In this blog post, Jessie Matheson and Stephen Jakubowicz discuss the role of the Melbourne Historical Journal today in the face of current changes to higher education. Specifically, they look at how postgraduate journals must evolve to respond to the issues facing Australian universities today, and why potential contributors should consider submitting to a journal like the MHJ.

British Wrens sorting mail on their arrival in Sydney. Argus/Sydney Morning Herald, photographer. Captured ca.1945. Image courtesy State Library Victoria.

Postgraduate students in the humanities today find themselves in a difficult position: most postgraduates are advised to publish at least one chapter of their thesis, but no more than three prior to submission. They are encouraged to pick the journals they submit to strategically, as well as any fellowships, conference papers, teaching experience, and scholarships they might pick up along the way, as these will be the ‘resume-building’ experiences that may secure them a coveted academic job. Academic employment is not something they have been advised to expect, but to hope for. Additionally, most postgraduates spend their time writing their PhD jumping from one short teaching contract to the next. Few live exclusively off this income (it would be almost impossible), but for many it is the difference between comfort and rental stress, or a rare opportunity to save: employment guaranteed beyond fourteen weeks is a tantalising prize. The irony is that, for many who have secured jobs following submission, conditions aren’t much improved.

This has been true for some time, however, as the recent controversy surrounding The Conversation article ‘Casual academics aren’t going anywhere, so what can universities do to ensure learning isn’t affected?’, as well as increased NTEU protest action suggests: pressure on postgraduate students and early career researchers has reached, if not a critical mass, new heights.

For journals such as the Melbourne Historical Journal these conditions represent a need to reconsider what role we may play in the academic landscape, what we may offer our readers, and what it means to contribute to a postgraduate journal such as this one.

Let us consider the latter of these points first. Contributors to the MHJ join a close-knit community of historians, and submitting an article ensures that it will be seen by a dedicated and passionate readership. However, postgraduate and early career researchers have many incentives (and pressures) to publish with the most prestigious and widely-read journals that they can. The pressure for postgraduates and early career researchers to focus on their professional priorities raises the question: what does it mean to publish in MHJ? Indeed, is there any value beyond professional development to seeking publication? In the right circumstances, we believe there is. Few people begin their PhD with visions of fighting a fierce battle against their peers for a hallowed academic position. Rather, at least anecdotally, most begin with hopes of joining, and contributing to an intellectual community or, put simply, researching and sharing that research. It is a political, personal, passionate, creative endeavour. MHJ must be a forum for this. We must be a political, personal, passionate and creative community. Now, more than ever, a postgraduate journal can be a space where researchers can participate in this community.

With that said, the MHJ is honest and realistic about what this asks. Postgraduate and early career researchers are continuously asked and expected to work for free, and to share that work for free. ‘Free’ is often laced with promises of those nebulous ideals of ‘exposure’, ‘experience’, and ‘resume building’. For those in unstable financial positions this still feels very much like ‘no money’, but equally a possibility that is too risky to pass up. This is not a culture the MHJ wishes to contribute to. Prospective contributors to MHJ should consider the advantages of submitting their work to us. There will be some professional benefits to publication with MHJ, but the heart of what we will attempt to offer is in our history, in a tradition of researchers supporting one another, and, perhaps, a shared community, dedicated to reflecting those ambitions of researchers which are not (but are so often tied to) career aspirations.

As we turn to what we may offer our readers, we are struck by our chosen theme for 2019; ‘Narratives and Power’. This blog post, in itself, is perhaps reflective of the extended space for existential navel-gazing that members of the Editorial Collective of the MHJ periodically seem to indulge in. Outside the walls of academia, few get the opportunity to produce a publication such as this, and it’s an exciting and daunting task. The extent to which an editorial hand defines the published narrative is striking, and worth commenting upon. Empowering readers to witness this process is valuable and important. In order for the MHJ to be reflexive, we must have mechanisms in place to hear from our readers. We also have to ask serious questions about how to grow this reader-base.

Finally, we must consider the question of the academic landscape. Again, the theme of ‘Narratives and Power’ seems pertinent here. For MHJ to be a truly collaborative community space it needs to consider its role within standing academic communities and to ask questions about appealing to those who currently do not feel empowered by those communities. Recent statistics, for instance, indicate that the percentage of adjunct and casual staff working in universities today have begun to exceed the number of tenured staff hired to those same institutions. Opportunities for advocacy, career development and the ongoing institutional affiliations that often enrich both the university and the individual often simply cannot co-exist with short-term demands of the university-as-neoliberal-marketplace. For the MHJ Editorial Collective to ignore this fact would be to disregard the reality of being an academic today.

These are questions that the current MHJ Editorial Collective are reviving and confronting in what feels to be a rapidly changing academic environment. We hope our forthcoming edition will in some respects address these issues. We are also hoping to revive our website and social media accounts, so watch this space for further blogs reflecting on our current theme. We welcome submissions from interested parties at all stages of their career, please check out our current Call For Papers or drop us an email at mhjcollective@gmail.com.

Written by Jessie Matheson

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