What it’s really like to do a PhD

Thanks to the endless onslaught of boring that is Monday night television, I give you the truth about doing a PhD – in meme form:

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Pseudohistory and anti-intellectualism: Why it sometimes sucks to be a historian

“Extraordinary claims require extraorinary evidence.” (Carl Sagan)


Sometimes, being a historian sucks.

This weekend, a book purporting to reveal a secret history of pre-Maori colonisation of New Zealand will will hit the shelves of major bookstores. Titled To the End of the Earth, its authors claim to have discovered evidence that explorers from Greece, Spain and Egypt settled here thousands of years before the arrival of Maori.

Nonsense, you say? I agree wholeheartedly. The problem, however, is that many people gobble up this kind of populist, pseudohistorical nonsense like the latest episode of American Idol. The comments section of a stuff article discussing the book’s release is testament to that fact; riddled with conspiratorial outrage and anti-intellectual high-fives, it’s enough to make the average historian cry.

Why? Because the claim that the arrival of Maori in New Zealand was predated by an earlier civilisation has been thoroughly discredited by dozens of historians, archaeologists, ethnologists and anthropologists, including H. D. Skinner, Ruger Duff, Arthur Thomson, Keith Sincialr, Michael King, James Belich, K. R. Howe, and more recently Paul Moon, Atholl Anderson, Scott Hamilton, Matthew Dentith, and David Riddell. Yet the notion of pre-Maori colonisation persists, like a tick burrowing its way into the nation’s public consciousness.

I’ve decided not to bother engaging with this kind of nonsense for two very good reasons. Firstly, it’s not my area of expertise; there are far more knowledgeable academics who have, and will continue, to pour scorn on it. But more importantly, engaging with it on an academic level provides it with a legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve. Instead, I’d like to contextualise it by outlining the ongoing discourse of anti-Treatyist literature that it falls within. I will also compare this literature to its far more virulent cousin, the Australian History Wars, and demonstrate why it is so important for academics to ignore these kinds of pseudohistorical challenges.

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Why Rosemary McLeod is wrong

Yesterday, Dominion Post columnist Rosemary McLeod wrote a controversial piece titled “Why I feel for the kids of ego-trippers”. In it, she criticises the ‘strange’ methods of conception employed by, amongst others, female-to-male transgender men who have given birth to children. Her overall argument is that such men are ego-tripping, publicity-craving ‘he/she’s’ who are inflicting psychological damage upon their children.

Naturally, Rosemary’s vitriolic column has stirred up considerable protest, including today’s picketing of the Dominion Post office by members of the ‘Queer Avenger’ lobby group. The Wellington Young Feminist’s Collective has also criticised the Dominion Post for being ‘complicit in transphobia’ by publishing the piece.

The majority of commenters on the Post’s website have also condemned the column. However, a small handful have criticised the ‘disgusting quagmire of gender confusion’ supposedly brought about by ‘[s]hrieking fanatical people [who] don’t think very clearly’. Such comments are typical of anti-protestor/anti-feminist/anti-difference rhetoric that seeks to marginalise one’s opposition as illogical and unreasonable, and I will not dissect them in any depth here.

As a white, straight, cisgender middle class male, I can’t pretend to fully comprehend the discrimination that transgendered individuals face on a day-to-day basis. I also haven’t experienced the inner turmoil of coming to grips with one’s gender identity, or the long and protracted process of transitioning.

Nevertheless, as a historian, i’m constantly faced with writing about things that I haven’t directly experienced myself. Therefore, I feel compelled to respond to Rosemary’s column in whatever small way that I can. But how? Well, since Rosemary’s supporters seem convinced that their opponents are shrieking, unthinking fanaticists (a sentiment as offensive as it is incorrect), I thought i’d give them what they apparently crave – a cold, hard, logical breakdown of Rosemary’s argument, and an itemised analysis of why it is completely wrong.

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Kiwi Fascism? The New Zealand Legion, 1933-1935

On the evening of 28 February 1933, a two-seater Gipsy Moth flew into Milson Aerodrome in Palmerston North. As the small biplane rumbled to a halt on the grass runway, a Wellington urologist by the name of Robert Campbell Begg climbed out of the back seat. Tall, lean and well-dressed, there was a certain air of mystery about the man and his secret late night flight.

After a well-deserved night’s rest, Begg met with a small group of prominent farmers and businessmen in the Chamber of Commerce building. His aim, he told them, was simple – to form a new national movement that would unite the country to resolve the crisis of the Great Depression. That movement would become known as the New Zealand Legion.

In total, Begg travelled 5276 miles by rail, car, air and ferry between 17 February and 26 March. He attended 42 meetings and oversaw the formation of seventeen Divisions of the new movement. Within several months, the Legion boasted over twenty thousand members and captured the attention of every major newspaper in the country. By mid-1934, however, the movement was all but defunct.

Despite such a dramatic achievement, the New Zealand Legion has attracted little historical attention. Even trusty Google has heard little about it, apart from a brief and overly simplistic wikipedia entry. One of the great things about my research, however, is that I get to shed light on movements such as these. So, in the spirit of open source, here is my little contribution to the rise and fall of the New Zealand Legion.

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Australian Fascism? The New Guard Story

Several months ago, I wrote a post on a paramilitary movement in New South Wales during the Great Depression known as the New Guard. This post, as it turns out, has proven rather popular – not only has it received more hits than any other post on my site, it has also attracted the attention of two television producers.

One of those producers was responsible for the most recent incarnation of the ‘Underbelly’ series, Underbelly: Razor. Set in the streets of Sydney during the tumultuous interwar years, it focuses primarily on the feud between rival gang leaders Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh. The New Guard appear later in the series, during the height of the Great Depression in 1931-32.

With the increased awareness of the New Guard that this show will bring, I’ve decided to offer a short course on the subject. Dubbed “Australian Fascism? The New Guard Story”, it will run for three weeks in May 2012 at the Victoria University of Wellington Community Continuing Education Centre. In it, you’ll learn not only of Eric Campbell, Francis De Groot, and the famous bridge opening incident, but of the historical context from which they emerged. Why did the New Guard come into being? What did they believe in? And, perhaps most interesting of all, how did they justify some of their more extreme tactics?

To enrol, go to the CCE website and select ‘View course catalogue and enrol’ under Seminars and Workshops. In the resulting pop-up window, select ‘History’ from the menu on the left-hand side, and choose ’12C020A Australian Fascism? The New Guard Story – 08/05/12′. All the details for the course, including the option to enrol, are located there. Numbers are limited, so get in quick!

The circular logic of those who oppose same-sex marriage

The most annoying thing about any ongoing debate is having to counter the same points over and over again. Climate scientists face it every day – just how often do people need to be told that solar variation isn’t to blame for the current warming period? And how many times have New Zealand historians proven that there was no existing society in Aotearoa prior to the arrival of Maori?

Supporters of same-sex marriage deal with the same problem. Just a few days ago, Bob McCroskie regurgitated many of the tired old arguments against same-sex marriage in the Dominion Post. Rather than go to the trouble of responding to Bob’s article, i’ve put together the following generic flowchart demonstrating the circular (il)logic of those who oppose same-sex marriage.*

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VSM, CSM, and the fallacy of ideological consistency

In the first half of 2010, I had the honour to work for the awesomeness that was Salient under Editor Sarah Robson. One of the things that made it awesome was Sarah’s commitment to even-handed journalism – especially regarding the (then and now) contentious issue of Voluntary Student Membership (VSM).*

Thus, when I was asked to write an article on the subject, I eagerly pounced on the opportunity. The resulting article, which I am quite proud of, came with all the information needed to familiarise students with the arguments on both sides of the debate. I uploaded as much additional information as I could, including interviews with key individuals and reports on the effects of voluntary student unionism in Australia. My article was subsequently re-used by Critic and cited in the NZEI’s submission to the Education and Science Select Committee.

At the end of all that work, I felt sufficiently knowledgeable about the issue of student membership to make an informed decision as to where I stood. Thus, I came to what will undoubtedly be a surprising conclusion for many:

I am a supporter of Voluntary Student Membership.

Yes, that’s right – I, a History postgraduate of a socially-left, economically-moderate persuasion, am a supporter of VSM. Phew! Why do I feel like i’ve just admitted my alcoholism in front of an A.A. meeting?

However, being a historian, I must by necessity deconstruct what that decision means. Are there any underlying themes that can be exposed and more broadly contextualised? Read on, as I discuss the nature of something I have termed ‘ideological consistency’ – and why, as a concept, it is fundamentally flawed.

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