‘How many times,’ I asked my husband, as I felt furious and cried in frustration and fear for the future I had imagined, ‘do I keep getting back up? Until there is nothing left?’
I am a second-year Ph.D. student at Deakin University. I have amazing supervisors. The kind of people that make you feel good, even when they have just pointed out your thesis chapter is a ‘bit of a pillow, and needs some shape’. The colleagues I have worked with, both within my discipline and across the Faculty are smart, determined, supportive and with a good sense of humour. I am on a scholarship. My partner is supportive of my career ambitions. My children are of the age when they go to school six hours a day, meet me at the car, do homework with minimal support, and can understand why I love what I do. You with me? I feel lucky. If I was religious, I would say blessed. The Big Lady is watching out for me, and I feel good. Apparently, I have been told, I lack certain privileges, but I work hard to overcome the lack of resources others may have, mainly the cultural and financial capital to negate the Academy without issue.
This year, 2020, was my year of taken opportunities. I had the belief, that academia was a hard industry to get into, but not impossible. I was going to work hard, take every reasonable opportunity offered to me. ‘I’m here for a short time, not a long time,’ I would joke to colleagues that marveled at my stamina. I want to make this moment count, and if I do not become an academic, it would not be because I did not try.
In January the whiteboard in my office contained a list of conference presentations for this year. The year would start at Deakin’s Arts and Education Summer School, with a visual presentation of my thesis and to launch the pilot of Beyond the Academy Industry Mentoring Program which I co-created with lecturers. April would bring the Australian Association of Pacific Studies bi-annual conference and the first opportunity to run a panel. I planned to attend the Australian Historical Associations Annual Conference, but first I was going to do a test run at the Contemporary Histories Research Group weekly seminar. I had been invited to present at my first international conference, Womandla!, with the potential of publication afterwards. I was invited to present at the Professional Historians Association Annual Conference. In December, there were seven days set aside to present and network at the Pacific Historians Association. Every time I looked at this list I felt immense gratitude and a little giddy from joy.
I had also set aside time, somewhere in August to October I thought best, to attend Pacific archives. Niue, Rarotonga, Papua New Guinea. These were my chosen sites and my excitement was difficult to temper down. Yet, first, I had saved enough funds to attend the New South Wales State Library for a week of archival research in February.
Publication and networking wise, there were a few events and opportunities on that whiteboard. A journal article with the Journal of Pacific History, a revised version of my Honours thesis. I aimed to review a couple of books, the Professional Historians Association (Vic and Tas) had approached me in late 2019 with an offer I had accepted. Editors at The Conversation had accepted a brief for an article in October, which drew on research from my first Ph.D. chapter. I had approached, and negotiated, with Langi Morgala Museum to assist researching their Pacific Collection, so to gain some industry experience. I had been voted in as the HDR representative for the Deakin Arts and Education Faculty Board, so this was a new forum in which to learn how a university functions. Once a week I worked with another member of the PHA (Vic& Tas) to produce the Employment and Professional Development mailout. Finally, I would co-convene the PNG Discussion Group I ran with Brad Underhill, another Deakin Ph.D. student. Some days I collapsed into bed due to these commitments. Each time I gave a little moment of thanks. I was literally, living my dream.
Finally, after five years since I said the words aloud to another, the opportunity to teach came up. I took that too. Why not, I thought, smiling like a fool seeing the word ‘Lecturer’ against my name. I know these readings from my own research and to teach, why, this is what I said I wanted to do five years ago!
In March, these plans, the future I had imagined, planned for and was living, just- stopped.
The first indication I had that life was going to change dramatically was when a friend messaged; ‘[h]ow is your South Africa trip? It looks like the Uni is cancelling travel.’ Sitting at a cafe, during a family holiday, having a cider in the sunshine, being charmed by Maori history, I was cautious but mostly optimistic. ‘It’s okay!’ I wrote back, ‘I’m booked in July. So far away and that site is clean.’ I sipped my cider, did a quick search online for more information while my partner and children talked, and after that moment I started paying more attention to COVID reporting.
Then, came the cancellations. First, they took the form of queries from the mentors that had signed up for the Beyond the Academy program. Their sites, museums, libraries, archives, were closing for an undetermined amount of time- the participation that I had worked so hard for vanished one afternoon when the Victorian GLAM sector closed. There went access to Langi Morgala also. I sent out an email to mentors and mentees, to my contact at Langi Morgala, saying I will reassess in May and we can make new plans. Surely, I thought taking a shaky breath, this will be over by May. I can get back on track.
Then came the postponements of conferences. In the space of two weeks, all of the aforementioned conferences after April were postponed or cancelled. I have the suspicion I will never get to South Africa before the conclusion of my thesis. With the Higher Education sector seeking tougher budgets at present, how will I secure that funding again? Should the borders within the Pacific region reopen, with evidence of a looming recession, how do I justify paying for a journey to Fiji? I do not. Instead, I find myself coming to the realisation I am in the process of seeing my five-year career plan go up in flames. There is no means of recouping these career opportunities as they were. How do you adapt to an industry that is in desperate need of reform and in a community that is highly fragmented?
Certainly, my training as a social historian has produced moments of curiosity. Articles such as Elise Stephenson and Susan Harris Rimmer’s Covid-19 responses: Why feminist leadership matters in a crisis indicate this is a moment when the relevance of my Ph.D. research into the political experiences and expressions of women in intercultural spaces has worth. Calls for people to ‘keep a journal for future historians‘ has me question if these texts would be as candid as the usual materials with which historians work. Yet, under it all, the reality, the gendered experience of the decreased rates of publication, the dramatic decrease of employment of opportunities for women, make it difficult to concentrate.
It came to a head, (I think, who knows) approximately a month ago. I was trying to work through editing changes for the Journal of Pacific History article. It had been accepted with minor revisions. Cause for celebration, certainly. I was focusing on this as The Conversation piece had been delayed indefinitely due to the Editors producing content concerning the 2020 Summer Bushfires and then Covid-19 updates. The morning had been spent trying to push through thesis work, but without access to certain books, I was struggling. Also, my children were learning from home. My “office time” had taken on the form of a bizarre cardio-workout; as I would settle in my chair, one of my children would call out for help. Already deprived of sleep, I stumbled frequently as I made my way to their desks. My partner had been furloughed and we had no idea what would happen as their industry, hospitality, was gutted by State and National government shutdowns. He was trying to help our children as much as possible, but I still found myself trying to catch up on the work I missed during the day at night and on weekends. I had asked my Faculty if I could take sick leave to care for my children a couple of weeks prior when my youngest started having nightmares, as we had to isolate after returning from overseas. With a negative answer without a doctors certificate, this option of relief was closed to me. Friends messaged almost everyday with news of job losses and the fears they felt for their families. Gradually, my anxiety increased. Not receiving a response to her calls for assistance my eldest daughter came into my office for help and found me crying, unable to speak. I eventually apologised. She looked at me with a teenager’s brutal sympathy; ‘Mama, it was bound to happen.’
So I stumbled and my eyes ached. My heart started to ache too. I came to the gradual realisation I would have to say goodbye to the thesis I imagined. This was not a set-the-world-on-fire document. I was not planning on being Foucault. I would like to be a touch more readable and appreciated by students. My thesis was imagined to be a piece of research that would allow me to establish relationships with numerous people to make a multitude of small differences, but important differences, to the world in which we live.
After two friends asked ‘RUOK‘ I reached out for assistance with my mental health. I took two weeks off my thesis. ‘Get some sleep’ said the counselor ‘it will be a little better with some sleep. Just remember, your strategies for coping aren’t working because they are designed to be deployed in a normal world. We are not in the normal world.’
To be clear, I am continuing with my PhD studies. I completed my Bachelor of Arts via Cloud Campus and I know how to work online and remotely. These skills are being employed again. I am adapting my writing schedule. I started a Shut Up and Write/Create forum to motivate myself and support other creatives. I have a new approach to the archives. The National Library of Australia has digitized the Australian Joint Copying Project and I am waiting until the day my files are released- which should be soon. I am reaching out to numerous study and thematic groups, sharing resources and experiences. The Library Liasion Officers that I work with at Deakin have sourced materials I really need. They are amazing, and I appreciate every moment they help. Except, they cannot help books be shipped into Australia quickly, and they certainly cannot force Australia Post to deliver on time. Also, while a Cloud degree prepares you for a lot, and I have a lot of determination, I doubt there is any degree that can prepare you for disruptions of a pandemic kind. I am unsure how I am to recoup the social interactions, the joy of intellectual discussions at a conference, the potential to make new professional connections. One thing, from many, I have learned from this time is Zoom meetings are good for maintaining relationships, they are not good for creating them.
In recent days the Thesis Whisper has produced a blog post that has a lot of PhD students nodding and murmuring in agreeance. Our industry needs reform. The best supervisors, the most supportive colleagues, an amazing library team, getting access to archives will not bring about the year of forsaken opportunities that I, and my peers, had scheduled for ourselves.
I will not graduate with the conferences, publications, and industry connections that would have been possible in a pre-COVID world. Attending rescheduled conferences are unlikely. I need to make up for the months I have lost in research and writing time, while I have been trying to keep my family functioning and keep them safe. In a moment of mass casual-contract terminations, I am unlikely to have an opportunity to teach again. I am so grateful to take that opportunity when it was offered. I do not think the Academy will be gracious about this lack of experience. Yet I think it has been good to push, to learn, to focus on something new when so many aspects of my learning have been forced to a standstill.
There is no answer as to how many times I will get back up. For the moment, I think I may take the approach of ducking and weaving like a boxer. I feel like my balance is not as good as it once was, I stumble frequently, and I am taking a lot of hits at the moment. Maybe, every hopeful, I might avoid enough of those hits to stand up straight again at some point in the near future.