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.
- 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’).
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.
My name is Heather Blasdale Clarke, I completed a professional doctorate in 2019 at the Queensland University of Technology. I belong to a rare breed of historians who specialise in dance. Currently, apart teaching historical dance, I’m undertaking the things common to ECRs: writing journal articles, organising conference presentations, and preparing my thesis for publication.
How did you come to be a historian?
I have always been fascinated by history and the stories associated with places. My parents valued heritage and took me to all manner of historic sites; I distinctly remember from an early age visiting Macarthur’s Elizabeth Farm in Parramatta, and my father working on the archaeological dig at First Government House. I also grew up with a strong affinity to Australian folklore, to bush music, song and dance. As a young adult I realised that there was a gap in our knowledge about early colonial culture: people assumed the harsh conditions of the colony would preclude all recreation. I questioned this assumption and discovered that not only were official balls held, but common people danced regularly. I was enthralled and inspired to read Grace Karskens’ The Colony and The Rocks, Robert Jordan’s Convict Theatres of Early Australia, and Marion Fletcher’s Costume in Australia, all of which touched on social history and the importance of dance. In former times dance was such an everyday, mainstream activity that it could easily pass without mention – in our modern society where community social dance has essentially disappeared, it is difficult to appreciate the prevalence and significance of dance for our ancestors.
At various times throughout history, dance has been regarded as frivolous, sinful, and unproductive, largely due to the Cartesian dualism that privileged the intellect over feelings, emotions and experience, viewing the body simply as a vehicle to carry the brain. In addition, it was difficult to study dance in an academic manner because it could not be captured and examined. Advances in philosophy now recognise that dance provides its own epistemology as a different way of knowing the world, and this linked to scientific investigations into the effects of dance (psychological and physiological) has opened enormous possibilities for academic research.
Tracing history through dance. A little known aspect of dance history is that the English country dance, the most popular form of dance in Western society from 1650 to 1830, captured what was happening is society in a remarkable way – important events, significant people, and popular theatre were all reflected in the names of dances. A striking example of this is the dance entitled Botany Bay which was published, along with the music, in 1788. Dance is a exceptional way to study history as it allows both an intellectual and embodied approach. I became an historian of dance to explore Australia’s own story.
Tell us about your PhD research
Convicts dancing! Could that be true? Although it was known that popular culture had been quickly established in early colonial Australia, little was known of the details. My doctoral research explored social dance for non-elite people in the colony between 1788 and 1840 with a focus on the convicts and ex-convicts who comprised the majority of the population. This was possible through the distinctive set of records which monitored convict lives. Old Bailey court transcripts revealed that dancing was a popular and regular activity for the lower levels of society in London; medical journals on convict ships recorded the beneficial effects of encouraging regular dancing for the prisoners; and police incidents reported in the newspapers demonstrated that dancing was a established pastime in the colony. These findings were further enhanced by accumulating and analysing images of non-elite people dancing, examining contemporary literature and investigating the convict records. This comprehensive database was then utilised in a series of workshops to research the dances themselves. It was found that not only was dancing an exuberant activity, but it also had profound mental, emotional and physiological benefits. For convicts torn from family, friends, and homeland, dancing encouraged a sense of belonging and community, binding strangers together with social interaction and shared memories of a common cultural experience.
Why does it matter?
This research presents a completely different perspective on Australian history and challenges many of the stereotypes of convict life. Given that history shapes how we view ourselves and our society, this insight into early colonial cultural and labour history has the potential to bring new understandings to our colonial past and the Australian identity.
Not only did the research uncover a lost culture of music and dance in a tangible way, it also revealed the significance of dance as a way of coping with stress and displacement. Dance provided a sense of identity, social connection, and at times a form of rebellion for people dealing with a difficult situation. This is supported by recent empirical investigations which highlight the benefits of dance reaching far beyond the physical effects.
It’s an example of history providing insights into how our ancestors endured, coped with oppression and celebrated, and how this can be relevant as a choice for today and into the future.
It’s noteworthy in being the first extensive investigation of dance for non-elite people in eighteenth and early nineteenth century Western society in a field which has traditionally focused only on ‘high’ culture. It provides a guideline for further research into areas which have hitherto escaped investigation and points to ways in which sources can reveal unexpected information.
What are you researching now or intending to do next?
I’m continuing to research convict music and dance, working on the website, preparing the thesis for publication, and wondering where to find a publisher. Many areas remain to be explored, such as the links between music, dance and convict theatre, and the influence of the popular ‘lower order’ culture of the convicts and the development of the Australian bush tradition.
A second project concerns the culture of music and dance which celebrated the life of Captain Cook. Hailed as one of the greatest explorers of his age, Cook used dance to maintain the wellbeing of his crew and as a means to communicate with Indigenous people. He was honoured in music and dance within his lifetime, and afterward his death was celebrated in the ballet The Death of Captain Cook. A book in time for the 250th anniversary is the aim.
What do you love about being a historian?
I love the hunt and uncovering lost knowledge. I love asking questions of the archives which have never been asked before – who would imagine the Old Bailey Court transcripts would reveal a vast amount of information about 18th century dance? I love the intriguing connections as we look back on the accumulated data and see a vivid and detailed picture emerging. Drawing the threads together and retelling the story and is infinitely satisfying.
What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?
The future is obscure and it’s unclear where to go next. Being heard is an issue, and the uncertainty of anyone actually being interested. Finding the right publisher and the right audience seems to be incredibly challenging.
If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?
My whole existence has been immersed in Britain and the colony from 1788 to 1840, and although it would be fascinating to be there, I would choose London in 1651. This is the date of the first edition of John Playford’s The English Dancing Master was published – the final year of the Civil War, Cromwell in power, and Charles II crowned in Scotland. We have the music, the instructions and the context, but we don’t know how people actually danced.
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.