My name is Dr Ben Wilkie, and I completed my PhD at Monash University. I graduated back in 2014. For work, I am sometimes a casual academic. I am also an Associate with the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Otago, Dunedin, and have been elected as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. I dabble in music writing and reviewing on a freelance basis, too, but mostly I’m busy at home being a dad to my eight-month-old son Harry.
How did you come to be a historian?
I came to be a historian through a series of happy accidents. At home, growing up, we had lots of books around, and we were encouraged to be curious about the world. Public education can be hit or miss in rural Australia, but at primary and secondary school I had some excellent teachers with a passion for history. I ended up doing two sets of VCE History. I wasn’t going to go to university, but all my good friends were leaving town for Melbourne and I had serious fear-of-missing-out. My first degree was to be a Bachelor of Music. In my second year, I had the chance to go on a tour of Russia and Scandinavia with a string ensemble—my first international trip!—and followed that up with a holiday in Germany. In Berlin, I was struck by the immediacy and presence of the past throughout the city, a landscape politicised in the extreme and scarred by history. It all inspired me. I remember getting onto a computer at the hostel we were staying and enrolling myself in a handful of history units for the coming semester. Six months later, I had decided to drop my music degree to focus on studies in History and Philosophy.
Undergraduate history would eventually lead to an offer from the university to do an honours degree with a scholarship, in which I started one dissertation—‘Music, the Virgin Mary, and Lay Devotion in Early Modern Florence’—and dropped it halfway through to do another topic, which was about Scottish migrants in and around my hometown in the Western District, Hamilton. This was a much more accessible and affordable topic for me at the time, and I did well enough to get a PhD spot with a faculty scholarship and later support from the Australian Postgraduate Award.
In between all of this were numerous near-total dropouts from my studies, personal crises, the first semester of a law degree, multiple aborted attempts to enrol in a Masters of Theology, regret that I never finished my B.Mus, and regret that I never finished that really great sounding first honours dissertation. I would be lying if I said the provision of scholarships to undertake honours and HDR degrees wasn’t a key factor swinging my decision-making as an early-20-something-year-old with very little idea of what he wanted to be when he grew up. So, yes, a series of accidents and wrong turns, and perhaps a few carrots along the way too.
Tell us about your PhD research
My PhD was, eventually, titled ‘Weaving the tartan: Culture, imperialism, and Scottish identities in Australia, 1788-1938’. In essence, it was a broad social and cultural history of the Scottish diaspora in Australia from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century, and I situated this story in a wider imperial and colonial context. One way to think of it is that I was seeking to add an Australian case study to the growing literature on Scotland and the Empire. In light of contemporary criticism of some of the ‘contribution histories’ and ‘ethnic biographies’ of the 1980s I wanted to return to some old ground and reframe the story of the Scots in Australia. I was particularly interested in Scottish migrations, business connections, and cultural maintenance, as well as the diversity of the diaspora itself in terms of religion, politics, identity, and so on.
Why does it matter?
It matters because, when it comes to the British Empire and the European colonisation of Australia, Australian historians have not been very good at drawing distinctions between the various national components of these phenomena. An exception might be the Irish and Irish Catholics, whose traditional association with the working class and the left side of politics perhaps made them more attractive to historians of a previous generation. Otherwise, the distinct English, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish relationships to Empire are overlooked in our historiography. And so my PhD and subsequent research responded to two concerns. First, historians such as Ann McGrath have encouraged us to untangle the component ethnicities homogenised as ‘white’ in the context of settler colonial histories, and where my work most strongly attends to this challenge is in discussions of Scottish-Indigenous relations. Second, the historian of imperial Britain, John MacKenzie, has long argued for a more nuanced, ‘four nations’ approach to British history and the history of the British Empire: this is where my emphasis on Scotland’s relationship and contribution to imperialism and colonialism fits in. Calls such as these have been heeded in many other contexts, but there was little on Scotland, Australia, and Empire, and so my PhD also attempted to fill that gap in the literature.
What are you researching now or intending to do next?
I’m expanding my Scottish research beyond Australia to other parts of the world, and I’m focusing on Scottish commerce, trade, and enterprise in the economic, social, and political development of Britain’s colonies. Right now, specifically, I’m looking at Scottish missionaries and commercial activities in central Africa in the late-nineteenth century. I’m hoping to secure some travel funding to really get into this topic, but otherwise I’ll just plod along as usual. Next year I’m giving talks on everything from Robert Burns statues in Australia and New Zealand, to Scottish pastoralists in the Western District of Victoria, to the Enlightenment in Scotland, so I think I’ll always be doing something Scottish.
I’ve also been dabbling in environmental histories—sometimes histories that intersect with my Scotland and Empire work, but mostly separate side projects. The first of these has been some work on the history of land management and conservation in the Australian defence forces, and I’ve published a bit on the Army’s restoration of the Puckapunyal Military Training Area, for example. The second is a bit more substantial: I’m writing a new social, cultural, and environmental history of the Grampians-Gariwerd national park in Western Victoria, and that’s due to be published as a book next year. Although, in the current research funding context, there is some instrumental value in topics such as these, I am mostly motivated out of sheer curiosity.
What do you love about being a historian?
Somewhere along the way, perhaps while still at high school, I read AJP Taylor’s introduction to The Communist Manifesto, and remember feeling enthralled by the analytic power of history, as well as the two very different perspectives on how history unfolds contained within the covers of that book. I was never quite convinced by the largely ahistorical approach to philosophical ideas that I had encountered to that point, and Taylor’s introduction to the Manifesto is a good example of how to historicise a subject, not to explain it away, but to provide a more complex understanding of what’s going on, and to highlight how deeply rooted such things are in the circumstances of their time. There’s a joke that the historian’s battle cry is ‘It’s complicated!’, but it’s true, and one of the things I love about being a historian is the opportunity and responsibility to have a go at teasing out these complexities. Often this means being content with messy explanations, sometimes it means contradicting the popular or politically convenient view of things, but ultimately being able to grasp nuance—to hold more than one idea in your head at the same time, as they say—is a rare gift.
What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?
The issues facing early career academics are well-rehearsed, and rightly so: precarity is the lived experience of most scholars active in historical studies as teachers and researchers, and we need to keep reminding the discipline of this salient fact. Casualisation continues apace. Metrics fever has infected even our peak representative bodies. Professional success seems to rest on who you know and how competent you are at filling out paperwork. All of that. But the most challenging aspect at the moment is finding allies. Something like casualisation elicits little more than a sympathetic sigh from our more established colleagues these days, if casuals are recognised as colleagues at all. There is no apparent motivation, at an individual and material level, for full-time, permanent academics to challenge the emergent status quo that has made life difficult for early career scholars; no one is standing around staff rooms complaining that they have to do research while a casual is teaching their units.
I think what we must do as early career academics is continuing to voice our frustrations and concerns, even if that means ticking off some senior historians and organisations along the way. At the same time, we need to resist giving in and playing their game. The most interesting research in Australian history is coming from early career academics, including PhD candidates, and bending our work to suit the needs of increasingly corporatised universities and hostile governments can only lead the discipline into stagnation. If this means ‘doing history’ outside the traditional pathways of academic history, which is an option many are fruitfully exploring already, then so be it.
If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?
I think the historical period I would go back to would be the eighteenth-century in Scotland sometime: The Act of Union, Jacobite rebellions, the Clearances, industrialisation and urbanisation, the Scottish Enlightenment, all of that. I wouldn’t live long enough to see it all, but these were monumental transformations, many of which we’re still dealing with. Of course, many places and many times can claim much the same, but Scotland is obviously a personal favourite of mine, and I wouldn’t mind a holiday to the Scottish Highlands right about now.