I completed my PhD at the School of History at ANU in 2014 and have been a postdoctoral research fellow at Australian Catholic University since 2015 in the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry.
1. Describe your PhD research.
My PhD was about language and translation on an Aboriginal mission in the Northern Territory in the mid-twentieth century. I was interested in what happens when different cultures meet and interact, how ideas and practices were ‘translated’ (and mistranslated) in the context of Australian settler-colonialism. I focused on the introduction of the English language to an Aboriginal community, questions of orality and literacy, the successes and failures of missionaries’ Bible translation projects and the sharing of singing traditions cross-culturally.
2. Why does it matter?
It matters because Aboriginal languages are a vital part of Aboriginal cultures, spirituality and connection to country – so it’s important we understand the history of the encounters between Aboriginal languages and English if we’re to understand colonisation in Australia. I’m also really interested to learn how Aboriginal people grappled with the presence of the newcomers – especially missionaries – on their land. On a personal level, my faith has also drawn me to mission history. I think churches would do well to face up to the complexities and ambiguities (and, of course, mistakes) of faith-based organisations, rather than being defensive or triumphalist. I hope my work contributes to that understanding.
3. What are you researching now or intending to do next?
I’m doing a project about Aboriginal women and Catholicism, working with communities on the Tiwi Islands. I’m hoping to understand how Aboriginal people reinvented and embraced the Catholic faith as well as how they managed the presence missionaries. Next, I’m interested to look at how Aboriginal missions (essentially mini theocracies) became ‘communities’ under the policy of ‘self-determination’ in the 1970s. I’m also thinking about a larger project around a cultural history of secularisation in the same period. That’s too many projects, but I figure too many is a good problem to have.
4. What do you love about being an historian?
I get to be curious for a living! I’ve heard advice about needing to have a clear idea of one’s audience when writing. But I write and research for myself. I do it because I genuinely want to find and answers to my questions about the world, and only secondarily because I’m meant to be writing that article or finishing that manuscript. It’s satisfying, and if I weren’t doing it for a job, I’d be doing something similar in my free time.
5. What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?
Not knowing what’s next, or if there even will be a ‘next’. I was really fortunate to find a postdoctoral position, but who knows where the next gig will come from and when. The insecurity makes it hard to make financial commitments, or even to put down roots in a community (perhaps I’ll be moving cities again soon). Every time the federal budget comes around and it’s more cuts to universities I think, ‘there go the ECR opportunities.’ I’ve got a baby now, so some certainty about the future would make a huge difference.
6. What do you find most exciting about being an ECR?
ECRs are mostly fairly pessimistic (the whole no job security thing), but it’s also exciting that our research is still so open and could go in so many directions. I love that I can afford to be curious, to have many interests and entertain the possibility that I might get to research this or that one day.
7. If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?
I often think it’d be nice to have seen the 1960s and have been born a baby-boomer. But at the moment I’m loving the 1920s. It seems like a time of real optimism and creativity, especially for women.