Dr Jayne Persian, an early career researcher and longstanding member of the AHA, kicks off our brand new series which features emerging historians. We hope it will provide ECRs with an opportunity to share their research, the trials and triumphs of ECR life and their passion for all things history. If you are an ECR (within five years of completion of your PhD) and a member of the AHA and would like to contribute to this series we would love to hear from you!
I completed my PhD at the University of Sydney in 2011 and continued working as the part-time Executive Officer for the Australian Historical Association while sessional teaching at various universities in Sydney. I then took up a generous offer to work as a Research Associate with Professor Sheila Fitzpatrick on her ARC Discovery Project: War and Displacement: The Road from the Soviet Union to Australia in the Wake of the Second World War. In 2016 I obtained my first full-time, continuing position as a history lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland.
1. Describe your PhD research.
My research was on the post-war displaced persons’ cohort: the 170,000 Central and Eastern Europeans who arrived in Australia as refugee workers between 1947 and 1952. The thesis focused on issues of representation, memory and commemoration.
2. Why does it matter?
The post-war displaced persons were the first mass group of non-British migrants and the first of Minister for Immigration Arthur Calwell’s ‘New Australians’. They are seen today as the unproblematic harbingers of multicultural Australia, although of course the story is more complex than that, involving White Australian racial hierarchies and Cold War politics. On a personal note, my husband’s grandparents were all Russian and Ukrainian displaced persons, and when I heard their stories I thought they deserved a wider audience, as this cohort seems to have been subsumed in historical memory by the later arrivals of Greeks and Italians.
3.What are you researching now or intending to do next?
I have finished writing up my PhD and subsequent research on the displaced persons, and Beautiful Balts: From Displaced Persons to New Australians is now in press (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2017). I am working as co-Chief Investigator on an ARC Discovery Project: Displacement and Resettlement: Russian and Russian-speaking Jewish displaced persons arriving in Australia via the ‘China’ route in the wake of the Second World War, and am also keen to further my research on post-war migrants’ encounters and connections with indigeneity in Australia.
4. What do you love about being an historian?
I love all aspects of research, and often think I would have been happy as a medieval scholar-monk. I became fascinated with history in high school and this continued in university when, as a mature-age student, I discovered that sometimes history can speak truth to power. I also appreciate the flexibility of an academic job, with time for reading, research, thinking, and writing.
5. What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?
Landing my first position came with an overpowering feeling of relief: the previous ten years’ worth of limited income and precarious prospects had been worth it! I probably hadn’t realised quite how anxious I felt living in the academic precariat. I have three children and a mortgage, so my thirties were an anxious time of wondering whether I was good enough to make it in academia. Once the PhD was complete and no job offers were immediately forthcoming, I gave myself time limits to stick with the search, which I think was important for my mental health. Working mostly from home in the hours between the school run was also difficult, so I started Facebook groups to feel less isolated: Immigration History (Australia) and Academic Mums.
6. What do you find most exciting?
I am most excited about the seemingly limitless research possibilities enabled by having a continuing position, and am now enjoying my work in a way I haven’t been able to before. I really enjoy collaborating with fellow academics, and am also very pleased to have a community of students to get to know at my new university.
7. If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?
This is such a hard question. I immediately answer 1940s, Second World War: this is the period I feel an intellectual and emotional attachment to, and all my work so far has focused on the 1940s. But I would also like to go back to the beginning, I want to know everything. Send me back twenty or thirty thousand years!