Category: Academic history

Against Oblivion: Producing Pasts in Precarious Times

Today, History Australia has published a forum entitled “Doing History in Urgent Times”, guest edited by Yves Rees and Ben Huf (Yves has written for this blog before, most recently here). This forum was meant to be accompanied by a roundtable discussion at the Australian Historical Association’s 2020 conference, but that has been cancelled on account of the covid-19 pandemic. Michelle Arrow, one of History Australia’s editors, has organised an alternative: a series of blog posts responding to the forum. You can read the forum here—it is free for the next month—and the AHA ECR blog is very proud to host the first response by two ECRs affiliated with the University of Melbourne: Shan Windscript and Jimmy Y.

S Windscript FqtW1_RM_400x400

Shan Windscript, PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne in modern Chinese cultural and political history.

As we reflect on the state of academic precarity in the COVID-19 pandemic, the position of graduate and early career historians within the university remains increasingly tenuous. In Australia, as elsewhere, universities are rolling out COVID austerity measures, using the pandemic as the latest pretext for cuts to wages, conditions, and research positions. Precarious staff and graduate students, having long been the invisible backbone of the university, now face protracted unemployment. Our prospects for securing even casual contracts, let alone entering academia, are rapidly fading. Many of us have, in our double life as sessional tutors, now taught the last classes of our careers. Not everyone will make it to the end.

There has never been a more urgent time for historians to reckon with precarity in the neoliberal university. Yves Rees and Ben Huf’s newly-published article in History Australia, “Training Historians in Urgent Times,” offers a timely intervention on the possibilities for challenging academic precarity at the level of postgraduate history pedagogy. Drawing on Nicholas Bourriard’s relational aesthetics, Rees and Huf argue for the making of “micro-utopian” spaces as a means to “prefigure better academic worlds in the here and now” (21). Built around the principles of “inclusivity, collegiality, interdisciplinary and public mindedness,” these prefigurative micro-utopias can, as Rees and Huf argue, provide localised, everyday spaces of refuge from the effects of pervasive precarity. And within these temporary structures of care, new cultural narratives can emerge as new “historical storytellers” are cultivated and nurtured (7).

As precarious historians nearing the end of our PhD candidatures, we welcome Rees and Huf’s article. Yet these viral times have thrown up new questions about the capacity for prefigurative spaces to generate the collective political power needed for challenging a university sector reliant on precarity. In this response, we argue for the possibility of “solidarity in precarity” grounded in a contestation of power from the bottom up.

Multiple precarities 

J Yan zMuWc-Ua_400x400

Jimmy Y, PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, researching the transnational and imperial dimensions of the Irish revolutionary period of 1916–23.

PhD students who begin their candidatures with aspirations of entering academia sooner or later become “experts of precarity”. Most, and particularly those without stipends, spend the next few years struggling below the poverty line while trying to satisfy pressures for “timely completion.” To survive financially while continuing their research, they rely on periodic income from casual and fixed-term employment, taking whatever they can to pay their bills. Within the university sector, this often means shouldering mountains of unpaid labour hidden beneath an ostensibly attractive hourly rate. And such harsh conditions are further compounded for graduate researchers who experience discrimination, bullying, and sexual harassment in a sector well-known for its toxic workplace culture.

If, as Judith Butler holds, precarity is a condition constituted within a proximity to vulnerability, academic precarity particularly affects groups already made vulnerable on multiple other levels (Butler, 2009, p. 25). For women and racialised people, migrants, queer and trans people, people with disabilities, and Indigenous people, staying in academia means facing not only economic insecurity but also the day-to-day emotional, social, and physical challenges engendered by interconnected systems of violence. Tellingly, many Australian universities offer no Indigenous history courses.

At some point, usually in the dark hours before mental breakdown, many graduate students invariably confront the twin questions of “Why can’t I finish my thesis?” and “Why am I still poor”? This persistent anxiety over a future that may never come, a condition decades in the making, is now the norm. While some senior staff have characterised precarity as a baptism of fire, any ECR can testify that this condition in no sense disappears at the PhD finishing line.

The coronavirus crisis has exacerbated every facet of postgraduate precarity. As universities prioritise budgetary restraint, many students have suffered through the crisis without adequate support. At the University of Melbourne, postgraduate students have repeatedly been told to keep up with deadlines or restructure their research plans in the absence of universal extensions. International graduate students are particularly vulnerable after having been told by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to “go home.” Many have, without access to the government’s coronavirus relief packages, been left in financial and housing limbo. Australian universities have offered them little more than good wishes.

Yet, in the face of a persistent onslaught over decades against the democratic university, an alternative future feels increasingly unimaginable. Precarity, as the dominant condition of our time, collides with a sense of political fatalism and temporal contraction. As Enzo Traverso poignantly argues, the twenty-first century is a melancholic world of ruins where “concrete utopias of collective emancipation” have all but collapsed (2016: 7). It is now, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the neoliberal university.

Against this backdrop, Rees and Huf’s proposal for “building and participating in micro-utopias” as a pedagogical challenge to precarity represents a timely attempt to enact “the possibility of the world being otherwise” in the everyday’s “here and now” (20). Yet, as personal, professional, and disciplinary futures rapidly disappear alongside the contraction of history departments, the possibilities for such micro-utopias are themselves increasingly precarious.

Urgent history blog entry image 100763941_103551768052751_9087632202509844480_oAgonistic worldmaking

The neoliberal university is not insurmountable, and precarious subjects are not passive victims. As managements everywhere prepare to impose austerity, there has been an upsurge in grassroots activism led by insecure workers and students against cuts to jobs and conditions worldwide. Many salaried and precarious academics, including in Australia, have responded to the crisis by organising mutual aid programs for vulnerable colleagues.

More conventional forms of collective power and organising, including grassroots unionism, remain effective avenues for contesting precarity. By bringing precarious university staff together, union meetings provide spaces to speak openly about conditions, to vent concerns, and to articulate new forms of solidarity. At the University of Melbourne, the NTEU Casual and Sessional Staff Network, formed in 2018 and led by rank-and-file union members, has mobilised hundreds of casual workers and graduate students around campaigns for pay and conditions. Far from powerless and atomised, casuals have shown that small victories, such as over marking back-pay for tutors, are entirely attainable. Similar networks have mushroomed across the country, despite and against appeals by the NTEU national leadership to trade away jobs and working conditions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Postgraduate students, all but forgotten by their universities during the pandemic, have also found a sense of power in their shared precarity. At the University of Melbourne, PhD students, many of whom are also casualised workers, have been working closely with student and staff unions to fight for 6-month universal extensions. Their open letter has received over 600 (and counting) signatures, including from 80 supervisors, sparking similar campaign initiatives at other campuses across the country.

Solidarities forged ‘within’ precarity can facilitate the dissolution of supposed divisions between graduate students, casual academics and ongoing university staff. Although such solidarities are by no means automatic, the conditions of casual staff and the workloads of ongoing staff are far from counterposed. Staff at RMIT, the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne have recently passed “solidarity pledges” against the re-allocation of work from casuals to already overworked permanent staff. And casuals, graduate students, fixed-term staff, stood-down workers, and permanent staff spearheaded a successful “Vote No” campaign that defeated the University Vice Chancellor’s proposed variation of Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.

This revival of grassroots organising has brought together and consolidated an assemblage of precarious subjects ready to fight. Our prospects for arresting the downward spiral of the neoliberal university are tied to forms of collective power engendered not in spite of, but because of, our precarity. If Rees and Huf propose a praxis of prefigurative worldmaking, the realisation of these post-neoliberal futures is contingent upon taking back the university “from below” through a contestation of power. Perhaps what we need is agonistic worldmaking.

Conclusion: Precarious Utopias

Utopia is, as Thomas More envisaged, a non-existent place constituted within a lack in the present. Perhaps we are, within our precarious subject-positions, speaking from a location of non-being. There is, as it stands, no “tomorrow.”

As producers of the past in a precarious present, we need to (re)politicize the future as a horizon of collective possibility. Our predicament calls not for a retreat from “the political,” but for a continued de-naturalisation of given historical categories. As statues fall and sea levels rise, we have a responsibility to foreground narratives systematically excluded from the neoliberal university and its narrowing intellectual boundaries. We have already seen that the shrinking of the humanities threatens to close off the possibility for the emergence of these urgent critical historiographies.

What might new histories in these precarious and insurgent times look like? Perhaps our historical narratives themselves will become more precarious. Histories of fractured subjectivities and difference are as crucial at this moment as the more conventional concerns of identity and belonging.

Our utopias lie not within any optimism for the institution as it exists, but within a contestation of its terms. A challenge to insecure work and casualisation through new forms of collective power is well within the realms of possibility. Such contestations may allow us to generate transformative visions of postgraduate history training from within the ruins of the corporate university.

References

Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, London: Verso, 2009

Traverso, Enzo. Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History and Memory, New York: Columbia University Press, 2016

Rees, Yves and Ben Huf, ‘Training Historians in Urgent Times’, History Australia 17:2 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1080/14490854.2020.1758578

We would like to thank Max Kaiser for reading through a draft of this blog post and providing helpful feedback .

Shan Windscript is a final-stage PhD candidate in History at the University of Melbourne. Her thesis examines unpublished personal diaries written in the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76) – a period marked by widespread violence and popular political activism. Her research interests lie in modern Chinese cultural and political history, in particular the relationship between personal writing, revolutionary subject formation, and state formation. Her most recent article was published in January 2020 in Modern China, titled, “How to Write a Diary in Mao’s New China: Guidebooks in the Crafting of Socialist Subjectivities.”

Jimmy Y is a PhD candidate in History researching the transnational and imperial dimensions of the Irish revolutionary period of 1916–1923. His thesis examines the cultural translation of ‘Ireland’, radical political networks, and settler-colonial imaginaries in Australia during and after the Great War. His research has appeared in the Australasian Journal of Irish Studies, Labour History, and on the Irish public broadcaster RTE’s ‘Century Ireland’ page. Last year, he was the Seymour Summer Scholar at the National Library of Australia.

Why I’m choosing to leave academia

Today’s entry is by Tamara Cooper. You might remember her from a previous blog entry on chronic illness and research. Even before the covid-19 pandemic began, Tamara considered the nature of work within the higher education sector and decided to pursue a career elsewhere. In this entry, she explains why—and emphasises that we need to think in different and healthier ways about the employment options and career goals of higher degree research students.

T Cooper Profile Picture

Tamara Cooper.

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the future of the academy and the job prospects of current PhD students and recent graduates. Blog posts like @thesiswhisperer’s glorious anger at the need to reform the PhD and the academy, and @colourful_hist’s eloquent expression of the disruptive effect of the pandemic on career plans have been making the rounds. I have also seen numerous twitter posts wondering if now is the time to jump ship to other sectors such as education. About halfway through last year I made that exact decision, to re-train as high school teacher, and it seems like a good time to reflect on the reasons why.

Firstly, and I must stress this, I made this decision pre-pandemic, COVID-19 did not exist. I made the decision because I saw the university sector becoming more and more casualised, I was hearing stories of people spending ten years plus on casual contracts before landing a permanent job. I decided I didn’t want to do that, I was sick of being poor, I was sick of having to lean on my parents for financial support (though eternally grateful that I had that option). I had done the casual thing for years in retail and I didn’t want to go back. So, I made the decision to train as a high school teacher, I liked teaching and it seemed like a good fit for my personality.

At this point it would be best to tell you that when I left high school, teaching was always the plan. I took the advice of my godfather who was also a trained teacher. He told me to do my bachelor’s degree first, really get to know my teaching areas, and then complete my Graduate Diploma of Education. So that’s what I set out to do. But than I did my honours year, then I, out of curiosity, applied for some PhD programs and, to my surprise, won a scholarship to complete my PhD. At this point it seemed that I was bound for a career in the academy.

However, after a slightly traumatic run up to the end of thesis, I still shudder thinking about it, I started to wonder if I really wanted to stay in the academy. There seemed to be something toxic about the attitude to work, the style of work didn’t suit my personality, and I wasn’t enjoying it. Now don’t get me wrong, I love research and I love writing about history, but the metrics around how to do that in the academy seemed, to me, to sap the enjoyment out of it. That, coupled with increasing precarity, meant it just didn’t seem worth the effort to break into the industry. So, I made the decision to go back to the original plan, though I think I was the only one surprised by this decision. When I told my mum she just gave me that smug all-knowing look that mums do so well, and dad just nodded his head.

While I understand that training to become a high school teacher is not everyone’s cup of tea, I think there is merit in considering industries and sectors outside of universities for potential careers post PhD. There seems to be this prevailing idea that pursuing a career outside of the academy means you failed, or you somehow couldn’t hack it. Indeed, for some time I kept my decision quiet because of that reason; while I don’t agree with the idea, I simply didn’t have the energy to argue the point. Keeping quiet seemed like the least exhausting option. However, this thinking is ludicrous. We know that universities produce way more PhDs than there are positions for, even without all the challenges facing the industry. Yet, we continue to berate and downplay the achievements of those who seek careers outside the academy, we even call their career paths ‘alt ac’, like the academy is the only ‘real’ option.

I have heard of academic historians that look down on history teachers as not real historians, they deride academically trained historians who become teachers, but then turn around and complain that high school students are not being taught history properly. That old myths of history are being perpetuated within the school system, yet, they still refuse to engage with the system. It is the same logic that sees academic historians complain about the inaccuracies of popular histories while at the same deriding the efforts of historians who try engage with popular audiences. That said, the ability of historians to engage with popular history is hampered by a metric system that privileges elite journals over popular outputs while still insisting on public outreach (a rant for another time). However, I digress; my point is that we cannot continue to maintain this snobbery over the careers of PhDs.

While I recognise that I have only been involved in the education sector as a student, I have noticed a distinct lack of the competition that seems to colour the academic industry. In the lead up to making this decision I reached out to a couple of old friends who were teachers to discuss the day-to-day realities of being a high school teacher. They could not have been more helpful: they discussed the realities of their jobs, answered my somewhat stupid questions, and were all willing to help me with resources. My fellow education students in my classes are willing to share resources and help answer questions; there seems to be a sense of collegiality, despite the fact we are all going into the job market together. Don’t get me wrong, I have met some very nice and incredibly supportive people in academia, and have been incredibly privileged to have excellent mentors, but the conversations and interactions were always tinged by the fact everyone was competing for same amount of scarce jobs with very similar CVs.

The other thing I have noticed about the education sector, is the growing awareness of the fact that teaching is a JOB. It is something you do that pays the bills. Yes, it does attract a certain type of personality giving it the feel of a vocation and you may enjoy it a lot, but it is a JOB. In one memorable podcast I listened to for an education subject, the lecturer was discussing time management as being one of the biggest challenges for beginner teachers. She emphasised the importance of scheduling time in for relaxation, the importance of having time for yourself, and that by living and breathing the job you won’t be a better teacher. In fact, you will burn out, and you and your students will suffer. I have never seen this attitude in academia. There has always been this underlying attitude that you need to be constantly working to be a success, that taking time out is detrimental to your career. This seems contradictory and weird when you consider the wellness trends currently rife in academia.

And I know the education sector isn’t perfect. I too have read the reports about overworked teachers who are underpaid and not at all appreciated. People have told me the horror stories of the marking that teachers do. I do wonder if they have seen the marking I have to do as a casual tutor at universities; I wager it’s probably the same. But to me it comes down to this, life is full of stress, that’s the twenty-first century, you have to choose the stress that suits you. I know this the stress of academia does not suit me.

There is much more I could say on this topic. Before I made the decision, I did a lot of research on the topic, including job opportunities, wages, growth of industry etc, however, this is already longer than I planned so I will end on this note. I’m not trying to say we should all jump ship and become high school teachers, it’s not for everyone. However, neither is academia. We should be making decisions based on what is best for ourselves and the lives we want. The academy is in dire need of a shake up and it is exhausting to be searching for a job and financial security during this time. If you decide that you don’t want that exhaustion in your life, then so be it. There are plenty of viable and credible careers out there for PhD graduates. If you decide to jump ship you haven’t failed. It isn’t a sign you couldn’t hack it. You simply decided that you wanted something different in life. If you do stick it out on the casual contracts for years and then finally land the permanent job, good for you! I’m ecstatic for you. However, those who stay in academia don’t have more stamina than those who leave, and those who leave aren’t smarter for getting out. The only thing happening here is that people have made different choices, there should be no hierarchy of validity.

Q&A on “You Matter”, the AHA’s casualisation survey

Today I would like to welcome Romain Fathi and Lyndon Megarrity to the AHA ECR blog. Lyndon and Romain compiled the report You Matter: The Australian Historical Association’s Casualisation Survey, which was released last November. We’ve been meaning to sit down for a chat for a while, and I must confess it has been mainly my fault for the delay, but the upside is that the report could scarcely be more topical right now.

If you want to read the full report, please view it here.

N.B. This interview reflects the opinions and perspectives of Romain Fathi and Lyndon Megarrity regarding casualisation in the history profession, based on questions framed by André Brett. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Historical Association.

Romain FATHI - Copy2

Dr Romain Fathi (Flinders University)

Let’s cut directly to the chase. One respondent to the survey, who you quoted in your report, wrote “Our university is currently experiencing broad curriculum changes that are sudden and brutal, taking even the academics by surprise. When such restructuring occurs, casual staff and prospective students hoping to obtain scholarships are the first to be struck off the list as the money dries up” (p.23). Little could they have imagined the situation that the entire higher education sector finds itself in as a result of COVID-19 and the federal government’s refusal to allow public universities to access the JobKeeper scheme. What does this crisis mean for ECRs? How can they be expected to survive?

Romain: ECRs are certainly the most vulnerable in this context. They no longer have a PhD scholarship and a contract to protect them. Given the current restrictions, they can’t travel to conferences to present their work, network and become better known, they have little institutional support and perhaps not many “left over” copies of archival documents from past research trips that would enable them to sit down and write while the storm passes. In the best of times casual academic work is a precarious condition that Covid is making even worse, as universities brace themselves for significant revenue shortfalls that may or may not last. I’m afraid this isn’t a positive story for casuals in academia (or elsewhere) and I believe that like other Australians they should have been part of the JobKeeper program.

In fact, beyond everybody’s good health, I have two concerns with the sector’s response to Covid. First, as a non-native, I am surprised by the attitude of the Australian Government toward the education system: it appears to have a kind of ‘tall poppy syndrome’ that is unhelpful. Education is a major resource for any nation, let alone for top-ranking OECD nations who need a highly educated population to further enhance their development. Coal will run out eventually and brains – or their lack thereof – is an asset that will remain. They might as well be strong ones, well-educated, well-informed and, dare I say, independent. Therefore, the argument that a government shouldn’t come to the rescue to one of the nation’s most important resources is beyond my understanding. As a historian, however, I can see that this shift isn’t new and that it is underpinned by a financial approach to education that several governments, left and right, have encouraged in the last four decades. My second concern is that some business-oriented universities may use this crisis to impose strategies that might succeed in attracting more dollars to the coffers momentarily but will significantly downgrade the quality and content of the education received. Tertiary education should be our most prized and valued institution, a public good worth cherishing. Petition your MP, our votes count.

Lyndon: The impact of COVID-19 on the university sector and the ECR employment situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. Those are the hard facts of the situation and I wish that I was in a position to offer more hope and guidance. However, at some point, and it may be sooner than we imagine, there will be an improvement in job prospects for ECRs. It is at this very moment that the ECR and the job selection panel will have to meet each other half-way. The ECR must continue publishing and researching during this difficult period, but job selection panels also need to take into account the academic disruptions of COVID-19 when considering the skills and attributes of ECR applicants.

Megarrity LTM B&W

Dr Lyndon Megarrity (James Cook University)

We will return further to the COVID-19 crisis during our chat. Let’s talk a bit about preparing your report. Did any responses to the survey surprise or even shock you?

Lyndon: No. The survey mainly confirmed what I already know, partly through my own personal experiences of casualisation. The relative invisibility of casual academics compared to permanent academics, the lack of status within the profession regardless of years of casual teaching and research, and the precarity of casual work are themes which are familiar to most of us in this position.  I was not so much shocked but inspired by the resilience and continued enthusiasm of our survey participants for their chosen field.

Romain: As with Lyndon, sadly the responses neither surprised nor shocked me. I’ve been there myself and the worst part (I felt) was the isolation of not being able to speak your mind. If you criticise things too much (even if things are wrong) then work relationships may suffer and academic opportunities may vanish. So it’s like being stuck between a rock and a hard place where you can’t complain, which is all the more alienating as you may end up thinking that something is wrong with you. The level of resilience one can observe in the answers provided by participants to the survey is admirable. It is also saddening, because a nation should not treat those among its most educated citizens this way. Beyond the human aspect, from a purely economic point of view it’s not rational to train someone for 20+ years and let an industry casualise them. Some respondents had positive stories, for sure, others heartbreaking, but overall, the survey presented a fairly sombre picture. And that’s disheartening because we deserve better and we can afford to do better for casuals. What shocked me in fact wasn’t the type of responses to the survey but the level of relative indifference (beyond casuals themselves and the AHA) once the report was released.

Is there anything that, in hindsight, you wish you’d asked?

Lyndon: It was a fairly comprehensive survey, which covered a large range of economic, social and cultural issues surrounding casualisation. If it was being conducted today, the impact of COVID-19 would probably be the focus of some questions relating to employment options. However, what I am pleased with is the extent to which over 150 casual staff expressed their views, shared their experiences, and offered suggestions for improvement.

Romain: The survey’s questions were discussed at exec level and every member made useful suggestions. Of course, retrospectively, you always wish you had asked such and such questions. But we had to be mindful as well: casuals are asked to do so many things for free – subjecting them to a very long survey would have been dishonest, eating up more of their time. Some certainly wrote well over a page of comments. I wish we had asked them about the impact of casualisation within their family and social lives, and if they felt understood by others, non-academics in particular.

Another “in hindsight” question. Writing these reports is always an exercise in selection, so is there a topic or theme you wish you had emphasised more? Are there any points that missed the final cut that you’d like to share? Any great quotes from respondents that you simply could not fit?

Lyndon: One piece of advice from a participant that didn’t make the cut was the notion that one should “Live in a large city with several universities rather than a provincial town with only one university”. This is a legitimate perspective, because those lucky enough to live in capital cities have greater potential to secure contracts at multiple universities. But Australia is a large country, and moving from the regions to the cities is not easy unless you have secured employment first. Furthermore, the students from regional areas who want to learn a range of history subjects, and research regional themes, deserve to have those opportunities. Convincing business-oriented universities of that argument is an important task for the profession in general.

Romain: I believe Lyndon and I tried to provide a digestible synthesis that covered most (if not all) aspects of what respondents had discussed. Of course, we had to present the view of the majority and find a way to present it – just like the work of the historian, this selection can’t be perfect. But we did it with honesty and tried to present divergent views on some matters when they were expressed. You know, presenting the information in a “some said… while others said… but in general terms, the picture is…” kind of narrative format. Providing a broad picture of the casualisation experience was important and the quantitative part of the survey allowed for this to happen. One thing we had to be mindful of was protecting people’s identity – some respondents went into a lot of personal/situational details and it’s a small world. Sharing too personal a story could have, inadvertently, revealed someone’s identity, so we paid attention to that.

There are sometimes tensions between casual historians and their securely employed colleagues, with claims that each does not understand the conditions under which the other group labours. Is this fair? How can we ensure solidarity among historians to build better communities and workplaces for everyone?

Lyndon: I think our report indicates that casual and permanent academics are so far apart in terms of their conditions and status that misunderstandings and tensions are bound to occur sometimes, unfortunately. An egalitarian environment, in which casual, academic and admin staff gather together socially, at least for weekly morning tea, is a step towards building better communities and workplaces. Some of the older hands will “hold court”, of course, but morning tea (perhaps attached to a regular seminar series) can also become a forum where the achievements and work of casual academics are acknowledged formally and informally. A culture in which the teaching and research expertise of casual academics is valued should be fostered.

Romain: Some casuals said they felt truly supported by permanent staff and others, not so much. This is a space which clearly wasn’t black or white and very much depended on peoples’ situations. What is clear, however, is that permanent staff can make things better if they wish to, by making sure that casuals are paid for what they do and treated as well as possible, as well as being included in meetings or being provided with a desk/office.

This report and its recommendations are a positive step in the AHA’s advocacy for its casual members. But what, realistically, can an association like the AHA achieve? Is advocacy enough? How can we gain meaningful action on the recommendations?

Romain: The AHA is an association that doesn’t have coercive powers. It also has an executive with a healthy variety of views. I feel that this fight is far from over and I do encourage casuals and ECRs to run for election, be part of the AHA executive and create change, little by little. Lyndon and I will be putting to the vote a motion at the next AGM to reduce the membership rate of casuals of 15%. We hope that the next Executive will continue to work with historians in casual positions to ensure cheaper access to the conference as well.

A perennial source of complaint from casual and postgraduate members is the cost of conferences and memberships in Australia, a complaint not confined to the AHA. Are these complaints reasonable? Why are costs so high, and can they be reduced?

Lyndon: Membership rates reflect the large range of activities and goals pursued by the AHA, including the journal and support for conferences. Conferences are expensive to run and cater, and the conference dinner costs reflect the desire of the restaurant or caterer to make a profit on a three-course meal for, say, 80-120 delegates. I think we can acknowledge that while these various fees may be reasonable for full-time academics, they are less affordable to casual academics. In terms of conferences, I think it is important for conference convenors to consider ways of making AHA conferences more accessible and inclusive for casuals, and it is certainly an issue I intend to pursue if re-elected as a member of the committee.

Let’s now talk about the broader sector—what should universities be doing to ensure we do not have an entire lost generation of scholars?

Lyndon: A number of things come to mind. After a few  years of teaching and/or publication, casual historians should generally be given the status of adjunct lecturers. Not only that, but such adjunct lecturers should be given the capacity and support to apply for small grants. Too much emphasis is placed on large expensive ARC projects: more money should be spread wider among the historical profession to encourage individual research, especially among casuals. Universities also need to invest further in the publication process (e.g. subsidies to university-based publishers) to ensure that good research among ECRs and Mid-Career academics gets published and recognised. Finally, universities must recognise that the concept of “subject-cutting” is a self-defeating form of cost-cutting: amalgamating a large number of subjects into a small number of broad, hurried overviews is a recipe for fewer students, less scholarship and less employment for the next generation of historians.

Beyond the Covid-19 crisis, talking generally, are universities shirking their responsibilities to casuals?

Romain: Well that’s part of the problem and why universities use casuals: to have limited contractual obligations toward them. One avenue is to work on the terms of the contracts at University level, imposing better practices through the Enterprise Agreement of each institution. The survey has enabled me to see that things change here as well. Little by little, university by university. These improvements range from better rates for marking and teaching to conversion of repeated casual contracts to permanent positions. Advocacy and seeking representation are working. Slowly, but it is working. Historians know that social change takes time, but it’s no reason to be standing by.

Some of the advice in the recent blog post on job interviews emphasised that applicants need to explain why they want a particular job. Selection committees are well justified in making sure that an applicant will be an engaged colleague who is pleasant to work with. The reality for casuals, however, is that jobs are so scarce that many talented people will take any job to pay the bills, and they will make great colleagues. Nobody is holding out for the perfect dream job—we do not have the sort of job market where people can pick and choose where to apply. Do selection committees need to be more realistic about the context of their applicants?

Lyndon: I think that the selection criteria for academic jobs need to be rethought: the expectations for “leadership”, “publication in leading journals” and “innovative teaching” are such that many casual staff are unable to compete because their contracts do not allow them to develop those skills compared to long-term permanent staff. The pressure on PhD students to publish and teach well before they have submitted is becoming pedagogically problematic: the postgrad’s focus should be on learning and growing through developing the best academic thesis they can. The quality of the resulting thesis should guide employment and postdoc opportunities more that the quantity of publications, in my view.

A lot of recommendations for casuals suggest the importance of building community—not just for advocacy, but for mental health, connections, and sociability. Your recommendation 9(iii) suggests this. Many casuals, however, are already working lengthy hours for inadequate payment, trying to advance their own (unpaid) research, and have significant other responsibilities such as childcare or barriers such as disability. These networks can be great means of support, but they require even more unpaid hours and energy. Is a solution truly a solution if it just asks casuals to find even more hours in the day to add another commitment? How do we save casuals from burnout?

Romain: I think there’s no definitive answer for that one and this very much depends on peoples’ preferences. Networks, while they take time, are worth building. There is immense comfort in knowing that you can turn to several colleagues that genuinely care about you, your research and how you are going. Finding out who these people are and nourishing these relationships is so important – perhaps not so much for the career but to feel good about one’s community, feel engaged with the discipline and getting honest feedback or support. There are colleagues that have become friends and that I could call virtually any time to talk about anything and they really make my academic world a better place. But again, everyone is different and while I enjoy being part of a community of historians, some people prefer finding a community outside of their workplace.

Time to be frank: how long should casuals stick it out? Do you think there is a general rule of thumb? I ask this question not to suggest that it’s a failure to choose a non-academic career path—it quite obviously is not, and some graduates have no intention to enter academia or they find an academic career not to their liking. But, for many, it is the goal, and it is what they have trained to do. No amount of extolling other career paths can change the fact that they might consider it a failure to leave academia. What do you say to these people?

Lyndon: There is a difference between leaving a physical institution of employment (i.e. the university) and leaving academia. Many independent scholars are able to do good solid historical work outside the system through books, journal articles and other means. If you have fire in the belly and have something to say, you will find an audience for your work.

Romain: The survey suggested that the majority of respondents did not continue in casual academic work after three years post conferral. That’s what the data clearly showed. But data doesn’t talk and unfortunately the reason “why” is unclear because this wasn’t one of our survey questions: the finding was an observation based on respondents’ year of PhD conferral versus the number of years during which they have been a casual. After 3 years, there is a significant drop. I suppose that after several years, it becomes financially untenable to remain a casual in the academic sector. But I can only speculate. Some will get a full-time job or a postdoc in academia but those are the minority. You asked us to be frank so I’ll try to be just that. A PhD isn’t a thesis anymore, whether we like it or not. If you haven’t published articles in top journals, been to conferences, networked, taught, organised one or more conferences and done “all the things” by the time your PhD is conferred, your prospects may be limited, even more so if you are an international candidate because your Confirmation or Enrolment expires when you hand in your (unexamined) thesis, so you are no longer invited to stay in Australia. So in many ways, honest conversations about academic jobs need to happen from Day 1 into the PhD program and here academics have a role to play.  Most graduates with a PhD in history will end up in other sectors of the economy, and a good deal actually choose this and live a happy professional life.

I think it would be interesting to conduct a a “5-year post PhD” survey to see what people do after a PhD in History, where they live, if they use the skills they refined during their candidature, if they are happy with their non-academic job, how much they earn etc. I suppose – at least from what I have been able to observe around me – that the majority don’t stick around academia and settle for a stable job where their skills are valued. In this sense, the picture is perhaps less dark than we think. But for those who remain in the game, the pressure is there because it’s like gambling: the more you have invested, the harder it becomes to turn away from the card table. Overall, I recommend to any casual (and PhD candidates at an early stage of their candidature) to fully read our report and make that assessment for themselves, as there is enough data and views expressed within it for everyone to weigh up for how long they should pursue in the sector post PhD conferral.

We’ve talked a lot about the position of casuals and the challenges they face, but are all of our proposals and schemes really a desperate dance around the obvious—the only real solution for casuals is meaningful job security?

Romain: Yes it is. But it may have to be in another sector. There is a finite number of students per year, one has to be realistic. The major issue shown in our report is the way casualisation has become systemic rather than a positive variable of adjustment for each party. By this I mean that the experience of being a casual worker can offer benefits (training, money, flexibility – often something pointed out by the “newest” casuals in the survey) but when it becomes the only prospect, the negatives accumulate, as also pointed out by the respondents. Clearly, where there is proven recurrent work, casual positions ought to be converted to full-time positions. Overall though, if one looks at the amount of PhD graduates coming out of Australian universities, it is clear that there isn’t an academic position for each of these graduates and that seems to be the norm in other countries too. And this is why I believe that universities ought to develop a responsibility toward their PhD candidates: right from the get-go they should tell them that the likelihood of securing a permanent academic position is very, very thin. They may be scared to say that because they need PhD recruits to receive funding, but I think that’s an excuse not to actually address the issue and train PhD candidates for alternative careers.

Lyndon: In an ideal world, I would agree that meaningful job security is the solution to the problem of casualisation. Unfortunately, in the real world, it is clear that until politicians and more university leaders value the cultural and social benefits of social science and the arts, casuals in these areas will be the first to go and the last to be rehired in difficult economic times. Gaining wider awareness of casual circumstances, alleviating hardship, and celebrating academic achievements are all important elements of improving the plight of casual academics.

Romain: Graduates with a PhD in history have valuable skill that many workplaces look for: research skills, project management skills, organising skills, writing and presentation skills, interpersonal skills, resilience, etc. In other words, they are highly employable. Yet, at the end of the PhD, or even as an ECR, it seems that many find themselves wondering whether they are going to have a job at all – this wouldn’t provoke such fear of the unknown if graduate schools were providing professional training and preparing PhD candidates for post PhD life. Some of them are starting to do this, so here as well, change is coming.

So, you’re supervising your first research student…

Last week, the blog featured a selection of tips for approaching academic job interviews. This week, it’s time for some advice relevant to a different career stage: supervising your first research student. You’ve got the job, but how do you oversee an honours or higher degree research (HDR) candidate well? Many people simply draw on what they liked or disliked of their own supervisors, or on a few tips exchanged in hallway conversations—or learn by experience. Let’s demystify the experience a bit!

As with the previous entry, I must emphasise that I received these comments just before the COVID-19 pandemic made itself felt in Australian higher education. Right now, even the most experienced supervisors are navigating a very new supervisory environment. So, please keep that in mind. I received comment from the same five generous historians who contributed to last week’s entry—plus I roped in one more! Let’s start with her.

Vera Mackie (Senior Professor, University of Wollongong)

The key to a successful honours or HDR thesis is working constantly and consistently over the period of candidature. I always meet with my honours/HDR students once a fortnight (except when one of us is away on fieldwork or conference leave). We can supplement face-to-face meetings with e-mail, telephone or skype when needed. I have no strong feelings about whether to meet in an office, coffee shop or other place. The advantage of meeting in my office is that I have various resources close to hand on my bookshelves.

Once we have established the rhythm of our working relationship, I expect students to provide something in writing before each meeting. In the early days, this might just be notes on what they have been reading, dot points, a draft outline of a chapter or an abstract for an upcoming conference presentation. Once they start writing up, though, they will send me draft sections of chapters. I encourage them to think of these drafts as work-in-progress, as the basis for our discussions. If they submit a draft before our meeting, I try to provide feedback by the time we meet. I edit drafts quite closely for all students, particularly international students. I also expect drafts to be fully referenced right from the start. This is important for me in reading the drafts, so that I can follow up references for better understanding, if necessary. It is also important for the student, so that they are not chasing up stray references in the final hours and days before submitting their thesis.

Early on, I ask students to set out a realistic schedule for their work. In the case of honours students, this is the plan for just under a year’s work. I encourage them to write a schedule which includes having a complete draft about one month before the deadline for submission, so that we can take a month for editing and polishing. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way, but it is good for them to realise that a thesis is not something that can be written at the last minute – it really needs time for editing, polishing and redrafting. Similarly, I ask my PhD students to draft a schedule which involves having a complete draft at the three-year mark, leaving six months for editing, polishing and redrafting. (PhDs can go for four years, but in many cases scholarships are only for three-and-a-half years, and the timeline is particularly tight for international students.)

I try to work on the basis that the student is the one ‘driving’ the project. They are responsible for sending calendar invitations for meetings. At the end of each meeting, we will agree on a date for the next meeting, and agree on a goal for what is to be done before the next meeting. I try not to end meetings without agreeing on these commitments for the next meeting. Many universities advocate or mandate an agreement between supervisor(s) and student, which sets out the expectations with respect to frequency of meetings and other aspects of the supervisory relationship. Even if not mandated, this is an important conversation to have in early meetings.

At honours level, in particular, one may be supervising something which is not closely related to one’s own research interests. The most important thing for supervision, though, is helping the student to establish a workable regime for completing the thesis and to assist in developing writing skills (not only micro-level issues of grammar and style, but also macro-level issues of structuring a long piece of writing). It is a leap from undergraduate essays to an honours thesis, and an even greater leap from honours to a PhD thesis. This also involves encouraging the student to find their own ‘voice’ in writing.
The role of the supervisor is to provide advice and guidance on academic matters. When students are having other issues, it is good to encourage them to consult with student support advisors or counsellors, but it is ultimately the student’s decision to consult with these advisors. In some cases, it may be good to suggest students consult with learning support advisors. It is also good to keep in close contact with the honours co-ordinator or postgraduate co-ordinator. (The titles of these positions will vary from university to university.)

The supervisor-supervisee relationship is a professional relationship and not a friendship. While many supervisors and their former supervisees do go on to become friends and colleagues after the thesis, for the term of the student’s candidacy, this should be treated as a professional working relationship.

Katie Holmes (Professor, La Trobe University)

Supervision of honours or HDR students is quite different: honours is more like a sprint, HDR more like a marathon. But the supervision has some fundamentals in common.

Supervision is about a relationship. The power dynamics are skewed, but both parties have clear responsibilities. Talking about expectations up front is a very good idea. Even consider drawing up a ‘supervision contract’ that you discuss at the beginning of the supervision. It should include the responsibilities and expectations of each party. This can help keep expectations reasonable, e.g.: how regularly you meet, timeframes of the return work, how well developed you expect drafts to be, etc. If things start to go awry, or the student starts to expect more than you can deliver, you can then refer back to what had been agreed upon. The psychological dynamics in HDR supervision can be tricky; be aware that they will be there for both parties and that sometimes they might make the relationship difficult and unproductive. Most universities now expect ECRs to co-supervise a PhD to completion before they are allowed to be a primary supervisor. Make the most of this mentoring opportunity and discuss progress etc. with the more experienced staff member. A lot of research has been done on the supervisory relationship – take some time to read it and learn what works and what doesn’t.

A good supervisor offers both intellectual guidance and engagement, and usually some emotional support, but is clear about their boundaries. You are not their counsellor, or their mother/father, or friend. But it is important to know if a student is struggling emotionally or has significant life issues as it will affect their work and you might be able to direct them to appropriate help. The hardest part of a PhD is the emotional journey and students need to have good support networks in place to help them through it.

Encourage students to talk with other colleagues who might have specific expertise that is useful. Make use of the co-supervisor. Deep knowledge of the field is not necessary, but some knowledge helps. And supervisors might have to do some reading to make sure they have some grasp of the key debates or theoretical frameworks that the student is exploring.

Regular meetings, especially in the early stages, are very important. Make sure to set the time of the next meeting and what is to be done in between, before concluding a supervision meeting. I always meet in my office and ask students to email me a summary of the key points we discussed at a meeting, the next steps and the next meeting date. This way we are both clear about what has been agreed upon.

When students are commencing, I usually ask them to write a few thousand words summarising the key literature or debates in the area. This makes them engage with the historiography early on. Honours students need to start their primary research (whether Trove or interviews or archive based) early, but not so early that they don’t know what they are looking for or what questions to ask. Starting to write early and often is important. As the student progresses, set clear writing deadlines with them. There is a lot of pressure on students and staff for ‘timely completions’. If progress is unacceptably slow, there are often mechanisms such as progress panels where this can be addressed, and the onus is not just on the supervisor to make this call.

Don’t be hesitant about asking for help if you are worried about a supervision. Hopefully you will have more experienced colleagues who can offer advice. It’s better to swallow your pride and seek guidance, than allow a student who is not progressing well to flounder.

Simon Ville (Senior Professor, University of Wollongong)

Try to get experience as a second supervisor alongside a more experienced primary supervisor if at all possible. At first, meet in your office rather than a more informal or public location. Set out expectations from the beginning – most universities have a first meeting document that you can use. Ensure regular meetings occur, especially during the early stages of the candidature, and monitor your student’s progress.

How much should you know about the student’s topic? It depends, especially whether you are the primary or secondary supervisor. You will need to make your own judgement of how great an ability the student has to work independently. Be careful not to do too much – you shouldn’t be doing research for a student. Ensure that they respond to your written feedback, and be clear about their strengths and weaknesses.

Frank Bongiorno (Professor, Australian National University)

Supervisions – whether of Honours or Higher Degree Research students – are potentially intense and personal exercises. You do need to have good social skills to do it well; it’s not just about being ‘academic’ in a narrow sense. You need to be able to reassure, when reassurance is needed, but also to push someone along a little when they’re not meeting deadlines and falling behind. I usually supervise in my office, but on occasion, if things are going well with the candidature, we might sometimes meet over a coffee somewhere. But be sensitive to the possibility that there will sometimes be confidential or difficult matters that should only be dealt with in your office.

If the student is working in a way that’s not using your time effectively – for instance, you’re getting a barely revised draft a week after the last supervision – you need to say so. This kind of interaction can be hard because we’ll always be ignorant of many of the things going on in a student’s life, but it also has to be faced when things are not going well. Honours students, in particular, cannot afford to repeatedly go missing, or to wander off on a four-week research journey that goes nowhere. So it’s important to meet regularly, keep monitoring progress and intervene when necessary. In the end, it’s their project, not yours, but you do have a duty to warn on occasion, as well as support and share expertise. And keep an eye on whether they have all the support they need. Are there resources in the wider university that might help them? For research students, is their panel well-balanced, offering a range of perspectives and expertise?

At the beginning, agree to some ground-rules. How often will you meet? What do you expect of the student in the early period? A regular report? A formal agenda for each meeting? It’s best to make this explicit, and then to stick to it unless you mutually agree to change it for some reason. Probably not very long after a student starts their research, they’ll have more expertise on the topic than you. Don’t be intimidated. You have both knowledge and skills that your student won’t have, and these are often more valuable than lots of specialist expertise on the topic. The reality for most of us in Australian public universities is that we will have to supervise topics that are at right angles to our expertise. Of course, you will sometimes need to say: ‘I don’t think I have sufficient expertise to supervise this thesis’. But you also need show a reasonable flexibility because there are usually many more students than staff, and the topics being pursued will range widely.

Supervision can be incredibly rewarding, so it’s worth investing the time and effort in improving one’s performance. It’s also among the most difficult things we do as history academics. I’m always conscious of learning on the job.

Andrea Gaynor (Associate Professor, University of Western Australia)

Most Universities now mandate co-supervision so with any luck you will start out by co-supervising a student alongside a colleague with a reputation for excellent supervision. A good supervisor is one who gives the student room to develop the project and make it their own, while the student knows that the supervisor has their back and can be relied upon to provide good advice and feedback. It is important to have a discussion at the outset about expectations, and develop a mutually satisfying way of working together. This includes setting limits around the reading of draft work, and establishing who has responsibility for initiating the paperwork associated with the program, as well as scheduling meetings.

Regular meetings are a must. Some people have a set day and time at regular intervals; others set the schedule according to the timeline for submission of written work. It is best to insist that prospective students have adequate preparation for the degree and time taken to establish this at the outset is generally well spent. It should become apparent within the first 12 months of a full-time PhD candidature whether the student is up to the task; if not, it is better to move to either downgrade to a lower degree or terminate the candidature than allow the process to drag on for potentially another three years or more with heartache on both sides and an uncertain outcome; how this is done will depend on institutional rules and processes. While early changes are possible, the topic should be well established by the end of the first (full-time equivalent) year and major changes after that point are likely to interfere with timely completion. At least one of the supervisors should have some broad expertise in the topic but even non-expert supervisors can provide useful input in the form of critical review of written work, suggestions for methods and approaches transferable from other areas, and general research mentoring.

Stuart Macintyre (Emeritus Professor Laureate, University of Melbourne)

(André’s note: I am not impartial here. The first person I thought to ask when seeking input for this entry was Stuart. He was my PhD lead supervisor and the experience was, in a word, excellent.)

A good supervisor is supportive, encouraging, provides timely advice, is realistic, encourages the candidate to fulfil their potential. I don’t think it is necessary to have direct expertise on the topic; indeed, too close a knowledge can smother the candidate and restrict the rewards of discovery as well as the opportunity to come to their own understanding of the topic.

At the outset, I think it is important to ask the candidate how it is they decided to embark on the thesis, and how it fits within their career intentions. An honours student might well have no intention of pursuing postgraduate research; a postgraduate might not be wanting to pursue an academic career. But if they articulate their expectations, then it is possible to get them to see the thesis as more than an exercise in research and writing, and to think about the possibilities for acquiring ancillary skills, dissemination, and collegial life. That’s also the time when the supervisor should make clear their own knowledge and interest.

My own practice is to conduct supervisions over coffee in a quiet corner of the staff club, but I’m conscious there might be occasions when greater privacy is needed. A first step is to set the frequency of meetings, and keep to it, while emphasising that email and other opportunities should be used to maintain contact.

Both supervisor and candidate need to be clear about their mutual expectations; that is where questions of excess on both sides can be resolved. And the same holds for habits and style. Some candidates submit rough drafts; that is fine but I think it important to emphasise you want to see finished prose and finished references as soon as possible. Quick feedback is paramount.

The supervisor is familiar with the tasks of planning and execution. The candidate has probably never before attempted to write a thesis of this length and will benefit from advice on practical aspects such as bibliography, the search for sources, note-taking and the logistics of the exercise.

It is critical to win the candidate’s confidence. My most difficult supervisions have arisen where the candidate comes with predetermined conclusions and resists consideration of alternatives. All too soon you find a resistance to consider the alternatives and an excessively polemical treatment of the literature that does not accord with the candidate’s predilections; indeed, you find yourself seen as an obstacle to the thesis the candidate is determined to write.

A supervisor plays the role of the experienced researcher looking over the shoulders of the candidate as they enter into the process of intellectual discovery. The candidate will almost invariably acquire a detailed knowledge of the topic that surpasses that of the supervisor – that is one of the rewards of supervising research. The supervisor will contribute guidance on the practical skills of writing a thesis, time management, facilitating the research (field trips, advice on seminars and conferences, advice on professional development, etc.). Most of all, it is a partnership that sustains the discipline.

So, you’ve got an academic job interview…

It’s well past time to kick the AHA ECR blog back into life. Back in February and March, I collected advice from historians in Australia on two topics for early career researchers: how to approach academic job interviews, and tips for your first honours/research higher degree supervision. The COVID-19 crisis rapidly overwhelmed all other business, and some of this discussion felt a bit on the nose to publish. Perhaps it still does. But sooner or later (very later?), this will regain relevance. So, let’s do job interviews first. I post this as a reference for the future, as few jobs are being advertised right now. Please note that all of the content below was written before Covid-19 seriously affected our universities and the academic job market.

Most people find job interviews pretty intimidating. It’s hard enough just to get on the shortlist, especially when history positions at Australian universities get so many applications. And once you’ve made it that far, what do you do? This entry is especially for those of you who are preparing for your first interview, and for people who feel like they’ve not performed well in interviews so far. There is no magic trick to make a selection panel fall in love with you—as will be clear from some of the respondents differing with each other on a few points—and there will often be preferences and institutional politics you cannot possibly know. But with any luck the comments in this entry will help you build confidence.

Stuart Macintyre (Emeritus Laureate Professor, University of Melbourne)

Much depends on the composition of the selection committee, though the applicant can hardly be expected to know that in advance. It is likely to include academics with a direct interest in the field advertised, but also others who might well be looking for greater versatility.

It is common for selection committees to prepare and allocate generic questions on teaching experience and approach, research record and intentions, etc. These questions are likely to be formulated using the selection criteria; but it means the person asking the question is not necessarily the person with the greatest interest and understanding of that aspect of the duties. Accordingly, responses are best directed to the committee at large, as opposed to concentrating on the questioner. It is always helpful to elicit follow-up questions, these helping to go beyond the generic nature of the interview. I think track record (and indications of the trajectory of the applicant’s career) take precedence over ‘fit’ – but it is helpful to spend some time looking at the school and program’s curriculum, research interests, etc. and to light upon distinctive features. That way you can show you have given thought to fit. I think video interviews make it harder to establish rapport, though a good chair should assist.

I think it is helpful to prepare notes in advance, formulating the salient aspects you want to emphasise; though using these notes can make for a somewhat wooden self-presentation. The key phrases will stick in your memory. Similarly with questions: formulate them but don’t force them on the interview and be prepared to take up any signals during the interview.

I’m most impressed when a candidate engages my attention. (Along with other members of the committee, a day of interviews can become wearisome, and it is sometimes hard to maintain concentration.) Without overselling yourself, try to communicate why you think this particular appointment attracts you and why you think you would make a good colleague.

Andrea Gaynor (Associate Professor, University of Western Australia)

Panels for academic teaching and research positions will often ask for an example of a unit you would like to develop and teach, so it can be worth fleshing out some possibilities that would work in the context of the institution you are hoping to work for. Panels will also want to hear you convey the excitement of your research, and may also want to know how you go about combining the demands of teaching and research. You would definitely want to be able to explain why the position is attractive to you and how the role fits with your career plan – the panel will be looking for a candidate who genuinely wants this particular job, and not just any vaguely relevant post. Astute panels will also be looking to hire people who are not only excellent researchers and/or teachers, but also great colleagues, so they may ask how you have managed disagreements, and how you go about working in a collaborative environment. It’s useful to be able to provide particular examples (without naming names!). Every selection panel I have been on has asked candidates whether they have any questions and I think it is a good idea to have some of these prepared, if there are indeed things you might reasonably want to ask of the panel. The panel’s answers can help you decide whether you really want the position, and your questions can help to reinforce the impression that you have taken the time to really imagine yourself in the position, as an ongoing commitment rather than a remote prospect. Do also come with a clear idea about when you would like to start.

Katie Holmes (Professor, La Trobe University)

Expect a question about why you want the job and what you have to contribute – try and make it clear why your track record and research fits with the institution. If it’s a teaching and research position, you will get questions which cover both areas. Consider how you’d answer a question about your most difficult teaching experience, or what some of your main teaching challenges have been and how you addressed them. What are your research plans and your research trajectory: where would you like to be, research wise, in five years? Take the opportunity to sell the importance of your research and why it matters. Universities like to hear about research impact so think about that, although as an ECR no-one will be expecting your research to have had major impact yet.

If you possibly can, ask your peers and/or supervisor and/or experienced staff member, to give you a mock interview. Take this seriously and use it as an opportunity to practice how you respond to questions. Ask for critical feedback. If you are going to be interviewed via a video link or phone, practice that mode. In both face to face and video interviews, be conscious of your body language and what you are conveying. Watch this TED talk for some really interesting ideas about ‘power poses’ to help get your energy flowing ahead of the interview.

Do your research. Know what the job will be, what you might be teaching, where the synergies are with other staff members, what the university demographic is (and if you can’t find that out easily, ask it in the interview). Make sure you’ve looked up who the panel members are and, in a face to face interview, make sure you look at them all and don’t focus too much on one person. One of the key challenges of remote interviews is that it’s harder to ‘read’ the room. Don’t make the mistake of talking too much. If you have a half an hour time slot, practice within that time and don’t spend too long answering a question when you know that the committee will have other things they want to ask you. For a remote interview, dress as you would if it were face to face – it helps get you in the mode.

Always have at least one question prepared that you want to ask – it shows you’ve thought about the position and are genuinely interested. Don’t ask about workloads unless it’s a question about the teaching/research workload balance.

The most impressive interviews are the ones where the candidate is well prepared and conveys energy and enthusiasm for the position.

Frank Bongiorno (Professor, Australian National University)

I wouldn’t claim to be a very accomplished interviewee, but I think I’ve generally done best when I’ve had time to prepare thoroughly, and when I feel that I’m a pretty good fit for the job and the department. I also suspect I tend to do a little better when I rate my chances poorly, as I relax more and find it easier to articulate my case.

I’m more often on the other side of the table these days, and I’d say there’s nothing more important than being able to explain why you want the position. It will often be the first question you’re asked and, if you can’t answer it, it will likely create a poor impression. It’s the equivalent of an introduction to an article, or perhaps an abstract: if you can’t manage it, that usually means you’re not really sure of what the research you’ve done is really about.

There’s no harm in trying to anticipate the questions in your preparation, and in having a practice session with a friend or family member using those questions. Remote interviews will have their own challenges, such as the technology and the general difficulty of reading the room. If that’s what you face, it would be best to practice that way. I was part of a panel a while back interviewing an overseas candidate remotely and I was surprised when he asked for time to consider each of his answers – I suppose he sat silently, taking notes, for 30 seconds or more after each question before answering. It seems to have worked because we gave him the job!

I’d also do whatever you can to uncover local knowledge. If you seem to know nothing of the institution, including what the staff – possibly your future colleagues – are researching, an interview panel might read a career of future disengagement into it. For similar reasons, make sure you know what courses are being offered in the department, so that you can make a case about where your expertise might fit in – and also, again, so that you look interested. We all like to have people show interest in what we do, and members of job panels are no exception. Remember, you’re being interviewed for a position that, if it’s continuing, could be for a long time for all concerned, and those interviewing you will want to be assured that you’ll be a good colleague. Yes, they want to hear about your research, and your teaching plans, but they’ll also be looking for signs of flexibility and proportion. Your research is important but it’s not the only game in town!

Simon Ville (Senior Professor, University of Wollongong)

As a committee member I have frequently found that my view of who is strongest on the shortlist based on the CV does not turn out to be the preferred candidate after an interview. Do your home work on the organisation – check their website, then take any opportunity to have a discussion with the contact person. This gives you a closer idea of what sort of person they are really looking for; this is not always self-evident from adverts.

During the interview, ensure you make regular eye contact. Don’t rush your answers or speak too quickly – appear thoughtful in the way you respond. Try to be the most positive, enthusiastic person in the room but don’t overdo that. While addressing questions to a reasonable degree, ensure you slip in points that you really want to make – treat it a bit like a media interview. Be honest about something you don’t know the answer to rather than stumble or struggle.

Make sure you know who’s on the committee and what their interests or perspective are likely to be. Expect the normal opening question: why are you interested in the position, what would you bring to it, what do you know about us. Do ask your own questions at the end – not too many – and take this as a further opportunity to reiterate your enthusiasm and to demonstrate your knowledge of the place.

Last: let your referees know you are being interviewed in case you are asked if it is okay to approach them.

COVID-19 and the Australian Historical Association

This is the entry I did not want to write.

It is with great disappointment that the Australian Historical Association must announce this morning that our annual conference will not go ahead on the dates scheduled, 29 June to 3 July 2020. The AHA will provide further details soon about the scheduling of the conference.

The organising committee at Deakin University has put in a great amount of work already. The conference was shaping up to be a lively event at the Geelong Waterfront campus and I hope you’ll join me in praising their efforts. They are grappling with a situation unprecedented in the history of our conferences, which began in 1981.

You will be pleased to know that our prizes, bursaries, and scholarships will be awarded as usual. The announcements will have to be done virtually. The prizes to be awarded are: the Kay Daniels Award, the Magarey Medal for Biography, the Serle Award, the WK Hancock Prize, the Jill Roe Prize, the Allan Martin Award and the Ann Curthoys Prize. The bursaries and scholarships to be awarded are: the Patrick Wolfe Early Career Researcher Conference Bursary; AHA/Copyright Agency Early Career Researcher Mentorship Scheme; AHA/Copyright Agency Postgraduate Conference Bursaries; AHA/Honest History AHA Conference Teacher Scholarship; NAA/AHA Postgraduate Scholarships; Jill Roe Early Career Researcher AHA Conference Scholarship Scheme.

The AHA’s annual general meeting normally occurs at the conference. This will, of course, no longer be possible. We must, however, hold our AGM and it will run online, with details to be confirmed in due course. This year is an election year: we need to elect the President, Vice-President, Treasurer, Honorary Secretary, five Ordinary Members, and PhD and ECR representatives. A call for expressions of interest will be circulated in April. Our constitution provides that if there is only one nominee for a position, that person is elected automatically.

ECR representatives have so far served for only one term each and I don’t plan to break that tradition. If you are interested in nominating for the ECR position, please feel free to get in touch with me if you’d like to chat about the role. You can send a direct message to me on Twitter (at either the AHA ECR account or my personal one) or email me at abrett@uow.edu.au – I’m more than happy to answer any questions you might have. This is not a requirement: you can nominate without saying a peep to me! But I want to be clear that I’m available for anyone who’d like to discuss the role.

I’d like to quickly open a more general COVID-19 discussion. This is a challenging time for everyone right now. Please be thoughtful and compassionate and keep washing your hands. I say this as someone who might outwardly appear an active, healthy, (relatively) young man—but one who ticks multiple high-risk boxes. Every action you take to limit the spread of the virus is valuable.

The people who run our universities face great challenges, and there are no easy or straightforward solutions. I grew curious about whether people at Australian higher education institutions think their universities have reacted adequately to date, so I ran a series of polls on my personal Twitter account for 24 hours from Monday evening to Tuesday evening (15–16 March). It’s a self-selecting sample, but the results are interesting.

The first poll got the best exposure: out of 105 voters, 46.7% are dissatisfied with their institution’s response, 19% are somewhat dissatisfied, and 34.2% are satisfied or somewhat satisfied (17.1% each). I then ran polls for staff, divided into permanent and precarious, and for students, undergrad and postgrad. All are more dissatisfied than satisfied. Undergrad students had the best rate of satisfaction but the sample size is too small to draw conclusions. Precarious staff are the most likely to be dissatisfied, which is unsurprising as too few universities have given clear indications of support for casuals. Interestingly, those respondents who consider themselves more “at risk” from COVID-19 than the general population were more likely to be satisfied with their institution’s response than those who do not, although both groups have a majority dissatisfied.

These are trying times to be stuck in insecure work and I’ll do what I can to promote fair and equitable treatment for casuals and ECRs. Universities talk a good game about how inclusive and community-oriented they are; we are going to find out who is actually serious. I do not envy senior management as they try to plot a way forward through profound uncertainty. But trust in university leadership is notoriously poor right now in much of our sector and the decisions in coming weeks will do a lot—either to regain that trust or damage it irreparably. Casuals must be treated generously. Postgrads, research grant recipients, and fixed-term staff, to name just three groups, will need requirements waived or altered, deadlines pushed back, and contracts or candidature extended. These circumstances are new, so the solutions must be original.

Please, everyone, be good to those around you. Our health is the most important thing.

Kia kaha (be ever strong),
Dr André Brett, current AHA ECR representative

The illiterate decision to shut down UWA Publishing

The University of Western Australia this week announced plans to close its esteemed press. Dr André Brett, the current early career researcher representative on the Australian Historical Association executive, addresses this news. The views below are mine, not those of the AHA or its executive—but I emphasise that I am making them in a representative capacity, because this press matters to early career historians.

UWAP logoUniversity of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP) is one of the most significant university presses in Australasia. A book published through UWAP is a mark of esteem for historians. Its catalogue makes Western Australian histories prominent among a diverse selection of publications so deep and rich that choosing to name a few luminaries feels invidious.

UWAP is also important to the life of other disciplines and literary scenes, not least poetry, for whom this publisher has been a standard bearer. It has made a point of telling indigenous stories and bringing diverse voices to wider audiences. It prints Western Australian narratives that east coast publishers often disregard. It has high production standards, and high standards for creativity and scholarship. Suffice it to say that the awards won by UWAP books each testify to the quality of its whole list. UWAP is an essential part of Australia’s literary landscape.

And yet, this week, the University of Western Australia’s deputy vice-chancellor (global partnerships) Tayyeb Shah issued a memo announcing that the press, in its current form, is to be shut down.

Shah’s memo is couched in managerial jargon about “strategic vision” and output alignment. It makes perplexing claims that suggest UWAP is not valuable because too few of its authors or their topics “relate directly to the university and its work”. This is specious. The cultural capital that UWAP accrues for the university is vast, unquantifiable—and, most importantly, irreplaceable.

You would think a DVC (global partnerships) would recognise that an esteemed publisher puts a university on the map. Evidently not.

We cannot let UWAP be dismantled quietly. UWAP is important to early career historians: not only does it publish so much of the scholarship that influences us, but it is also a prospective outlet for our own research. Publishing through UWAP is, for many new historians, a sign that they have “arrived”. For historians of Western Australia, it sits at the very heart of their work.

Sign the petition calling for this decision to be reversed. Share it. Tell your friends and colleagues to sign it. Make representations to senior management at the University of Western Australia, if you feel in a position to do so.

Few universities in Australasia can boast a press as respected as UWAP. To cast it aside is incomprehensible.

Researching the Tariff Board: Finding Culture in a Surprising Place

Today we have an entry cross-posted with the blog of the Economic History Society of Australia and New Zealand (EHSANZ). It is by Henry Reese, a newly-minted ECR who picked up two awards associated with the AHA’s recent conference at the University of Southern Queensland. An AHA-CAL travel bursary supported his attendance, and he won the EHSANZ Postgraduate and ECR Development Prize for the paper he delivered. He describes his research and the challenges and rewards of working in an interdisciplinary setting—a cultural historian in the field of sound studies finding himself making a mark in the AHA conference’s economic history stream.

parlophone

Source: Australasian Phonograph Monthly 1(7), January 1926, 2.

I was honoured to discover that I’d been awarded the 2019 Economic History Society of Australia and New Zealand Postgraduate and Early Career Researcher Development Prize. Like many others who were trained — and have long understood themselves — as cultural historians, I have been thrilled to integrate the material and economic into my understanding of the Australian past in recent years. The economic history stream at the 2019 AHA conference, deftly coordinated by the great Claire Wright, was a fantastic place to tease out the historical links between culture and economy in a constructive and warm intellectual environment. This session was a masterclass in how to fruitfully bring disparate fields of scholarship together. As you can read here, the stream’s panels were diverse, fresh and (for me) often downright thrilling. Presenters engaged with multiple facets of economic history from a slew of methodological standpoints. Postgrads and early career academics featured prominently, a good sign of the healthiness of the discipline.

The frisson of interdisciplinary is something that most postgrads face, for better and worse. It is the cousin of the perennial imposter syndrome that obtains in an academic environment in which we are expected to know everything. It’s something I’ve had to engage with plenty throughout my academic career. As a historian whose work is informed profoundly by the emerging field of Sound Studies, itself an inter-discipline, I have often felt the apprehension that comes with interdisciplinarity. A few years ago, I presented my work at a Sound Studies conference at Stony Brook, New York, where I found myself rubbing shoulders with a motley group of musicologists, anthropologists, literary scholars and even the occasional scientist, all concerned with the same big questions. It was an eye-opening experience. Everyone was equally a fish out of water, and this made for an open and exploratory intellectual space. One lesson of this experience is that, if efforts are taken to foster a respectful and reflexive environment, where multiple viewpoints and levels of expertise are welcomed, then the discomfort that comes with exploring a fresh area needn’t be a problem; rather, it can be productive. Conference organisers, consider this a challenge: be open and respectful of diversity. Postgrads, it’s worth remembering: we can’t know everything, but our views are valid and we’re much more competent than we might think.

The paper I presented at the AHA was entitled ‘Protecting the National Soundscape: The Gramophone Industry and the Nation in the 1920s.’ Whereas I had previously only ventured ankle-deep into this topic, now I had the chance to throw myself headfirst into the deep end of public battles over trade policy in the tumultuous interwar period. This was a paper I had looked forward to writing for several months as I polished off my PhD. My thesis, entitled ‘Colonial Soundscapes: A Cultural History of Sound Recording in Australia, 1880–1930,’ is the first cultural history of early recorded sound in Australia. Combining business history, the history of anthropology and sensory history with the close attention to context, performance and thick description that are the bread and butter of cultural history, I explored settlers’ changing relationships with the phonograph and gramophone over the first generation of this technology’s existence. By integrating recorded sound into the wider soundscape of Australia, I argued that the development of a modern outlook on Australian place developed in tandem with settler understandings of, and appreciation for, the fact of sound reproduction.

In my paper, I interpreted a 1927 Tariff Board inquiry into the duty on imported gramophone records as a cultural document, as well as an instrument of business policy. Perhaps this was one way of making the research task ahead of me tolerable. After all, it’s easier to read over one hundred pages of dry argumentation regarding recorded music imports if you understand the Tariff Board transcript as a document that was charged with the richness and spice of a courtroom drama! Here a small group of rich white men laid bare their prejudices regarding the gender, class and aesthetic tastes of the Australian consumer, which, I argued, were central to the eventual outcome of the inquiry. This was not just a debate over the value of imports compared to the locally manufactured product; it was an occasion when Australian business elites were called upon to adjudicate on the relative merits of musical taste in an anxious society. The bottom line: the Australian consumer, gendered female, was not to be trusted with the artefacts of mass culture; racialised American jazz music was an agent of cultural and musical decline; and compared to the older networks of wholesalers and music dealers preferred by the large gramophone importers, the modern, commercialised department store was no fit place to find musical uplift.

I had some firm precedents in my interpretation of the Tariff Board inquiry in light of wider debates about music, culture and Americanisation in Australian society. Kenneth Lipartito’s work on the expressive facets of business culture has been eye-opening for me, as has Toby L. Ditz’s artful interpretation of business correspondence, often a dry and formulaic tranche of source material, as evidence of the gendered performance of masculine identity. In the hands of both scholars, business is seen as influenced by, and productive of, wider cultural shifts in the society of which it is an integral part. In the Australian context, the work of Hannah Forsyth, Sophie Loy-Wilson, Melissa Bellanta and Julie McIntyre, among others, has been crucial in my thinking regarding the culture of business, and the business of culture, in a modern capitalist settler society. The gramophone trade, as a powerful axis of the so-called ‘culture industry,’ had an outsized impact on Australian tastes and patterns of consumption. It is worthy of deeper analysis using the powerful tools given us by such path-breaking business and cultural historians.

I was fortunate to receive an AHA-CAL Bursary for this paper. I encourage other postgrads to apply for the same at future AHA conferences. Through this scheme, each student is assigned to a senior mentor, who provides feedback on their paper. My mentor, Richard White, went above and beyond, and deserves credit in the shaping of my argument here. I am also extremely grateful to Hannah Forsyth and Jennifer Bowen for their generous comments on my paper at the conference. The final, and largest, thanks are due to Claire Wright, whose efforts to foster closer connections between economic and ‘other’ historians is paying fantastic intellectual and social dividends. Thanks all, and don’t hesitate to get in touch with questions or comments!

Henry Reese
University of Melbourne
henry.reese@unimelb.edu.au
Twitter: @HPReese

Chronic Illness and Research: Some Strategies for Co-existence

Today, Tamara Cooper reflects on an important topic: chronic illness and disability in academia. Positive talk about accommodating chronic illnesses and disabilities often runs well ahead of tangible actions—your ECR rep, André Brett, is legally blind and knows this all too well. Tamara draws on her experience of endometriosis to give suggestions to those postgraduate and early career historians who live with chronic illness or disability and work within a system that is not always sympathetic.

When I submitted my PhD thesis in March this year I found myself both mentally and physically fatigued. While some of this fatigue could be put down to the insanity of my rush to the finish line, on reflection a fair chunk of it was caused by endometriosis. Throughout my PhD candidature I was under the impression that my endometriosis had no tangible effect on my ability to write and research; it was only in the last six months or so of my candidature that I realised this was not the case.

For those who don’t know, endometriosis is a chronic, incurable disease that affects approximately one in ten women of reproductive age, though some suggest that this figure is well underestimated. The disease occurs when cells similar to the lining of the uterus grow outside of the uterus and on the surrounding organs and tissue. The main symptoms of endometriosis are severe cramps during menstruation and prolonged and heavy menstrual cycles. Unlike many diseases, the severity of the symptoms does not necessarily reflect the severity of the disease. It has on average a seven to ten-year delay in diagnosis from the onset of symptoms and the only way to diagnose it with any certainty is through surgery. For myself, I started showing symptoms at the age of twelve, but I was not diagnosed until I was twenty-three years old. This diagnosis and excision surgery was six months before I commenced my PhD studies.

This was not the end of my journey with the disease as anyone living with a chronic illness will tell you. The next step is figuring out how to live with the illness. Chronic illness does have an effect on the way you live your life, but it does not need to dominate it. Below I wanted to share with you some of the things that helped me to live with this illness while completing my thesis. It is by no means a comprehensive list of strategies but rather a start to the conversation of how to accommodate research and chronic illness.

Know your symptoms: While this seems straightforward, many chronic illnesses have wide and varied symptoms that manifest differently in different bodies. You need to take your time to learn how the illness is affecting you. For instance, it took me three and a half years of my four and a half year long dissertation to learn that fatigue is a major symptom of my illness and that I need to watch for and manage the signs of fatigue before it wipes me out.

Quality versus Quantity: On bad days I discovered I could achieve more in a focused three hours than in an unfocused six hours. So I would sometimes work intensively for a few hours without a break and then take the rest of the day off, instead of forcing myself to stay the computer all day. I also realised that on the really bad days that is was better to just take the day off to recover than try to push through and come up with material that I would only need to re-write later (after I had delayed my recovery).

Alternative Therapies: While pharmaceuticals are fantastic (you will never find me skipping a vaccine!) they are sometimes not enough to manage symptoms; when this happens, it is good to look at the alternative therapies that are available. I’ve found that regular remedial massages, as well as exercises like yoga and pilates, help me deal with the aches and pains of endometriosis. I know ladies who swear by acupuncture and Chinese medicine and others who use naturopathic remedies to compliment their medications. With chronic illness there is no one therapy to suit everyone, so try everything!

Diet: While it seems obvious, food can be central to managing chronic illness. One of the best things I did to help manage the symptoms of endometriosis was to pack myself off to see a dietician who put me on a Low FODMAP. This diet (when I follow it) has helped to drastically reduce symptoms like bloating and inflammation.

The culture of busyness: This is perhaps the hardest part of any chronic illness, juggling your medical needs with society’s constant pressure to always be busy. In academia, this is further exacerbated by increasing rates of casualisation and employment precarity. The simplest answer to this is to simply refuse the culture of busyness, schedule in time off, even days off. However, if you are casually employed this is not easy or even possible sometimes. But I still think it’s important to push back against this idea of constantly being busy even if it’s only small. Give yourself time to just be. This might mean taking a daily indulgent bath or perhaps making reading for leisure a priority. It might also mean taking some time to simply sit and let yourself breathe; whatever it means to you, own it and don’t let society make you feel ashamed for it.

As I said before this is by no means a comprehensive list of strategies – it is geared towards my own experience with endometriosis – but rather a conversation starter. Many people within academia live with chronic illness and many find it hard to juggle the demands of research against the demands of illness. I think the most important lesson that my thesis and my illness taught me is that I don’t need permission to be sick and that even though my illness may not be visible it is by no means less intrusive. At the same time, it does not need to define my life. To all my colleagues with chronic illness, we got this!

Trans and gender diverse inclusion in academia; or, why we need to get better at pronouns

Today’s blog post addresses an important topic for scholarly communities worldwide, not least our History community in Australia: how to turn stated commitments to inclusivity into real, meaningful inclusion of trans and gender diverse people. This contribution is by Yves Rees, a David Myers Research Fellow in History at La Trobe Recently, who was until recently known as Anne. It was under that name that they contributed to the third part of the recent Conversation About Casualisation.

For the past decade, I’ve been an active participant in Australia’s history community. I’ve worked or studied at four institutions across three states. This year’s conference in Toowoomba will mark my eighth AHA. I’m a former member of the AHA Executive. While cognisant of the many problems of corporatized academia, I also truly love the world of history-making. These are my people.

Over the past twelve months, I’ve also come out as transgender. I’ve lived as an openly trans person in my personal life for almost a year. At the same time, I’ve been slowly ‘outing’ myself in professional contexts. First I changed my pronouns on Twitter and in my academic bios. Then I started tweeting about being trans. This month I formally ‘came out’ at my university. I’m now using my new name for work email and Twitter. Yves has arrived.

This has been a terrifying process. Even despite my many forms of privilege, I still live in the shadow of the violent transphobia that pervades our world (and recent election campaign). Each step towards coming out has been a gut-churning leap into shark-filled waters.

In response, individual colleagues—both within my institution and around the country—have done their utmost to make me feel safe and supported. I’ve been showered with emails and messages containing heartfelt words that have given me newfound affection and respect for our community of historians.

For these gestures of solidarity, I am supremely grateful. (Though, it must be said, the vast majority of this support has come from women and fellow queers.)

But I’ve also come up against profound structural impediments to the full participation of trans peoples in the AHA and the broader academic community. Our conferences, publications and communication practices are all organised in a way that perpetuates cisnormativity and erases trans identities.

In 2019, this structural transphobia is no longer acceptable. As a community “committed to inclusivity with regard to … gender, gender expression and identity”, we can and must do better.

The costs of not doing so are grave. Entrenched stigmatisation and exclusion results in appalling health outcomes for trans and gender diverse (TGD) people. Recent Australian research suggests that almost half (48%) of trans youth have attempted suicide, while three-quarters have experienced anxiety or depression. Similar figures have emerged from overseas studies.

Last Friday was IDAHOBIT: the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia. In honour of this occasion, I offer a few suggestions for ways to challenge structural transphobia within the AHA and at our universities.

CONFERENCES & SYMPOSIA

  • Event organisers: request pronouns during registration and display pronouns on nametags

We already ask for dietary requirements and salutations; why not pronouns? This is a simple practice with multiple benefits. Most obviously, it ensures that all people are addressed using the correct pronoun. No less importantly, it normalises the idea that pronouns (and gender identity) can’t be assumed. By disrupting the structures of cisnormativity, pronoun signalling is an important way of destigmatising and including TGD people. To date, I’ve only been to one academic event in Australia that adopted this practice (kudos to Holly Pich and Marama Whyte here). We need to make this commonplace.

  • Panel/event chairs: check pronouns before introducing speakers

Introducing someone at an academic event generally involves using their pronouns. In doing so, we tend to assume that a ‘female’ name implies she/her pronouns, and vice versa. For instance, “Mary is a lecturer in History at Lonsdale University. She has written three books on comparative settler colonialism.” But is Mary a ‘she’? We actually have no idea until we ask. So ask. Either literally ask the speaker, or check their bios to see what pronouns they use.

  • Event organisers: ensure access to gender-neutral bathrooms

Many universities now have at least some gender-neutral bathrooms. Are there any at your event venue? If not, can you make a temporary gender-neutral bathroom—for instance, using a disabled bathroom? This is not a perfect solution, as it risks compromising the hard-won access rights of disabled people. If your event is likely to feature more than a handful of TGD people, I would strongly encourage that you secure a dedicated gender-neutral bathroom, distinct from disabled facilities. And can you identify all these facilities in the conference program? Everyone has the right to use a bathroom where they feel safe. Ensuring this is possible for TGD people is an essential part of gender inclusivity.

MORE GENERALLY…

  • Include pronouns in your email signature and Twitter bio

This is a straightforward way for cisgender people to show trans solidarity and disrupt the structures of cisnormativity. It will take two minutes and it will make life easier for TGD people every day. My La Trobe colleague Clare Wright took the leap on Friday; who else is game?

  • Do not question, refuse or remove ‘they/their’ pronouns in author bios

The use of singular they/their pronouns is not up for debate. They are part of our ever-evolving English language and have been in use since the time of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Yes, they can feel unfamiliar and hence take some getting used to. No, they are not ‘grammatically incorrect’. If an author has been brave enough to use ‘they/their’ or other gender-neutral pronouns, please respect their choice. Also ensure that copy-editors do not ‘correct’ the text to ‘she/her’ or ‘he/his’.

  • Recognise gender diversity on forms and surveys

Universities house a growing community of gender diverse people, who do not identify as either ‘male’ or ‘female’. These people are erased every time they encounter a form that adheres to a strict gender binary. We need to normalise data-gathering practices that recognise (and indeed, celebrate) the gender diversity that already exists in our world. In practice, this means including an open-text box in which people can describe their own gender (rather than being forced to tick either ‘male’ or ‘female’). It can also mean including gender neutral salutations such as ‘Mx’ (rather than ‘Ms’ or ‘Mr’).