Day in the working life of a historian: Catherine Kevin

Our inaugural post begins our “Day in the working life of a historian” series. Stay tuned to hear more from other Australian feminist historians on VIDA blog.

7.30am: While we get breakfast organised, staring furtively at the coffee pot every few minutes, waiting for it to bubble into the fuel that will get us out the door, I wonder out loud at the possible absurdity of attending a meeting of women at the coalface of domestic violence services. Their funding is insecure and no doubt stretched thinly across the essential work they do, and they have invited me to speak to them about an application for a sizeable grant to write history.

My partner reminds me that Ann Curthoys, Zora Simic and I are not competing with their services for funding, but trying to write something that will support the work they do. To write a history of domestic violence since 1788 and make sure that it does indeed support the sector, we need their input on our plans. After pondering my wardrobe for longer than I have while yelling encouragingly at the kids to get their uniforms on and fill up their drink bottles, we scramble out the door.

Carole Wilson, Domestic Violence and Incest Resource Centre, 1988. Image via State Library of Victoria
Carole Wilson, Domestic Violence and Incest Resource Centre, 1988. Image via State Library of Victoria.

10am: I wait outside the board room at Junction Australia in the Adelaide CBD. The agency is hosting the meeting of the South Australian Coalition of Domestic Violence Services. The group is deep in conversation and running over time. I pick at the threads on my dress and realise a treacherous anxiety settling in. I try to remember the power poses I learnt at Joy Damousi’s mentoring scheme last year. With my hands behind my head, elbows out and feet firmly planted on the ground I do some stock-taking: we worked hard on the application; we have a plan focused on generating a ‘useful past’ for services; we have started the work. Deep breath.

Maria Hagias is the Executive Director of the Central Domestic Violence Service in Adelaide. I rang Maria after meeting her colleague at a conference dinner last year. She was warm and excitable on the phone, immediately grasping what the project was all about. She readily agreed in principle to be on our proposed Advisory Panel. Maria is chairing this meeting of women from across the sector representing a range of services, from a migrant women’s agency in the inner west of Adelaide to those providing shelter and support to women as far away as Port Augusta and Ceduna.

They listen, they ask challenging questions, they suggest people to talk to, decades-old surveys we can consult, and they’re enthusiastic. I’m relieved. One woman asks me if we’re prepared for how much backlash we’ll get. In the same sentence she says that she’s very excited and keen to represent the Coalition on the panel, and then sighs that we probably won’t get funded. Even if we don’t, I think, this meeting further renews my sense of purpose. We have to find a way to get at least some of this wildly ambitious history written. I can’t wait to tell Ann and Zora all about my morning.

12.30pm: Next stop on the way out to Flinders is a posh Italian restaurant in well-heeled Unley. Talk about a gear change! I feel my relative youth among my colleagues in the SA working party of the Australian Dictionary of Biography. The ADB luminaries are also there – they’ve come across from Canberra for the day to award our chair with a medal for forty years of service to the project. Between speeches my colleague Eric Richards and I chat about the almost universally-hated men charged with the task of evicting Scottish Highlanders during the Clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and the progress of one of our RHD students. I make an early exit to arrive at Flinders in time to meet my two Honours students.

H.M.S. Inconstant, the ship that brought the Irish Orphan girls to Adelaide in 1849, drawing by George Gordon McCrae, 1881. Image via the National Library of Australia.
H.M.S. Inconstant, the ship that brought the Irish Orphan girls to Adelaide in 1849. Drawing by George Gordon McCrae, 1881. Image via the National Library of Australia.

3pm: Jade is working on the Irish orphan girls of the Earl Grey Scheme who arrived in Adelaide in the mid nineteenth century. It’s a neat project and already well researched, arguing the Scheme was a failure in South Australia for all concerned, and unpacking the reasons for this.

Kara-Lee has a policy background, a house-full of little boys and a partner trying to finish his Ph.D. She wants to historicise ageing in South Australia. She’s behind schedule but full of great ideas that need pruning and arranging before their presentation to the School of History and International Relations the following day.

What pleases me most about this meeting is the mutual support so evident between these two women with their very different projects. And, I learn, camaraderie has mobilised across the Honours cohort. They’ve been meeting and practising their presentations, brainstorming under-developed aspects of their projects and telling each other it will all come together on the day (which it does).

4pm: Finally, it’s time for my weekly meeting with the editorial team of History Australia. Anyone who has ever edited a journal or an edited collection will know how layered and varied are the tasks of the editors. While I fleetingly kid myself that sole-editing might be the friend of efficiency, I know that these meetings and the conversations that continue on-and-off through the week between them are crucial to our task, and that I’m learning loads.

Our sympathies and prejudices; our worries and our passions make their way to the surface as we work towards a common position on all manner of issues that shape each edition of the journal and determine the overall effect we are aiming for during our tenure in this role. It can feel thankless and fraught at times, but much more than this it is a pleasure and a privilege to read the work of established and emerging scholars.

An unanticipated satisfaction has also come from witnessing the sometimes transformative collaboration that occurs in the peer-review process. The leaps of progress that can be made by thoughtful responses to the generous, hard work of reviewers really underlines that the process is about much more than ensuring continuing high standards for academic journals through a healthy rejection rate: rather, it is about helping authors, even those who receive a rejection or a revise and resubmit, to refine their work in ways that ensure that their ideas will eventually reach the public in the best possible form.

5.45pm: A quick check of email, a list for tomorrow and it’s time to gather my things and bolt to the car. I’ve hit evening traffic and I know I’ll be late again. The day has been full though, so there’s plenty to mull over as I make my way from the suburbs to the city and home.

Reflecting on my day I feel that, a decade into my working life, I’ve turned a corner. No longer am I simply an expert in my own little field, my time divided between teaching and researching an individual, narrowly-focused topic. Instead, I’ve become immersed in a variety of collaborative environments that has challenged me to extend my expertise across a diverse range of projects. The constant in my day, and the most inspiring aspect of it, has been the extent to which collaboration has been at the centre of it.

It has featured co-operation with colleagues from both my own and other universities, as well as engagement and support from those outside academia who represent key stakeholders in my work. The mentorship has also been ever-present and multi-directional: received by me from my ADB and History Australia colleagues; passed on by me to Jade and Kara-Lee; and also exchanged among the Honours cohort themselves. Such co-operation is a reminder that being a feminist historian is as much about the way we practise history, as the particular research questions we address.


Catherine KevinCatherine Kevin is a Senior Lecturer at Flinders University, which she joined in 2007 after holding positions at SBS Television and the Menzies Centre of Australian Studies, King’s College, University of London. She is the author of Feminism and the Body: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), as well as numerous book chapters and journal articles. Catherine is the South Australian representative for the Australian Women’s History Network.

Follow Catherine on Twitter @catherinekevin5.

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