Parents 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.”
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
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.
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!