving them, and there are a good many athletes whose mottos have served me as precepts.

I’ll do as a politician does and suggest that Ben Stratton has been that team’s most underrated player.

Emerging Historians—Dr Chelsea Barnett

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Dr Chelsea Barnett—AHA member since 2013.

My name is Chelsea Barnett and I completed my PhD in modern history at Macquarie University in 2016. I am a gender and culturalhistorian; I’m primarily interested in how culture articulates and circulates gendered meanings, particularly masculinity. Since completing my PhD I’ve been living the glamorous Early Career Researcher (ECR) life of juggling multiple short-term, casual positions: I’m currently a research assistant at Macquarie University and the University of Melbourne, while doing sessional teaching work at Macquarie as well.

1. How did you come to be a historian?

I had absolutely no intention of ever being an historian, or even doing study beyond a three-year degree. I always wanted to go to university but as one of the first to do so in my large family, I had no idea what opportunities it could produce. I studied modern history at high school and did relatively well, but I always preferred English. During high school I always thought I’d end up in law, but when I got to university my career aspirations changed constantly: from law, to diplomacy, publishing, and then teaching. I did one first-year modern history unit which I hated (I genuinely can’t remember what it was but my attitude was thanks more to my obnoxious eighteen-year-old self than the actual unit, I’m sure) and then a second-year unit which I really enjoyed. I did quite well in that subject and my tutor encouraged me to consider pursuing Honours—I dutifully looked it up, was instantly intimidated by the thought of designing my own research project, thought “there’s no way I’m smart enough to do that”, and dropped the idea.

Two years later, a friend and I had decided that once finishing our undergraduate degrees, we’d enrol together to study a Masters of Education to each become high school teachers. But in the first semester of my final undergraduate year, I needed to complete a second-year history unit to fulfil some degree requirement. From memory there were two units I could pick from: one I don’t remember, the other a unit on Australian gender history. I picked the latter (somewhat begrudgingly, I’m ashamed to say now) and fell into a subject that opened my eyes and changed my life. I fell in love with history and with gender history and everything it offered; this time when my tutor suggested I consider Honours, I took it much more seriously and was excited about the prospect of pursuing my own research. (My tutor was Robert Reynolds, who would go on to supervise me in Honours and then PhD. Thanks, Robert!) I completed Honours, fell in love with research, went on to a PhD, and here we are!

2. Tell us about your PhD research.

My thesis focused on representations of masculinity in Australian films released between 1949 to 1962. It made three arguments. First, that there were multiple masculinities in circulation in this era, in an unresolved (and perhaps unresolvable) tension for legitimacy. Second, that the fifties were a period of cultural flux, and third, that the fifties were a period of activity for Australian filmmaking.

3. Why does it matter?

It matters for a few reasons, I think! I understand the project of historicising masculinity as one driven by feminist politics; if we leave masculinity unquestioned or uninterrogated then we ultimately allow it to function as the norm, as “natural”. So it’s important to understand how and why masculinity works the way it does, especially in the Australian national context where our national political, social, and cultural lives are built upon and sustained by particular masculinist ideals. At the same time, we also need to recognise that differences of race, class, sexuality, etc produce different masculinities—so the idea of there being only one way of being an Australian man isn’t necessarily true. Exploring that in the context of the fifties, where Menzies’ prime ministerial shadow continues to loom large, complicates our understanding of postwar Australia. I also think my research has helped to shed new light on the fifties, an era that continues to function in metaphorical terms (as either the “repressive” or the “stable” fifties), particularly in our national political and public conversations. Other scholars had done lots of important work in showing the social tensions and uncertainties that dotted the period, but the cultural world had been left largely untouched, so it was exciting to jump in and explore that space. And finally, there is a very dominant historiographical narrative that renders the Australian fifties as a “dead” period for filmmaking (and this narrative is of course strengthened by the idea that Gough Whitlam in the 1970s came along and produced the “rebirth” of Australian film production). Despite these claims, though, Australian films were being made in the fifties, and Australian audiences were going to see them. And important films too! Like Jedda, the first Australian film with Indigenous actors in the leading roles, and The Back of Beyond, which won the Grand Prix at the 1954 Venice Film Festival.

4. What are you researching now or intending to do next?

Like most other ECRs, my big post-PhD project was to publish my thesis. I was lucky enough to secure a contract with Melbourne University Press pretty soon after I completed my PhD; I’ve spent the last eighteen months editing my thesis for this purpose. It’s in now and should be published next February.

I’ve also spent the last two years or so developing a new project—a cultural history of single men in Australia. In one of the films I wrote about in my thesis, one of the characters ends up alone, while his mate finally decides to commit to a relationship with his on-again, off-again love. I was intrigued by this single fellow: what happens to him? Actually, what happens to single men not just in the fifties, but across the twentieth century? I tried to do this research to include it in the thesis but alas, there’s very little written on single men in Australia. At the time I filed it away in my brain, but since completing I’ve been able to think about it more and more, and it’s since formed the basis of my postdoctoral fellowship applications. (I’m still in that process, so fingers crossed!)

5. What do you love about being a historian?

I probably shouldn’t admit this because it likely means I’m a bad historian, but I don’t love archival research. I do it dutifully, of course, but for me it’s a stressful process where I’m constantly worried that I won’t find what I need/want. Obviously, whatever you do/don’t find leads to new and interesting questions (and the moments when you strike gold are wonderful), but I find the process quite fraught and anxiety-inducing. (I should clarify that this really only applies to research for my own projects.) I much prefer what comes after archival research: when I’m going through what I’ve found, what I’ve read, and trying to answer whatever questions are there to be answered. It’s hard and exhausting intellectual work, but trying to put all the pieces of the puzzle together is such fun. I often undertake this process through writing, so sitting at my computer looking at the blank screen (or laying down on my study floor with a blank notebook and a pencil) is scary and frustrating and exciting all at once. When it clicks, and makes sense, and you understand what’s happening… it’s one of the best feelings in the world.

The other lovely thing about being part of this community is that it is, indeed, a community. I’ve benefitted from the guidance and mentorship of overwhelmingly generous people who are far too kind to me (there are many, but at the top of the list are of course my supervisors, Robert Reynolds and Leigh Boucher). Academic life can be a tough road, and I have found post-PhD life to be harder than the process of doing a thesis (for reasons I outline below), but life would have been far, far more difficult without these wonderful people.

6. What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?

It’s probably no surprise that I agree with pretty much all the former contributors to this series—the precarity and instability of post-PhD/ECR life is an incredibly difficult terrain to navigate. It can be difficult to keep your head up and motivation high when your job applications are constantly getting rejected, you have no real idea what you’ll be doing in the next six months, let alone the next five years, and your bank account is deplorably low. I know other contributors have identified travel bursaries, fellowships, small grants etc that do exist for ECRs, yet I’ve found that in most of these cases you need to be employed by a university on a contract, rather than a casual basis (and thus have a “proper” institutional affiliation) to even be eligible. And although I understand their intentions, I get frustrated by senior academics who were able to secure permanent employment before submitting their PhDs telling the current crop of ECRs to hang on, be patient, keep on going etc. Such advice should only be given with a heavy dose of self-awareness.

7. If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?

Is it terrible to only go back a few decades? I’ll justify it by clinging to my intellectual attachment to the twentieth century! But in the process of beginning research for my new project I’ve learned even more about the 1970s and, by extension, the efforts of second-wave feminists. I’m very aware that the opportunities I’ve enjoyed as a young woman in academia are only possible because of the tireless efforts of the women who came before me. I think I’d like to go back and see that fight.

Dissecting the DECRA Part 3 – Interview with Mark Edele

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At this time of year many ECRs begin their Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) journey, scoping out suitable institutions, refining their research projects, and drafting Expressions of Interest. Today we conclude our Dissecting the DECRA series with Carolyn Holbrook’s interview of Professor Mark Edele. He is the inaugural Hansen Chair in History at the University of Melbourne, and an Australian Research Counil (ARC) Future Fellow. In this interview, Mark provides insights as a member of the ARC College of Experts. He talks about what happens to DECRA applications after submission, and how to handle the rejoinder process. Catch up on part one, with Benjamin T. Jones, here, and part two, with Elizabeth Roberts-Pedersen, here. For all ECRs applying in the next round of ARC grants and for those awaiting results for this round, we wish you the best of luck!


Mark is a historian of the Soviet Union and its successor states, especially Russia. He trained at the Universities of Erlangen, Tübingen, Moscow, and Chicago, and before taking up the inaugural Hansen Chair in History at the University of Melbourne he was based at the University of Western Australia. His Future Fellowship studies the history of Soviet war experiences from 1937 to 1950. Among many credits, he is the author of Soviet Veterans of the Second World War (Oxford University Press 2008), Stalinist Society (Oxford University Press, 2011), and Stalin’s Defectors (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Carolyn Holbrook: Tell me about your background, where you grew up, where you studied history and where you have worked prior to Melbourne University.

Mark Edele: I’m from a little town in Southern Bavaria in Germany. I began studying at the University of Erlangen, which is very close to Nuremberg. The one academic in my family warned me that I had made a bad choice and I should choose my university more carefully, according to what professors were there and not where I wanted to live. I disregarded this completely and by mistake, I ended up in a first-year Russian history seminar, and I have basically never left. I went to St Petersburg in 1994 to learn Russian, which was the beginning of a completely unplanned life in Russian history.

In the German system at the time there was sort of a mid-degree exam, which allowed you to go into more advanced courses. I decided that I wasn’t as excited by the people teaching in the advanced courses as I was by the people who taught in the less advanced, undergraduate courses. So I left for the University of Tübingen, which is close to Stuttgart, and had the biggest institute for eastern European history in Germany, where I got my MA. Then I left for the University of Chicago, which at the time had the biggest Soviet history graduate program in the world, outside of the former Soviet Union itself.

In the last year of my PhD (I graduated in 2004) I started looking for a job, as one does. I sent out seventy or eighty job letters to anywhere in the English-speaking world and I got two interviews. One went extremely badly and the other was at the University of Western Australia. That must have gone better because they offered me a job and then I was there for the next thirteen years.

Carolyn: What was that like, growing up in Germany, going to the United States and then moving to Perth?

Mark: It was very nice actually, in many ways. Life is much easier in Perth than it is in Chicago. I remember asking people where the no-go areas in the city were and I was told there was no such thing in Australia and nobody would rob me at gun point. It was, in a certain way, intellectually liberating to go, at the risk of insulting my friends in Western Australia, to the provinces because I came from this hothouse atmosphere at the University of Chicago, where ten people could sit around the table and talk about the same archival file in a provincial archive somewhere in Russia.

I was not only the only Soviet historian in Perth, but I was also in charge of German history, and for a while I was in charge of the French Revolution. I realised that most people didn’t actually know when Stalin died, for example, or what the acronym GARF means, which is the State Archive of the Russian Federation. It made me think about history and Soviet history quite differently because I got to talk to a broader audience. My wife noted that the dinner conversations got more interesting.

Carolyn: Can you tell us about your area of research and about the questions that inspire your research?

Mark: I have moved from cultural history via social history, to some version of political and at times, military history. My earliest work was about poster propaganda in the Second World War; the imagery used to mobilise Soviet soldiers and what it might tell us about the war. I then did an essay, which I think is still my most cited article, on a strange, tiny little group of cultural people in late Stalinist Moscow called the Stiliagi, who thought they were adopting Western fashions. Because their information was very fragmentary, however, they actually made up their own little thing.

I then looked at the role of veterans after the Second World War because some of the earliest pieces of Western fashion were brought from Germany by veterans. I ended up doing a social history of veterans in the decade before there was a veterans’ movement in the Soviet Union. That became part of a larger study of the Soviet Union veterans’ movement which went all the way to 1991 – my first book. My second book then was a broad history of Stalinism, which brought together the new social, cultural, and political histories which emerged since the opening of the Soviet archives.

My ARC-funded research has moved into the Second World War itself. I’ve just published a book about Red Army defectors called Stalin’s Defectors. I’m particularly interested in war-related dislocations of people and I’m planning to write a broader history of the multifaceted experience of the Second World War in the Soviet Union, which goes beyond the state-centred story about the victory over fascism. In between, I have written a short history of the Soviet Union, which will be published later this year. Currently, I am working on a historiographical book on the history of Stalinism. It is trying to tell a transnational history of my field.

Carolyn: Moving onto the DECRA, can you tell us what happens to a DECRA application once it is submitted to the ARC?

Mark: I am not privy to all of the processes but I can tell you how it looks from the perspective of a member of the College of Experts. Each application has two people from the College assigned to it; one is in overall charge and the other one is in an assistant position.

Carolyn: How is that worked out? Who gets what?

Mark: I don’t know. The ARC does that. What needs to be very clear to applicants is that unless you’re very, very lucky, you will not have an expert, in the narrow sense of the word, as the college member in charge of your application. If you’re a historian, you might have an archaeologist, or you might have somebody who is a medievalist, though you do modern history. You should really try to craft your application so that an intelligent non-specialist can read it. One of the most basic mistakes you can make is to imagine that you’ll have your PhD supervisor reading your application.

The first thing that happens is that the person who is in charge of your application, the ‘carriage one’ person, will assign readers. The assessors whose reports you will read are assigned by the College of Expert member, with the help of a computer program, which gives suggested readers.

A very basic mistake one can make is to either put in too many or irrelevant FoR codes. If you’re doing a history project, which also uses anthropological methods, don’t put both FoR codes; just put a history FoR code because you’re more likely to get a historian assigned. And make sure that the title and short description, together, have all the key words that are most likely to bring up the right assessors. These are also the most likely sections of the application College members will go back to when trying to match assessors to proposals. They are often undervalued parts of the proposal. It is worth spending time and thought on them.

Carolyn: So, the application then gets sent out using those keywords to the assessors?

Mark: The assessors are assigned by the carriage one, then the assessors read the application and write reports. Next, the college members rank the proposals. This is a competitive process. As a teacher, if you have two students who are absolutely brilliant, you can give them both 90 per cent. You cannot do that as an ARC college member; you need to rank your applications. So it’s really a competitive process in the hard sense of the term. Your application can be absolutely brilliant, but if there are twenty people who are even more brilliant, you will be in position twenty-one in the rankings.

There’s this idea out there, which I used to share, that the ARC assessment process is a lottery. I no longer think that is actually true. It might look like a lottery from the outside, because you cannot predict the outcome. But the processes are very robust, so the reason you might be in the top ten per cent one year and then the next year, after you’ve improved the application, fall down the rankings, is because the competition was harder that year.

Carolyn: Does a great project stand out? Can you distill some of the characteristics of those projects?

Mark: Great projects do stand out, but my overall impression is how high the quality is, in particular with the DECRAs. The competition is really, really very strong. My most basic piece of advice is that, if you don’t have the track record, it might not be worth your while spending two months writing a good application, because the competition is such that even if this is a fantastic project, if you have two articles to your name, you’re not going to be competitive. It might be better to make sure that your book comes out, or maybe the second book comes out, in some cases, because the competition is really very, very fierce.

But I think a good project is one that a non-specialist can see the point of. You need to think about why the ARC should spend a lot of money on your project. You need to convince the College members that this is outstanding work that will change something in the field, or sometimes even in the real world. It can’t just be research as usual.

Carolyn: The ARC seems to be putting increasing emphasis on projects that address problems in the real world. And also, the sense of urgency: why does this project need to be done now? That is quite hard for history projects isn’t it?

Mark: I think there’s a danger in trying to make up things because everybody who’s on the College has written applications themselves, have gotten some funded and others not, and have made crazy claims. So mostly, you know a crazy claim when you see it.

The methodology is often a problem too, because historians basically say, ‘Well, I read, I think, I write. That’s my method’. And then there is the danger that one over-stresses methodological innovation, but then the experts see that immediately, and say, ‘Well, actually, that’s just normal’.

Carolyn: But do you think there’s a need to be explicit about what the method is and link the methodology to the research questions?

Mark: Yes, you need to be able to describe what you will actually do to get from the question to the answer. That is quite important. But there are only so many methodological innovations one can make, and more history projects are funded than actually do methodological innovation.

Carolyn: One thing I think that DECRA applicants have trouble with is making the transition from general article writing, and perhaps book writing, to grant writing. How discursive do you think we need to be as opposed to being concise, and getting to the point? What weight do you put on a narrative as opposed to just stating the arguments?

Mark: I think stating the arguments is much more important. Also, in terms of titles, a grant title is not the same as a book title, or a journal title. It can be, and actually probably should be, much more descriptive because that will get you the keywords you need, and it will make it understandable for the reader. Remember that College members and some assessors are reading an awful lot of these applications and, of course, they’re all busy people doing other things.

Clarity is crucial, as is saying the most important thing at the beginning, and following the guidelines, and answering the questions the guidelines ask you to answer. Some applicants simply ignore the guidelines, which is not very helpful because we look for certain information in certain places and if you can’t find it because the applicant has done something much more literate and literary, that can waste a lot of time.

Carolyn: Can we talk about the rejoinder process? If someone gets fairly poor assessments, are they doomed? What about if someone gets average assessment? How seriously we should take the rejoinder process and how we should approach it?

Mark: Well, first of all, you actually don’t know what you got because you only get the text, and not the numerical assessment. And the numerical assessment is much more important for where the application lands in the overall rankings. It can go both ways. You can have fairly critical assessments in the text, and then very high scores or quite friendly assessments, and then very damning scores, so you shouldn’t second guess that process too much.

The rejoinder can make a difference, in particular when a criticism is made of the application, and you can say, ‘Assessor B says I’m not doing this’, but, in fact, on page seven of the application I outline that in quite some detail. This is especially important in the band where it’s uncertain whether the projects will be funded or not. There are some projects that will very clearly be funded. There are some projects that clearly have no chance, but there is a band in between. If you can answer critical comments without anger, that can be very important.

Remember that these terrible people who wrote these terrible critiques of your work never read your rejoinder. So, letting off steam doesn’t actually help; you’re not getting at the target who has slighted you. Your rejoinder goes back to the people who are making the final decisions and unfair criticism by assessors is often taken with a grain of salt by College members. The rejoinder needs to be as calm as possible. Try to answer the criticisms by pointing back to where the application is actually dealing with the issue, saying, ‘Well, this criticism is missing the point because this is not actually what I’m proposing to do’.

Carolyn: What emphasis do you think the ARC puts on the so-called ‘research narrative’, the extent to which the proposed project fits with a person’s previous research, and extends it?

Mark: For DECRAs, in particular, there is a sense that you have more chance of getting funded if one can see a clear progression from your earlier research. If you’ve done seventeenth century Britain, and then you propose to work on twentieth century Poland because you happen to also be Polish, there will probably be some questions about that. But neither should it look as if the applicant is just writing the same book again or simply turning the PhD thesis into a book. It should be something new, but if there is a clear sense that it builds on what you’ve done before, that probably helps because it will make it seem to the College members that it’s more likely that this is will succeed than something which is completely in a new field.

Handing Over the Reins

Our outgoing Early Career Researcher representatives on the Australian Historical Association, Carolyn Holbrook and Meggie Hutchison, say their farewells to the constituency they represented since July 2016, and hand over to new representative André Brett.

Carolyn and Meggie write:

We have greatly enjoyed our term as the early career representatives on the Australian Historical Association executive committee. Our goal has been to raise the profile of ECRs in History and bring more attention to the issues facing us, from the cost and length of the AHA conference to discussions about the place and precarity of ECRs in the academy more generally. We’ve also aimed to create a community amongst ECRs themselves—we’re all in this together and the more supportive of each other we can be, the better. ECRs are passionate and ready to have robust discussions and we would like to thank everyone who has contributed in all manner of forums.

The AHA ECR Blog and the AHA–Copyright Agency Early Career Researcher Mentorship Scheme have been two ways we’ve attempted to begin to address some of the issues of precarity and community. We’ve been very excited by the success of the AHA–Copyright Agency Scheme, which by building new academic networks and facilitating publications is one step towards bridging the gap between PhD and early career status. There are, of course, many more things we wish we’d had time to do and debates that will and should continue, particularly the big question that overshadows everything; the casualisation of academia.

The history community in Australia is an incredibly rich and generous one. We have been overwhelmed by how readily historians will write a blog piece or mentor an ECR. We’d like to thank everyone who has contributed to the blog, mentored an ECR under the AHA–Copyright Agency Scheme and participated in panels and discussions about ECRs and their future. We would also especially like to the thank outgoing AHA President Lynette Russell and our new President Joy Damousi for their wonderful and ongoing support of ECRs.

We are delighted to hand over to André as the new early career representative on the AHA committee. Those who know André, or follow @DrDreHistorian, will know that he is a man who is not short of opinions. And whether it’s about reclining your seat on short flights (bad), live music (good), trains (very, very good) or his research methods in the archives (very thorough), those opinions are well-considered and well-articulated. And André’s love of history and passion for the historical profession are an inspiration. Take it away, André!

Carolyn Holbrook and Meggie Hutchison

And now over to André:

Is this mic here working? Yes? Good. It’s probably a sensible idea that I make some introductory remarks as I enter the role of Early Career Researcher representative on the Australian Historical Association executive committee for 2018–2020.

First, I want to laud our outgoing representatives Carolyn and Meggie for their extremely good work these past two years. No doubt they will remain active and valued members of our community. Their commitment and professionalism have been exemplary, and they have done much to raise the profile of ECRs. In particular, through this blog they have created a strong platform for ECRs to share their experiences and frustrations, and to learn from and engage with established historians. They have set quite the pace, one that will be a challenge for me to maintain solo!

Many of you will know me already, whether from my Twitter account—as noted by Carolyn and Meggie—or from my rather frank Q&A on this very blog last year. But many of you will not, so I hope a few words about myself are beneficial rather than indulgent. I completed my PhD at the University of Melbourne in 2014; in 2016 I received a Vice-Chancellor’s postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Wollongong, which I commenced in June last year. My intellectual background is that of a political historian of colonial Australia and New Zealand; my postdoctoral project draws heavily from economic and environmental historical traditions. Some would say I am a railway historian, a title to make my ten-year-old self burst with joy. I also have two side lines: genocide studies, a field I consider extremely important but one I choose not to pursue full-time at present; and higher education history and policy, as we need to make sense of the system within which we labour (and are often exploited). I had not considered nominating for this position when I did my Q&A, but after being a loud voice for better conditions for ECRs I realised I needed to do something more tangible than rant every now and then online.

Our lives beyond academia are important. Too often, academic discussions are framed as if we are consumed fully by our subject. I live and breathe my research topics, but it is not the entirety of my life. I am Pākehā, a New Zealander with European ancestry; I have lived in Australia since childhood and view myself as a Melburnian as much as I am a New Zealander. I hope very much that there is never a clash between a Rugby World Cup grand final featuring the All Blacks and an AFL grand final featuring Essendon, because I would simply have to buy a second television. I am particularly passionate about music and supporting the live music scene, though I am more talented at standing in the audience than I am at singing, guitar, or bass, all of which I have dabbled in over the years. Music is such a large part of my life that you will find the final paragraphs of my book’s acknowledgements dedicated to it. My other great passion is writing, and it is the reason I do History; academic career paths are challenging, but I perceive it as less difficult than trying to make a living as a novelist. I have numerous incomplete fiction manuscripts lying around, waiting for a rainy day that never seems to come.

It is not lost on me that the ECR representative role is being passed from two women to a straight white man. That said, I am white to an abnormal degree: I have albinism, and I am legally blind as a result of this condition (it’s not simply a skin condition, folks! The pale skin is symptomatic of the visual disorder!). I generally find a cane more bothersome than helpful, but I use one sometimes, especially at conferences so that people are aware I cannot read their nametags and that if I seem to ignore them it is not on purpose. I am obviously quite open about my albinism and low vision, though I consider them two of my less interesting qualities. Those of you who desire improved conditions, respect, and resources for historians with disabilities will naturally find me receptive. Sometimes it amazes me that this pale, squinting kid from a small seaside town on the Kāpiti Coast, whose grandparents were plumbers, labourers, and shopkeepers, could find a home in academia—but it is the only place I have ever felt truly at home. I can but hope that I do a good job representing this home in all its diversity.

There is a lot to be done to improve the History discipline in Australia for all. I plan to continue the great work Carolyn and Meggie have done to foster a supportive community for ECRs, one that is both encouraging and honest. We need action on the recent report of the Australian Women’s History Network. Academics with child-rearing responsibilities are raising their voices to seek better recognition of the challenges they face, and I hope to amplify them. Work on de-stigmatising mental health and accommodating disability must continue. The broader problems of precarity and casualisation cannot be waved away with sighs that it is a systemic issue or that it was ever thus. Many—not all, but many—of the problems facing ECRs would be resolved by stable and fair contracts, and although I have no magic wand I do have a loud voice. To that end, if you have suggestions of tangible actions the AHA as an organisation or I as the ECR representative can do to address these and other matters, I am very keen to hear from you. Please also get in touch if you want to participate in any of the blog series; new participants are always welcome. My contact details are here.

Over the next two years I hope that as a collective of ECRs we can share in lively discussion, maintain a supportive community, learn a thing or two, and work towards an academia where we can all produce great historical scholarship without constantly worrying about exploitation or poverty. Let’s do this.

André Brett

Dissecting the DECRA Part 2 – Interview with Elizabeth Roberts-Pedersen

Image result for researchingAt this time of year many ECRs begin their Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) journey, scoping out suitable institutions, refining their research projects and drafting EOIs. In Part 2 of our Dissecting the DECRA series, Meggie Hutchison talks to successful DECRA winner Dr Elizabeth (Libby) Roberts-Pedersen about what to do (and what not to do) when developing your application. Libby discusses how her research narrative emerged and the core questions that inspire her work. She also offers some wonderful insights into how she refined and reshaped her project for her second application and talks about what it’s like to research with young children. For all ECRs applying in the next round of Australian Research Council grants and for those awaiting results for this round, we wish you the best of luck!

Libby is an ARC DECRA Fellow in the Centre for the History of Violence, where she is researching the impact of World War Two on the theory and practice of psychiatry. She was previously a Lecturer in History at Western Sydney University (2010-2015). Libby’s research focuses on the cultural and social histories of warfare in the modern world and, increasingly, the broader history of psychiatry, psychiatric patients and treatment regimes. Her doctoral thesis (University of Sydney, 2007) examined the experience of British volunteers in the Greek War of Independence, the Spanish Civil War and the Russo-Finnish War. This became the book Freedom, Faction, Fame and Blood (Sussex Academic Press, 2010).  She has also published on wartime psychiatry and therapeutics, and sexual violence and the courts-martial system in the Second AIF. Her current ARC-funded project, ‘Unquiet Minds: Psychiatry in World War Two and its aftermaths’, aims to provide the first comprehensive account of the consequences of that conflict for psychiatric theory and practice by focusing on the ways in which the stringencies of total war forged new patient cohorts on the battlefield and the home front and thus implicated psychiatry in the social and economic projects of the post-war world.

Meggie Hutchison: Let’s start with an easy question, what is your favourite aspect of being an historian?

Libby Roberts-Pedersen: Being paid to read. I was an obsessive reader as a kid and I think it’s one of life’s pleasures, so I love that I can spend some time each day reading and thinking about what I’ve read. I perhaps don’t like writing so much as reading, but that can also be a real pleasure as well when it’s going well. Getting to do those two things regularly is just wonderful. When I think about the jobs that other people have to do, dangerous jobs, physically intensive jobs, boring jobs, I’m always grateful that I get to do this kind of work (while also doing my fair share of grousing about other aspects of the job).

Meggie: A lot of historians have burning questions that they’re researching. What are the core questions that inspire your research?

Libby: Well it’s a wonderful question, but in some ways a hard question to answer. If I’m trying to boil it down to one or two things, I think one of the animating themes in my work is trying to interrogate the experience of wartime from the perspective of combatants but also civilians. I think that’s one reason why I’ve tended to gravitate towards World War II and the experience of that kind of mass conflict where all sectors of society are involved in some way.

Meggie: Has that always been one of your burning questions, since you started studying history? Or have you shaped that narrative as you’ve gone along?

Libby: I’d say it’s been there all along, ever since I became really interested in history at high school. In fact, much of my interest was stoked by a British documentary made in the seventies called ‘The World at War’, which ran on SBS on Saturday nights when I was 14 or 15 (which also says a lot about my social life as a teenager).  I became fascinated with the conflict, through that documentary. Then as an undergraduate studying modern European history I became interested, as many students do, with ‘the age of extremes’ – Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in particular.

Lots of my preconceptions about authority and obedience in those societies were challenged by reading historians like Robert Gellately, Tim Mason, Sheila Fitzpatrick and Christopher Browning. It really made me think about what people do in extreme situations, and how they react to authority, and what kind of pain they will inflict on other people in those environments.

Meggie: There seems quite a natural progression in what you’re saying about becoming interested as a teenager in World War II and the topic of your DECRA, but how did you arrive at this particular project?

Libby: After I finished my PhD (on British ‘soldiers of conscience’ in European wars) I worked in in policy research for three years. When I came back to academia I’d decided that my next project was going to be on deserters and desertion, which was a theme running through some of the work I’d done on the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. I was very interested in how militaries in general dealt with disobedience, desertion and other elements of discipline.

As I was poking around in the archives I kept running across cases of soldiers who were using psychiatric language to explain why they couldn’t perform their duties. I became quite interested in the way psychiatric issues were managed in the world wars. And it was just lucky that it turned out that while there was lots of writing about shell shock in World War I there was comparatively little on what was known as ‘war neurosis’ in World War II. I mean, every time we try to pitch a project or begin an article or conference paper we say there’s a gap in the scholarship and here was an actual gap. So of course I gravitated towards that.

I suppose implicit in the question is the idea of trying to demonstrate a continuity between your PhD work and the project you’re proposing for the DECRA. I think you’ve got to try and hedge your bets. You can’t make a radical detour from say, soldiers of conscience in 19th and 20th century Britain to, I don’t know, the gender politics of Florence in the 15th century. At the same time, you can’t then propose a DECRA project that is so close to your PhD it shows no intellectual development at all. If you can show a theme that runs between your projects, then that is one way you can smooth that transition.

Meggie: That gap that you were talking about, would you be able to describe how you went about testing whether there was a legitimate project in that? That balance can be hard to find. How broad do you think you can go?

Libby: You need to take advice on this from several people familiar with the state of scholarship in your topic area. My experience was that my first DECRA application was too narrow and not ambitious enough. It was asking a fairly small question about the Australian management of combat psychiatry casualties in World War II, something that can probably be adequately discussed in one or two journal articles.

My second attempt asked much broader questions about psychiatry as theorised and practiced in many aspects of World War II, and the implications of practicing psychiatry in the context of mass warfare and what this meant for psychiatric theory and practice in the post-war world.

I would definitely encourage people to look at the kinds of projects that are successful, and the language that they’re couched in. Then you can make judgements about how ambitious and sweeping you’re going to be in the claims that you make about this research you haven’t done yet. That’s another intellectual challenge of the DECRA application: being convincing about the outcomes of research you’ve yet to undertake.

Meggie: There’s so much speculation about that perfect moment in your career when you should apply for a DECRA. Do have any advice on that, especially given that you applied twice?

Libby: I’ll give you advice that I found useful for me. It may not apply to everyone, and I’m conscious that everyone’s circumstance will dictate what they can and can’t do. You’ve got a five-year window after your PhD for two attempts, so it seems sensible to me to have one early and one late. And bear in mind that the five-year window may actually turn out to be longer, as it did for me, if you have periods of non-academic employment or you go on parental or some other kind of leave.

Some people are successful on their first early attempt, and that’s great. As long as you look at it as a learning opportunity if you’re not successful, as a way of refining the intellectual parameters of a project, then it can be very clarifying. You can also repurpose sections of the text for other job or fellowship applications.

All that said, I think the figures indicate that people tend to win DECRAs later in the five-year window, which makes sense, because you’ll likely have more of a research track record by then.

It’s also necessary to say that the widespread precarity of the post-PhD years can make putting an application together very difficult. You perhaps don’t need to have a submission-ready application 18 months before the deadline (as some people will advise you) but you do need some breathing room in the months preceding submission. I’m keenly aware that developing an application with institutional support is a privilege and that talk of ‘winning’ a DECRA reinforces the myth that academia is some kind of unalloyed meritocracy.

Meggie: The advice for ECRs is that a strong publishing track record makes a big difference in the success of a DECRA application. How many publications should you be looking at before considering applying?

Libby: Oh, this is so tricky, and so fraught, because people tell you different things. The most frequent advice I heard was that you probably need a monograph, either published or under contract, or a series of articles in major international journals. But that is not necessarily a hard and fast rule.

One thing to keep in mind is the weighting for your track record. People need to check the funding rules for the year they submit their application, but the application does not live or die by your track record alone. Another thing is that your track record is framed by the ROPE section, which is where you explain your research performance relative to opportunity. You’re essentially writing a commentary on your publications and letting assessors know about things like periods of non-academic employment, periods of parental leave, periods of very high teaching loads and so on. This is good for quelling anxieties about not having written 40 journal articles in three years.

This is where there is value in remembering that you’re speaking to a broad audience of scholars in the humanities who might need some guidance on publishing norms in our discipline. Historians tend to publish long, single-author pieces based on months of work in archives. If there’s a way to communicate that without sounding self-pitying, then do it. That said, your assessors may be more sympathetic than you think. When I was preparing my last application, I had some lovely and well-meaning colleagues in sociology gentling telling me there was no way I would be competitive with my track record – I needed two books and twice as many articles. But when I got my assessor reports back at least one of them used words like ‘prolific’ and ‘energetic’! Now, I don’t actually think I’m either of those things, but it just goes to show that disciplinary norms can be very different.

Meggie: You mentioned that you worked outside of academia in the public service before you applied for the DECRA. Did you use that experience in your application?

Libby: Well, the way that it did help was to justify why I hadn’t published much for those three years. Also, in a funny way, that time away from academia gave me time to think. The same has been true for my two periods of parental leave. Ideas, if they are good ones, keep percolating in the background.

This is where knowing the funding rules and procedures about ‘stop the clock’ provisions is really important. If I think about it, I was eight or nine years out from the PhD when I applied for the DECRA. Because I had a three-year period away from academia and also my first period of parental leave, I’d technically only been in academic employment for three and a half years the second time I applied for the DECRA. Use these provisions if they apply to you. They do not amount to special treatment. They exist to redress, however imperfectly, structural inequalities sunk deep into the bedrock of academia.

Meggie: How do you go about picking the institution to support your DECRA?

Libby: That’s a really good question. Again, it comes down to your personal circumstances. Which institutions will support you? Which institutions have research concentrations and strengths that tally with your project? Are you prepared to move? What will be your situation once the DECRA finishes?

For me, making a case to move to the University of Newcastle was fairly straightforward, because my project fit with the research of the Centre for the History of Violence, which has a strong record of attracting funding. It’s probably not enough to say, “There are historians at this university, of which I will be one.” Better to say something like, “There are the following historians who work my topic, or something close to my topic. Here are the seminars that they have, here are the projects that they’re doing, I’ll fit with this research agenda in this way”.

Meggie: Let’s talk a bit about the budget, how much funding do you ask for?

Libby: Here I think you need to take advice from your Research Office or equivalent. They figure out the major items like salary and on-costs. You need to do some leg work in terms of identifying the archives you will visit and the conferences you will attend. Will you need a research assistant? Transcription services? Equipment? It’s a bit of balancing act. You don’t want to ask for too little, because that looks under-confident. But you can’t be outlandish either. In any case, the Research Office should be able to help you figure out a reasonable budget based on what has worked in the past.

Meggie: One of the challenges of putting in a humanities DECRA is articulating outcomes. How did you make convincing links between psychiatry and World War II and Australia’s national interest in your application?

Libby: It’s hard isn’t it? I think as historians we wring our hands over this, because we can see the political machinations implicit in this kind of requirement: make your research valuable to the nation! But really, I think it’s good to be pushed to think about this and it’s not too hard to think up some form of words about why understanding the past is helpful for the present.

In the case of psychiatry and World War II, for example, that topic is very bound up in a bigger story about the way psychiatry has changed from being a speciality largely located in institutions to a discipline interested in treating ‘mental illness’ more broadly, in part through psycho-pharmaceutical interventions. World War II requires psychiatry to grapple with large numbers of patients outside of institutions. Efficiency was key and so drug treatments and other kind of physical interventions were very attractive. Mass warfare was in some ways a trial run for various forms of socialized medicine. So I didn’t feel like an intellectual charlatan in saying, “Look, doing this project is going to give us some sense of why psychiatry has ended up the way it’s ended up.”

Meggie: Let’s talk about rejoinders, how important are they and will they change the outcome of an application?

Libby: Don’t you wish you were in the room where these deliberations were made? The advice that I had was to take the rejoinders seriously and respond in a constructive fashion. And yes, if your application is teetering between funded and not funded, because of something a particular assessor has said, and you are able to rebut the assessor in a constructive and intellectually rigorous way, then I have heard that it can make a difference. It’s also a chance to really emphasize the good things the reviewers have said.

Again, ask your Research Office if you can get examples of rejoinders and the applicant’s response to those rejoinders. Don’t be sarcastic. Try not to write when you’re angry but be robust and sufficiently assertive if you think an assessor has been unfair or made a mistake.

Meggie: It’s a great opportunity to reiterate your case.

Libby: Exactly, so think of it as an opportunity. The other thing that I was told time and again was not to try to read too much into the tone of the comments that you get. Some assessors write glowing reviews and then rank you last. Some give terse comments even if they think you’re brilliant. There’s just no way to tell.

Meggie: You’ve had the experience of both an unsuccessful and a successful DECRA application, would you be able to speak a little about how you dealt with the outcome of the first application?

Libby: Having just said that you can’t judge the final outcome from the assessor comments, for the first application my assessor comments were uniformly tepid, so by the time October or November rolled around I was not really on tenterhooks expecting success. Also, because I had an ongoing position it was easier to take it on the chin and think, “well, I know the process now, I’ve got some ideas about the way I can change the project, or extend the project, and what’s got to change.”

Meggie: How long did you wait before reapplying?

Libby: I would have submitted the first time in 2012 (for a 2013 start) and then again in 2015 (for a 2016 start), so three years.

Meggie: So that’s a lot of time to reassess the goals of your project. Did you do a lot of research on the topic in that time?

Libby: Yes, I kept thinking about it and writing conference papers and seminar papers and articles based on what archives I could access electronically. Keeping things ticking over was really important. I think there can be huge value in giving conference papers as a way to think through and get feedback on the broad themes of an emerging project. Then if you are lucky enough to get a DECRA it’s good to facilitate that kind of culture back into your institution. Organize seminars and organize conferences to give other people a chance to do papers that might later become journal articles that will then help them win funding down the track. Once I’m back to working full-time (I had another baby last year) that’s one of my aims.

Meggie: How have you found researching with a new baby?

Libby: I had my second child in May 2016 and so I’m working part-time this year. It’s both good and bad, and of course lots depends on having a partner who is doing their fair share and also employment that allows for parental leave. Apart from that, there’s no getting away from how taxing it is not to sleep properly for years. The kids don’t care about deadlines or how engrossed I am in an article. But then being squeezed for time promotes a kind of pragmatism and focus that can be quite freeing. Time away from the hurly-burly of academic life is good for perspective and often for getting some real thinking done. I also think babies and small children are a bit of an antidote to the grandiosity and self-absorption academia can breed. The baby does not care how many articles you published this triennium, what you think of Discipline and Punish and also he has just vomited in your hair and is now trying to bite your face.

Meggie: What’s one tip you wished that you had known before beginning the DECRA application?

Libby: A month before the application was due the light bulb went on and it was suddenly, “I’m not writing for only historians. My audience for this application is not just historians. It’s for scholars in various humanities disciplines and it must speak to an intellectual project that is comprehensible to everyone in that milieu.” I don’t know why it took me so long to realize that, but once the implications of the whole ARC assessment process dawned on me, narrating the project became so much easier.

Meggie: Just one last question, who would you invite if you could have dinner with anyone from history?

Libby:  What a question! That’s a deceptively hard question. How pragmatic can I be? I mean at the moment I’m in the middle of reading The Interpretation of Dreams, for some work I’m doing on some POW dream diaries. So I would have to say Freud. I would like to have dinner with Freud.

Meggie:  It would be such an intense dinner!

Libby: I’m sure he’d regard me as a textbook neurotic (and that would not be wrong). But selfishly I’ve got a whole bunch of questions for him about dream interpretation. Also his relationship with Jung (and, okay, all the other people he had dramatic fallings out with). But Jung – what was that all about? Why all the fainting around Jung?

Dissecting the DECRA Part 1 – Interview with Benjamin T. Jones

At many Australian universities, July is Expression of Interest (EOI) season for Australian Research Council Grants. For most ECRs this means the beginning of the long process of applying for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA). In this post Meggie Hutchison talks all things DECRA with successful winner Dr Benjamin T. Jones. He discusses the process of refining his topic, finding the best institution for his project, and how to respond to rejoinders. Benjamin also gives some great tips on when to apply, how many publications you will need and offers wonderful advice from his personal experience on what to do if you don’t win a DECRA. For all ECRs applying in the next round of ARC grants and for those awaiting results for this round, we wish you the best of luck!


Benjamin is an Australian Research Council DECRA recipient working in the School of History. He has taught history at the Australian National University, University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, and Western Sydney University and held Visiting Fellow posts at Indiana University and Durham University. He has also worked as a historian at the Museum of Australian Democracy. Benjamin has a broad range of research interests including Australian and Canadian colonial histories, republicanism, Australian nationalism, secularism, and pedagogical theory. He is the author of This Time: Australia’s Republican Past and Future (Redback, 2018), Atheism for Christians: Are there lessons for the religious world from the secular tradition? (Wipf & Stock 2016) and Republicanism and Responsible Government: The Shaping of Democracy in Australia and Canada (McGill-Queen’s University Press 2014). He is the co-editor of Project Republic: Plans and Arguments for a New Australia (Black Inc 2013). He is currently editing a new collection of essays on seminal Australian elections. Dr Jones was the lead researcher of the Alternative Australian Flag Survey.


Meggie Hutchison: What do you love about being a historian?

Benjamin T. Jones: I think the most fun thing about being a historian is storytelling. I think everyone loves being that person at a party who can tell this wonderful anecdote, and it’s partly the small details as well that the historians eye picks up that really brings stories to life. Recently I’ve read Tom Griffiths, amazing the Art of Time Travel. One thing I love about Tom’s histories in general, but especially in this book, is the way he points out that history is an art, and I think sometimes we get bogged down in this really hardnosed historical methodology. I think that’s the real history and the storytelling aspect of it.

That’s the arty insignificant thing. But I think that’s what makes history beautiful. When you have this sort of eye for details. I wrote an article recently on the currency lads and lasses. The first white Australian born men and women and their sense of identity as being British but born in Australia. The first generation.

It could seem an insignificant detail, but they played this cricket match between the Australian born and the British born Australians and they got so worked up about it. There was a dubious leg before wicket call and the Australian batsman was challenged to a duel to settle it. It’s just these little details that make the stories of history so engaging.

I could go on about how it’s this conversation between the past and the present which I think it is. But I really love telling stories. And I love the empowerment you get as a historian. It’s that you’re not just relying on other people’s stories, you have got the toolkit and you have got the ability to go into archives and to make sense of all these figures and documents. And you can discover new stories and tell them. So there’s a real pleasure in that.

Meggie: I wanted to ask about the questions that drive your research. Do you have any burning questions that have led you to your topics?

Benjamin: Yes. Absolutely. My main interest is in Australian nationalism. Well, I’m an Australiainist first and foremost, although I do a lot of comparative transnational histories. I’m interested in nationalism, especially republicanism. So I guess some of the driving questions for me is just, how did Australia ended up the way it is? How do you have a country that on the one hand is so proud of its multicultural diverse, open, tolerant society, but it’s also cool with having a giant union jack. Establishing sort of this Anglo Celtic privileging.

How do you get a country that is so staunchly independent and competitive with other nations and especially with the UK, but it’s also very comfortable having it’s head of state being the monarch of a foreign nation. How do you get a country like Australia and its history is sort of baffling in some senses. It is so democratic in some cases. It’s the most democratic nation in the world. In introducing the Australian ballot and all these different things. But then it has this obviously undemocratic way of choosing its head of state. I suppose those are the questions that drive me. How did Australia turn up as this sort of funny bag of contradictions that it is.

Meggie: Do these questions stem from your PhD or further back?

Benjamin: Further back actually. From my honours thesis really. I looked at the republican campaigns in the 1850s and compared it to the 1990s. I grew up a little bit in the 80s but mainly in the 90s and the 90s was a huge period of Australia questioning its identity. It kicks off with Paul Keating having this very strong vision that Australia needs to reimagine itself as part of Asia. As a republic and losing the baggage of imperialism and British colonization and all the rest of it.

Australia has almost this 180 degree turn in 1996 when John Howard comes in. Someone who couldn’t be more different in their approach. And so a lot of historians who I admire, Mark Mckenna’s right up there, John Hirst is right up there. Writing these amazing books in the 1990s all about identity. I suppose even though I was a teenager in that period, these ideas are just in the air and that’s when I did go through university, it’s what I wanted to research.

Meggie: Can you tell us about the topic of your PhD?

Benjamin: My PhD is called ‘Commonwealth of Republics’ and it currently sits on my dad’s desk where it props up his monitor to just the right height that he likes it, so I’m glad that it’s gone to good use! I was inspired somewhat by my honors supervisor, Professor Melanie Oppenheimer, to look at Australia, Canada comparative studies. She’s done a lot of that research on WWI. Comparing volunteers and different things. When you look at just the mountain of books there are comparing Canada and the United States, it’s kind of amazing that there’s so few because Australia and Canada are actually better comparisons in many regards, but not that many historians have looked at it.

My particular angle in my PhD was to compare the granting of responsible government in Canada and then in Australia. It did end up getting published as a book called Republicanism and Responsible Government through McGill-Queen’s University Press and let that be lesson number one to aspirational DECRA people, don’t be modest and plug your work whenever you get the chance!

Meggie:  Good lesson! What’s the subject in the DECRA then?

Benjamin: It’s called ‘Aristotle’s Australia’ and I’ve moved from the 19th century into the 20th and it’s a history of civic republican thought from federation to modern times.

Meggie: What’s the process by which you arrived at this project? You’re moving into a different century, but are there direct links to your previous research?

Benjamin:  Yes, a different century but the same ideas. I did very consciously approach the DECRA by saying, “Not only do I think this is a good topic, but I also think that I’m the right person to write it”. So, to that end I drew a lot of links straight from my PhD and I almost pitched it as this is going to be volume two. Staying on the same themes and looking at a different time period, but building on a lot of the strengths and a lot of the archival work that I’ve already done. Certainly, in my case it worked to very strongly say how this project is a natural progression from my PhD.

Meggie: We’re always told that we have to create a strong research narrative for the DECRA. Do you think that’s one of the reasons that you were so successful in yours? Because you could make that kind of connection?

Benjamin: I think so because you leave yourself a little bit vulnerable if you just invest in creating a really great topic but not making it obvious why you’re also the natural person to do it. I can understand people having a bit of research fatigue. It’s a long journey to complete a PhD and you may feel like great, now I’m going to go off to my “love project”, as people sometimes put it. But if you’ve invested so many years and so much time researching a particular area, it can be a different topic, but at least if you’re saying I’m going to be drawing on the same methodological principles. Or if there’s at least somewhere to say that the skills you’ve acquired over the last four or five years or however long it took to do your PhD, are still going to be used and in fact are essential to getting this project done, then I think you’re giving yourself a fighting chance.

Meggie:  Does your DECRA draw on the comparative element of your PhD as well?

Benjamin: It doesn’t actually. So that’s one difference. I’m using the same themes and the same ideas. My PhD was an intellectual history of ideas. So I’m looking for the same intellectual tradition. But no, I’ve dropped the transnational aspect and that wasn’t so much strategic. I suppose it does make sense for the Australian Research Council to want to fund something that is 100% Australian focused, but it also just sort of naturally ended up that way.

Meggie: Let’s talk a bit about the process of actually applying for a DECRA. You get two shots at it, so what is the best point to apply? There’s advice that two to four years out of your PhD is optimum.

Benjamin: Well, yes, that’s right. If you look at the percentages of people who are successful, it’s sort of virtually no one a year out, a few more, two years out and three and then sort of three and four is the sweet spot so to speak. But of course every person’s different and you may have already have published a couple of books and several articles and you may be ready to apply for a DECRA a year out and people do get them a year out. But I suppose if you went along the traditional sort of academic route, most people aren’t going to have the research backing behind them in their first or second year. So it is, as you say, with only the two shots, you’re playing the percentages if you apply in your third and fourth year out.

Meggie: When did you apply?

Benjamin: In the third and fourth year out. I was as ambitious as anyone and I went to a DECRA seminar on how to apply for one which was run at the ANU in my first year. And they said something like, you should really emphasize your best 10 publications or something like that. And I was there like, I’ve got four publications all up, so I more or less just left. And I thought, okay, it’s not for me yet. I feel like I should have stayed and listened to the rest for future reference!

I got a strong sense anyway that third and fourth year is the right time to apply. In the third year I didn’t get it and I amended it, not greatly I should add, which also is an important point, that there is such an element of chance and luck and whoever happens to assess it or however many other applications that might be very similar to yours. I do think my second application was better but only marginally. Essentially I think I just applied twice and was unsuccessful one year and was successful the next. That might give hope to people who have been knocked back once, it is definitely worth going through the whole circus again.

Probably the biggest change between the first application and the second application, is I applied at a group of eight university and I kind of just took it for granted that its reputation should speak for itself. So I invested really the bulk of my energy into saying, this is a great project. I’m someone worth backing. Please pick me. And also, I’m going to a great institution and sort of left it at that.

One thing that I think I definitely improved on the second one was saying, okay, let me actually show you more. Here’s some of the people who are at ANU. Here are some of the resources that are close by. Here are some of the libraries I can use. I guess you’ve just got to take every section as seriously as the one before. Even that one I felt was a bit of an obvious one. Whether that made a difference, I don’t know. But that’s one thing that was definitely stronger the second time around.

Meggie: Was there anything else you fixed that you think might have made the second attempt sparkle more than the first?

Benjamin: Well, there is this, I applied in the ANU’s Humanities Research Centre which is where I did my PhD. I think a lot of the appeal there was that I was applying so that I could be with people I know and a place that I’m comfortable with, and I wondered whether the reason I’d chosen that was more emotional than for academic integrity. So, I applied through the ANU’s School of History, which I was quite unfamiliar with instead, having made a reassessment that actually this is a better place for the project to be and I can make a stronger argument for being here even though I won’t be with my friends.

Meggie:  So the research environment is very important for a DECRA.

Benjamin: Yes, absolutely. It’s definitely not as simple as just saying, I’ll apply for at a group of eight university. They’re the ones with the reputation depending on. And all these projects are so individual and probably if you’re serious about it, you need to get some people who are going to read your application closely because this is all good general advice, but you do need people who can tailor the application specifically to you.

But there are all sorts of reasons why a regional university or a university that has a particular center or a particular school might be the perfect place to do whatever the project is. It definitely would be lazy to just think, well, I’m just going to pick whoever is highest in the rankings this year as my home.

Meggie: How do you choose your institution?

Benjamin: Well, I looked first at a geography. You’ve got a limited budget and of course you can fly places but you’ve got to stay in hotels and all that sort of thing. So wherever the bulk of the archival material or the field work stuff is, is really where you want to be. In my case, Canberra just in general was the first idea. I was in Sydney at the time, which obviously has a lot of great archive as well but I made a conscious decision that Canberra was going to be the best place first off. Then which university in Canberra was a secondary decision. But having already so many contacts at the ANU, it sort of seemed like an easy choice in that sense as well.

Meggie: There’s so much speculation and rumour about how many publications you should have when you apply. What’s your advice on that?

Benjamin: When I applied I had about 10, so I still wasn’t in the position of picking my best 10. I just put them all. I suppose that is ideal. It certainly is a case that quality is better than quantity, but I think all ECRs should think seriously about co-publishing a couple of things. I published an article with my PhD supervisor and another one with one of my close friends who did their PhD at the same time as me as well as publishing a couple of solo ones.

Meggie: Getting your book out before you apply for a DECRA, so as quickly as possible, is often the advice given to ECRs.

Benjamin: Yes, and it’s a shame. If I’m giving advice it is just get it out as quickly as you can almost with whoever will publish it. I think that’s a real shame. In retrospect I wish I’d actually had the luxury of taking five or so years to just not even think about my thesis and then go back and really enhance it and make it a more superior document. Reading back over it now, it kind of screams recent graduate, but such is life. I guess it’s a historical record of where I was at the time.

Meggie: What’s the first thing you do when you decide on your DECRA topic?

Benjamin: Well, be realistic about how long it takes to write a DECRA application I think is probably the first thing. The best advice I had actually was to think of it as being as much effort and time and energy as writing a journal article and going in with that sort of mindset. This isn’t just a job application you’re going for. It is quite a serious research proposal. If you go in thinking, “Okay, I’m not going to finish this in one or two nights,” then that’s a good starting point.

The way I did it was to look through the entire document and put one or two sentences under each thing and start to collect my thoughts about the project as a whole and to make sure I was happy with it. I pitched it to a few friends and a few colleagues, got their advice and then went for the project description first and again circulated that to various people and received edits on it.

Meggie: What about the budget? Did you have any help?

Benjamin: I didn’t and should have is the short answer. I thought I was doing myself a big favour by having a really modest budget and I cut every little corner I could and said I’d stay in the cheapest hotels and find the most budget. But the feedback I’ve got since is that they’re not going to judge you more harshly if you have a bigger budget, so long as the items are the normal things that people would expect.

If it’s something unusual, obviously justify it is important. Another successful DECRA applicant told me casually down the corridor that they just applied for as much money as the maximum amount and then worked backwards from there. So, in retrospect maybe I should’ve done that. Although one of my assessor’s reports comment on my frugality. Maybe it impressed someone a little bit, but I think you should actually feel safe to say I’m going to claim as much as I need.

Meggie: How did you go about “selling” the value of your DECRA and its relevance to Australia today?

Benjamin: It’s a funny question because I’m definitely working on a love project. I guess I can give hope to people who have just one project which is the only topic they want to write about that it is possible. But I suppose by the same token, right back from my honours year (again, I’ve always had good people giving me good advice) I knew that I should gear my project towards subjects that are going to be relevant and areas that are likely to get funding.

You certainly have to keep in mind that this is the Australian Research Council and they have a specific mission to advance knowledge on Australia and to fund research that is going to help in its strategic areas. So you need to at least be aware of those strategic areas. You need to be able to pitch it in such a way that this is going to be of the greater good of our Commonwealth. But there is a very broad understanding that the historical projects are just as valuable as combating climate change.

It may not feel that way, but I think sometimes the humanities has this inferiority complex. Like we’re the least important and we deserve the least funding and we matter the least. It really is a self-fulfilling prophecy sometimes. I think it is fundamentally important to the health and vibrancy of our nation that there are people out there researching Australian history and telling Australian stories. It’s important and it should be pitched that way. It’s in the national interest of Australia that I complete this research and I stand by it.

Meggie: How did you do that with your DECRA application?

Benjamin: Well, I framed it as gaining a better understanding of Australian politics, Australian identity. Australia’s place in the world was probably the one that most aligned with the ARC. Saying that Australia has fundamentally shifted the way it imagines itself from being this British white European outpost to this vibrant, multicultural nation in the Asia-Pacific region, and how civic republicanism has shaped the way Australians think about themselves. And this has all sorts of repercussions to how we teach history in schools and how we present ourselves on the international stage.

Meggie: How did you approach the feasibility of the project which is an important part of the application?

Benjamin: I think the rules may even have changed since I did it. It used to be sort of equal weighting to the project, to the individual and to the institution. But I suppose even if it has changed, the idea is that every section needs to be taken incredibly seriously. It needs to have the same thoughtful, intelligent, coherent answers throughout. In terms of feasibility though, that was something where I seemed to get particular ticks from the assessors.

So it is important to say that this is a project you have the ability to do. You need to almost go back and look at the project description and the aims and the outcomes and possibly reign it in a little bit if you’ve been perhaps too grand. You should think about how much you achieved during the three years of your PhD and use that as a starting point. Certainly, you’ll be doing work at a higher quality than junior PhD candidacy. But it does give you a little bit of realism in how much is actually possible.

Of course you have to factor in that if you go to a new institution and perhaps you’re wanting to eventually get some sort of secure employment there at the end, then it’s going to be worth your while to be a good academic citizen and you should factor in that. You may find yourself teaching, unless the rules have changed. Is it up to 20% of your time you can spend teaching? But just general collegiality. You’re going to be giving guest lectures, you’re going to be giving seminars, you’re going to be helping run conferences.

All these things are really, really good for a DECRA applicant to be doing. But you’ve also got to think that these are things that are going to take away your research and writing time as well. So have that in mind when you’re thinking about how much you can realistically do because, especially if you get it, you’ll feel a lot better about yourself if you can actually tick off the things you said you were going to do and it certainly will improve your chances of getting another ARC discovery in the future if you can point back to a successful DECRA and say, look, I said I was going to do X, Y, and Z and I did X, Y and Z, and now here’s my new project.

Meggie: What are your outcomes from your DECRA?

Benjamin: Well, the centrepiece was certainly that I’ll write am academic monograph. I also highlighted about three different aspects of my research that I thought should also be standalone journal articles. I said I was going to attend conferences along the way, particularly in the early stages so that I could give work in progress seminars. I also requested funding to host a conference towards the end of my project.

I suppose I should reiterate. Don’t be shy about sending it to people. One of the things that really was great for me was getting so many people say that it was a manageable project. It just gives you that confidence to say, okay, well people I know and respect think this is a good project. They think it’s a good application. I can put it forward now, if it gets rejected, it’s not going to break my heart that much. I’m not going to completely lose my confidence because I know that people I know and respect have said that it’s okay.

Even though it’s not ideal, if you fail to get a DECRA twice, you really should just do the project anyway, though it’s difficult if you’re not going to get that particular funding. There are still other funding sources and there are ways to do it. But if you’ve invested that much time in developing a really great project, you really should have that resolve that this is getting done one way or the other and that’ll probably even improve the language of how you write the application.

Meggie: I wanted to ask about the rejoinder. How important is it and can it make or break your success in getting a DECRA?

Benjamin: I think it definitely can. Much more than the application actually, it gives a little insight into the applicant’s attitude and personality. I think certainly if you came back really indignant, then that’s not going to be a good look.

But by the same token, I don’t think it’s a great look either to just be like, “Oh yes, you’ve called me. It’s useless, it’s terrible. I’ll just withdraw.” You do have to sort of find the sweet spot where on the one hand you’re saying “I stand by my application, I stand by my project and this is a worthwhile thing”. But also on the other hand conceding as much as you can where you see legitimate chinks in the armour that could have been strengthened.

My basic approach, which I think was effective, was to read really carefully what they said and to almost write it back in the rejoinder. I started off with, “I am so glad that review A said X, and I’m so glad that review B agreed and said Y”. I pointed out a few things where there were criticisms that I could have mentioned this or that. I politely said review B raised this issue. However, on page 23 of the application I did address that. Adding in for modesty that I could have made this clearer or longer or whatnot.

It’s sort of tight rope between showing you’re someone who believes in themselves, but are also someone who can take criticism constructively. But I think it is really a serious part of the process. In the same way that you should get people to read over your application, I definitely wouldn’t just quickly write it. I had at least three people read my response and then also people from the research office and I edited it reasonably substantially actually from those comments. So yes, the rejoinder is very important.

Meggie: I also wanted to talk a little bit about failure. You were successful on your second attempt, but how did you deal with not getting a DECRA on your first try?

Benjamin: My personal process is actually very similar to a rejection to a journal article, which is to quickly read it and then just ignore it. Just do something you enjoy. Go for a run, watch a movie. I usually have to leave it for a week or two and to come back when I’m calm and I know it’s a rejection but I’ll read it. But just having that little bit of space really helps.

It really helps you discern between what might be the more reasonable criticisms and other criticisms which you have to just say, well I disagree with that and I’m going to more or less a reapply with the same ideas. But as much as you can take the emotions out of it, be as stoic as you can. I guess it’s like anything else in life, getting rejected from a job or something. If your passion is to be a historian, then you have to just move forward with it.

Meggie: Was there a plan B that you had in mind?

Benjamin: I had a few plan B’s in my time. I actually went through the whole process to become an education officer in the army, so I think I’m technically still in the pool of applicants to be drawn on. Although I probably would have to decline now if they came back to me. That was one, I did do a teaching degree as well. So I’ve also got high school teaching as a fall back plan. But as long as academia is still paying the bills in one way or another, it is where I want to be. But yes I do have plan Bs and it’s probably not a bad idea to have them.

Meggie: OK, one more question. If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be?

Benjamin: I find this question deceptively difficult because the way I approach it is why am I having dinner with them? If it was purely for the pleasure of their company, I’d pick someone like Oscar Wilde. Just because he would be charming. But if it was for my own research so that I could have an exclusive interview (and yes, I know I overthink this way too much) then it would be someone like John Dunmore Lang so he could tell me about republicanism in the 19th century.

But if it was more so I could be a time traveller going back to warn people about the future, then I’d probably pick someone like Robert Menzies and just say, “you need to drop the British stuff. I know it seems like your whole world in the 1950s, but in only two decades, there’s not going to be a British empire. Nobody’s going to think the way you do and you’re going to be the most successful prime minister, but also remembered as this kind of dinosaur who makes comments about being in love with a 20-year-old queen!”.

How To… Produce a History Podcast

In our latest post, Dr Tamson Pietsch, UTS historian and producer of the brilliant new History Lab podcast, offers advice on how to produce a history podcast.

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