I am Pete Minard, a thirty-seven year old underemployed environmental historian. I was the first in my family to attend university and never really dreamed as a kid that academia would be an option for me. I completed my PhD at the University of Melbourne in late 2014. Ever since graduating I have been busy tutoring, founding a public history business and completing endless academic and non-academic job applications. I have recently been appointed an honorary fellow at La Trobe University’s Centre for the Study of the Inland. Research and writing is a luxury completed in my free time. This is my contribution to the emerging historian series.
Emerging is a word to conjure with: bears emerge from hibernation, butterflies emerge from cacoons. Metamorphosis is a good way thinking about being an Early Career Researcher. We all start out as graduate student caterpillars, absorbing knowledge, rifling through archives – slowly growing and changing. Then we graduate and go into a chrysalis made of short term contracts, hope and fear. The caterpillar is gone; there is no going back to who we were before. Will we emerge transformed, or will we remain forever stuck in our chrysalises?
1. Describe your PhD research.
I am in the process of transforming my PhD research into a book that will be published by the University of North Carolina Press. The thesis was a revisionist account of the history of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria (ASV). The ASV is largely remembered as an environmental vandal that introduced rabbits to Australia (it didn’t) out of misguided nostalgia for Britain (it wasn’t). Building on recent environmental history and history of science scholarship I argued that the ASV aimed to introduce exotic animals to simultaneously correct gold-rush era environmental damage and fill what they perceived as absences in the Australian ‘economy of nature’. These absences were to be filled from animals from India, Asia, South Africa and Britain in order, not to build a New Britain, but to create a prosperous colony that combined elements of them all and be a ‘jewel in the crown of Empire’.
My PhD research was punctuated by academic research and public history work. While writing it I published three academic journal articles and attended multiple environmental history conferences – vastly increasing the quality of my thesis. I was commissioned to write a book about deinstitutionalisation, intellectual disability and Goulburn Valley families (From Behind Closed Doors: Life Journeys from living in Institutions to the Shepparton Community) – paying the mortgage while I wrote my thesis.
2. Why does it matter?
Good question. I think that there are two reasons my PhD research matters. On a scholarly level it complicates our understanding of ecological imperialism and the exchange of ideas, personnel and organisms within the British Empire and beyond. It also builds on existing scholarship that has complicated Australian colonists’ relationships with the natural world and aims to look beyond the idea of the ‘alienated colonist’. On a political level my research matters because too many Australians still believe in an outdated dichotomy – native species good, introduced species bad. Climate change means these simple ideas are no longer useful as animal populations move, ecologies shift and new problems emerge. To survive we may have to contemplate species introductions and re-conceptualise what we mean by native and introduced. Understanding how our relationships with native and introduced species formed may help with this process.
3. What are you researching now or intending to do next?
These are two very different questions that hinge on whether I find a financially viable way to stay in the industry.
Currently my research time is being consumed by turning my thesis into a book manuscript suitable for publication. I am really enjoying revisiting the material, making a clearer narrative and rewriting the bits I wrote five years ago when I did not really know what I was doing. I am also completing rewrites for a journal article I wrote for the British Journal of the History of Science. I have been working on several ideas for post-doctoral projects, but I have had a hard time fleshing them out while juggling multiple simultaneous casual teaching contracts and attempting to establish a business.
Last year some recent graduates and I (Shout out to Meighen Katz, Bronwyn Lowe, Tom Rogers, André Brett and Alex Chorowicz) founded a public history company Present Past Pty Ltd hoping to find a way to use our skills and knowledge for the public good. We have expertise and experience in museum studies, Aboriginal and colonial history, labour history, heritage and gender studies. So far the experience has been good and we have completed a number of small contracts.
In an ideal world my next project would be on the changing status of non-native fish species in the Murray-Darling River System in the Twentieth Century. The aim of this project would be to conduct an exploration of how non-native fish species in the Murray-Darling River System were understood, valued and contested in the twentieth century. By investigating changing scientific, recreational angling and environmental reactions to key introduced species it should be possible to see complex interrelationships between the various legacies of settler colonialism and environmental transformations in the Murray Darling.
All this is premised on me staying in the industry. I am not sure I can. Treading water as a casual is losing its appeal. Jumping ship to a non-academic job may not be that easy. My colleagues’ experiences tell me that the private and government sectors are not keen on our “transferable skills”. I could, of course, do further study. I am wary of doing this because I fear that I may just be delaying and exacerbating the problem, not solving it.
4. What do you love about being an historian?
I love the intellectual support and encouragement that I have received from colleagues, both senior and junior. A special shout out must go to my PhD supervisors Andy May and James Bradley. I am also grateful to Libby Robin, Andrea Gaynor, and Katie Holmes for making me welcome in the vibrant and growing environmental history scene in Australia. Contributing to this scholarship and the incredible privilege of following my intellectual curiosity where it takes me has been great fun.
Teaching history is also part of the fun. I have really enjoyed the lectures I have been able to give, papers I have presented and tutorials I have devised. There is something very satisfying in presenting new ideas and events to an engaged young audience, especially when they are new to the university experience.
5. What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?
There are three elements of being an ECR that I have found extremely challenging: casualization, competition and the crazy level of obsession that it sometimes requires.
Casualization is a problem in many different ways. It is necessary to take on a lot of teaching to get anything approaching a living wage. I have frequently tutored three subjects per semester and have been constantly swamped with marking and administration duties, servicing up to three hundred students. This teaching load might be manageable if I was in an ongoing position, but not when public engagement, job search and research must come out of my own time. Casual teachers really need the, admittedly minimal, protection that workload calculations provide.
In many ways I am lucky because my wife has a secure public sector job and we are far from destitute. Nevertheless I would kill for sick leave (I have taught sick twice this semester alone), and some stability. The fear that the work might dry up is never far from my mind. Casual teaching is a bit of a double edged sword; it enables ECRs to stay in the industry but makes it harder to progress to the next stage.
The competition for post-doctoral fellowships and entry level positions is constant, fierce and more than a little silly. We are told to market ourselves, network and, above all, keep publishing. This is good advice and necessary, but it can encourage magical thinking and disengagement from a fundamental reality – too many people chasing too few jobs. I suspect dumb luck, patronage, and bull-headed persistence govern success more than any one wants to admit. Academic job applications are ridiculously long and involved. If you are senior academic reading this please use your influence to impose word limits on job applications and prune the number of selection criteria.
Obsession is not a good thing, but the desire to escape casual positions and the knowledge of all the competition seems to encourage it in Early Career Researchers. Academia is a job, not a religion or the meaning of life. Obsession creates a binary: ongoing academic job equals success, everything else equals failure. This is a brutal and damaging belief and we, as a profession, can accidentally encourage it by only talking about academic success stories. Encouraging obsession also leads to broken relationships, neglected families, disconnection from community, crumbling support networks and poor mental health. I cannot see how society can be expected to value history or historians if we hide away from society.
6. What do you find most exciting?
The intellectual freedom is the most exciting thing about being an Early Career Researcher, closely followed by being surrounded by intelligent and engaging friends and colleagues. Many days it feels like I am getting paid to hang out with my best friends.
History is satisfying on so many levels. I love delving through archives finding underused documents, connecting them in new ways and adding to our profession’s collective knowledge. Looking at the past with its different social, cultural configurations gives us new insights into the human condition and our interactions with the environment and other intelligences. I have never found anything that compares to the intellectual thrill of reading, researching and writing history.
7. If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?
I would go back in time to 1970s Melbourne and make strategic property investments in Fitzroy and Carlton.