Monthly Archives: October 2013

5 Positive Effects Teaching Has On My PhD

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Last week was the final week of the undergraduate semester here in Australia, and there was a general sigh of relief going around the History Department here at Monash. I mean, there is still a lot of essay marking to do, but no longer would our weeks be taken over by the preparation and teaching of classes!

Implicit in this way of thinking is the idea that teaching is some kind of obstacle to completing a PhD. It consumes precious time and energy, and the financial rewards are not at all sufficient to make up for this.

I disagree with this position, and have come with five reasons why every PhD student in the humanities should do some teaching during their candidature.

1.     Teaching forces you to use time wisely

Teaching undergraduate classes requires a great deal of preparation. One must complete the readings for the week, attend the lecture, and then plan for the actual teaching of the class. This all happens while trying to continue working on a thesis, and heaven forbid, enjoy some kind of social life. And then the marking arrives.

It is impossible to maintain sanity in this kind of environment without a clear idea of how you use your time. Putting aside a couple of hours a day to write/read thesis stuff during semester is super important. On the flipside, setting clear limits as to how much time is given to preparing for class is also essential.

2.     Teaching outside your research topic can be liberating

One thing about a PhD thesis in history is that it is very easy to become focused solely on your one little topic. I can honestly say that I would goinsane if the only things I read/wrote for four years were about Australian and American policies towards Southeast Asia following World War II. Teaching acts an escape from my research topic.

I’ve been fortunate enough to teach in units close to my research topic. However, I’ve also taught in units that dealt with the aftermath of genocide or that look at globalisation. I’ve learned as much, if not more, than my students, and had an extremely rewarding experience teaching those subjects.

3.     Teaching helps to put your skills into perspective

I’ve lost count of the times throughout my postgraduate career where I have felt that I am in no way qualified to be doing what I’m doing. Whether it isafter a supervisor tears apart a chapter, or a colleague produce a brilliant presentation, that ‘imposter syndrome’ is never far from the surface.

That all melts away after reading the work of undergraduates. My students rarely replicate the care that I put into my own work. Even the strongest pieces of undergraduate work reinforce my own ability. Marking essays, as draining as it can be, can make me feel better about my own work.

4.     Teaching allows you to interact with other academics

I have never taught a unit with either my Master’s or Doctoral supervisors. This has meant that I’ve been exposed to new approaches to historical studies and also results in a stronger involvement in the department. Some co-ordinators are great and have taken an interest in my own research.

This has helped to make me feel more involved in the work of the faculty as well as to have another person to bounce ideas off. Without teaching, I would have far fewer contacts amongst the academic staff in my department.

5.     Teaching allows for greater contact with other postgraduates

To me, this is the most important benefit I’ve obtained from teaching at university. As the cliché goes, a PhD in history can be a lonely journey indeed. Being a tutor at university has enabled me to find a small group of colleagues with whom I can share issues with teaching as well as with my research.

I’ve been lucky to find such a close group of people who are now my friends, and I know not all postgrads are so lucky. All I know is that if I had solely focused on completing my research without also doing some sessional teaching, I wouldn’t have the support group I now rely on to get through my various responsibilities.

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Why It’s Important to Study Australian History in Australia

My last blog was inspired by an activity I had my students do, reflecting on the importance of studying American History in Australia. This post is inspired by the conversations had about that task, where the same students who saw the importance of understanding the history of the United States roundly dismissed Australian History.

There was a time where I shared the opinion of my students, that Australia doesn’t have an interesting history, aside from the clichéd moments, such as the First Fleet, Gold Rush and World Wars.

As I’ve explained earlier, my work now explores what is to me a crucial period of Australian history, the post-war period. It was at this time that Australia began to emerge from the shadow of the British Empire and start to construct its own identity.

One of the basic assumptions that I have always believed as an historian is that understanding the past assists us in understanding the present. It is an argument I always use when questioned by people who are sceptical as to the value of historical study, particularly after I explain that I would like to make a career out of being an historian.

With that in mind, it becomes obvious that the study of Australian History should be crucial at all levels of education in Australia. Without understanding where we have come from we cannot possibly hope to grasp what is happening today.

Yet this is clearly not the case. I have students who are clearly engaged with the study of history deriding Australian History. Clearly this is a flaw with the way history is taught at high schools where the clichéd topics appear to be emphasised. Students come to university with an assumption that Australian history is boring, or even worse that ‘we have no history’, as a student informed me in class a couple of months ago.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. My own work examines a fascinating period in Australia, where our place in the world was changing, along with the country itself. No longer would Australia be a part of the European world. It was time to accept our proximity to the ‘Near North’, and engage with the newly formed and quickly developing countries of Asia.

Another key area that needs to be studied is the interaction between indigenous Australians and settlers during the process of colonisation throughout the 19th century. Recognising that the relative prosperity enjoyed by a large proportion of Australians came at the expense of another group might change the way people act today.

I guess I could sum up this post (as well as my discussion of the importance of American History) by simply pointing out that everyone should have at least some kind of education in history. Obviously, this reflects my own passion for history. But I am convinced that Australian history is not ‘boring’, and does not simply comprise of a handful of select topics. The sooner this fact is grasped, the better for everyone.

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Why It’s Important to Study American History in Australia

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I am currently teaching a unit at Monash University on the American Civil War. Earlier this semester I assigned my students the task of explaining why they were interested in American History and why they, as Australians, were interested in the United States. They had 500 words to answer the question. I figured I would put my response, in the interests of explaining to people who ask me the same question.

As I have already explained on this blog, my current research project explores the influence of American power and ideas on Australian policy in Southeast Asia between 1945-75. The transnational route has been a departure for me, as I was previously just interested in American History.

Ever since I studied the Vietnam War as an undergraduate I have been interested in the political history of the United States. As the dominant power in world politics, I feel it is necessary to understand how America came to be the country it is today.

While it wasn’t until the period following the Second World War that the US really took the reins as global leader, the stage had been set in the previous several decades. As a historian, I am intrigued by the way American power developed, and by the reluctance they exhibited in exerting that power. My previous research project explored the Wilsonian period, where the US missed a crucial opportunity to exert global leadership.

Why this reluctance? Understanding the answer to this question (which cannot be provided in less than 500 words) helps us understand America today. In the same way, understanding the developments of the American Civil War helps my students recognise some of the difficulties the US faces today.

But why is it important for us to understand these ideas in Australia? I think there are two primary reasons: Firstly, Australia has consciously caused itself to become part of the American-led world system; and secondly, the widespread influence of American culture and politics effects Australia to such an extent that understanding the US helps us understand ourselves.

Australia and the US share some striking similarities. Both countries dispossessed large numbers of indigenous peoples in a colonisation process that was effectively genocide. Both countries enjoy relatively peaceful democratic political systems that are underpinned by stable economies. Both countries experience a level of prosperity that the majority of other countries envy. It seems obvious that studying the history of America helps us understand our own history.

Obviously differences exist between the two countries. The US enjoys a level of global prominence that Australia will never attain. Race and multiculturalism are experienced in different ways. Geographical and ecological differences have resulted in vastly different settlement patterns. But recognising and exploring the differences only helps us understand the other more effectively.

Personally, the final reason is perhaps the most important. As an Australian, I find the United States fascinating. Full of contradictions, the more I learn about the history of the USA the more interesting the country becomes.

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