Today’s post is the third and final part of our series on a recent controversial article in The Conversation about casualisation. The first part, André Brett’s response to that article’s arguments, is here; the second part, Joel Barnes’s analysis of the underlying research, is here. All views expressed in this series are those of the authors and contributors, and do not reflect the views of their employers, the Australian Historical Association, or any other groups with whom they are affiliated.
Many casually-employed historians and early career researchers (ECRs) have strong opinions about an article by Dorothy Wardale, Julia Richardson, and Yuliani Suseno that suggests how to make casual academic contracts ‘better’. One problem, however, is that many casuals and ECRs have not the time to prepare detailed responses, especially when this labour will not be remunerated. Some fear that they will not receive new contracts if they speak out. This is why we so often do not hear casual voices in discussions of casualisation, or why those voices mainly appear on social media. There is a lot of anger and discontent about casual employment in academia, but those who are exploited the most are also those least able to protest.
For this reason, the third part of this series adapts an idea that emerged in a Twitter discussion between Effie Karageorgos and Imogen Wegman (follow the links for their previous excellent contributions to this blog). It is a compilation of short—or not so short—responses to the Conversation article by early career academics in History who are, or recently were, employed casually in Australian universities.
The article claims that ‘many casual academics enjoy the flexibility of working across different institutions’. I now work at three different institutions. One of these is thankfully online, so the work can be done anywhere, but I often have to drive between the other two, leaving a class at one to quickly make my way to the other. I do not have office space at either institution, so I carry all of my class materials around with me during the day. One institution will not allow me to have a key to the classroom I teach in every week, asking me to call security every time I want to enter the room. I have taught at this institution since early 2012, and was trusted with a key until the end of 2018. I think fondly to the time when I had a desk at both institutions, but the demands on space have meant that I have not been attached to an office I can work in for a few years. I do not know anybody who enjoys this type of flexibility.
The article also claims that some ‘enjoy the flexibility of not having to fulfil service requirements such as attending meetings and annual performance reviews’. I have worked at all three institutions since early 2012, and feel that I am as much a part of those institutions as anybody else who has worked there for the same amount of time. I want to know what is happening in my workplace, and I want to attend meetings, but I need to be paid for my time.
When I am not teaching, I am researching, writing, collaborating with other academics, writing grant and job applications—the same things that any full-time or tenured academic does with their non-teaching time. The difference is I am not paid for that time, yet my publications will often be credited to the institution I work at the same way the publications of those who are paid for their research will be. A certain percentage of a full-time academic’s weekly load is specifically allocated to ‘research’ or ‘administration’. If universities are going to rely on casuals to teach many, or in some cases most, of their classes, they also need to truly acknowledge them as members of the academic community—as researchers—by including a number of paid research hours in every casual teaching contract. This would increase the already high publication output of casual academics and provide a solid basis by which the university could claim these publications. It would also—more importantly for the casual academic—demonstrate that they trust and value casual academics as much as they do other members of staff.
It’s hard to know where to start. It’s not simply a matter of poor conditions in an immediate and material sense (the kind that make it impossible to save, plan a holiday, plan to have children, pay rent, etc.) but the long-term slow burn psychological effect: having to explain to family members again and again why you still don’t have a permanent job, why you work on weekends and why this does not mean you are ‘disorganised’, waking up every day to give yourself a pep talk about why your research is important and worthwhile, but also—and perhaps more importantly—the gradual grinding down of your confidence in the eyes of your permanently employed peers. Relentless precarity makes me depressed.
In its attempt to be ‘balanced’, this article completely elides the violence of casualisation. The casualisation of university teaching is not a valid hiring practice associated with a mix of ‘concerns’ and ‘benefits’, but rather a system of exploitation inspired by profit-maximising logic that does great harm to academics and imperils the future health of teaching and research. I would urge the authors to take seriously the way in which casual contracts destroy the health and research capabilities of many of Australia’s (and the world’s) most highly educated individuals, who would otherwise have enormous potential to live rich lives and engage in knowledge production that benefits us all.
This is a disturbing attempt to normalise casual labour in universities. The authors ignore that ECRs are particularly vulnerable to abuse under these contracts. I would agree that there may be some benefits; for instance, a semester of casual tutoring can be a good internship for a future career as a full-time lecturer. The problem is that full-time jobs have dried up in Australian higher education, especially for ECRs looking for postdoctoral fellowships and entry-level lecturing positions. Universities know that ECRs need job experience and are desperate to get anything teaching related on their CVs, so they can count on their unpaid labour and world-class expertise.
There are a number of holes in this piece, but I’ll note just a few:
1. ‘[Research shows that casual academics] regularly go beyond their contractual obligations’: This is an understatement. For a casual tutor to do their job, they must put in extra hours. A good example of this is where institutions pay tutors just 1 hour of marking for each student across a semester of work, including about 2 essays and maybe an exam or a class presentation. There is no way that all of this, including feedback and entering marks, can be done in that time. The same applies to provisions that allow just 1–2 hours of preparation time for classes.
2. Some casual academics ‘enjoy’ or ‘prefer’ having flexibility: I’m yet to meet an ECR who ‘enjoys’ their precarious work conditions. The authors confuse flexibility for inferiority—if casuals do not ‘have’ to attend meetings, it is because they are not invited or welcome in the first place.
3. Professional development opportunities are recommended: To be realistic, the only worthwhile professional development is proper job experience, including a full-time position allowing an ECR to focus on the course they are preparing and delivering. In other words, learning on the job, with an actual job.
Kirk Graham shared a document that he placed on record at the University of Queensland. It contains anonymous feedback from casuals that reveals the alarming conditions under which many have laboured. The below is a short selection of quotes, edited for further anonymity:
I received a very vague contract without hours or pay scales. I’d like to know why we’re being asked to sign vague contracts with no details and no clarity on how many hours and at what pay grade. Signing on the verbal promise I would get paid correctly felt pretty wrong.
My contract was incorrect, and this has remained ongoing. My pay situation has since been remedied, but it was a constant source of anxiety for the first eight weeks of the semester. I was frequently underpaid, despite numerous emails to staff; time and time again I found my bank account short. I often felt like I was ‘bounced around’ the office, so to speak, and nobody could (or would) help me. The School is becoming more and more reliant on their casual labour force but they seem to have a complete disregard, or a wilful ignorance, of the contributions we make and the work that we do to keep the School running.
We had to work without contracts for at least one subject, even though we repeatedly asked what was happening, with no response. [Three other problems listed.] I could go on. Everyone feels the same, but it seems I am the only one who has the guts to actually get angry about it. It seems nobody else will say anything because the job market is so competitive, nobody wants to jeopardise their career this early.
Casual markers and tutors are allotted hours of work at the beginning of the semester to which they must commit, but the School can reduce those hours arbitrarily. I think a lot of senior academics are simply blind to the material realities of precarity. Cognitive dissonance maybe, or a manifestation of survivor’s guilt?
For almost as long as I can remember, both of my parents have been self-employed. Throughout my childhood I learned a few key life lessons—take work when it is offered (even if you’re already busy), holidays are for other families, and if you get sick, that’s OK, but no one else will do that work so get ahead then catch up fast. Please don’t misunderstand, I experienced immense privilege in my childhood, love my parents dearly, and had a wonderful time. But I have always known the feast and famine of freelancing.
Today I, a self-professed genius (modesty is for the employed, not the jobseeker), find myself living in similarly precarious position. If I want a holiday, I will pay all the usual costs plus my own salary out of my own savings. If I get sick or am betrayed by my uterus and cannot leave the sofa for a day, I will not be paid. And if someone offers me work, I cannot afford to say no, because my contingency fund needs to be ready for the famine. There are few differences between casuals and freelancers, except the matter of choice. For most who have chosen to strike out alone, they have been allowed to balance out flexibility and autonomy, and all the pros and cons.
Casuals have not.
Let us not forget that in non-academic casual circles the precarity is just as real – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard ‘I lost my job, they just stopped giving me shifts’. Many casuals outside academia work multiple jobs, or are doing it to support their studies, or are studying in their few spare hours to get out of casual jobs. In this discussion we must not forget that excessive casualisation is a blight across all industries. At least in academia we usually know we have until the end of the project or semester. But that doesn’t make it a ‘better’ type of precarity, just different. The casual academic will go home to continue the work preparing a lecture that has to be finished, paid or not, or to work on their ‘publications record’ despite being utterly mentally wrecked. We can adjust our work hours to suit our lives, but that just leads to working on three jobs in one day.
Something has to give, and it’s the quality of the work. Every week thousands of research hours are lost as eager and keen researchers divert their attention away from exploring and communicating new ideas to explain (again, and somewhat ironically) how they have demonstrated that they have excellent time management. I despise how mercenary this system makes me. If I can’t afford the rent, no one else will pay it for me. More than that, it affects my loyalty to projects or institutions—there is little point in getting attached when you are paid by the hour. My tenured colleagues express sympathy and fight for reasonable casual pay rates, but in the same breath mention that the powers-that-be are developing a ‘research expansion plan’ that includes no extra hires.
But my concern is about more than my personal life in the gig-economy, it’s about the intellectual void this system creates. Those of us in the early years of academia aren’t fools, we know the statistics on our chances of staying, and when we leave we take our knowledge and our experience with us. If universities don’t actively encourage and support proper positions for ECRs, they are failing to create a succession plan. When several key staff members retire within a few months and step off the ladder, the diversity of knowledge, methods and backgrounds on the lower rungs is narrow. At the bottom of the ladder are the PhDs, holding it up for everyone else, reaching to climb onto that first rung. But the next occupied rung is far off the ground. With every round of promotions the gap between the groundlings and their senior colleagues grows. It becomes further to reach, a larger knowledge and experience gap to fill. A boss once told me that I should be training ‘myself out of a job’ by raising up my team members to take over from me. In casual roles, we fulfil many of the ‘essential selection criteria’ of junior faculty members, but miss developing the ‘admin’ skills – designing units from scratch, involvement with research/teaching committees, supervising students, all the things the authors of The Conversation article thought we must be happy to miss out on. We are not being trained to take over when the time comes.
Despite all my negativity, for me the system often works. I know my mental limits, I like being busy, I enjoy change. I am healthy, I don’t have dependents, 9–5 does not agree with me. Some of my work is outside academia and every side of my brain gets exercised. But those are all very personal reasons for why, in April 2019, this system is ok for me. Those are all things I’m thankful for, but they don’t give me the stability to develop healthy relationships, get hobbies, or to adopt a cat, let alone make it a sustainable career.
This week has seen the publication of some other important pieces on casualisation and precarity. Fabian Cannizzo blogged on the problems of being a ‘good’ early career academic. In the Campus Morning Mail is a short report that almost all universities in Victoria are dependent on a highly casualised workforce. The Age followed this with an article that includes Shan Windscript’s experiences of working for starvation wages.
There have, of course, been some unpleasant responses. It is one thing when these are comments from people outside academia who believe falsely that all university employees enjoy highly-paid, cushy, relaxed jobs. It is another when fellow academics who have been through these experiences tut-tut and tell casuals that ‘I got through it’. If your response is an implicit ‘I suffered and so should you’ rather than a refusal to let anyone else suffer, this says a lot about you—and none of it is good.
Today’s post by Dr Joel Barnes is the second in a short series on casualisation in academia. You can read the first post, by Australian Historical Association Early Career Researcher representative Dr André Brett, here; the third post, which collects reactions from multiple casual/ECR historians, is here. As with the disclaimer on the other posts, the views expressed below are those of the author and do not represent his employer or the AHA.
A recent article in The Conversation has been the subject of significant online criticism of its efforts to justify widespread casualisation as a legitimate labour practice in universities. Casualisation, according to Dorothy Wardale and Julia Richardson of Curtin University, and Yuliani Suseno of Edith Cowan University, is here to stay; it just needs a few tweaks to make it ‘better’. In this post I examine the research underlying these claims, and seek to explain some of the misfires in the extrapolation from the authors’ academic research to The Conversation’s more popular format.
The article follows The Conversation’s usual practice of bootstrapping its content to peer-reviewed research published elsewhere. In this case, the underlying study, written by two of the Conversation article authors and another of their Curtin University colleagues, was recently published in Higher Education Research & Development. A second study also drawn upon remains unpublished. The authors’ research is the source of the claims that ‘many’ academics ‘enjoy the flexibility’ of casualisation, and that many casuals are ‘industry professionals’ with links to the—ahem—‘real world’. The study published so far is hyperlinked in the ‘Benefits of casual academics’ section, but is not mentioned in the text. This failure to show one’s working has contributed to a general interpretation of the article as based not in evidence but in managerial self-interest.
At the outset, Wardale et al. identify three explanations for the growth of casualised labour practices in universities. One is that such arrangements reflect wider trends in the economy as a whole. Another is the ‘flexibility’ casualisation provides, which according to the authors might benefit universities and casual academics alike. Third, casualisation allows universities to reduce labour costs. The last of these explanations is surely essential to understanding the incentives driving casualisation, but Wardale et al. seem relatively uninterested in examining its implications too closely. Had they done so more fully, it would have been difficult to miss the internal contradiction between the recognition that universities employ casuals as a cost-saving measure and the proposals at the end of the article to improve casualisation by tacking on a series of expensive extras—systematic interviewing, proper inductions, and professional development. These proposals would obviate the chief managerial appeal of the casualisation model, namely that it’s cheap. Although the proposals for ‘improvement’ give the Conversation piece its headline and central argument, they do not appear in the study so far published. Presumably they are a focus of the unpublished research, but if so one wonders if the authors’ reading of financial incentives will be any more persuasive in long form.
Instead of financial considerations, Wardale et al. focus mainly on ‘flexibility’. This item of neoliberal jargon by and large signals a gig economy paradigm that privileges the just-in-time needs of employers over the rights of employees to stable work and income. That ‘flexibility’ is in practice a managerial alibi rather than a genuine two-way street is clear from the way it is made to do too much explanatory work in the piece. ‘Flexibility’ is useful when ‘enrolments are fluctuating’, the authors tell us, citing a federal government report showing a 4.6 percent drop in enrolments between 2017 and 2018. This is hardly sufficient explanation for the nearly 50 percent increase in Australian universities’ reliance on casual contracts over the decade 2008–17 (from 15,646 to 23,205 full-time equivalent positions), nor indeed for universities’ reporting of an expected further increase in these contracts—rather than a drop—of 10.5 percent from 2017 to 2018 (actual 2018 figures are not yet available). ‘Flexibility’ is not the real explanation here; the basic fact of the cheapness of casual labour is.
At the same time, Wardale et al.’s reading of ‘flexibility’ warrants some examination. Of the two underlying studies, the one that can be assessed is an interview-based ethnography that makes a qualitative analysis of the positive and negative dimensions of casual academics’ experiences. In the interviews, ‘flexibility’ was indeed a value that respondents highlighted. It is often paired in the authors’ discussion with ‘autonomy’, ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’, and in fairness one should acknowledge that these qualities of academic life are among its chief attractions for many.
The research, however, has serious limitations. It relies on interviews with just fifteen casual academics at two Western Australian business schools. The dataset skews decidedly mature: only five interviewees were under 40 (just one under 30), five were in their 40s, and five were aged 50-plus. A significant proportion of these interviewees were ‘career enders’ easing into retirement with part-time academic work, or experienced ‘industry experts’ working in universities alongside other careers. Such respondents understandably privileged ‘flexibility’ over stability. Only six of the fifteen interviewees were in categories of experience in which casualisation was felt in predominantly negative terms, such experiences being overrepresented among younger respondents. The research describes a qualitative spectrum of casualisation experiences but makes no attempt to assess their representativeness. Thus the bothsidesism of the language of the ‘double-edged sword’—positives and negatives exist as logical opposites rather than as quantitatively measurable phenomena.
Such research methods are fine so far as they go, but they are inadequate to support the extrapolation from nine interviewees with positive views of ‘flexibility’ to the pseudo-quantitative claim that ‘many’ casuals have the same experience. The anomalousness of the business school context and the maturity of the interview pool blind the authors to the reality of casualisation more generally as a practice of systematic exploitation of the cheap and precarious labour of mostly young postgraduates and early career researchers. Most casuals are not experienced ‘industry professionals’ who enjoy a side gig doing a little university teaching. The negative side of insecure work is also likely to be felt most keenly by those with carer responsibilities, those with disabilities, and those who cannot fall back upon personal, spousal or familial resources. Women are as likely as men to be on casual contracts across the sector as a whole (counting both academic and administrative roles), but are underrepresented in more secure senior roles, and overrepresented in teaching-only and research-only academic positions, most of which depend on casual and fixed-term contracts.
In this wider context, the arguments of the Conversation piece have appeared to many as strikingly tone-deaf. The problem is one of extrapolating from a small and unrepresentative dataset, and of attempting to build arguments upon methodologies that do not support them. Mistaking the exception for the rule merely provides cover for managerial cost-cutting at the expense of quality teaching and research, and of casual academics’ financial stability, health and wellbeing. I hope Wardale and her co-authors will read carefully the heartbreaking story published recently in The Atlantic on the death of Thea Hunter, a promising historian whose life was destroyed by a broken system. Hunter’s story represents a far more realistic picture of the cruel realities of casualisation.
In today’s post, current AHA ECR representative Dr André Brett responds to a controversial recent article on The Conversation as the first entry in a series of at least three about the effects of casualisation in Australian universities-—in general and in History specifically.
I have been considering for some time commencing a new blog series, “Thoughts from the Representative”, to discuss issues relevant to historians who are Early Career Researchers in Australia and to give my perspective. This post is not officially the first in such a series, but it is offered in the same spirit: my reflections on a hot topic relevant to ECRs. It does not express the views of the Australian Historical Association (either the executive or as an organisation), my employer (the University of Wollongong), or anyone else with whom I am affiliated. What it does express is my current thinking, which will no doubt be of interest to those I represent.
Many of you will have seen a recent article in The Conversation by Dorothy Wardale, Julia Richardson, and Yuliani Suseno about casualisation within academia. Its claims and recommendations have provoked strong responses. Insofar as I can tell, these responses from historians in casual employment have been almost entirely negative.
This post is, therefore, the first of at least three. It offers my reflections upon Wardale et al.’s article. The second post, by Joel Barnes, engages with the research underlying the article and interrogates its framing. The third, based on an idea from Effie Karageorgos and Imogen Wegman, collects short reactions from casual academics.
Casualisation a defining experience of ECRs
My term as the Early Career Researcher representative on the Australian Historical Association executive committee has run for about ten months now. In this time, it has become clear to me that the biggest issue facing ECRs is casualisation and the extreme degree of precarity that defines academic employment currently. My position is officially ECR representative, not casual representative, but the preponderance of casualisation and insecure work is such that I might as well be both.
Most concerns expressed to me by ECRs could be ameliorated significantly, if not entirely resolved, by stable and secure conditions of employment. It is galling, then, to read an article on The Conversation that focuses on the maintenance of a destructive model of casual employment—and indeed paints it in a far rosier light than it deserves, one that confers multiple alleged “benefits”.
Casuals: not going anywhere?
A major issue with Wardale, et al.’s article is its premise, as articulated in the title, that casual academics a). are not going anywhere, and b). that universities need to ensure this does not affect learning negatively. This suggests the problem is casuals, not those who choose to employ them casually or that casual employment is inappropriate for the delivery of higher education. It is telling that the authors make no attempt to interrogate the background to casualisation or to question the systems that reinforce it. Rather, they give blasé gestures about it being here to stay, which of course it need not be. Anybody familiar with global university rankings and other metrics knows they form an unhealthy obsession for many decision-makers; if the leading metrics were reframed to punish institutions that hired academics on short-term and insufficiently remunerated contracts, the number of exploitative positions would decline rapidly.
Casual academics are at the coalface of academia. Undergraduate course tutors, who are typically casuals, have the closest and most sustained contact with students. What is their reward? They are treated as disposable. They receive poor conditions and disrespect. Pay is meagre and often late. Senior staff who must approve timecards often fail to do so before deadlines. The difficulties are legion—I have named just a few. The effects of casualisation on the quality of teaching are, of course, serious; Wardale, et al. are not wrong to be concerned about them. But the appropriate response is not to exploit casuals in a “better” way.
Benefits of casualisation?
I want to focus on the “benefits of casualisation” section because it is the most misleading. The authors appear to have assumed that the results of a very narrow ethnographic survey of a business school—one of the least representative of all academic environments—apply to casualisation and academia as a whole.
First, this section misidentifies the casual cohort. In disciplines throughout the humanities—and the sciences—casuals are not older industry professionals sharing their networks and offering students internships. They are younger academics who are vulnerable to exploitation and in a weak position to bargain for better conditions. Worse, as I have said before, appointments and promotions to more secure positions are rarely based on the work that casuals are actually doing: “To win grants or jobs, you need to work in your own time, for no recompense, to produce publishable research. The labour that pays your bills does not advance your career, while the labour that advances your career does not pay your bills. It’s a rort.”
Second, it is almost unbelievable that Wardale, et al. would describe it as positive that casuals go beyond contractual obligations routinely. This is negative: people are doing work and not being paid for it. The reasons for this are multitudinous. Marking must be done and insufficient remuneration is given for it. Personal pride is on the line: if a tutorial were prepared in the time allocated, it would be mediocre and reflect poorly on the academic, so they take extra time. Future job opportunities depend on good student feedback, and many students are unaware of the conditions under which their teachers labour (as an undergraduate, I assumed my tutors were paid at a level similar to their intellect, i.e. very highly). In part it comes down to the simple reality that some departments within Australian universities would cease to function if casuals worked only to the terms of their contracts. Casuals evince far greater loyalty to their students, permanent colleagues, and institutions than their institutions and some permanent colleagues will ever return to them. It is a disgrace.
Third, the authors suggest casuals enjoy not being required to fulfil service requirements within their departments. The reality is contrary. Casuals perform considerable service to their departments and disciplines, often for no recognition whatsoever. It is also clear that younger academics seeking a career and the security to achieve personal goals would readily attend meetings in exchange for better pay and conditions. I have never heard anyone say “I hate annual performance reviews so much that I would rather earn starvation wages”.
Fourth, I have to wonder if the sentence that “[m]any casual academics enjoy the flexibility of working across different institutions” is a joke. It is a sweeping generalisation presented without evidence, and it stands in contrast to the reality that anyone who works across numerous institutions finds their time frittered away with excessive commuting, convoluted online systems, multiple email addresses, divergent administrative expectations, and all the other problems that attend fragmented and insecure work.
Ask the wrong question, get unhelpful answers
Surely the core point should be that casualisation has created a large underclass of academics scraping together jobs simply to get by—bad jobs not designed with the best outcomes in mind for employees or their students. Casual academics work in a system that could remunerate them sufficiently to avoid poverty, overwork, mental health crises, and the like, but it is one that chooses not to. If employment is more stable and secure, academics can deliver better teaching and research. This cannot be achieved with a high level of casualisation. For universities to deliver high-quality education and fulfil one of their main purposes for existing, they must provide sufficient conditions for staff to deliver it. This is obvious.
It is perhaps telling that in trying to present the “benefits of casualisation”, Wardale et al. list a large number of disadvantages: casuals are excluded from scholarly communities, lack security or continuity, cannot access funds for conference or research travel, have no avenues for promotion, and struggle to obtain finance for mortgages and other purposes. Yet, even in stating this, Wardale et al. do not appear to appreciate the dire conditions that casuals endure. The article reads as “how can we best exploit casualisation?” rather than “how can we resolve the crisis of casualisation?” It has asked the wrong questions and, therefore, its suggestions are unhelpful.
Perhaps The Conversation should have commissioned casuals to discuss what might improve their situation and enable better teaching. Even though its business model emphasises connections between its articles and authors’ specific fields of research, a broader discussion of conditions within academia should sit within its remit as an outlet for insights on and from higher education. But I would not advise casuals to write for well-resourced publishers such as The Conversation that will not compensate them for their work. We all know that exposure does not pay the bills.
The latest participant in the Emerging Historians Q&A series is Dr Gwyn McClelland, whose doctorate was conferred by Monash University. He is currently an Associate, teaching at Monash and in 2018 at RMIT Universities in Asian and trans-regional History, Education (Bilingualism) and Japanese language.
How did you come to be a historian?
A few years after I had completed a short thesis in theology for my Master of Divinity, I remember meeting my supervisor-to-be for a coffee next to the library at Melbourne University and discussing my ideas for a PhD project, which I had developed to take my previous research further. I had not really thought hard about which part of the Arts Faculty it would be in, but my supervisor was very encouraging of my proposal. I vaguely thought I would be in Japanese studies. Only when I was accepted into my program did I realise my work would be (had to be) in History! I realised how appropriate this was and quickly began to enjoy the opportunity to enormously widen my understanding of historical methodologies and approaches in research. I am thankful for Monash University researcher Beatrice Trefalt’s encouragement of me to pursue the path of an historian.
Tell us about your PhD research
I utilised an oral history methodology which involved interviewing 12 survivors of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, including 9 who are Catholic. I interviewed around 10 other community members as well, to gain a broader insight into the modern community. I remember one interviewee invited me to his haircut – so I sat behind him, while he talked, and the hairdresser listened in too, to his discussion of his memory of the atomic bomb! Then we caught a taxi to his retirement home. Elements such as this part of the research process didn’t make it into my thesis, but it was moments like this I will never forget! I also appreciated the opportunity to meet like-minded researchers in Japan, including one who had in 2015 published a book about the Catholic narrative of the bombing, from the written record, rather than the oral.
I employed a theological framework that engaged with the testimonies shared with me, ‘dangerous memory’, as conceptualised by German post-war Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz. Various aspects of the interviewees’ memories of trauma at the time and after the atomic bombing suggest their memories are ‘dangerous’ for the status quo, in the US, in Japan, for the Catholic official Church and so on.
Why does it matter?
The Catholic narratives of the bombing were sidelined, or silenced for a number of reasons. Around 70% of the Catholic community around Ground Zero were killed by the atomic bomb, so one reason for silence has been the fracturing of this community. Another was the silence of the official church in Nagasaki. A third is the situation of double and triple marginalisation in which the survivors found themselves after the war (eg. ‘Worshippers of an enemy god’, irradiated and socio-economic prejudices). The research contributes to histories of marginalisation and shows the complex but significant results of atomic warfare, even for those who experience them as children. I contribute to a better understanding of the narrative of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and how the Catholic community who were to be found around Ground Zero experienced this bombing. As well, over the past seventy years, a plethora of research about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima has been produced, while Nagasaki has been relatively neglected.
What are you researching now or intending to do next?
I am presently writing a book out of the thesis, to be published by Routledge later this year in Mark Selden’s ‘Asia’s Transformations’ Series. The book will be titled Dangerous Memory in Nagasaki: Prayers and Protests within Catholic Survivor Narratives. Con-currently I am continuing my search for a position as a post-doc, researcher and/or teacher.
What do you love about being a historian?
It may be clichéd but I love the experience of discovery – my time at the National Library in 2015, where I was supported by a ‘Japan Grant’ was essential to my PhD thesis, allowing me the time to read in Japanese and to discover some of the nineteenth century narratives of the community I was researching. For an oral historian, finding supporting documents, including secondary sources and images is a great way to back up what you find in an interview. Oh, I have to mention another thing I really enjoy – in oral history it is a lot of fun to meet people and to talk with them.
What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?
The financial stresses for my family and I, which mean at the moment I am not sure about future holidays and keep putting off home projects. It is very difficult not knowing what will keep us going over the next university holidays, nor knowing with certainty how many contracts I might be able to land in the following semester.
If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?
I would like to go back to pre-1780s Australia, to see this continent as it was, especially the Birrarung (Yarra) river and the Woiwurrung region (now Melbourne). I think it would have been an amazing and beautiful area at the time.
The Australian Historical Association is currently conducting a survey on casualisation in the History discipline, and its effects. The survey, which will be open until 31 March 2019, is open to members and non-members. We hope to get a wide range of responses and experiences.
Please note that in the survey, “casual position” is understood broadly, so to encompass all employment that is not ongoing/permanent/tenured. This encompasses fixed-term, full-time, and hourly employment, and all other forms of precarious labour.
The survey is available HERE. Please feel free to distribute the link to other casuals working in Australian tertiary institutions. The more feedback, the better!
Your responses are, of course, anonymous. We anticipate that the survey will take 5 to 30 minutes depending on the level of feedback you wish to provide.
A report based on the survey results is anticipated to be delivered to the AHA executive committee in December 2019 for release in the new year.
Don’t forget that abstracts for the Australian Historical Association annual conference are due tomorrow, Tuesday 12 March. The conference is in Toowoomba, hosted by the University of Southern Queensland, and it runs 8–12 July 2019. All information, including how to submit an abstract, can be found on the conference website.
If the prospect of presenting a paper fills you with dread, have a look at our recent blog entry by Lyndon Megarrity with tips on presenting at conferences. Hopefully it will be the encouragement you need to join us in Toowoomba. I promise we’re a friendly and supportive bunch!
If you are unsure whether to submit to a specific stream and your paper has an economic slant, remember that the Economic History Society of Australia and New Zealand offers a prize for the best paper by a postgrad or ECR that is presented in the conference’s economic history stream. The paper must be submitted before the conference, but you’ve got until 17 June to do that. The important thing right now is marking your abstract submission as relevant to the economic history stream.
Other prizes and bursaries are available; see the website. ECRs should note the Jill Roe Conference Scholarship Scheme, applications for which are due today, 11 March. Good luck to those of you finalising your applications!
Submissions for this year’s Australian Historical Association conference, hosted in Toowoomba by the University of Southern Queensland, are due
this Thursday, 28 February 2019 (new date: Tuesday 12 March 2019). For many postgraduates and early career researchers, presenting a paper can be a daunting experience. The good news: it need not be! In this entry, Lyndon Megarrity offers his tips for how to present effectively.
Does the thought of 400–500 historians creating a cacophony of noise in a conference venue fill you with anxiety and dread? Does the idea of getting up and presenting a paper seem like a fate worse than death? These are natural feelings: most of us suffer from nerves and anxiety as we try to make a good public impression. However, good preparation and a thoughtful, positive attitude can help conference-goers transcend all those internal fears and doubts when they get up to deliver a paper.
Thoughts and Advice on Giving a Paper
- You can’t do everything in 20 minutes. In preparing your speech, either try to write a broad overview, or tell a story which sheds light on a wider theme.
- Stick to time. Generally speaking, AHA conferences give you 20 minutes for the formal presentation and 10 minutes question time. It is unfair on your fellow presenters and the audience to go overtime. Time yourself beforehand so that you know that you are under the time limit, thus avoiding a) having your presentation cut off abruptly by the chairperson before your conclusion; b) having limited time for questions if the chair lets you go overtime; or c) having people look at their watches and disengage.
- Include visuals (e.g. PowerPoint Slides). We live in a visual age, and sometimes a visual element to a presentation helps us to engage with a speaker and sit up and take notice. You may believe that you can get by on the strength of your powerful and expressive voice alone, but remember that there may be many people in the audience who are not immediately enthralled by your topic: you need to get them to pay attention and engage, and well-thought out visuals can do this.
- Vary your tone, and remember that while your topic may be old to you, it is new to others. Too many presentations are spoiled by the speaker speaking in a monotone and not making the most of that powerful instrument, the voice. In some ways, the conference presenter must be an actor, highlighting the most interesting parts of the story or theme so that the full significance of your research becomes clear to the audience.
- Remember your audience. You need to think how you would like to be addressed as an audience member hearing your speech. In writing your paper, try to avoid jargon and terms which might be unfamiliar to those outside your field. Further, a relaxed but engaged tone, and a willingness to gaze at different sections of the room at various times, will help you win the audience.
- Prepare but do not over-prepare. Ideally, you need to be familiar with the contents of your paper so that you can retain a reasonable amount of eye contact with the audience so that you are not just ‘reading’ the paper with your head down. Practise the paper several times but not so much that it seems stale (if it seems stale to you, it will sound stale to others). It is a good idea to rehearse the night before, but it is equally a good idea to give the paper a rest on the day of the presentation so when the times comes, you will approach it with some degree of freshness.
- Accept that mistakes happen to the best of us. You may mispronounce the surname of a famous historian, nerves might make you trip over a phrase, the PowerPoint slides may be placed in the wrong order, a question from the audience might stump you … these things happen. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Usually, it is best to try and move on with the presentation rather than drawing further attention to the ‘faux-pas’. Make a mental note for next time if it is something you can fix at the next conference with more preparation.
- Question time comes to us all. Question time is difficult and sometimes awkward, because you are being impromptu, without the help of a text. Your personal knowledge and background re: the topic and its context should help guide you through most questions. Give yourself some breathing space before answering a tough question. Be prepared to ask someone to repeat a question if you do not fully understand it. Be prepared (very occasionally) to admit that you can’t fully answer a question and perhaps throw the question to a relevant expert in the room. In addition, be on the lookout for the notorious ‘look at me’ questioner who is essentially advertising their own position on the topic rather than genuinely seeking information. In such situations, all you can do is be as graceful as possible and do your best to make the questioner feel that their contribution has been acknowledged.
- Reflect on the presentation. You’ve got through it! Well done! Think about the positives and how you can enhance them in future. Think about what was not so effective and how you might improve it for next time.
All information about this year’s Australian Historical Association conference, including how to submit a paper proposal, can be found on the conference website. There are a number of bursaries and prizes available, too.
In our first blog post of the year, Dr Imogen Wegman provides a guide to tour guiding. Imogen, who recently completed her PhD in History at the University of Tasmania, talks about the joys and frustrations of leading tour groups, explains how it can improve your skills as a scholar and communicator, and shares some selections from her collection of memorable moments.
An older man stands in front of the cells in the Port Arthur Penitentiary, admiring the ruins of the stone walls and floors. He turns to his family, clearly proud about deducing the purpose of these small rooms. He declares them to be shower cubicles. As a tour guide, there are times to feign deafness, but some things cannot be ignored. I step forward, “Uh, sir, these were the cells, where the prisoners were kept, where they slept. Not showers.” He insists, pointing at the little stone shelf built into the wall, “Showers! For the soap!” His companions look on, uncertain who to believe. I try once more, this time showing him the illustrated information board. “See?” No. I would not be winning that battle. Another guest calls for my attention, and with some relief I move away.
For the past six summers I have worked as a tour guide in Hobart, taking guests from the cruise ships that visit our harbour out to experience some of southern Tasmania’s heritage, culture and food. This was a welcome break as I researched and wrote my thesis. But it was more than a change of scene. I started tour guiding and my PhD in the same summer, and I quickly found it to be an extension of my academic work. With limited opportunities for teaching within the university, guiding is an effective place to practise communicating complicated concepts to the most general of audiences.
There are lots of different types of tour guiding – site-based, themed, multi-stop, posh, regular… I usually work on tours booked onboard, chosen by guests for the stops on the route. The compulsory part of my job is to get them all back to the ship on time and in one piece. I work alongside a coach driver (although a lot of companies use driver-guides), and any talking I do en route is up to me.
Like giving a conference paper, multiplied by fifty
Being a tour guide is not for everyone. You become a performer for a captive, but not always captivated, audience and it can be a confronting exercise. At any given moment, only half of your audience will actually be listening to you. They have come on this tour to see Australian animals or taste Tasmanian wines, not to get a history lesson. Your audience will probably have some retired academics, but it will also have young couples, eastern European oligarchs, American ranch owners, Indigenous peoples, children, and a shaky granddad sent on tour by a family who want someone else to look after him.
*murblemutter from the back of the coach*
Me: “Can everyone at the back hear me?”
Them shouting: “No!”
*Twiddles mic volume* “How about now?”
Them: “No! It’s not you mate, there’s a bloody rude woman on her phone and we can’t hear over her!”
The questions they ask won’t be theory-laden trip hazards, but they will reveal prejudices you need to decide how to address. In Tasmania I am regularly asked if this island ever had an Indigenous population. This is despite spending the first twenty minutes of the tour talking about the history of the island before 1788. Holiday brain is real, and it makes people forget everything.
You’ll need a thick skin – the grumpy uncle who thinks doing a PhD is a waste of time also goes on holiday, and doesn’t keep his views for the family table. My usual response to rudeness is to mentally catalogue that person and their behaviour as fodder for future dinner party stories, while tossing my head with an insincere laugh and walking away. I have an entire digital folder of amusing moments. Guests will also insist that they are right, which will equip you for dealing with those inevitable statement-questions at conferences.
How to get into it
My mother has been guiding for the cruise ships for years, and as the new season approached in 2013 she mentioned to her bosses that I could ‘talk under wet cement’. I accompanied a couple of tours to see how it worked, and then I was in. In my experience this is how a lot of the touring industry works – I have been offered tour guide positions based on an official application process, but have also seen a lot of emails from the bosses asking for new names to add to their lists.
Not everyone has a contact on the inside, but if you think you might like to get into tour guiding, start by looking on TripAdvisor for reviews of tour companies in your area, watching for clues about the guides they hire – reviewers often mention that their guide is studying if they think it affected the quality. Go on some tours and talk to the guides – they might tell you who to contact, and you’ll get a feel for how the companies operate.
Do I need tour guide training?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. In Tasmania there are no requirements of certification, but that might vary around Australia. Even if nothing is required, it is good practice to think critically about every tour you have ever been on – what did you enjoy about the guide’s performance, what not? If I have an experienced driver I’ll often ask for their feedback at the end of the day. Often companies are looking for employees with some kind of heavy vehicle license, so they can talk and drive at the same time, but walking tours around our cities are getting more popular, and site-specific tours don’t usually require any driving.
A couple have an album of their visit to Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary from a few years earlier. They are determined to recreate some of the photos.
Her: Where can I hold a koala bear?
Me: Oh, holding them stresses them out, but you can go and have a photo next to one.
Him: But we held one last time, here’s the photo. Is that somewhere else?
Me: No, that’s here, but the person holding it is an employee, and she’s holding a wombat, not a koala.
Her: So you know her? Why can she hold a koala bear?
Me: Well, it’s a wombat…
Her: No, it isn’t.
Me: Yes, it is. They’re from the same family, so they do look a little similar…
Her: But how can I hold a koala bear like she is?
Me: *exit left, with haste*
So, what do I talk about?
Some companies give their guides scripts to learn and recite, but the best companies will encourage you to do some research and find new stories to tell. I have the advantage of researching Tasmanian history, so there has been a direct conversion from my thesis into a commentary. Not everyone researches local history that can feed directly into their guiding however, but we are not bound by our research topics. As trained researchers, we have the skills to filter good research from bad, fact from fiction, and I would argue that this is what makes us valuable guides.
I focus on a narrative that runs from 40,000 years ago to the late-nineteenth century. As we drive this is broken up by discussion about local landmarks and smaller stories – non-Australians love hearing about the Bunnings Onion-Sausage debacle if we go past a prominent hardware store. I try to end each of my history bits at a key point, and then pick it back up later when there’s another stretch of road. I don’t usually tell them explicitly about my PhD unless it comes up in conversation, although I will sometimes mention that I’m a historian.
Listen to how your guests respond. The questions they ask reveal a lot. Some questions will tell you they just weren’t listening, but don’t take that personally. There are usually some engaged guests who ask for clarification or more information. Ask yourself if that meant you used too much jargon, or didn’t explain a fundamental concept? In my first tours I heard a lot of surprise that convicts would receive land grants, because I hadn’t properly explained that the earliest convicts sent to the colonies were young, fertile, healthy, and chosen to populate and build a new centre of British control. Generally I try to remain neutral, aware that every tour group includes a broad political spectrum. I am unwilling to spark off a fight in a fully-packed coach.
Find a balance between simplification and too much detail. Credit your group with some brains, and remember that often people think history is boring because of the way it’s told, rather than the content. Tell some humorous stories, a bit of mild gore, some adventure, but do what we are trained to do – use it to illustrate a larger point about the convict system, supply shortages, whatever part of the history you are up to. Practise using humour to make a serious point, but be careful and be receptive to the response. If something doesn’t work, try telling it differently next time – you will end up on the same route hundreds of times, use that to refine and hone your skills.
Be aware of what your guest is actually asking. They will ask questions that seem dumb, but consider what might be pushing that question – what basic principle might they not be familiar with? This applies also in academia, where we tend to assume understanding as we work with expert audiences, which can be frustrating for newbies to the field. View your topic as an outsider would. For Americans this might be the role of a governor within Commonwealth countries, for older Australians it might relate to mid-twentieth century school lessons about the ‘extinction’ of the Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples.
A conversation I have at least once every tour
A: I’m looking for Bus 7.
Me: Yep, you’re with me, on this one here.
A: This one?
Me: Yes, this is number 7.
A: You’re sure?
A: Honey, she says this is our bus.
B: Number 7? This one here?
B: This is our bus?
Me: Yes! Number 7!
B: Oh. OK.
This job has been met by some academics with scorn – recently on hearing that I had started a few regular jobs post-PhD, someone commented that I ‘must be able to stop with all that tour guide stuff now.’ But with every tour I am becoming a better communicator of history. I am nowhere near perfect, but I do credit this job with improving my written and oral storytelling skills. So, every time someone tells me they’d learned something new, has an engaged question, or asks for a book recommendation to learn more, I do a little happy dance because what I’m doing might just work.
It’s Friday, 21 December 2018, and here at the University of Wollongong the corridors are very quiet indeed. I have not seen anyone all day down my end of Building 19, a notorious rabbit warren where usually at least a few lost souls are wandering around hoping to find a printer, a kitchenette, a classroom, or maybe just a way out. Office doors are closed and locked (I assume; I haven’t been randomly testing doorhandles). The classroom opposite my office is, for once, quiet. The only person to make tea today in the kitchenette nearest me is, well, me—this entry is brought to you by my fourth pot for the day of T2’s Morning Red blend.
So, clearly, people have already skedaddled for Christmas. But what does summer and the holiday season mean for ECRs, especially historians in Australia? I put out a call for comments on Twitter a couple of days ago and solicited a few more from colleagues not on that platform. I have not been able to name everyone personally, but all the responses on Twitter can be read through the preceding link.
Overwhelmingly, it appears that summer is writing season. If even half the ambitions expressed come to pass, there ought to be a bumper crop next year of journal articles from our emerging historians. Jillian Beard notes that her first summer post-thesis is a busy one, with two journal articles and a fellowship application on the go. For some, the writing projects are even larger, extending to book manuscripts. Ben Wilkie, our most recent Q&A participant, is one of them. Ana Stevenson, another Q&A veteran, also has a book on the go, but she highlights one of the challenges for historians with appointments in the Global South: the holiday season gives her the opportunity to read books inaccessible in South Africa.
Working (no exclamation mark)
We all have our rent and bills to pay—indeed, for those without the security of an ongoing contract, this is probably the overriding concern. Will there be tutoring work next semester? Will funding applications be approved? The stress and anxiety of wondering where the money comes from is acute for many at this time. So it is unsurprising that some respondents are only taking a few days off before returning to teaching summer courses, or have lined up contracts to perform research assistance (RA) over the holidays. Poor Mahsheed Ansari mentions that there is still marking to do! Chelsea Barnett, whose Q&A went live in September, has RA and admin work because, as she puts it, there is “No rest for the wicked… or for ECR academics, apparently.” Speaking personally, before I began my (fixed-term) appointment here at Wollongong, I spent my summers at the University of Melbourne performing as much RA as possible. Let me tell you, being in the old Arts West, now replaced by an inferior modern showpiece, on New Year’s Eve was even more surreal than being in UOW Building 19 right now (somebody just walked past my office! What is happening!).
Summer, hopefully, is not all work. Many respondents have carved out at least some time to rest—”rest, rest, and rest”, as Kim Kemmis says. Anne Rees is spot on about the need to resist “academia’s busyness culture” because “good scholarship requires a fresh mind”. But Anne also highlights that the ability to take leave and refresh the mind is a privilege of employment that not all ECRs possess. For people with appointments such as mine or Anne’s, we can take leave if we want, knowing that we will still have income over summer. For casuals, this season is often a poor one: every day taken to recharge the batteries is a day’s pay foregone. It speaks poorly of the modern university that the demands for greater productivity are not coupled with the means for a large portion of the academic workforce to have the rest necessary to produce quality scholarship.
But enough critiquing the modern university; we will all keep doing that in 2019, no doubt. It appears that those of you who are taking time off—by whatever means you have managed to secure it—are really looking forward to some solid reading. More than one respondent remarked on the opportunity to read fiction as a startling novelty. Ben Wilkie quips that he will be “reading a fiction book for once”. Effie Karageorgos, another past Q&A contributor, is keen to sit down with some Agatha Christie. I have been waiting to read Claire Coleman’s novel Terra Nullius since October: I took it on a flight but spent the whole trip writing, and have not had another opportunity to pick it up until this week. I have just reached the twist, and I can say that this book is a treat.
I am not travelling for the first Christmas in years—I’ve talked some of my family into visiting me. But many of you are off to see family. Others have foreign holidays lined up. Hannah Loney, a historian in Melbourne who is not on Twitter, wrote to me to describe two glorious weeks in Indonesia: time to read, to swim in the ocean, and to enjoy good food and drink. And now she feels refreshed, able to take on journal article submissions, book proposals, and teaching preparation. She notes that although it’s not great to lack paid leave, one perk of casual appointments is being able to just book the tickets and go. Certainly when I was at Melbourne Uni I did similar, making trips to New Zealand during quiet periods of employment without needing permission from anyone. Having paid leave is a delight, something I scarcely believe I am entitled to after years of casual contracts, but the associated paperwork is not a thrill.
It would be remiss of me if I wrote this entry without dishing out some congratulations. You might recall the recent call for applications for the Australian Historical Association–Copyright Agency ECR Mentorship scheme. All the applications received were of high quality, attesting to considerable talent, insight, and ambition. The panel of judges were delighted to award the six mentorships to Jillian Beard, Margaret Cook, Nicholas Ferns, James Keating, Mia Martin Hobbs, and Ryan Strickler. Some of them gave comments in reply to the summer activities tweet—it sounds like they will soon be getting stuck into the articles funded under the mentorship. I, for one, am really looking forward to what they produce. With any luck I might be able to shine a spotlight on it during 2019 with this blog.
Speaking of this blog, if you are interested in participating, please get in touch. I want to hear from you whether you would like to do a Q&A (either the series for ECRs or that for established scholars), write a how-to guide, describe a book or other object that changed your life, or propose a new feature. A number of people have suggested that a series on Academics With Children would be welcome, so I am keen to hear from scholars at any stage of their career, with children of any age, who would like to discuss experiences and issues facing parents in the tertiary sector. I am also interested if any reasonably well established scholar would like to write a “how to survive your first academic conference” guide for our newest historians.
Contact me, André Brett, at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re keen.
It might be the holiday season, but email now if you wish; you won’t get an out-of-office reply. I will only be taking off the public holidays because I actually like working through summer. Heat is unbearable, the sun is not my friend, and I did not become a historian to spend time outside. You will find me tapping away on grant applications, book manuscripts, and book reviews—but, as a sop to the season, I might be doing it from my desk at home with the pleasant hum of cricket on TV in the background. I like my office in Building 19, rabbit warren though it may be, but installing a television might be excessive.
All the best for the holiday season. Go crack open a beverage of your choice (a beer for me), grab a good book (because it seems that’s what all of you want to do), and settle down somewhere comfortable (even if it’s outside). See you in 2019!
My name is Dr Ben Wilkie, and I completed my PhD at Monash University. I graduated back in 2014. For work, I am sometimes a casual academic. I am also an Associate with the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Otago, Dunedin, and have been elected as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. I dabble in music writing and reviewing on a freelance basis, too, but mostly I’m busy at home being a dad to my eight-month-old son Harry.
How did you come to be a historian?
I came to be a historian through a series of happy accidents. At home, growing up, we had lots of books around, and we were encouraged to be curious about the world. Public education can be hit or miss in rural Australia, but at primary and secondary school I had some excellent teachers with a passion for history. I ended up doing two sets of VCE History. I wasn’t going to go to university, but all my good friends were leaving town for Melbourne and I had serious fear-of-missing-out. My first degree was to be a Bachelor of Music. In my second year, I had the chance to go on a tour of Russia and Scandinavia with a string ensemble—my first international trip!—and followed that up with a holiday in Germany. In Berlin, I was struck by the immediacy and presence of the past throughout the city, a landscape politicised in the extreme and scarred by history. It all inspired me. I remember getting onto a computer at the hostel we were staying and enrolling myself in a handful of history units for the coming semester. Six months later, I had decided to drop my music degree to focus on studies in History and Philosophy.
Undergraduate history would eventually lead to an offer from the university to do an honours degree with a scholarship, in which I started one dissertation—‘Music, the Virgin Mary, and Lay Devotion in Early Modern Florence’—and dropped it halfway through to do another topic, which was about Scottish migrants in and around my hometown in the Western District, Hamilton. This was a much more accessible and affordable topic for me at the time, and I did well enough to get a PhD spot with a faculty scholarship and later support from the Australian Postgraduate Award.
In between all of this were numerous near-total dropouts from my studies, personal crises, the first semester of a law degree, multiple aborted attempts to enrol in a Masters of Theology, regret that I never finished my B.Mus, and regret that I never finished that really great sounding first honours dissertation. I would be lying if I said the provision of scholarships to undertake honours and HDR degrees wasn’t a key factor swinging my decision-making as an early-20-something-year-old with very little idea of what he wanted to be when he grew up. So, yes, a series of accidents and wrong turns, and perhaps a few carrots along the way too.
Tell us about your PhD research
My PhD was, eventually, titled ‘Weaving the tartan: Culture, imperialism, and Scottish identities in Australia, 1788-1938’. In essence, it was a broad social and cultural history of the Scottish diaspora in Australia from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century, and I situated this story in a wider imperial and colonial context. One way to think of it is that I was seeking to add an Australian case study to the growing literature on Scotland and the Empire. In light of contemporary criticism of some of the ‘contribution histories’ and ‘ethnic biographies’ of the 1980s I wanted to return to some old ground and reframe the story of the Scots in Australia. I was particularly interested in Scottish migrations, business connections, and cultural maintenance, as well as the diversity of the diaspora itself in terms of religion, politics, identity, and so on.
Why does it matter?
It matters because, when it comes to the British Empire and the European colonisation of Australia, Australian historians have not been very good at drawing distinctions between the various national components of these phenomena. An exception might be the Irish and Irish Catholics, whose traditional association with the working class and the left side of politics perhaps made them more attractive to historians of a previous generation. Otherwise, the distinct English, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish relationships to Empire are overlooked in our historiography. And so my PhD and subsequent research responded to two concerns. First, historians such as Ann McGrath have encouraged us to untangle the component ethnicities homogenised as ‘white’ in the context of settler colonial histories, and where my work most strongly attends to this challenge is in discussions of Scottish-Indigenous relations. Second, the historian of imperial Britain, John MacKenzie, has long argued for a more nuanced, ‘four nations’ approach to British history and the history of the British Empire: this is where my emphasis on Scotland’s relationship and contribution to imperialism and colonialism fits in. Calls such as these have been heeded in many other contexts, but there was little on Scotland, Australia, and Empire, and so my PhD also attempted to fill that gap in the literature.
What are you researching now or intending to do next?
I’m expanding my Scottish research beyond Australia to other parts of the world, and I’m focusing on Scottish commerce, trade, and enterprise in the economic, social, and political development of Britain’s colonies. Right now, specifically, I’m looking at Scottish missionaries and commercial activities in central Africa in the late-nineteenth century. I’m hoping to secure some travel funding to really get into this topic, but otherwise I’ll just plod along as usual. Next year I’m giving talks on everything from Robert Burns statues in Australia and New Zealand, to Scottish pastoralists in the Western District of Victoria, to the Enlightenment in Scotland, so I think I’ll always be doing something Scottish.
I’ve also been dabbling in environmental histories—sometimes histories that intersect with my Scotland and Empire work, but mostly separate side projects. The first of these has been some work on the history of land management and conservation in the Australian defence forces, and I’ve published a bit on the Army’s restoration of the Puckapunyal Military Training Area, for example. The second is a bit more substantial: I’m writing a new social, cultural, and environmental history of the Grampians-Gariwerd national park in Western Victoria, and that’s due to be published as a book next year. Although, in the current research funding context, there is some instrumental value in topics such as these, I am mostly motivated out of sheer curiosity.
What do you love about being a historian?
Somewhere along the way, perhaps while still at high school, I read AJP Taylor’s introduction to The Communist Manifesto, and remember feeling enthralled by the analytic power of history, as well as the two very different perspectives on how history unfolds contained within the covers of that book. I was never quite convinced by the largely ahistorical approach to philosophical ideas that I had encountered to that point, and Taylor’s introduction to the Manifesto is a good example of how to historicise a subject, not to explain it away, but to provide a more complex understanding of what’s going on, and to highlight how deeply rooted such things are in the circumstances of their time. There’s a joke that the historian’s battle cry is ‘It’s complicated!’, but it’s true, and one of the things I love about being a historian is the opportunity and responsibility to have a go at teasing out these complexities. Often this means being content with messy explanations, sometimes it means contradicting the popular or politically convenient view of things, but ultimately being able to grasp nuance—to hold more than one idea in your head at the same time, as they say—is a rare gift.
What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?
The issues facing early career academics are well-rehearsed, and rightly so: precarity is the lived experience of most scholars active in historical studies as teachers and researchers, and we need to keep reminding the discipline of this salient fact. Casualisation continues apace. Metrics fever has infected even our peak representative bodies. Professional success seems to rest on who you know and how competent you are at filling out paperwork. All of that. But the most challenging aspect at the moment is finding allies. Something like casualisation elicits little more than a sympathetic sigh from our more established colleagues these days, if casuals are recognised as colleagues at all. There is no apparent motivation, at an individual and material level, for full-time, permanent academics to challenge the emergent status quo that has made life difficult for early career scholars; no one is standing around staff rooms complaining that they have to do research while a casual is teaching their units.
I think what we must do as early career academics is continuing to voice our frustrations and concerns, even if that means ticking off some senior historians and organisations along the way. At the same time, we need to resist giving in and playing their game. The most interesting research in Australian history is coming from early career academics, including PhD candidates, and bending our work to suit the needs of increasingly corporatised universities and hostile governments can only lead the discipline into stagnation. If this means ‘doing history’ outside the traditional pathways of academic history, which is an option many are fruitfully exploring already, then so be it.
If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?
I think the historical period I would go back to would be the eighteenth-century in Scotland sometime: The Act of Union, Jacobite rebellions, the Clearances, industrialisation and urbanisation, the Scottish Enlightenment, all of that. I wouldn’t live long enough to see it all, but these were monumental transformations, many of which we’re still dealing with. Of course, many places and many times can claim much the same, but Scotland is obviously a personal favourite of mine, and I wouldn’t mind a holiday to the Scottish Highlands right about now.
If you are a historian resident in Australia who is a member of the Australian Historical Association and received their PhD within the past two years (i.e. 2017 or 2018), you should submit for the AHA-Copyright Agency Ltd Early Career Researcher Mentor Scheme.
The scheme offers successful applicants $1,500 and the opportunity to develop new articles with the guidance of a senior mentor of their choice.
Full information about the award, eligibility, and how to enter are on the AHA’s website here.
Note that at least three awards will go to applicants based outside NSW, VIC, and the ACT, and that at least one will go to a regional applicant. Indigenous ECRs are strongly encouraged to apply.
Applications are due Friday 23 November 2018. Successful applicants will be informed in early to mid December. We suggest that in preparing timelines as part of the application, applicants should start the timeline no earlier than January 2019.