Emerging Historians—Dr Chelsea Barnett

Barnett - picture

Dr Chelsea Barnett—AHA member since 2013.

My name is Chelsea Barnett and I completed my PhD in modern history at Macquarie University in 2016. I am a gender and culturalhistorian; I’m primarily interested in how culture articulates and circulates gendered meanings, particularly masculinity. Since completing my PhD I’ve been living the glamorous Early Career Researcher (ECR) life of juggling multiple short-term, casual positions: I’m currently a research assistant at Macquarie University and the University of Melbourne, while doing sessional teaching work at Macquarie as well.

1. How did you come to be a historian?

I had absolutely no intention of ever being an historian, or even doing study beyond a three-year degree. I always wanted to go to university but as one of the first to do so in my large family, I had no idea what opportunities it could produce. I studied modern history at high school and did relatively well, but I always preferred English. During high school I always thought I’d end up in law, but when I got to university my career aspirations changed constantly: from law, to diplomacy, publishing, and then teaching. I did one first-year modern history unit which I hated (I genuinely can’t remember what it was but my attitude was thanks more to my obnoxious eighteen-year-old self than the actual unit, I’m sure) and then a second-year unit which I really enjoyed. I did quite well in that subject and my tutor encouraged me to consider pursuing Honours—I dutifully looked it up, was instantly intimidated by the thought of designing my own research project, thought “there’s no way I’m smart enough to do that”, and dropped the idea.

Two years later, a friend and I had decided that once finishing our undergraduate degrees, we’d enrol together to study a Masters of Education to each become high school teachers. But in the first semester of my final undergraduate year, I needed to complete a second-year history unit to fulfil some degree requirement. From memory there were two units I could pick from: one I don’t remember, the other a unit on Australian gender history. I picked the latter (somewhat begrudgingly, I’m ashamed to say now) and fell into a subject that opened my eyes and changed my life. I fell in love with history and with gender history and everything it offered; this time when my tutor suggested I consider Honours, I took it much more seriously and was excited about the prospect of pursuing my own research. (My tutor was Robert Reynolds, who would go on to supervise me in Honours and then PhD. Thanks, Robert!) I completed Honours, fell in love with research, went on to a PhD, and here we are!

2. Tell us about your PhD research.

My thesis focused on representations of masculinity in Australian films released between 1949 to 1962. It made three arguments. First, that there were multiple masculinities in circulation in this era, in an unresolved (and perhaps unresolvable) tension for legitimacy. Second, that the fifties were a period of cultural flux, and third, that the fifties were a period of activity for Australian filmmaking.

3. Why does it matter?

It matters for a few reasons, I think! I understand the project of historicising masculinity as one driven by feminist politics; if we leave masculinity unquestioned or uninterrogated then we ultimately allow it to function as the norm, as “natural”. So it’s important to understand how and why masculinity works the way it does, especially in the Australian national context where our national political, social, and cultural lives are built upon and sustained by particular masculinist ideals. At the same time, we also need to recognise that differences of race, class, sexuality, etc produce different masculinities—so the idea of there being only one way of being an Australian man isn’t necessarily true. Exploring that in the context of the fifties, where Menzies’ prime ministerial shadow continues to loom large, complicates our understanding of postwar Australia. I also think my research has helped to shed new light on the fifties, an era that continues to function in metaphorical terms (as either the “repressive” or the “stable” fifties), particularly in our national political and public conversations. Other scholars had done lots of important work in showing the social tensions and uncertainties that dotted the period, but the cultural world had been left largely untouched, so it was exciting to jump in and explore that space. And finally, there is a very dominant historiographical narrative that renders the Australian fifties as a “dead” period for filmmaking (and this narrative is of course strengthened by the idea that Gough Whitlam in the 1970s came along and produced the “rebirth” of Australian film production). Despite these claims, though, Australian films were being made in the fifties, and Australian audiences were going to see them. And important films too! Like Jedda, the first Australian film with Indigenous actors in the leading roles, and The Back of Beyond, which won the Grand Prix at the 1954 Venice Film Festival.

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

Like most other ECRs, my big post-PhD project was to publish my thesis. I was lucky enough to secure a contract with Melbourne University Press pretty soon after I completed my PhD; I’ve spent the last eighteen months editing my thesis for this purpose. It’s in now and should be published next February.

I’ve also spent the last two years or so developing a new project—a cultural history of single men in Australia. In one of the films I wrote about in my thesis, one of the characters ends up alone, while his mate finally decides to commit to a relationship with his on-again, off-again love. I was intrigued by this single fellow: what happens to him? Actually, what happens to single men not just in the fifties, but across the twentieth century? I tried to do this research to include it in the thesis but alas, there’s very little written on single men in Australia. At the time I filed it away in my brain, but since completing I’ve been able to think about it more and more, and it’s since formed the basis of my postdoctoral fellowship applications. (I’m still in that process, so fingers crossed!)

5. What do you love about being a historian?

I probably shouldn’t admit this because it likely means I’m a bad historian, but I don’t love archival research. I do it dutifully, of course, but for me it’s a stressful process where I’m constantly worried that I won’t find what I need/want. Obviously, whatever you do/don’t find leads to new and interesting questions (and the moments when you strike gold are wonderful), but I find the process quite fraught and anxiety-inducing. (I should clarify that this really only applies to research for my own projects.) I much prefer what comes after archival research: when I’m going through what I’ve found, what I’ve read, and trying to answer whatever questions are there to be answered. It’s hard and exhausting intellectual work, but trying to put all the pieces of the puzzle together is such fun. I often undertake this process through writing, so sitting at my computer looking at the blank screen (or laying down on my study floor with a blank notebook and a pencil) is scary and frustrating and exciting all at once. When it clicks, and makes sense, and you understand what’s happening… it’s one of the best feelings in the world.

The other lovely thing about being part of this community is that it is, indeed, a community. I’ve benefitted from the guidance and mentorship of overwhelmingly generous people who are far too kind to me (there are many, but at the top of the list are of course my supervisors, Robert Reynolds and Leigh Boucher). Academic life can be a tough road, and I have found post-PhD life to be harder than the process of doing a thesis (for reasons I outline below), but life would have been far, far more difficult without these wonderful people.

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

It’s probably no surprise that I agree with pretty much all the former contributors to this series—the precarity and instability of post-PhD/ECR life is an incredibly difficult terrain to navigate. It can be difficult to keep your head up and motivation high when your job applications are constantly getting rejected, you have no real idea what you’ll be doing in the next six months, let alone the next five years, and your bank account is deplorably low. I know other contributors have identified travel bursaries, fellowships, small grants etc that do exist for ECRs, yet I’ve found that in most of these cases you need to be employed by a university on a contract, rather than a casual basis (and thus have a “proper” institutional affiliation) to even be eligible. And although I understand their intentions, I get frustrated by senior academics who were able to secure permanent employment before submitting their PhDs telling the current crop of ECRs to hang on, be patient, keep on going etc. Such advice should only be given with a heavy dose of self-awareness.

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

Is it terrible to only go back a few decades? I’ll justify it by clinging to my intellectual attachment to the twentieth century! But in the process of beginning research for my new project I’ve learned even more about the 1970s and, by extension, the efforts of second-wave feminists. I’m very aware that the opportunities I’ve enjoyed as a young woman in academia are only possible because of the tireless efforts of the women who came before me. I think I’d like to go back and see that fight.

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