Today’s Q&A is with Tyson Retz, Associate Professor of History Education at the University of Stavanger, Norway. He completed a PhD in history with joint supervision from philosophy at the University of Melbourne in 2016.
1. How did you come to be a historian?
I didn’t set out to become a historian. I knew from my first day at university that I wanted to be a scholar. Towards the end of my degree in International Studies at the University of Adelaide, I considered my options in French studies, Asian studies and political philosophy. Though a substantial chunk of my degree had been in history (the degree in International Studies had compulsory history courses and I studied history almost exclusively during a one-year exchange at a French university), pursuing a higher degree in the discipline was not on my radar. I did in fact begin an honours degree in politics exploring theories of nationalism in the Chinese context. I returned from France thinking with the simplicity of youth that there were enough Europeans studying Europe, and that I might better be off concentrating my efforts closer to home at the beginning of the ‘Asian century’. A kind and generous lecturer, Gerry Groot, reached out and encouraged me to go to China to learn the language and combine it with my background in French. None of this happened because midway through that year, 2008, I was offered a position as research officer to a select committee of the South Australian Legislative Council. I had done a parliamentary internship the previous year, and was asked on the basis of the report I had written.
I relocated to Melbourne after that and enrolled in a Master of Teaching, judging it wise to gain a professional qualification while deciding on a topic for a research degree. Things from then developed according to their own momentum. My training as a secondary school history teacher introduced me to concepts of historical thinking, among which was empathy. This concept seized my attention as an ideal candidate for further examination, combining as it did my interests in history, philosophy and politics. Stuart Macintyre agreed to keep an eye on my progress and planted the idea that I reintegrate my natural allies in history and philosophy when I expressed an interest in taking the project to the doctoral level. I became a historian when I came to appreciate that the historical method is both the most open and exact of the human sciences. Defending history’s status as a discipline has been a concern of mine ever since.
2. Tell us about your PhD research
I investigated the concept of empathy in historical studies, beginning with the way that it became a central component of the ‘new history’ that emerged from changes to the English school system in the 1960s. The thesis (and now book) moved on to examine empathy’s origins in German historicism and the relation of that tradition to the philosophy of history of R.G. Collingwood, whose doctrine of re-enactment has long and mistakenly been described as a concept of empathy. A final part returned to the educational scene to delineate the implications of empathy’s development in different traditions of historical thought.
The project was a dual exploration of empathy’s educational and intellectual history. Given its basis in the history of ideas, I had to strike a balance between diachronic description and synchronic analysis. I have always been impressed by philosophers who write in the historical mode and historians who write with conceptual acuity. This approach (I resist the idea that it was interdisciplinary: it employed the historical method to explain the development of a concept across various fields) gave me a varied stock of material with which I was able to publish during my candidature.
3. Why does it matter?
That is for others to decide. I can point out that I identified inadequacies in empathy’s methodological formulation and, I hope, provided a matrix for practice and further research. I can also observe that, in addition to researchers in history education, my work has found an audience among intellectual historians and philosophers of history. I describe myself as an intellectual historian and philosopher of history with an expertise in history education, and I place them in this conjunction for good reason. A problem I noted in entering the field is that a large portion of research in history education operates in isolation from the history discipline that it purports to represent. This is understandable given the preponderance of psychological and economical models in educational research. I swam against this tide by rooting my investigations of empathy not in modern-day thinking about the concept, but rather in empathy’s emergence and development in the history of historical thought, defending the idea that history provides us with a tremendous resource for holding up to analysis present-day mindsets, beliefs and practices.
In a research environment where ‘impact’ can count for more than insight, I take empathy to denote a historical comportment truly open and ready to learn from the past. What is empathy, after all, if it is not suspending one’s own thoughts and feelings in order to capture and enter into those of another person? I’ll be satisfied if I have said something useful about how this applies to people who lived in the past.
4. What are you researching now or intending to do next?
I have a background in French that empathy’s German pedigree consigned to disuse. My next project examines how France’s religious and philosophical traditions shaped the country’s historical culture from 1750 to 1850. There is a long-held view that the Enlightenment displaced religion as a way of understanding the past. I begin with and critically evaluate the idea that the secularisation of historical thought should be understood as a transposition of beliefs and patterns of behaviour from the religious to the secular sphere, rather than a transition from a religious to a secular worldview. The period saw the attempt to obliterate the national religion, its rehabilitation alongside the furthering of republican principles in Napoleonic rule, a Catholic revival and Restoration, and finally the triumph of the republican ideal. All the while, a form of historical consciousness was being developed that codified the disciplinary procedures of a strictly scientific approach to investigating the past. As with my work on empathy, this concept of ‘historical consciousness’ will be isolated and placed under particular scrutiny as perhaps the most indiscriminately used concept in present-day historical discourse.
A second topic that I am soon to explore comes under the auspices of a European Research Council project based at Tallinn University, where a group of intellectual historians are investigating the way in which changing attitudes towards progress in interwar Europe affected the political imagination. I have proposed a study of how British liberals influenced by different forms of idealism reimagined the relationship between past and present in putting forward their visions of politics.
Smaller projects include a biographical sketch of a Melbourne French teacher who did much to promote French language and culture in Australia, an analysis of historical thinking concepts needed for studying different scales of time in history, and the methodology of historical reenactment.
5. What do you love about being a historian?
Being paid to read and write. Even on the slim PhD stipend, and after having earned a decent wage as a secondary school teacher, the feeling was never lost on me that I was enjoying a tremendous privilege. Part of this feeling was knowing that I belonged to a long line of thinkers who had wrestled with the same problems that I was discovering in my books, which I borrowed en masse and consulted daily for inspiration and enlightenment. I have met scholars who say that they rarely visit the library. To me this is unfathomable. Libraries are the physical expression of the life of the mind and to be protected at any cost.
Historians are masters in delineating continuity and change as well as in attributing significance to things past and present, though I must appeal that this comment not be taken to suggest that historians know any better what the future might hold (I am always perplexed at history talks how seamlessly the questions shift from historical explainer to crystal ballist). That feeling of belonging to something much larger continues to mark my days. This is my favourite part of being a historian: the connection with great thinkers and great ideas. Historians study people and their complex relations with the natural and social world. They pave ways between freedom and necessity, showing how human beings change their circumstances but also how their actions are constrained by circumstances. The best draw a relevance from a seeming irrelevance, a significance from an apparent insignificance. By reading them, the world in which I live is greatly enriched. Even better, I earn a crust by adding to that stock of human knowledge when I teach and write myself.
6. What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?
There is merit in the argument that I am no longer an ECR. I now enjoy the benefits of ongoing employment and can take a long-range approach to planning my various research projects, knowing that I will have the time and resources to complete them. Those dreadful nouns associated with ECR status—impecunity, insecurity, uncertainty, precarity, casualisation—have been replaced with their antonyms.
This is not to say that I no longer face challenges as a young scholar. There are the usual demands of having to maintain research productivity, win grants and form networks. But these professional pressures part and parcel of the job pale in comparison with the life pressures of being on the hunt for ongoing or at least medium-term positions that are all too few and far between.
Like most, I had to search high and low for a position and be willing and ready to uproot myself in the event that an application were successful. This took its toll. Every application was an emotional investment. One moment I would be imagining myself in northern Sweden pounding snow-clad running tracks, and the next surveying Brisbane’s property market and wondering how I would go lecturing in sandals. Exciting, yes. Destabilising at the same time, without a doubt.
I cannot say that I took to the long months of waiting for application outcomes particularly well. The focus and clarity of mind that saw me through my PhD seemed unobtainable. The feeling was that of floating, doing time, or being in no man’s land. With my energies directed outwards towards every possibility in all four corners of the globe, it became difficult to invest in the present and there was a looming sensation that I was waiting for life to begin, or perhaps recommence. With job applications under assessment everywhere from the Arctic Circle to Perth, relationships suffered. Am I too single-minded and uncompromising? How will I maintain my competiveness in the academic job market if I am not?
Have I answered the question? The most challenging aspect of being an ECR, if I am using the past tense, was living my life with one foot out the door.
The time that went into applications and searching for opportunities also nurtured a sense that I was falling behind on my research, making no real progress in my project beyond what was needed for a project proposal. The oppressive longue durée of the application process intensified the tick of the clock of postdoctoral eligibility.
But here I must acknowledge the huge benefit that I received from being employed after completion by my PhD supervisors Stuart Macintyre and Marnie Hughes-Warrington. I had started a full-time secondary teaching post several weeks before submitting my thesis, worried about where my money would come from at the cessation of the Australian Postgraduate Award stipend, which in a manner peculiar to itself ceases the moment the work is completed (whereas timely delivery in other fields often means a bonus). It would have been difficult to get done what I did had I not been able to leave this and work on projects with Stuart and Marnie. In addition to paying my living costs, these contracts gave me a foothold in new areas and led to the publication of a joint article. Kate Darian-Smith and Volker Prott also softened the transition by hiring me as a tutor and course coordinator.
7. If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?
To the Athens of Socrates, playing the acolyte and beating Plato to the task of transcribing his teachings.
8. As a previous interviewer asked your supervisor: Sam Mitchell or Luke Hodge?
That is a mischievous question. Many scholars turn up their noses to sport and in some ways I sympathise with their scruples. There is no denying the vulgarity of commercialisation, the widespread culture of affected masculinity and the bad behaviour that goes with it. But I think sport is fundamentally good. In today’s disenchanted world, I delight in sport’s rituals and the almost religious experience of giving in to its symbolic codes. Separately, I know that whatever qualities I have as a scholar I earned through being a sportsman. The word university did not feature in my upbringing—I doubt I knew what universities were. But I knew through limitless hours pursuing my sporting dreams how to set goals and take steps towards achieving them, and there are a good many athletes whose mottos have served me as precepts.
I’ll do as a politician does and suggest that Ben Stratton has been that team’s most underrated player.
My name is Chelsea Barnett and I completed my PhD in modern history at Macquarie University in 2016. I am a gender and culturalhistorian; I’m primarily interested in how culture articulates and circulates gendered meanings, particularly masculinity. Since completing my PhD I’ve been living the glamorous Early Career Researcher (ECR) life of juggling multiple short-term, casual positions: I’m currently a research assistant at Macquarie University and the University of Melbourne, while doing sessional teaching work at Macquarie as well.
1. How did you come to be a historian?
I had absolutely no intention of ever being an historian, or even doing study beyond a three-year degree. I always wanted to go to university but as one of the first to do so in my large family, I had no idea what opportunities it could produce. I studied modern history at high school and did relatively well, but I always preferred English. During high school I always thought I’d end up in law, but when I got to university my career aspirations changed constantly: from law, to diplomacy, publishing, and then teaching. I did one first-year modern history unit which I hated (I genuinely can’t remember what it was but my attitude was thanks more to my obnoxious eighteen-year-old self than the actual unit, I’m sure) and then a second-year unit which I really enjoyed. I did quite well in that subject and my tutor encouraged me to consider pursuing Honours—I dutifully looked it up, was instantly intimidated by the thought of designing my own research project, thought “there’s no way I’m smart enough to do that”, and dropped the idea.
Two years later, a friend and I had decided that once finishing our undergraduate degrees, we’d enrol together to study a Masters of Education to each become high school teachers. But in the first semester of my final undergraduate year, I needed to complete a second-year history unit to fulfil some degree requirement. From memory there were two units I could pick from: one I don’t remember, the other a unit on Australian gender history. I picked the latter (somewhat begrudgingly, I’m ashamed to say now) and fell into a subject that opened my eyes and changed my life. I fell in love with history and with gender history and everything it offered; this time when my tutor suggested I consider Honours, I took it much more seriously and was excited about the prospect of pursuing my own research. (My tutor was Robert Reynolds, who would go on to supervise me in Honours and then PhD. Thanks, Robert!) I completed Honours, fell in love with research, went on to a PhD, and here we are!
2. Tell us about your PhD research.
My thesis focused on representations of masculinity in Australian films released between 1949 to 1962. It made three arguments. First, that there were multiple masculinities in circulation in this era, in an unresolved (and perhaps unresolvable) tension for legitimacy. Second, that the fifties were a period of cultural flux, and third, that the fifties were a period of activity for Australian filmmaking.
3. Why does it matter?
It matters for a few reasons, I think! I understand the project of historicising masculinity as one driven by feminist politics; if we leave masculinity unquestioned or uninterrogated then we ultimately allow it to function as the norm, as “natural”. So it’s important to understand how and why masculinity works the way it does, especially in the Australian national context where our national political, social, and cultural lives are built upon and sustained by particular masculinist ideals. At the same time, we also need to recognise that differences of race, class, sexuality, etc produce different masculinities—so the idea of there being only one way of being an Australian man isn’t necessarily true. Exploring that in the context of the fifties, where Menzies’ prime ministerial shadow continues to loom large, complicates our understanding of postwar Australia. I also think my research has helped to shed new light on the fifties, an era that continues to function in metaphorical terms (as either the “repressive” or the “stable” fifties), particularly in our national political and public conversations. Other scholars had done lots of important work in showing the social tensions and uncertainties that dotted the period, but the cultural world had been left largely untouched, so it was exciting to jump in and explore that space. And finally, there is a very dominant historiographical narrative that renders the Australian fifties as a “dead” period for filmmaking (and this narrative is of course strengthened by the idea that Gough Whitlam in the 1970s came along and produced the “rebirth” of Australian film production). Despite these claims, though, Australian films were being made in the fifties, and Australian audiences were going to see them. And important films too! Like Jedda, the first Australian film with Indigenous actors in the leading roles, and The Back of Beyond, which won the Grand Prix at the 1954 Venice Film Festival.
4. What are you researching now or intending to do next?
Like most other ECRs, my big post-PhD project was to publish my thesis. I was lucky enough to secure a contract with Melbourne University Press pretty soon after I completed my PhD; I’ve spent the last eighteen months editing my thesis for this purpose. It’s in now and should be published next February.
I’ve also spent the last two years or so developing a new project—a cultural history of single men in Australia. In one of the films I wrote about in my thesis, one of the characters ends up alone, while his mate finally decides to commit to a relationship with his on-again, off-again love. I was intrigued by this single fellow: what happens to him? Actually, what happens to single men not just in the fifties, but across the twentieth century? I tried to do this research to include it in the thesis but alas, there’s very little written on single men in Australia. At the time I filed it away in my brain, but since completing I’ve been able to think about it more and more, and it’s since formed the basis of my postdoctoral fellowship applications. (I’m still in that process, so fingers crossed!)
5. What do you love about being a historian?
I probably shouldn’t admit this because it likely means I’m a bad historian, but I don’t love archival research. I do it dutifully, of course, but for me it’s a stressful process where I’m constantly worried that I won’t find what I need/want. Obviously, whatever you do/don’t find leads to new and interesting questions (and the moments when you strike gold are wonderful), but I find the process quite fraught and anxiety-inducing. (I should clarify that this really only applies to research for my own projects.) I much prefer what comes after archival research: when I’m going through what I’ve found, what I’ve read, and trying to answer whatever questions are there to be answered. It’s hard and exhausting intellectual work, but trying to put all the pieces of the puzzle together is such fun. I often undertake this process through writing, so sitting at my computer looking at the blank screen (or laying down on my study floor with a blank notebook and a pencil) is scary and frustrating and exciting all at once. When it clicks, and makes sense, and you understand what’s happening… it’s one of the best feelings in the world.
The other lovely thing about being part of this community is that it is, indeed, a community. I’ve benefitted from the guidance and mentorship of overwhelmingly generous people who are far too kind to me (there are many, but at the top of the list are of course my supervisors, Robert Reynolds and Leigh Boucher). Academic life can be a tough road, and I have found post-PhD life to be harder than the process of doing a thesis (for reasons I outline below), but life would have been far, far more difficult without these wonderful people.
6. What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?
It’s probably no surprise that I agree with pretty much all the former contributors to this series—the precarity and instability of post-PhD/ECR life is an incredibly difficult terrain to navigate. It can be difficult to keep your head up and motivation high when your job applications are constantly getting rejected, you have no real idea what you’ll be doing in the next six months, let alone the next five years, and your bank account is deplorably low. I know other contributors have identified travel bursaries, fellowships, small grants etc that do exist for ECRs, yet I’ve found that in most of these cases you need to be employed by a university on a contract, rather than a casual basis (and thus have a “proper” institutional affiliation) to even be eligible. And although I understand their intentions, I get frustrated by senior academics who were able to secure permanent employment before submitting their PhDs telling the current crop of ECRs to hang on, be patient, keep on going etc. Such advice should only be given with a heavy dose of self-awareness.
7. If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?
Is it terrible to only go back a few decades? I’ll justify it by clinging to my intellectual attachment to the twentieth century! But in the process of beginning research for my new project I’ve learned even more about the 1970s and, by extension, the efforts of second-wave feminists. I’m very aware that the opportunities I’ve enjoyed as a young woman in academia are only possible because of the tireless efforts of the women who came before me. I think I’d like to go back and see that fight.
At many Australian universities, July is Expression of Interest (EOI) season for Australian Research Council Grants. For most ECRs this means the beginning of the long process of applying for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA). In this post Meggie Hutchison talks all things DECRA with successful winner Dr Benjamin T. Jones. He discusses the process of refining his topic, finding the best institution for his project, and how to respond to rejoinders. Benjamin also gives some great tips on when to apply, how many publications you will need and offers wonderful advice from his personal experience on what to do if you don’t win a DECRA. For all ECRs applying in the next round of ARC grants and for those awaiting results for this round, we wish you the best of luck!
Benjamin is an Australian Research Council DECRA recipient working in the School of History. He has taught history at the Australian National University, University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, and Western Sydney University and held Visiting Fellow posts at Indiana University and Durham University. He has also worked as a historian at the Museum of Australian Democracy. Benjamin has a broad range of research interests including Australian and Canadian colonial histories, republicanism, Australian nationalism, secularism, and pedagogical theory. He is the author of This Time: Australia’s Republican Past and Future (Redback, 2018), Atheism for Christians: Are there lessons for the religious world from the secular tradition? (Wipf & Stock 2016) and Republicanism and Responsible Government: The Shaping of Democracy in Australia and Canada (McGill-Queen’s University Press 2014). He is the co-editor of Project Republic: Plans and Arguments for a New Australia (Black Inc 2013). He is currently editing a new collection of essays on seminal Australian elections. Dr Jones was the lead researcher of the Alternative Australian Flag Survey.
Meggie Hutchison: What do you love about being a historian?
Benjamin T. Jones: I think the most fun thing about being a historian is storytelling. I think everyone loves being that person at a party who can tell this wonderful anecdote, and it’s partly the small details as well that the historians eye picks up that really brings stories to life. Recently I’ve read Tom Griffiths, amazing the Art of Time Travel. One thing I love about Tom’s histories in general, but especially in this book, is the way he points out that history is an art, and I think sometimes we get bogged down in this really hardnosed historical methodology. I think that’s the real history and the storytelling aspect of it.
That’s the arty insignificant thing. But I think that’s what makes history beautiful. When you have this sort of eye for details. I wrote an article recently on the currency lads and lasses. The first white Australian born men and women and their sense of identity as being British but born in Australia. The first generation.
It could seem an insignificant detail, but they played this cricket match between the Australian born and the British born Australians and they got so worked up about it. There was a dubious leg before wicket call and the Australian batsman was challenged to a duel to settle it. It’s just these little details that make the stories of history so engaging.
I could go on about how it’s this conversation between the past and the present which I think it is. But I really love telling stories. And I love the empowerment you get as a historian. It’s that you’re not just relying on other people’s stories, you have got the toolkit and you have got the ability to go into archives and to make sense of all these figures and documents. And you can discover new stories and tell them. So there’s a real pleasure in that.
Meggie: I wanted to ask about the questions that drive your research. Do you have any burning questions that have led you to your topics?
Benjamin: Yes. Absolutely. My main interest is in Australian nationalism. Well, I’m an Australiainist first and foremost, although I do a lot of comparative transnational histories. I’m interested in nationalism, especially republicanism. So I guess some of the driving questions for me is just, how did Australia ended up the way it is? How do you have a country that on the one hand is so proud of its multicultural diverse, open, tolerant society, but it’s also cool with having a giant union jack. Establishing sort of this Anglo Celtic privileging.
How do you get a country that is so staunchly independent and competitive with other nations and especially with the UK, but it’s also very comfortable having it’s head of state being the monarch of a foreign nation. How do you get a country like Australia and its history is sort of baffling in some senses. It is so democratic in some cases. It’s the most democratic nation in the world. In introducing the Australian ballot and all these different things. But then it has this obviously undemocratic way of choosing its head of state. I suppose those are the questions that drive me. How did Australia turn up as this sort of funny bag of contradictions that it is.
Meggie: Do these questions stem from your PhD or further back?
Benjamin: Further back actually. From my honours thesis really. I looked at the republican campaigns in the 1850s and compared it to the 1990s. I grew up a little bit in the 80s but mainly in the 90s and the 90s was a huge period of Australia questioning its identity. It kicks off with Paul Keating having this very strong vision that Australia needs to reimagine itself as part of Asia. As a republic and losing the baggage of imperialism and British colonization and all the rest of it.
Australia has almost this 180 degree turn in 1996 when John Howard comes in. Someone who couldn’t be more different in their approach. And so a lot of historians who I admire, Mark Mckenna’s right up there, John Hirst is right up there. Writing these amazing books in the 1990s all about identity. I suppose even though I was a teenager in that period, these ideas are just in the air and that’s when I did go through university, it’s what I wanted to research.
Meggie: Can you tell us about the topic of your PhD?
Benjamin: My PhD is called ‘Commonwealth of Republics’ and it currently sits on my dad’s desk where it props up his monitor to just the right height that he likes it, so I’m glad that it’s gone to good use! I was inspired somewhat by my honors supervisor, Professor Melanie Oppenheimer, to look at Australia, Canada comparative studies. She’s done a lot of that research on WWI. Comparing volunteers and different things. When you look at just the mountain of books there are comparing Canada and the United States, it’s kind of amazing that there’s so few because Australia and Canada are actually better comparisons in many regards, but not that many historians have looked at it.
My particular angle in my PhD was to compare the granting of responsible government in Canada and then in Australia. It did end up getting published as a book called Republicanism and Responsible Government through McGill-Queen’s University Press and let that be lesson number one to aspirational DECRA people, don’t be modest and plug your work whenever you get the chance!
Meggie: Good lesson! What’s the subject in the DECRA then?
Benjamin: It’s called ‘Aristotle’s Australia’ and I’ve moved from the 19th century into the 20th and it’s a history of civic republican thought from federation to modern times.
Meggie: What’s the process by which you arrived at this project? You’re moving into a different century, but are there direct links to your previous research?
Benjamin: Yes, a different century but the same ideas. I did very consciously approach the DECRA by saying, “Not only do I think this is a good topic, but I also think that I’m the right person to write it”. So, to that end I drew a lot of links straight from my PhD and I almost pitched it as this is going to be volume two. Staying on the same themes and looking at a different time period, but building on a lot of the strengths and a lot of the archival work that I’ve already done. Certainly, in my case it worked to very strongly say how this project is a natural progression from my PhD.
Meggie: We’re always told that we have to create a strong research narrative for the DECRA. Do you think that’s one of the reasons that you were so successful in yours? Because you could make that kind of connection?
Benjamin: I think so because you leave yourself a little bit vulnerable if you just invest in creating a really great topic but not making it obvious why you’re also the natural person to do it. I can understand people having a bit of research fatigue. It’s a long journey to complete a PhD and you may feel like great, now I’m going to go off to my “love project”, as people sometimes put it. But if you’ve invested so many years and so much time researching a particular area, it can be a different topic, but at least if you’re saying I’m going to be drawing on the same methodological principles. Or if there’s at least somewhere to say that the skills you’ve acquired over the last four or five years or however long it took to do your PhD, are still going to be used and in fact are essential to getting this project done, then I think you’re giving yourself a fighting chance.
Meggie: Does your DECRA draw on the comparative element of your PhD as well?
Benjamin: It doesn’t actually. So that’s one difference. I’m using the same themes and the same ideas. My PhD was an intellectual history of ideas. So I’m looking for the same intellectual tradition. But no, I’ve dropped the transnational aspect and that wasn’t so much strategic. I suppose it does make sense for the Australian Research Council to want to fund something that is 100% Australian focused, but it also just sort of naturally ended up that way.
Meggie: Let’s talk a bit about the process of actually applying for a DECRA. You get two shots at it, so what is the best point to apply? There’s advice that two to four years out of your PhD is optimum.
Benjamin: Well, yes, that’s right. If you look at the percentages of people who are successful, it’s sort of virtually no one a year out, a few more, two years out and three and then sort of three and four is the sweet spot so to speak. But of course every person’s different and you may have already have published a couple of books and several articles and you may be ready to apply for a DECRA a year out and people do get them a year out. But I suppose if you went along the traditional sort of academic route, most people aren’t going to have the research backing behind them in their first or second year. So it is, as you say, with only the two shots, you’re playing the percentages if you apply in your third and fourth year out.
Meggie: When did you apply?
Benjamin: In the third and fourth year out. I was as ambitious as anyone and I went to a DECRA seminar on how to apply for one which was run at the ANU in my first year. And they said something like, you should really emphasize your best 10 publications or something like that. And I was there like, I’ve got four publications all up, so I more or less just left. And I thought, okay, it’s not for me yet. I feel like I should have stayed and listened to the rest for future reference!
I got a strong sense anyway that third and fourth year is the right time to apply. In the third year I didn’t get it and I amended it, not greatly I should add, which also is an important point, that there is such an element of chance and luck and whoever happens to assess it or however many other applications that might be very similar to yours. I do think my second application was better but only marginally. Essentially I think I just applied twice and was unsuccessful one year and was successful the next. That might give hope to people who have been knocked back once, it is definitely worth going through the whole circus again.
Probably the biggest change between the first application and the second application, is I applied at a group of eight university and I kind of just took it for granted that its reputation should speak for itself. So I invested really the bulk of my energy into saying, this is a great project. I’m someone worth backing. Please pick me. And also, I’m going to a great institution and sort of left it at that.
One thing that I think I definitely improved on the second one was saying, okay, let me actually show you more. Here’s some of the people who are at ANU. Here are some of the resources that are close by. Here are some of the libraries I can use. I guess you’ve just got to take every section as seriously as the one before. Even that one I felt was a bit of an obvious one. Whether that made a difference, I don’t know. But that’s one thing that was definitely stronger the second time around.
Meggie: Was there anything else you fixed that you think might have made the second attempt sparkle more than the first?
Benjamin: Well, there is this, I applied in the ANU’s Humanities Research Centre which is where I did my PhD. I think a lot of the appeal there was that I was applying so that I could be with people I know and a place that I’m comfortable with, and I wondered whether the reason I’d chosen that was more emotional than for academic integrity. So, I applied through the ANU’s School of History, which I was quite unfamiliar with instead, having made a reassessment that actually this is a better place for the project to be and I can make a stronger argument for being here even though I won’t be with my friends.
Meggie: So the research environment is very important for a DECRA.
Benjamin: Yes, absolutely. It’s definitely not as simple as just saying, I’ll apply for at a group of eight university. They’re the ones with the reputation depending on. And all these projects are so individual and probably if you’re serious about it, you need to get some people who are going to read your application closely because this is all good general advice, but you do need people who can tailor the application specifically to you.
But there are all sorts of reasons why a regional university or a university that has a particular center or a particular school might be the perfect place to do whatever the project is. It definitely would be lazy to just think, well, I’m just going to pick whoever is highest in the rankings this year as my home.
Meggie: How do you choose your institution?
Benjamin: Well, I looked first at a geography. You’ve got a limited budget and of course you can fly places but you’ve got to stay in hotels and all that sort of thing. So wherever the bulk of the archival material or the field work stuff is, is really where you want to be. In my case, Canberra just in general was the first idea. I was in Sydney at the time, which obviously has a lot of great archive as well but I made a conscious decision that Canberra was going to be the best place first off. Then which university in Canberra was a secondary decision. But having already so many contacts at the ANU, it sort of seemed like an easy choice in that sense as well.
Meggie: There’s so much speculation and rumour about how many publications you should have when you apply. What’s your advice on that?
Benjamin: When I applied I had about 10, so I still wasn’t in the position of picking my best 10. I just put them all. I suppose that is ideal. It certainly is a case that quality is better than quantity, but I think all ECRs should think seriously about co-publishing a couple of things. I published an article with my PhD supervisor and another one with one of my close friends who did their PhD at the same time as me as well as publishing a couple of solo ones.
Meggie: Getting your book out before you apply for a DECRA, so as quickly as possible, is often the advice given to ECRs.
Benjamin: Yes, and it’s a shame. If I’m giving advice it is just get it out as quickly as you can almost with whoever will publish it. I think that’s a real shame. In retrospect I wish I’d actually had the luxury of taking five or so years to just not even think about my thesis and then go back and really enhance it and make it a more superior document. Reading back over it now, it kind of screams recent graduate, but such is life. I guess it’s a historical record of where I was at the time.
Meggie: What’s the first thing you do when you decide on your DECRA topic?
Benjamin: Well, be realistic about how long it takes to write a DECRA application I think is probably the first thing. The best advice I had actually was to think of it as being as much effort and time and energy as writing a journal article and going in with that sort of mindset. This isn’t just a job application you’re going for. It is quite a serious research proposal. If you go in thinking, “Okay, I’m not going to finish this in one or two nights,” then that’s a good starting point.
The way I did it was to look through the entire document and put one or two sentences under each thing and start to collect my thoughts about the project as a whole and to make sure I was happy with it. I pitched it to a few friends and a few colleagues, got their advice and then went for the project description first and again circulated that to various people and received edits on it.
Meggie: What about the budget? Did you have any help?
Benjamin: I didn’t and should have is the short answer. I thought I was doing myself a big favour by having a really modest budget and I cut every little corner I could and said I’d stay in the cheapest hotels and find the most budget. But the feedback I’ve got since is that they’re not going to judge you more harshly if you have a bigger budget, so long as the items are the normal things that people would expect.
If it’s something unusual, obviously justify it is important. Another successful DECRA applicant told me casually down the corridor that they just applied for as much money as the maximum amount and then worked backwards from there. So, in retrospect maybe I should’ve done that. Although one of my assessor’s reports comment on my frugality. Maybe it impressed someone a little bit, but I think you should actually feel safe to say I’m going to claim as much as I need.
Meggie: How did you go about “selling” the value of your DECRA and its relevance to Australia today?
Benjamin: It’s a funny question because I’m definitely working on a love project. I guess I can give hope to people who have just one project which is the only topic they want to write about that it is possible. But I suppose by the same token, right back from my honours year (again, I’ve always had good people giving me good advice) I knew that I should gear my project towards subjects that are going to be relevant and areas that are likely to get funding.
You certainly have to keep in mind that this is the Australian Research Council and they have a specific mission to advance knowledge on Australia and to fund research that is going to help in its strategic areas. So you need to at least be aware of those strategic areas. You need to be able to pitch it in such a way that this is going to be of the greater good of our Commonwealth. But there is a very broad understanding that the historical projects are just as valuable as combating climate change.
It may not feel that way, but I think sometimes the humanities has this inferiority complex. Like we’re the least important and we deserve the least funding and we matter the least. It really is a self-fulfilling prophecy sometimes. I think it is fundamentally important to the health and vibrancy of our nation that there are people out there researching Australian history and telling Australian stories. It’s important and it should be pitched that way. It’s in the national interest of Australia that I complete this research and I stand by it.
Meggie: How did you do that with your DECRA application?
Benjamin: Well, I framed it as gaining a better understanding of Australian politics, Australian identity. Australia’s place in the world was probably the one that most aligned with the ARC. Saying that Australia has fundamentally shifted the way it imagines itself from being this British white European outpost to this vibrant, multicultural nation in the Asia-Pacific region, and how civic republicanism has shaped the way Australians think about themselves. And this has all sorts of repercussions to how we teach history in schools and how we present ourselves on the international stage.
Meggie: How did you approach the feasibility of the project which is an important part of the application?
Benjamin: I think the rules may even have changed since I did it. It used to be sort of equal weighting to the project, to the individual and to the institution. But I suppose even if it has changed, the idea is that every section needs to be taken incredibly seriously. It needs to have the same thoughtful, intelligent, coherent answers throughout. In terms of feasibility though, that was something where I seemed to get particular ticks from the assessors.
So it is important to say that this is a project you have the ability to do. You need to almost go back and look at the project description and the aims and the outcomes and possibly reign it in a little bit if you’ve been perhaps too grand. You should think about how much you achieved during the three years of your PhD and use that as a starting point. Certainly, you’ll be doing work at a higher quality than junior PhD candidacy. But it does give you a little bit of realism in how much is actually possible.
Of course you have to factor in that if you go to a new institution and perhaps you’re wanting to eventually get some sort of secure employment there at the end, then it’s going to be worth your while to be a good academic citizen and you should factor in that. You may find yourself teaching, unless the rules have changed. Is it up to 20% of your time you can spend teaching? But just general collegiality. You’re going to be giving guest lectures, you’re going to be giving seminars, you’re going to be helping run conferences.
All these things are really, really good for a DECRA applicant to be doing. But you’ve also got to think that these are things that are going to take away your research and writing time as well. So have that in mind when you’re thinking about how much you can realistically do because, especially if you get it, you’ll feel a lot better about yourself if you can actually tick off the things you said you were going to do and it certainly will improve your chances of getting another ARC discovery in the future if you can point back to a successful DECRA and say, look, I said I was going to do X, Y, and Z and I did X, Y and Z, and now here’s my new project.
Meggie: What are your outcomes from your DECRA?
Benjamin: Well, the centrepiece was certainly that I’ll write am academic monograph. I also highlighted about three different aspects of my research that I thought should also be standalone journal articles. I said I was going to attend conferences along the way, particularly in the early stages so that I could give work in progress seminars. I also requested funding to host a conference towards the end of my project.
I suppose I should reiterate. Don’t be shy about sending it to people. One of the things that really was great for me was getting so many people say that it was a manageable project. It just gives you that confidence to say, okay, well people I know and respect think this is a good project. They think it’s a good application. I can put it forward now, if it gets rejected, it’s not going to break my heart that much. I’m not going to completely lose my confidence because I know that people I know and respect have said that it’s okay.
Even though it’s not ideal, if you fail to get a DECRA twice, you really should just do the project anyway, though it’s difficult if you’re not going to get that particular funding. There are still other funding sources and there are ways to do it. But if you’ve invested that much time in developing a really great project, you really should have that resolve that this is getting done one way or the other and that’ll probably even improve the language of how you write the application.
Meggie: I wanted to ask about the rejoinder. How important is it and can it make or break your success in getting a DECRA?
Benjamin: I think it definitely can. Much more than the application actually, it gives a little insight into the applicant’s attitude and personality. I think certainly if you came back really indignant, then that’s not going to be a good look.
But by the same token, I don’t think it’s a great look either to just be like, “Oh yes, you’ve called me. It’s useless, it’s terrible. I’ll just withdraw.” You do have to sort of find the sweet spot where on the one hand you’re saying “I stand by my application, I stand by my project and this is a worthwhile thing”. But also on the other hand conceding as much as you can where you see legitimate chinks in the armour that could have been strengthened.
My basic approach, which I think was effective, was to read really carefully what they said and to almost write it back in the rejoinder. I started off with, “I am so glad that review A said X, and I’m so glad that review B agreed and said Y”. I pointed out a few things where there were criticisms that I could have mentioned this or that. I politely said review B raised this issue. However, on page 23 of the application I did address that. Adding in for modesty that I could have made this clearer or longer or whatnot.
It’s sort of tight rope between showing you’re someone who believes in themselves, but are also someone who can take criticism constructively. But I think it is really a serious part of the process. In the same way that you should get people to read over your application, I definitely wouldn’t just quickly write it. I had at least three people read my response and then also people from the research office and I edited it reasonably substantially actually from those comments. So yes, the rejoinder is very important.
Meggie: I also wanted to talk a little bit about failure. You were successful on your second attempt, but how did you deal with not getting a DECRA on your first try?
Benjamin: My personal process is actually very similar to a rejection to a journal article, which is to quickly read it and then just ignore it. Just do something you enjoy. Go for a run, watch a movie. I usually have to leave it for a week or two and to come back when I’m calm and I know it’s a rejection but I’ll read it. But just having that little bit of space really helps.
It really helps you discern between what might be the more reasonable criticisms and other criticisms which you have to just say, well I disagree with that and I’m going to more or less a reapply with the same ideas. But as much as you can take the emotions out of it, be as stoic as you can. I guess it’s like anything else in life, getting rejected from a job or something. If your passion is to be a historian, then you have to just move forward with it.
Meggie: Was there a plan B that you had in mind?
Benjamin: I had a few plan B’s in my time. I actually went through the whole process to become an education officer in the army, so I think I’m technically still in the pool of applicants to be drawn on. Although I probably would have to decline now if they came back to me. That was one, I did do a teaching degree as well. So I’ve also got high school teaching as a fall back plan. But as long as academia is still paying the bills in one way or another, it is where I want to be. But yes I do have plan Bs and it’s probably not a bad idea to have them.
Meggie: OK, one more question. If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be?
Benjamin: I find this question deceptively difficult because the way I approach it is why am I having dinner with them? If it was purely for the pleasure of their company, I’d pick someone like Oscar Wilde. Just because he would be charming. But if it was for my own research so that I could have an exclusive interview (and yes, I know I overthink this way too much) then it would be someone like John Dunmore Lang so he could tell me about republicanism in the 19th century.
But if it was more so I could be a time traveller going back to warn people about the future, then I’d probably pick someone like Robert Menzies and just say, “you need to drop the British stuff. I know it seems like your whole world in the 1950s, but in only two decades, there’s not going to be a British empire. Nobody’s going to think the way you do and you’re going to be the most successful prime minister, but also remembered as this kind of dinosaur who makes comments about being in love with a 20-year-old queen!”.
I’m Jessica Hodgens, and I completed my PhD last year at Monash University. My research is with Dja Dja Wurrung people, the traditional owners of the central Victoria region, which is where I was born and raised. I’m currently revising my thesis for publication as a book, and I work as a researcher with the NSW public service. I’ve been an AHA member since 2014, and earlier this year I was lucky enough to receive one of the AHA-Copyright Agency Early Career Researcher Mentorships. Continue reading
Dr Emily Brayshaw completed her PhD in fashion, performance costume and design history at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building in 2016. Emily works as a lecturer and tutor in Design History and Thinking and Fashion History and Theory at UTS and actively researches and publishes in these fields. In addition to her work in academia, Emily is a theatre costume designer. Her wide interests include: the display and consumption of luxury in fashion, costume, theatre and film; popular culture in all of its vulgar glory; German literature; art and aesthetics of the Weimar Republic; architectural ornamentation; and the viola. Continue reading
My name is James Findlay and I’m a historian with interests in media history, convict history, and settler colonialism in Australia. I was awarded my PhD at the University of Sydney a few months ago. Before returning to study I worked extensively in film and television production for companies and broadcasters including Beyond Television, Screenworld, Film Australia and the BBC in London. I’m currently sessional teaching with the History Department at USYD. Continue reading
I gained my PhD (on the political history of Australian telecommunications reform) from La Trobe University a few days before last Christmas, which was a rather pleasing way to round out the year. I was very fortunate at La Trobe to receive invaluable guidance and support from my supervisor, Professor Judith Brett, and many other colleagues. During my candidature, I tutored in Australian history and politics, coordinated a parliamentary internship program and also took some time off to consult to the telecommunications industry association, Communications Alliance. I’ve recently became an associate of the Contemporary Histories Research Group at Deakin University. Continue reading