Going on a bear hunt

BearsParents out there, and maybe some younger readers, will recognise this line: “We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, Oh no! we’ve got to go through it!” The line has been going around and around in my mind the past couple of weeks.  On a global scale, my challenges are miniscule – but nonetheless they have ebbed away at my steady PhD research-and-writing habits so that I find myself almost entirely out of the way of working now. I can’t quite believe I’ve let it get to this stage.  I really need to get words on the page. I find myself forcing my way through excuses – I’ve just got to go through it. I wish I could summon up the energy and drive I had as I studied for all those law exams so many years ago – I remember making clear sacrifices back then (not going to footy matches for a few weeks before exams, not going out on Friday nights – I remember those ones!), but I now find making sacrifices very very hard. I’ve just got to go through it.

My aim by the beginning of December is to finish my draft introduction and literature review, and a second chapter on plantation/merchant life which I’ve almost finished researching.  Perhaps putting that aim in writing on this blog will impel me towards the finish line! I really want to have some proper, guilt-free time off over Summer.

I’ll end this post with a quote I heard from Ira Glass on the Happier podcast this week. This hints at the “we’ve got to go through it” sentiment, but with a positive promise of better things to come…

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

History isn’t a ‘useless’ major

The argument for history (and the humanities in general) as a sound basis for an undergraduate education is well-known amongst historians,  but I sometimes wonder if the wider non-history-loving public ever hears it and ever gives it any thought. James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association published this OpEd in the LA Times, which I think puts the argument very succinctly: happy reading and please share this article amongst your networks, especially those outside the history fraternity.

History isn’t a ‘useless’ major


The Historians: ABC702 Sydney

Just a quick follow-up to my post last week about James Valentine’s weekly radio slot in Sydney which he’s calling ‘The Historians’…. I was duly alerted by my non-historian friend that there was an historian on the radio this week again – it was Associate Prof Frank Bongiorno from ANU who had some insights into the Australian conscription debates during World War I. The segment is available for a few more days HERE, and starts at about 1:04:00.

Let’s find out if historians can talk!

As I’ve written here before, I’m an avid podcast-listener, and I’m a fan of Liz Covart’s format in Ben Franklin’s World. For those of you who haven’t listened, BFW is a weekly podcast in which the host (Liz) interviews an historian of early America about their research. The podcast has a loyal subscriber base, and is approaching its landmark 100th episode, which is a wonderful achievement as most podcasts don’t get into double figures.

I’m convinced that there is enough material in Australia to support a weekly conversation with an historian – I guess the question is whether there is the listener/subscriber base. This is something I’ve thought about pursuing after I get through my PhD. So  I was delighted to hear this week that James Valentine, a radio host with ABC702 in Sydney kicked off just such a conversation with Associate Professor Clare Wright from LaTrobe University. What was even better for me was that I heard about this not from anyone in the history fraternity, but from friends in my exercise class…so there’s a small listener base excited about this already! Valentine’s stated aim is to have a weekly conversation with an historian on his afternoon radio show to discuss their research and current debates in history. He wants to talk with historians of Australia and beyond. His pitch for the segment was that we hear from journalists, writers and social commentators on history—but not a lot from historians.* He’s keen to find out if historians can talk!

You can listen to Valentine & Wright’s conversation HERE. It goes from 1:28:00 until about 1:50:00. (Unfortunately this recording will disappear after a few days, but if I find it elsewhere I’ll update the link.) Dr Wright talked generally about what she loves about researching history—about the detective work involved and the adrenaline of the chase that keeps her going back to the archives. She then talked about her own current research, which is an expansion of the work she did on the Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. She’s now looking at mining history in Australia from pre-invasion to the (doomed) 2012 Mining Resources Rent Tax.

*In Australia, this may have something to do with the virulent nature of popular debate around what came to be known as the Australian history wars, but that’s another story.

By the way, Dr Wright co-convened a great symposium on history and the media in 2013 – to revisit some of the discussions there, link here to the symposium blog.


The Australian government handed down its annual budget this week. I didn’t take much notice until I saw a news report yesterday that the National Library of Australia will cease to add to Trove. Trove is a digital database which houses all manner of items, including an incredibly rich and diverse collection of digitised newspapers, and the catalogue records  of hundreds of cultural institutions around Australia. Trove is used by 70,000 people every day. But ongoing budget cuts now mean that the National Library cannot continue to add new resources to the database.

Trove is used by students (like me), independent researchers, and (I’m sure) armies of people researching their family history. It has certainly been invaluable in my own family’s research. The link between family history research and Trove is important. The fact that Trove is so easy to use has, I am sure, encouraged scores of older Australians to get online, to research their family’s past  and in the process, to learn new skills, master new technology, and make social connections. Unfortunately these benefits are not quantifiable in $ terms. Perhaps the government wants Trove to become a subscription service – but this would be a tremendous loss to those people who could not afford to pay the fee. The information on Trove belongs to us all, I truly hope it isn’t locked up, only to be accessed by those who can afford to pay.

For some more background on Trove, budget cuts and what you can do – I recommend Tim Sherratt’s recent post on his blog, Discontents. Yvonne Perkins wrote an interesting piece last year on Trove too.

if you’re a facebooker – join the FundTrove Community here and if you’re on twitter, remember to use the #fundtrove hashtag.





Busy busy

The last few months have been very busy, and not always with PhD work unfortunately – I’m also juggling the transition to a new school for my daughter (which has been a brilliant move, thankfully),  and major home renovations (going well, but somewhat disruptive and time-consuming). So all good stuff, but my focus has not been on my research as much as I would have liked.

I’m now into year 2 of my PhD. I’ve written my first full chapter, on military connections between Ireland and the Caribbean. It’s a fair bit longer than originally planned, but I found three brilliant (if I do say so myself) characters to test out my biographical/micro-historical approach on. All will be revealed when my thesis is finished, but the approach seems to have worked well. I loved researching the lives of the three soldiers I found, and putting my detective skills to the test. I will write about the research process in more detail at some point, as I have researched them all ‘remotely’ – from my desktop in Australia, nowhere near Ireland or the Caribbean. I’m now working on a chapter on Irish merchants, & plantation owners and managers.

I’ve also had success on the publishing and conference front. I have an article approved for publication in an upcoming special ‘Transnational’ edition of Éire-Ireland, and I’ll be presenting on my biographical/micro-historical methodology at an International Graduate Conference at my university in July. The Conference is a joint venture between Macquarie, two universities in China (Tsinghua & Communication University of China), the University of Paris III-Sorbonne, and Chulalongkorn University (Bangkok). The conference theme is Methodology—perhaps not the most inspiring theme, but I’m excited to be talking about my methodology, and the chance to think hard about my approach.

I’ve made some updates to the blogs and podcasts posts on this blog. The changes to my daily routine this year have meant more time driving around Sydney, so hence more podcast listening time!


Blogging around the web

While I’m not the most prolific blogger myself, I do love reading others’  blogs. I’m constantly discovering new blogs to follow, many (but not all) written by historians. If they are published in WordPress, they’re easy to keep track of in my Reader app, so I tend not to miss a post, but if they’re not WordPress…then I lose track of them. So as an aide memoire to myself, and as a way of promoting others’ blogs, I’m going to *try to* update this post regularly with blogs I’ve discovered.


Pubs and Publications. The PhD Experience

Isles Abroad. A Group Blog of British and Irish Global History

Gretchen Rubin – My experiments in the pursuit of happiness and good habits


Age of Revolutions – a collaborative, academic ‘historioblog’

Old Weather Blog: Our weather’s past, the climate’s future

National Gallery of Jamaica Blog

The Old Parramatta Blog

Amber Davis – Political Scientist & PhD Coach


The Possibility of Small Revolutions

The digital revolution and the practice of history: what’s changed and what hasn’t changed? This was the question posed by Dr Tim Sherratt in his keynote address at the History teachers Association/Macquarie Uni Headstart to Extension seminar this week.

Sherratt describes himself as a historian and hacker who researches the possibilities and politics of digital cultural collections. As well as an academic post at the University of Canberra, he’s currently half of the Trove management team at the National Library of Australia.  My favourite line from his keynote was that he wants “to mobilise our cultural collections into the spaces people already inhabit.” That is, I think, what public history is all about.

The study of the past has already been transformed by digital technology: Trove’s 190,000,000 newspaper articles is just one example of this. But Sherratt demonstrated that digital technology means more for the practice of history than ‘simply’ digitising documents. Through the course of his keynote, Sherratt demonstrated a number of digital tools which can help historians think about and analyse primary sources in different ways; and he showcased a number of projects which utilise digital technology to help us see people, places and events in the past in a new way.

But back to the question—what’s changed and what hasn’t changed? We must continue to be sceptical of our sources. Just as students of history are trained to think about the assumptions and forces which shaped individual primary sources, so we must also think about the assumptions and forces which shape digital collections. Funding priorities, significant anniversaries and curatorial agendas are just some of the forces which dictate which documents are digitised, and how the collection is presented. For example, Trove (which draws from other digitised collections around Australia) returns significantly more digitised newspaper articles for 1914. This is the result of the priorities of the state libraries around Australia, which have focused on providing sources in relation to World War I during the current 100 year anniversary.

Understanding the forces and assumptions that drive the creation of digital collections should in turn lead the historian to consider the age-old questions of what isn’t there, just as much as what is. Absence is just as important as presence when considering an archive. As Sherratt noted, it’s important to guard against the “sense of completeness” in the digital age. Just because something isn’t in google, does it mean it doesn’t exist?


I can’t take credit for discovering the Roosevelt on a moose picture. Refer to Dr Sherratt’s slides for more on this.

Sherratt also drew attention to the presence of fake and unattributed historical pictures which seem ubiquitous online. But the well-known fake picture of Teddy Roosevelt riding a moose was actually created in 1912. New technology may make it easier to share fakes, but as Sherratt pointed out, this technology also makes it easier to learn about—and from—those fakes. For example, @picpedant tweets attributions and calls out fakes, and digital tools such as Tin Eye enable anyone to analyse whether an image has been doctored. The fake historical pictures may drive pedants mad, but they do generate discussion.

The slides from the keynote are available online here and include links to many exciting digital history projects, and the tools I’ve mentioned in this post.

I’m really excited about the possibilities for accessing and analysing sources, and communicating historical findings, which digital technology is bringing to the practice of history. Much of the audience at the keynote yesterday was students in their final year at school. My hope is that Sherratt inspired some of them with the desire to see where technology can take their historical practice in the future—in Sherratt’s words, “the possibility of small revolutions.”







Podcasting for historians (and for fun)

I’ve been thinking about writing about podcasts for a while and it seems I’m not the only one. Elizabeth Covart published a really interesting blogpost today about  Trends in Digital Communications which is worth a read—she  produces the successful Ben Franklin’s World podcast series in the US.  I’m no tech writer, but it seems to me that the medium has come into its own this past year—possibly owing to the runaway success of Serial last year. The industry has now entered a consolidation phase as the commercial realities of the medium are thrashed out. As Covart argues, historians need to be aware of digital media trends in order to better communicate their work.  I believe historians (individually or en masse) can utilise podcasting to get their work out into the public domain—to spark discussions, influence debate, entertain, and maybe even sell their books—with much lower barriers to entry than for other media formats.* We might even remind people why the humanities are so important to everyday life.

*My latest favourite podcast, which is not history-related, is Annabel Crabb & Leigh Sales’ Chat10Looks3. This is a weekly Australian podcast, where two journos discuss (often hilariously) what they’ve been reading, watching, writing, baking etc. They frequently remind listeners not to expect high production values in their podcast, so they serve as a good example of the low barriers to entry in terms of technology. Although having said that,  both are well-known in Australian media, so I guess being a relatively-invisible historian might make launching your own podcast slightly harder.  Hence networks as a way of getting content noticed.

There is a range of history-related podcast material out there, and I list below some of what I’ve discovered. Most of what I’ve found is American. Some of it is quite academic, advanced-meta-historiography-type stuff, some is really engaging, some is very light-hearted. There are also some lecture and conference recordings available, although I agree with Covart that this doesn’t always translate into great digital content.  But as someone researching a topic on the other side of the world from most other researchers in my field, I would dearly love to see conference proceedings recorded for podcast on a regular basis (please!)

The Juntocast – a podcast on early American history

Ben Franklin’s World – what I love about this is listening to both academic and public historians talk about their work in archives, museums, research, writing etc.

Rum, Rebels & Ratbags – slightly irreverent Australian series presented by the author of Girt, the Unauthorised History of Australia Great for getting some facts about the early years of European Australia (but mostly stories about men…)

PastPresent – American, links history with current affairs

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – great content but slightly boring as it’s just someone reading out entries from the dictionary!

I’ll also link to an article from the Telegraph (one of my least favourite newspapers I must disclose), but they list some British history podcasts which may be of interest: The Telegraph’s best history podcasts list and this is a link to a list of 19 (American) history podcasts compiled by the online magazine Mental Floss

My other non-history favourite is Happier with Gretchen Rubin … an acquired taste perhaps, but it’s been great for helping me think about productivity, which has been important in my first year as a PhD student.

**Update 24 November 2015: I’ve had quite a few comments via WordPress and elsewhere, so here are a few more podcasts to add to my list. (Thanks to all the commenters.)

The British Museum/BBC podcast series: A History of the World in 100 Objects

Mike Duncan’s Revolutions Podcast

Backdoor Broadcasting – this site contains recordings of presentations (often including Powerpoints) given at various UK universities in the Arts and Humanities. It’s not the easiest site to navigate but has some interesting content.

New Books in American Studies and New Books in Gender Studies

Finally, this is a blogpost on the Teaching United States History Blog, which contains an extensive list of podcasts, and some interesting comments on using podcasts as a teaching tool.

Institute of Historical Research Interviews The IHR produces occasional podcast interviews with historians, the list includes Peter Burke, Anthony McFarland & Lady Antonia Fraser.

**Update 2 May 2016: Some non-history podcasts I’ve enjoyed so far this year:

I religiously listen to Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast and have recently discovered Dan Harris’ 10% Happier in which he interviews a great mix of people about their meditation practices. I loved his book, and find the interviews really engaging. I also really got into Serial Season 2 – a thought-provoking series, which really drove home the point that emerges again and again in historical research, that nothing is ever quite as it seems, and nor is anything ever black and white.

Liz Covart has also launched a great series with the Omohundro Institute as part of her Ben Franklin’s World podcast – it’s called Doing History and I think should be mandatory listening for all students of history. Three episodes have aired thus far, with experienced historians discussing questions such as how they come across their research topics, how they use sources, and the cross-over with archaeology.

starting the phd? get organised now

I’ve been thinking about writing a blog post about getting set-up for a PhD….then I read this post from Dr Pat Thomson’s blog, which says just about everything I wanted to say! Plus there are many excellent suggestions in the comments.


Yes, I know nearly everyone says you need to get organised – but that’s because it really is true. Getting yourself well set up for the long haul will save time – and your sense of being in control – later. Attending to the organisational basics at the get go will provide the structure you will need from now on. So….

Get your office space together 
If you are working from home, get the best chair you can afford. I have a reconditioned Aero which was quite expensive – but you can pick up Aeros on Ebay for not too much more than the crappy knock off versions. Butof course your chair doesn’t have to be like mine there are lots of other decent chairs out there. But there are some awful ones too – so check the chair options out, particularly if you are prone to back/neck problems when you…

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