Emerging Historians – Dr Jessica Hodgens

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Dr Jessica Hodgens – AHA member since 2014

I’m Jessica Hodgens, and I completed my PhD last year at Monash University. My research is with Dja Dja Wurrung people, the traditional owners of the central Victoria region, which is where I was born and raised. I’m currently revising my thesis for publication as a book, and I work as a researcher with the NSW public service. I’ve been an AHA member since 2014, and earlier this year I was lucky enough to receive one of the AHA-Copyright Agency Early Career Researcher Mentorships. 

1. Tell us about your PhD research.

My PhD is with Dja Dja Wurrung people, the traditional owners of a big area of central Victoria. My research really involved two separate but closely related projects. The first was an oral history project, in which I worked with the Dja Dja Wurrung community to record some of their oral histories. We published these in a book called “Djuwima Djarra. Dja Dja Wurrung: Kiakiki Wangedak”, which in English means “Sharing Together. Dja Dja Wurrung: Our Story”. Working on that book was one of the greatest privileges of my life.

The second project was my thesis, in which I used a combination of the oral histories and archival research to trace how Dja Dja Wurrung people have experienced colonisation, from before colonists began arriving in the late 1830s, right up until today. So, while the book was a way for Dja Dja Wurrung people to share the stories of who they are today, the thesis tells the story of how they came to be here.

I’m also interested in the ethics of colonisation, so as well as being a history thesis my research also wrestles with ideas like violence, ethics, and remembering in the wake of mass loss. Because Dja Dja Wurrung Country features prominently in the stories that Dja Dja Wurrung people tell about themselves, the environmental destruction that has accompanied and reinforced settler colonisation is also a central theme of my research.

2. Why does it matter?

It matters because up until very recently, people talked about Dja Dja Wurrung people as if they no longer existed. Histories of the Dja Dja Wurrung tend to conclude in the 1860s, when the small number of people who had survived colonisation were removed from their Country and went to live on missions and reserves elsewhere. But the Dja Dja Wurrung community today is very much alive, and is working incredibly hard to reassert their place on Country and to recuperate some of the knowledge of their ancestors. It’s my privilege to work alongside them, to put my skills as a historian to use by contributing to that work.

It matters, too, because we’re living now in an age of mass species extinctions, so stories such as those that Dja Dja Wurrung people share – stories of violence and rupture, as well as of survival and resilience – might help us to respond to the loss that’s occurring in our own time. Dja Wurrung people have experienced violence and loss on a massive scale, but the stories they share are also about resilience, connection, kinship and love.

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

Right now I’m working on revising my thesis for a book – and (am I the only person who feels this way?) I’m absolutely loving the process! It’s really exciting coming back to the thesis with the benefit of 12 months away from it, and being able to prune, rewrite, and mould it into something better. I work full time, so I don’t have as much spare time as I’d like to dedicate to my research and writing – but that’s made me really grateful for every little bit of time I can scrounge to work on it.

I have a million other ideas for research that I’d like to do – I often find myself wishing for an extra few days in the week, so that I had the time to implement them all! The book is my priority, so I’ve recently had to practice the art of saying no to some things. I have about half a dozen partially written journal articles that I’ve reluctantly put away in a drawer, to return to after the book is written. I’m also starting to think about a future project, which would involve making relevant archival material more readily available to Dja Dja Wurrung researchers. The community is doing lots of really beautiful history work of their own, which is made all the more challenging by the pressures of work and family commitments, so there’s an urgent need to make historical material available to them so that they can continue that important work.

That being said, I’ve also learnt the hard way that down-time is an investment in your writing… so I guess the other thing I’m working on is enjoying post-PhD life! I just returned from a trip to South America, I spend lots of time sitting on my veranda with a big pot of tea and a book, I’ve started a veggie patch (known in our family, not unfairly, as “the place where veggies go to die”)…

If I could share one piece of advice with other ECRs, or anyone for that matter, it would be this: try not to get sucked into that poisonous mindset that quantity of work hours is more important than quality of work hours. Historians are writers, which means we’re creative people – and creativity needs space and time for great ideas to brew. Being an academic, at any career stage, is a job where there’s always something you could or should be doing. But I’ve learnt the hard way (I experienced what I would now describe as a nervous breakdown and had to take 6 months break from my PhD. It took a full 12 months to recover) just how important it is to have down-time away from your writing. Since I learnt that lesson, I’m a much happier person – as well as a much better and more creative historian and writer.

4. What do you love about being a historian?

Everything. I really believe that being a historian is the best profession in the world. Imagine, a job that allows you to read and research and (as an oral historian) to talk to people, and then to think about what you’ve learnt, to reflect and analyse, to write and rewrite and shape your thoughts into words that might make a difference in the world, to contribute towards a conversation that matters…

More than anything, I love writing. Writing is the thing I’m good at, and I feel very lucky that I have the opportunity to use the thing I’m good at for something that matters.

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

Like everyone, it’s the uncertainty. But quite a few contributors to this blog have written very articulately (looking especially at you Andre Brett and Evan Smith) about this aspect of life as an ECR. So while I agree wholeheartedly with everything they’ve said, I’d like to take the opportunity here to say the thing that I wish someone had said to me, as I was going through my PhD and was plagued by doubts. Here it is:

Yep, academia is really hard, and yeah, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to make a career out of it. But give it a crack anyway.

By the time I finished my PhD, I’d made up my mind with absolute certainty that I didn’t want a career in academia – I’d heard too many horror stories about the precariousness of the industry. But over the last 12 months I’ve come to see my research, and consequently my academic career, very differently. There are a few reasons for that.

The first is that, since I’ve had the security of a fantastic full time job in the public service, with a good income and regular hours, I have the space and energy to be excited about my research again – and as a consequence, I’ve never been more in love with it. I’ve also come to appreciate just how much of a privilege it is, as an academic, to have the intellectual freedom to research and write about something that you think is important. There are very few jobs that allow you to do that.

The philosophy I’ve come to adopt towards my research and academic career is to enjoy the process, rather than focussing on the ‘outcome’ of landing an academic job. I’m not sure whether that’s a good approach from a career perspective, but it’s certainly better for my mental health and quality of life, not to mention the quality of my work. And for a super A-type personality like me, it’s a very pleasant shift! I know this sounds corny, but since I’ve adopted this approach I’ve found myself absolutely bubbling over with creativity. So, even if I never manage to secure a job as an academic, I have nothing to lose by continuing to do my research, because every second that I manage to scrape out of my day to work on it is an absolute joy to me.

As a PhD and ECR, you’re constantly exposed to so much that’s negative about the academic job industry, and it rubs off on you. Don’t get me wrong, most of the bad stuff you hear is probably true! But it’s also true that being an academic is a fantastic career. What we do matters. So if you really love what you do – if your research fills you up, like it does me – then my advice is to keep doing it, in any way you can.

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

If I’m being granted the ability to go back in time, I’m going to cheat and take the liberty of assuming that I can, instead, send somebody else back. In which case, I would send one of my Dja Dja Wurrung fellow researchers back to the time just prior to colonisation, so that they could speak directly with their ancestors. I see how hard the community works to piece back together some of the knowledge that’s been destroyed in the violence of colonisation. I couldn’t think of anything better than for them to have the opportunity to learn, directly from their ancestors, the knowledge that should have been their inheritance.

 

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