In this month’s Q&A Andrekos Varnava, Associate Professor at Flinders University, shares with us how he became an historian by way of a dalliance with science, the thrill he gets from researching and writing history, and his passion for Cyprus and all things tennis. He discusses how he writes history, giving some great tips for Early Career Researchers and encouraging us all to develop a strong publication record and seek experience overseas.
Associate Professor Andrekos Varnava, FRHistS, was born (1979) and raised in Melbourne to Cypriot-born parents, obtained a BA (Honours) from Monash University (2001) and his PhD from the University of Melbourne (2006). He has published a number of monographs and edited collections including Serving the Empire in the Great War: The Cypriot Mule Corps, Imperial Loyalty and Silenced Memory (Manchester University Press, 2017) and The Great War and the British Empire: Culture and Society (Routledge, 2017). He has published numerous book chapters and peer-reviewed articles, including in The Historical Journal, Historical Research, War in History, Itinerario and Britain and the World and has articles forthcoming in Historical Research and English Historical Review. In 2011 he became the series editor of Cyprus Historical and Contemporary Studies for Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Before arriving at Flinders in January 2009 he was at the European University, Cyprus (October 2006-January 2009). Andrekos is also a poet, publishing his first collection, ‘In the Aviary of Youthful Freedom’, in 2015.
1. Tell us a bit about your background.
I was born in Melbourne and grew-up in Oakleigh South. My parents were both born in Famagusta, Cyprus. My father arrived in Australia in 1952 when he was 18 (there is some debate as to whether he was born in 1932 or 1933, and to complicate things his official year of birth is 1931!). He was first married to an Australian woman and they had a family, but they separated in the early 1970s. My father then visited Cyprus in 1974, only months before the war. There he met my mum, who became displaced as a result of the war, and they came to Melbourne to settle. I came along in December 1979. I went to South Oakleigh PS and South Oakleigh SC (originally Huntingdale High). I was not the best or the worst student, but because I wanted to go to university I made an effort, and I remember the surprise that other students had when I only got 74.65 as my TER. But I was satisfied. I got into my second preference, Bachelor of Arts at Monash and fortunately, as it turns out, not my first preference, which was Bachelor of Arts and Science! Going to Monash University and studying History, Modern Greek and English Literature (namely film) completely changed my life. Not only did I come out of my shell, but I had found a subject I was a little bit better than good at and of course love, and therefore I could see a career path.
2. Was there a moment when you discovered your love of history?
There was not one moment, but a series of moments, after also denying my love of history too. I can remember in year 10 when we learned about WWI and WWII how I would be the only one to raise my hand to answer questions in the classroom. After a while I would look around to see if there was anyone else with their hand up and only when nobody else raised their hand would I. I was conscious of being too ready to answer, but this did not prevent me from being teased when it came to selecting my VCE subjects. Other students made fun of the fact that my school did not offer any history subjects at the time and where would I study history? What career would I have? As a historian? So I instead studied science. I didn’t do too badly as I recall, getting 31 for Chemistry, 30 for Maths Methods, and 29 for Physics, but I didn’t see my future career in science and my heart wasn’t in it. I still tried to reassure my parents that I would study something with an obvious vocation, telling them that I wanted to study computer science or chemistry. Indeed when I accepted the offer to study a BA at Monash, to placate my parents, I went to a great deal of trouble to select chemistry as an elective, but I only lasted one lecture! I went to university thinking that I would become an archaeologist, but I immediately fell in love with modern European (including British) history. I could identify with modern history more than ancient. This also made more sense to me since I had developed a healthy love of British, European and American movies from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. I also recall at one Monash history event at the end of my first year boldly telling Professor Mark Peel that I wanted to be a historian! I remember years later when I was a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne I reminded him of that, and I was surprised that he remembered that moment!
3. Why did you become an academic historian?
Put simply, I followed my passion to see where it would lead, and as I often say, I realised in about year 9 or 10 that I was never good enough to follow (i.e. to make a living) my other passion, tennis, so being an academic historian is my Wimbledon! Now I combine both these passions, as I play club tennis.
On a more intellectual level, I became a historian of Cyprus because towards the end of my secondary schooling and especially as a university undergraduate I began to question my cultural identity and what had transpired in Cyprus from the 1950s and 1970s. I went to Greek language school and was always told that Greek Cypriots were Greeks, in fact that they were more Greek than Greeks. Yet I was also confronted with a parallel narrative that Cypriots were not really Greeks, and was often teased at school for not being a real Greek. This parallel narrative began to interest me as I began to understand and make links between the political, social, cultural, linguistic and other differences and similarities between Greeks and Cypriots of Eastern Orthodox Christian heritage. To cut a very long story short, it became clear to me that there was a political logic to ‘Greek’ and ‘Turkish’ Cypriots being Cypriot, but more so there was a historical basis for it, in their shared historical experiences, and that nationalism was artificially formulated from above by the intellectual classes to divide an otherwise homogenous, in so far as religion allowed, population.
At the end of the day, my love of history is matched by my love of Cyprus, hence my interest in other objects of historical inquiry, such as the Armenian question or the use of mules during the Great War, or Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens). And perhaps one day I’ll write something on the history of tennis!
4. Is there a theme or a burning question that inspires your historical research?
No. It may seem from my answer to the previous question that what motivates me is Cyprus, but in fact what interests me is to take the objects of my interest or curiosity, whether they are in Cypriot history, the history of the Armenian Question (1914-1924), or Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, and to place whatever theme about them into a broader context. Often this results in unexpected new areas of research, such as when I wrote about the representation and value of mules during the Great War (forthcoming in Historical Research).
5. How has academic history changed since you began your career?
I have been an academic historian since September 2006 when I was appointed Assistant Professor (0.5 FTE) at the European University – Cyprus, a private university and formerly a university college, known as ‘Cyprus College’. In the decade that I have been in this game, academic history in public universities has changed a great deal as have public universities in general, increasingly casualization, more administration, periodic restructures to economise, etc… dominate the academy, placing restrictions on what we should be focussing on, publishing more in top quality outlets and providing vibrant and beneficial teaching. To be sure, there are major differences between working at a private and a public university, but these differences are not as great as what they were when I started at Flinders University in 2009.
To my surprise, one area of convergence between the two is the emphasis on grant earning over publishing. While working at a private university (and in a country where there were a number of private universities under the authority of both communities) it became clear to me that publications meant nothing unless they came about from a grant by which the university could take a share. I am unfortunately seeing this trend developing in the public universities of Australia. Not only is this disturbing, especially when someone is publishing consistently in top outlets, but it is also unfeasible. Take the ARC DP round last year for History and Archaeology. A mere 24 projects were funded to the tune of 7.5 million. If this was really about research, 7.5 million could have funded 75 applicants to the tune of $100,000 each. As with private universities, it is not research that drives such grant possibilities, but the cut that universities can take. Indeed this is very much a science driven model, in which they do require large amounts of research money, hence their much larger pool of funds allocated, to run large laboratories and teams of research assistants. In the humanities and social sciences we do not need more than $100,000 for three years.
6. Why do you write history? And who do you write it for?
There are two reasons: 1) to create emotional responses to a story or stories; and 2) to fill a gap or set the record straight. I write for different audiences; other academics, government (I know my work has been used by the Technical Committee of Education in Cyprus), and for people outside the academy.
7. You are also a poet. What inspires you to write poetry, and how does the process differ from your historical work?
Nice question. Different experiences in my life have inspired me to write poetry as well as different artistic representations, namely film and music, which have seen me experiment with writing poems.
My first collection of poems, ‘In the Aviary of Youthful Freedom’, self-published in 2015, was primarily inspired by my experiences as an undergraduate and my increasing interest in the homeland of my parents and how this was affecting my own interests and identity. I have read how several artists express themselves best when they were down or alone, so when I met my future wife during the course of doing my PhD, the poetry dried up. Then in 2015 I decided to self-publish this collection because, after a disappointment in my career, and inspired by listening to Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) songs, I decided to start writing poetry again.
What I try to achieve in my poems is not that different to what I am trying to achieve in my historical work, however the process is different. In both I am trying to create emotional responses, be that sadness, happiness, anger, shock, or whatever. But, as the reader can appreciate, my historical work is always about creating such responses to a story or stories based on various records; while my poems are based on my experiences, thoughts and observations. In one poem, my historical work leads to a poem, such as a new poem ‘Of Mules and Men’, which is about the process of writing historical works and the unintended consequences this has on our lives, which I recorded for Manchester University Press as part of advertising my new monograph.
8. What is your favourite thing about being an academic historian?
So many things come to mind, but if I had to choose one, it would be the thrill and energy I experience from researching, writing and publishing in top outlets, and seeing other people, especially early career researchers, feeling that same thrill and energy every time they do it. I also get a thrill out of seeing a PhD candidate complete. I like sharing my experiences and advice to help others just starting out.
9. Your least favourite thing?
No matter how much one loves their profession (remember this is my Wimbledon!), there are always aspects of it to dislike and I have already discussed a few things. But if I had to choose one thing that is my least favourite it would be people who do not take their service to their profession seriously. It is very important to know when to say ‘no’, but it is also important to say ‘yes’. So think twice when you consider saying no (or worse not replying) to an invitation to write a book review or peer-review an article when it is in your very area of expertise or interest. And take your time to produce thoughtful, respectful and helpful reviews of articles and book manuscripts. Allow me to share one example. After about 12 months I received three reports from a journal on an article of mine: the first reviewer said that the article was unpublishable; the second recommended publication with minor changes; and the third requested major changes. The first report was a mere three lines and was categorical that the article could never be published. I sent the article to an equally top journal and it went through the same vigorous refereeing process to be published. So two lessons: don’t take such things to heart; and be thorough and respectful when preparing reviews.
10. Have you had mentors over the course of your career? How important are they?
I don’t think I have ever sought out any mentors; rather I take tips and model myself on various people who have spoken to me about their careers and strategies. Obviously I learned a great deal from my honours and PhD supervisors. My short time living in Cyprus was also formative, especially as I became a regular at the Friday night drinks held informally by a group of historians, namely Dr Nicholas Coureas and Professor Chris Schabel, both of whom shared their research and writing secrets. During one term Professor Colin Heywood, formerly of SOAS, was attending these drinks, and I asked him once, now that he was retired, how many articles/book chapters, did he aim to write in a year, and he answered six. This made me think that since I was in a 40-40-20 post I should prepare at least two articles a year. I then realised that two new articles meant also having two under review, two forthcoming and two in mind for the next year. Coming to Flinders my model has been Emeritus Professor Eric Richards, who has had a prolific publishing career, and yet plays tennis, it seems, almost every day! More about this in my answer to question 11!
11. What advice can you give to history ECRs about their careers?
It seems only yesterday when I was still classed as an ECR! I think I have two pieces of advice: 1) gain experience in teaching, publishing and administration and be prepared to go interstate and abroad to achieve experience in all three areas; 2) a strong publication record usually puts you into contention for most posts, so develop a rhythm (forgive another tennis reference!) that allows you to have two articles/book chapters forthcoming, two under review, two almost complete, and two at the planning stage, while working on a monograph. Once you establish this rhythm, much like anything you do, it becomes automatic.
For this year I have published a monograph, an article and two book chapters, with two other articles and two book chapters forthcoming, two other articles at the revise and resubmit stage, near-final drafts of four articles and a book chapter, and I am halfway in writing another monograph (as well as co-editing a volume). So how did I find my rhythm?
I think I have three tips: 1) working on multiple publications keeps you fresh and enthused, and there is always something to do, while it helps to prevent ‘writers block’ and procrastination, a favourite past-time of historians; 2) schedule two dedicated research days and these must include doing other things and having regular breaks in order to develop a pattern of ‘snack-writing’ in intervals of 15-60 minutes (when there are no interruptions), so such a day can mean going to the gym or having a spot of tennis, cooking a meal, going for a walk, watering the garden, putting the clothes out, or whatever, so when you do sit down to write, there is a sense of urgency driving you to make that time really count; and 3) break your research days into the mornings when you do the main writing and the afternoons when you do the editing (not necessarily of what you wrote in the morning!).