Dissecting the DECRA Part 3 – Interview with Mark Edele

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At this time of year many ECRs begin their Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) journey, scoping out suitable institutions, refining their research projects, and drafting Expressions of Interest. Today we conclude our Dissecting the DECRA series with Carolyn Holbrook’s interview of Professor Mark Edele. He is the inaugural Hansen Chair in History at the University of Melbourne, and an Australian Research Counil (ARC) Future Fellow. In this interview, Mark provides insights as a member of the ARC College of Experts. He talks about what happens to DECRA applications after submission, and how to handle the rejoinder process. Catch up on part one, with Benjamin T. Jones, here, and part two, with Elizabeth Roberts-Pedersen, here. For all ECRs applying in the next round of ARC grants and for those awaiting results for this round, we wish you the best of luck!

 

Mark is a historian of the Soviet Union and its successor states, especially Russia. He trained at the Universities of Erlangen, Tübingen, Moscow, and Chicago, and before taking up the inaugural Hansen Chair in History at the University of Melbourne he was based at the University of Western Australia. His Future Fellowship studies the history of Soviet war experiences from 1937 to 1950. Among many credits, he is the author of Soviet Veterans of the Second World War (Oxford University Press 2008), Stalinist Society (Oxford University Press, 2011), and Stalin’s Defectors (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Carolyn Holbrook: Tell me about your background, where you grew up, where you studied history and where you have worked prior to Melbourne University.

Mark Edele: I’m from a little town in Southern Bavaria in Germany. I began studying at the University of Erlangen, which is very close to Nuremberg. The one academic in my family warned me that I had made a bad choice and I should choose my university more carefully, according to what professors were there and not where I wanted to live. I disregarded this completely and by mistake, I ended up in a first-year Russian history seminar, and I have basically never left. I went to St Petersburg in 1994 to learn Russian, which was the beginning of a completely unplanned life in Russian history.

In the German system at the time there was sort of a mid-degree exam, which allowed you to go into more advanced courses. I decided that I wasn’t as excited by the people teaching in the advanced courses as I was by the people who taught in the less advanced, undergraduate courses. So I left for the University of Tübingen, which is close to Stuttgart, and had the biggest institute for eastern European history in Germany, where I got my MA. Then I left for the University of Chicago, which at the time had the biggest Soviet history graduate program in the world, outside of the former Soviet Union itself.

In the last year of my PhD (I graduated in 2004) I started looking for a job, as one does. I sent out seventy or eighty job letters to anywhere in the English-speaking world and I got two interviews. One went extremely badly and the other was at the University of Western Australia. That must have gone better because they offered me a job and then I was there for the next thirteen years.

Carolyn: What was that like, growing up in Germany, going to the United States and then moving to Perth?

Mark: It was very nice actually, in many ways. Life is much easier in Perth than it is in Chicago. I remember asking people where the no-go areas in the city were and I was told there was no such thing in Australia and nobody would rob me at gun point. It was, in a certain way, intellectually liberating to go, at the risk of insulting my friends in Western Australia, to the provinces because I came from this hothouse atmosphere at the University of Chicago, where ten people could sit around the table and talk about the same archival file in a provincial archive somewhere in Russia.

I was not only the only Soviet historian in Perth, but I was also in charge of German history, and for a while I was in charge of the French Revolution. I realised that most people didn’t actually know when Stalin died, for example, or what the acronym GARF means, which is the State Archive of the Russian Federation. It made me think about history and Soviet history quite differently because I got to talk to a broader audience. My wife noted that the dinner conversations got more interesting.

Carolyn: Can you tell us about your area of research and about the questions that inspire your research?

Mark: I have moved from cultural history via social history, to some version of political and at times, military history. My earliest work was about poster propaganda in the Second World War; the imagery used to mobilise Soviet soldiers and what it might tell us about the war. I then did an essay, which I think is still my most cited article, on a strange, tiny little group of cultural people in late Stalinist Moscow called the Stiliagi, who thought they were adopting Western fashions. Because their information was very fragmentary, however, they actually made up their own little thing.

I then looked at the role of veterans after the Second World War because some of the earliest pieces of Western fashion were brought from Germany by veterans. I ended up doing a social history of veterans in the decade before there was a veterans’ movement in the Soviet Union. That became part of a larger study of the Soviet Union veterans’ movement which went all the way to 1991 – my first book. My second book then was a broad history of Stalinism, which brought together the new social, cultural, and political histories which emerged since the opening of the Soviet archives.

My ARC-funded research has moved into the Second World War itself. I’ve just published a book about Red Army defectors called Stalin’s Defectors. I’m particularly interested in war-related dislocations of people and I’m planning to write a broader history of the multifaceted experience of the Second World War in the Soviet Union, which goes beyond the state-centred story about the victory over fascism. In between, I have written a short history of the Soviet Union, which will be published later this year. Currently, I am working on a historiographical book on the history of Stalinism. It is trying to tell a transnational history of my field.

Carolyn: Moving onto the DECRA, can you tell us what happens to a DECRA application once it is submitted to the ARC?

Mark: I am not privy to all of the processes but I can tell you how it looks from the perspective of a member of the College of Experts. Each application has two people from the College assigned to it; one is in overall charge and the other one is in an assistant position.

Carolyn: How is that worked out? Who gets what?

Mark: I don’t know. The ARC does that. What needs to be very clear to applicants is that unless you’re very, very lucky, you will not have an expert, in the narrow sense of the word, as the college member in charge of your application. If you’re a historian, you might have an archaeologist, or you might have somebody who is a medievalist, though you do modern history. You should really try to craft your application so that an intelligent non-specialist can read it. One of the most basic mistakes you can make is to imagine that you’ll have your PhD supervisor reading your application.

The first thing that happens is that the person who is in charge of your application, the ‘carriage one’ person, will assign readers. The assessors whose reports you will read are assigned by the College of Expert member, with the help of a computer program, which gives suggested readers.

A very basic mistake one can make is to either put in too many or irrelevant FoR codes. If you’re doing a history project, which also uses anthropological methods, don’t put both FoR codes; just put a history FoR code because you’re more likely to get a historian assigned. And make sure that the title and short description, together, have all the key words that are most likely to bring up the right assessors. These are also the most likely sections of the application College members will go back to when trying to match assessors to proposals. They are often undervalued parts of the proposal. It is worth spending time and thought on them.

Carolyn: So, the application then gets sent out using those keywords to the assessors?

Mark: The assessors are assigned by the carriage one, then the assessors read the application and write reports. Next, the college members rank the proposals. This is a competitive process. As a teacher, if you have two students who are absolutely brilliant, you can give them both 90 per cent. You cannot do that as an ARC college member; you need to rank your applications. So it’s really a competitive process in the hard sense of the term. Your application can be absolutely brilliant, but if there are twenty people who are even more brilliant, you will be in position twenty-one in the rankings.

There’s this idea out there, which I used to share, that the ARC assessment process is a lottery. I no longer think that is actually true. It might look like a lottery from the outside, because you cannot predict the outcome. But the processes are very robust, so the reason you might be in the top ten per cent one year and then the next year, after you’ve improved the application, fall down the rankings, is because the competition was harder that year.

Carolyn: Does a great project stand out? Can you distill some of the characteristics of those projects?

Mark: Great projects do stand out, but my overall impression is how high the quality is, in particular with the DECRAs. The competition is really, really very strong. My most basic piece of advice is that, if you don’t have the track record, it might not be worth your while spending two months writing a good application, because the competition is such that even if this is a fantastic project, if you have two articles to your name, you’re not going to be competitive. It might be better to make sure that your book comes out, or maybe the second book comes out, in some cases, because the competition is really very, very fierce.

But I think a good project is one that a non-specialist can see the point of. You need to think about why the ARC should spend a lot of money on your project. You need to convince the College members that this is outstanding work that will change something in the field, or sometimes even in the real world. It can’t just be research as usual.

Carolyn: The ARC seems to be putting increasing emphasis on projects that address problems in the real world. And also, the sense of urgency: why does this project need to be done now? That is quite hard for history projects isn’t it?

Mark: I think there’s a danger in trying to make up things because everybody who’s on the College has written applications themselves, have gotten some funded and others not, and have made crazy claims. So mostly, you know a crazy claim when you see it.

The methodology is often a problem too, because historians basically say, ‘Well, I read, I think, I write. That’s my method’. And then there is the danger that one over-stresses methodological innovation, but then the experts see that immediately, and say, ‘Well, actually, that’s just normal’.

Carolyn: But do you think there’s a need to be explicit about what the method is and link the methodology to the research questions?

Mark: Yes, you need to be able to describe what you will actually do to get from the question to the answer. That is quite important. But there are only so many methodological innovations one can make, and more history projects are funded than actually do methodological innovation.

Carolyn: One thing I think that DECRA applicants have trouble with is making the transition from general article writing, and perhaps book writing, to grant writing. How discursive do you think we need to be as opposed to being concise, and getting to the point? What weight do you put on a narrative as opposed to just stating the arguments?

Mark: I think stating the arguments is much more important. Also, in terms of titles, a grant title is not the same as a book title, or a journal title. It can be, and actually probably should be, much more descriptive because that will get you the keywords you need, and it will make it understandable for the reader. Remember that College members and some assessors are reading an awful lot of these applications and, of course, they’re all busy people doing other things.

Clarity is crucial, as is saying the most important thing at the beginning, and following the guidelines, and answering the questions the guidelines ask you to answer. Some applicants simply ignore the guidelines, which is not very helpful because we look for certain information in certain places and if you can’t find it because the applicant has done something much more literate and literary, that can waste a lot of time.

Carolyn: Can we talk about the rejoinder process? If someone gets fairly poor assessments, are they doomed? What about if someone gets average assessment? How seriously we should take the rejoinder process and how we should approach it?

Mark: Well, first of all, you actually don’t know what you got because you only get the text, and not the numerical assessment. And the numerical assessment is much more important for where the application lands in the overall rankings. It can go both ways. You can have fairly critical assessments in the text, and then very high scores or quite friendly assessments, and then very damning scores, so you shouldn’t second guess that process too much.

The rejoinder can make a difference, in particular when a criticism is made of the application, and you can say, ‘Assessor B says I’m not doing this’, but, in fact, on page seven of the application I outline that in quite some detail. This is especially important in the band where it’s uncertain whether the projects will be funded or not. There are some projects that will very clearly be funded. There are some projects that clearly have no chance, but there is a band in between. If you can answer critical comments without anger, that can be very important.

Remember that these terrible people who wrote these terrible critiques of your work never read your rejoinder. So, letting off steam doesn’t actually help; you’re not getting at the target who has slighted you. Your rejoinder goes back to the people who are making the final decisions and unfair criticism by assessors is often taken with a grain of salt by College members. The rejoinder needs to be as calm as possible. Try to answer the criticisms by pointing back to where the application is actually dealing with the issue, saying, ‘Well, this criticism is missing the point because this is not actually what I’m proposing to do’.

Carolyn: What emphasis do you think the ARC puts on the so-called ‘research narrative’, the extent to which the proposed project fits with a person’s previous research, and extends it?

Mark: For DECRAs, in particular, there is a sense that you have more chance of getting funded if one can see a clear progression from your earlier research. If you’ve done seventeenth century Britain, and then you propose to work on twentieth century Poland because you happen to also be Polish, there will probably be some questions about that. But neither should it look as if the applicant is just writing the same book again or simply turning the PhD thesis into a book. It should be something new, but if there is a clear sense that it builds on what you’ve done before, that probably helps because it will make it seem to the College members that it’s more likely that this is will succeed than something which is completely in a new field.

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