Handing Over the Reins

Our outgoing Early Career Researcher representatives on the Australian Historical Association, Carolyn Holbrook and Meggie Hutchison, say their farewells to the constituency they represented since July 2016, and hand over to new representative André Brett.

Carolyn and Meggie write:

We have greatly enjoyed our term as the early career representatives on the Australian Historical Association executive committee. Our goal has been to raise the profile of ECRs in History and bring more attention to the issues facing us, from the cost and length of the AHA conference to discussions about the place and precarity of ECRs in the academy more generally. We’ve also aimed to create a community amongst ECRs themselves—we’re all in this together and the more supportive of each other we can be, the better. ECRs are passionate and ready to have robust discussions and we would like to thank everyone who has contributed in all manner of forums.

The AHA ECR Blog and the AHA–Copyright Agency Early Career Researcher Mentorship Scheme have been two ways we’ve attempted to begin to address some of the issues of precarity and community. We’ve been very excited by the success of the AHA–Copyright Agency Scheme, which by building new academic networks and facilitating publications is one step towards bridging the gap between PhD and early career status. There are, of course, many more things we wish we’d had time to do and debates that will and should continue, particularly the big question that overshadows everything; the casualisation of academia.

The history community in Australia is an incredibly rich and generous one. We have been overwhelmed by how readily historians will write a blog piece or mentor an ECR. We’d like to thank everyone who has contributed to the blog, mentored an ECR under the AHA–Copyright Agency Scheme and participated in panels and discussions about ECRs and their future. We would also especially like to the thank outgoing AHA President Lynette Russell and our new President Joy Damousi for their wonderful and ongoing support of ECRs.

We are delighted to hand over to André as the new early career representative on the AHA committee. Those who know André, or follow @DrDreHistorian, will know that he is a man who is not short of opinions. And whether it’s about reclining your seat on short flights (bad), live music (good), trains (very, very good) or his research methods in the archives (very thorough), those opinions are well-considered and well-articulated. And André’s love of history and passion for the historical profession are an inspiration. Take it away, André!

Carolyn Holbrook and Meggie Hutchison

And now over to André:

Is this mic here working? Yes? Good. It’s probably a sensible idea that I make some introductory remarks as I enter the role of Early Career Researcher representative on the Australian Historical Association executive committee for 2018–2020.

First, I want to laud our outgoing representatives Carolyn and Meggie for their extremely good work these past two years. No doubt they will remain active and valued members of our community. Their commitment and professionalism have been exemplary, and they have done much to raise the profile of ECRs. In particular, through this blog they have created a strong platform for ECRs to share their experiences and frustrations, and to learn from and engage with established historians. They have set quite the pace, one that will be a challenge for me to maintain solo!

Many of you will know me already, whether from my Twitter account—as noted by Carolyn and Meggie—or from my rather frank Q&A on this very blog last year. But many of you will not, so I hope a few words about myself are beneficial rather than indulgent. I completed my PhD at the University of Melbourne in 2014; in 2016 I received a Vice-Chancellor’s postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Wollongong, which I commenced in June last year. My intellectual background is that of a political historian of colonial Australia and New Zealand; my postdoctoral project draws heavily from economic and environmental historical traditions. Some would say I am a railway historian, a title to make my ten-year-old self burst with joy. I also have two side lines: genocide studies, a field I consider extremely important but one I choose not to pursue full-time at present; and higher education history and policy, as we need to make sense of the system within which we labour (and are often exploited). I had not considered nominating for this position when I did my Q&A, but after being a loud voice for better conditions for ECRs I realised I needed to do something more tangible than rant every now and then online.

Our lives beyond academia are important. Too often, academic discussions are framed as if we are consumed fully by our subject. I live and breathe my research topics, but it is not the entirety of my life. I am Pākehā, a New Zealander with European ancestry; I have lived in Australia since childhood and view myself as a Melburnian as much as I am a New Zealander. I hope very much that there is never a clash between a Rugby World Cup grand final featuring the All Blacks and an AFL grand final featuring Essendon, because I would simply have to buy a second television. I am particularly passionate about music and supporting the live music scene, though I am more talented at standing in the audience than I am at singing, guitar, or bass, all of which I have dabbled in over the years. Music is such a large part of my life that you will find the final paragraphs of my book’s acknowledgements dedicated to it. My other great passion is writing, and it is the reason I do History; academic career paths are challenging, but I perceive it as less difficult than trying to make a living as a novelist. I have numerous incomplete fiction manuscripts lying around, waiting for a rainy day that never seems to come.

It is not lost on me that the ECR representative role is being passed from two women to a straight white man. That said, I am white to an abnormal degree: I have albinism, and I am legally blind as a result of this condition (it’s not simply a skin condition, folks! The pale skin is symptomatic of the visual disorder!). I generally find a cane more bothersome than helpful, but I use one sometimes, especially at conferences so that people are aware I cannot read their nametags and that if I seem to ignore them it is not on purpose. I am obviously quite open about my albinism and low vision, though I consider them two of my less interesting qualities. Those of you who desire improved conditions, respect, and resources for historians with disabilities will naturally find me receptive. Sometimes it amazes me that this pale, squinting kid from a small seaside town on the Kāpiti Coast, whose grandparents were plumbers, labourers, and shopkeepers, could find a home in academia—but it is the only place I have ever felt truly at home. I can but hope that I do a good job representing this home in all its diversity.

There is a lot to be done to improve the History discipline in Australia for all. I plan to continue the great work Carolyn and Meggie have done to foster a supportive community for ECRs, one that is both encouraging and honest. We need action on the recent report of the Australian Women’s History Network. Academics with child-rearing responsibilities are raising their voices to seek better recognition of the challenges they face, and I hope to amplify them. Work on de-stigmatising mental health and accommodating disability must continue. The broader problems of precarity and casualisation cannot be waved away with sighs that it is a systemic issue or that it was ever thus. Many—not all, but many—of the problems facing ECRs would be resolved by stable and fair contracts, and although I have no magic wand I do have a loud voice. To that end, if you have suggestions of tangible actions the AHA as an organisation or I as the ECR representative can do to address these and other matters, I am very keen to hear from you. Please also get in touch if you want to participate in any of the blog series; new participants are always welcome. My contact details are here.

Over the next two years I hope that as a collective of ECRs we can share in lively discussion, maintain a supportive community, learn a thing or two, and work towards an academia where we can all produce great historical scholarship without constantly worrying about exploitation or poverty. Let’s do this.

André Brett


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