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Canberra Research Trip

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So last week I spent some time up in Canberra conducting some research for my thesis. I split my time between the National Archives and the National Library, as I went through some documents that mainly dealt with Australian aid policy in the last 1940s and early 1950s.

I enjoy travelling to Canberra, as it is a very pretty city, and I generally stay at a hotel in Barton, which is really close to the archive and the Parliamentary Zone. It’s a lovely place to walk around, and the weather was absolutely perfect up there last week. Perfect conditions to sit inside an archive all day and look at 60-year-old documents.

I managed to find some good stuff during the week, and I took a ton of photos that I will now have to go through and read. At the archives I mainly focused on External Affairs papers that should help me to develop my ideas regarding Australian attitudes towards economic development and Southeast Asia during the early Cold War.

The National Library was also full of good stuff, and I worked through parts of the Percy Spender and Arthur Tange collections there. It was the first time I’d used the manuscript collections there, and I look forward to going back and seeing what else I can find.

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It’s funny when I go on these quick research trips, as I spend most of the time photographing documents for later reference, which means I still have a lot of work to do with them. It reminds me of when I was an undergraduate and would photocopy all of my readings and feel as if I’d done some work. In fact the real work is still to come.

I’m still working on developing a routine for archival trips, as I haven’t been on many yet. It’s difficult to spend a full day in a reading room and then try to get some other work done.

One of the important things for me is to find a decent cup of coffee, which is not always easy. I found a good café in Manuka, which was 5 minutes drive from my hotel that did the trick, but I’ll keep looking on future visits.

Another issue with being alone on a research trip is finding things to do in the evening. Canberra is a pretty place, but I struggle to find ways to entertain myself after I’ve spent a day in the archive. I found myself kind of bored at nights, which is something I need to work on in the future.

I’m going back to Canberra for a couple of weeks in January for more archival work, so I’ll need to plan ahead to find ways to keep myself entertained. There are only so many movies a person can watch on a laptop before getting sick of it. I guess the more time I spend in Canberra the more things I will find to do.

At the end of the day I had a successful trip, and I still get that addictive feeling when looking at documents from the past that very few people have looked at. Every historian knows that the archive is the fun (and often frustrating) part of the job, with the search for that crucial document that can make your project.

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The Importance of Finding a Routine During a PhD

It’s been some time since I posted a blog, our semester has just ended, which has meant a couple of weeks of marking essays and exams, with the inevitable admin that comes with all of that. That’s all done now (hooray!) so I can concentrate on the important things, like procrastinating on writing my second chapter by writing a blog post instead!

With my teaching work finished for the year, I’m now pretty much free to work on my thesis full time. This is exciting, but presents a different set of challenges. I find that teaching forces me to efficiently use my time for thesis work, whereas when I just have PhD stuff, it is easy for things to just drift. This is where the importance of establishing a routine comes in.

I’m the kind of person that thrives on a routine. I need to have a strong idea of what I am going to do for the rest of the day/week/month, so that I end up wasting as little time as possible.

I struggled with this for a long time, as I found it difficult to come up with ways that I would adhere to. Being disciplined in my work habits is one of the key difficulties I face in doing my PhD. It’s just so easy to put things off!

One way that I have started to organise my days is through a notebook where I set a task for every minute of the day, including breaks and relaxing time at home. This working at the moment, and I would recommend it to anyone else struggling with maintaining a work routine. I must credit my brilliant (and very successful!) girlfriend Gaby for inspiring me to use this system. (Her blog can be found here)

Despite having success with this new system, there are some tasks that do not really adhere to a routine. For me it’s writing. I have no real problem setting aside a day to read through External Affairs documents or some journal articles on the applications of modernisation theory in the Third World. Writing on the other hand is a creature that cannot be tamed.

There are days when I can sit and write all day. Then there are others where the thought of producing 100 words is so overwhelming that the day is written off. This is where the routine becomes crucial.

Rather than devote an entire day to particular tasks I try to mix things up. I’ll set aside an hour or two for writing, and if nothing happens, that’s fine I’ll move on to the next task. If I get 500 words done, that’s fine. 1000 words or more, great day! Whatever happens, I have set aside the rest of the day to do other work, which means I am able to avoid that overwhelming sense of failure that comes from a wasted day where nothing is added to the PhD.

My routine of breaking down every minute of the day may not work for everyone. Everyone has their own way of doing things. As always, a PhD comes down to what works for you.

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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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Some Important Moments in Australian-Indonesian Relations

A lot has been said in the news recently about Australian relations with Indonesia. Largely revolving around asylum seekers and Tony Abbott’s pledge to ‘Turn Back the Boats,’ there has been a mood of looming crisis between the two countries. Indonesia has criticised the Coalition policy, showing just how difficult the issue is. With Abbott now in Indonesia, it will be interesting to see what his skills as a foreign affairs leader are like.

While this is a key moment in our relations with one of our closest neighbours, I thought I’d put it into perspective by looking at other moments where Australia and Indonesia didn’t see eye to eye.

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West New Guinea

After playing an important role in assisting with Indonesian independence in 1949, relations between Australia and Indonesia soured over the status of West New Guinea. Australia was anxious to prevent Indonesia from taking over the region, partly owing to its own colonial concerns next door in Papua and New Guinea.

Differences existed for over a decade, until a US supported deal saw WNG become part of Indonesia in 1963. Australia’s fears of an expansionist Indonesia were largely unfounded (a trend that would repeat itself), but this was the first of a regular series of moments that pushed Australian-Indonesian relations.

‘Konfrontasi’

 

At a very similar time to the disagreement over WNG, tensions grew over the Indonesian reaction to the creation of Malaysia. Sukarno initiated a policy of ‘Confrontation’ that actually led to direct conflict between Australian and Indonesia forces.

Eventually the dispute was settled, largely due to the overthrow of Sukarno and the rise of a right-wing military dictatorship led by Suharto (leading to a genocide of over a million ‘communists’). Suharto, with his anti-communist views proved much more satisfying to American and Australian policymakers who were concerned about Sukarno’s unpredictability.

Once again, crisis loomed and was ultimately avoided.

 

East Timor and its Aftermath

In 1975, following the withdrawal of Portuguese rule, East Timor was invaded and ultimately incorporated into Indonesia. Australia was forewarned about this and effectively did nothing to stop it, despite 5 Australian journalists being killed.

Fast forward almost 25 years and Australia became heavily involved in assisting East Timor gain its independence, as part of a UN operation.

This policy coincided with considerable upheaval in Indonesia, as the Suharto regime collapsed, and terrorist activity affected Australia in 2002 and 2004.

All combined, this led to what has been referred to as ‘probably the lowest period in Australian-Indonesian relations.’Despite this, relations have improved, only to be pushed by the recent developments.

 

So the rollercoaster ride of Australian relations with Indonesia continues. Will Tony Abbott be able to keep things going smoothly or are we due for another series of strongly worded threats? I’m curious to see how Abbott can reconcile his strong words at home with the need for diplomacy overseas.

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5 Ways to Stay Sane While Doing your PhD

One of the biggest challenges that I have faced while working on my PhD thus far (and also on my MA before it) was to find ways to maintain that work-life balance. Being able to stay sane over the long haul is essential to be able to come through with a final product that reflects the ridiculous amount of work that needs to be done.

I’m a huge fan of blogs that post short lists so I’m going to post the occasional list, starting with my 5 ways to stay sane while completing a PhD.

1. Have hobbies outside of academiaImage

This list was inspired by the fact that my AFL team, Hawthorn, have qualified for the Grand Final this week. I love going to the football, and I use sports as a way to escape the rigid logical mindset that I apply in my work. It serves as an escape from having to continually worry about research or my latest draft. I also spend far too much time watching TV but I’ll save that for another post…

2. Have a social life outside of academia 

This one is linked to number one, as I often attend AFL or A-League games with mates who I hang out with before and after. I am also lucky to have my girlfriend Gaby who keeps my sane by taking me out to dinner or to a movie. That ability to escape is crucial to staying the course over the years of a PhD.

3. Have a social life within academia

While I love hanging out with my friends, very few (if any) of them can really relate to what I’m going through with my thesis. I’m also lucky then to have a good group of friends in my department, where we discuss, or more accurately complain, about the problems of writing a thesis while teaching or expressing our frustration at our inability to get that chapter draft done.

4. Read outside your research area

As a history PhD, the amount of primary and secondary reading that I have to do is ridiculous. It’s easy to fall into the trap of just reading about stuff that is relevant to your work. Reading novels helps keep me sane, and also helps to expose me to other writing techniques. Reading the news also acts as a kind of escape and can sometimes help with putting my work into contemporary perspective.

5. Exercise

I’m pretty sporadic with my exercise, but it is really important. One thing I’ve started doing recently is walking first thing in the morning and listening to interesting podcasts while I do it. There are some great ones that make the whole process interesting, such as the In Our Time podcast. Not only does this make you feel better but also it helps with the mental side of things.

Is there anything you guys do to stay sane while also trying to work on your PhD?

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