travelling histories

Research, thoughts, links

“It’s all the same stuff as before, isn’t it?” – Conference Season: Part 4

A few months ago I began a series on being a fresh PhDer at academic conferences. In this, the fourth post, I want to talk about my experience of turning my MA Thesis – a study into Australian perceptions of Britain as a tourist destination – into a conference paper and ultimately a publishable article.

As part of the new grad student training programme provided by the Geography Department at Cambridge, students are required to produce a ‘dream CV’. The point of the exercise is to make new grads, who spend much of their first term buzzing from the thrill of starting a PhD and eating way too many formal dinners, think seriously about their plans for the future. My own Dream CV, as well as prophesying a future Cambridge Junior Research Fellowship straight after finishing my PhD in three years (!), demanded from me two things in the first year: 1) get AHRC funding for a research visit to the Library of Congress; and 2) write-up my MA thesis into a publishable article. I did the first; the second was (and still is) a bit harder.

In fact, ‘write MA thesis into article’ was probably the most well-grounded ambition I had when I first started my PhD, right behind ‘don’t fuck up the PhD’. My MA thesis, while not perfect, is the closest thing I have to an academic article right now – in word count and in substance. Also, although it may dismay many Sherlockians, I came into the PhD vowing to be more than ‘the Sherlock guy’. My main academic interest is in travel, mobilities and the way we use literature to talk about the world. My MA thesis handily combines two of my long-standing interests: Australian history and travel writing. So it seems like a good thing to get this out first, to make my mark as ‘the travel writing guy’. Not a great tag but a good first step.

So how did I go from the vague, Dream CV command to ‘write an article’, to actually being on that road? If it had been up to me alone I would probably still be sitting on that nice pipe dream. I got lucky, really, when two things happened in my first year to kickstart the process. The first was finding a paper called ‘Time Travel’, published the year before by Richard White, an eminent Australian academic (one who, surely, doesn’t need another publication as badly as I do). The paper appeared, at first sight, to cover exactly the same ground as my MA thesis. It definitely used the same or similar sources. I kicked myself when I first saw it. “Why didn’t I write up my thesis as an article six years ago?!” I asked anyone within earshot. I would have had the jump on this guy!

The second, more fortuitous event happened shortly afterwards. I learned through a friend about a conference she was organising at my old university on migration and public history. My MA thesis, which used Australian travel writing and guidebooks about Britain to explore the ways in which Australians’ perceptions of the old imperial metropole changed over the twentieth century, covered to some extent the idea of a changing sense of ‘Britishness’ at the root of Australians’ identity. This was very much connected to the idea of Australia as founded by Anglo-Celtic migrants. So there my thesis had a link to the conference. This conference was perhaps the more motivating ‘event’ because it provided my rewriting with focus, direction and a timeframe. Knowing about White’s paper and that the debate is still alive was interesting, yet without something towards which I could direct my energies, it’s unlikely I would have started looking for ways to improve my writing. Like most pieces of humanities academia, the research story can be told in many different ways. A focus on the Angl0-Celtic migration aspects of my research provided a point around which to organise, and reorganise my ideas.

Encouraged by this thought, I took a second look at the terrifying ‘other paper’. Of course, I should have known that the Eminent Australian Academic hadn’t covered exactly the same, even nearly the same, questions as I had. His focus was more on tourist experiences of Britain; mine was on how literature written for tourists framed their expectations. A subtle but important distinction. Reading it again I also realised that I disagreed with his argument. I disagreed because my interpretation of my sources told a different story. White argues, in essence, that personal accounts of travel indicate that Australians valued Britain as a travel destination for the idea of history it conveyed. They weren’t interested in the content of that history, just the fact that Britain could boast barns, say, that were many times older than the oldest houses in Sydney. My contention, however, is that for many Australians, particularly younger travellers, where they were interested in Britain’s history at all it was precisely because of its content: they either saw it as a grounding of their own Australian heritage or they rebelled against it in interesting ways.

I should say here that MA thesis was perhaps the hardest piece of academic writing I ever attempted. Coming up with the idea was relatively straightforward, though over the course of my MA year I’d struggled to hit the nail on what exactly I was interested in, academically speaking. The idea to look at Australian travel writing and guidebooks came out of my already-existing interest in travel writing as a reader. From there, through the Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing and the piece by Peter Hulme on his first arrival in the UK, which revealed how at once loaded with significance and yet entirely unexpected the experience of first arriving in Britain could be for an Australian, I arrived at my thesis idea: to explore, using Australian travel writing and guidebooks, what images of Britain Australians were taking with them when they travelled and to ask what role this literature played in their crafting. In the end my argument was (quel surprise!) that Australian travellers approached Britain less as ‘British’ people ‘going home’ and more as independent Australian tourists as the decades of the twentieth century wore on.

Thinking about the process of writing my MA thesis whilst rewriting it as a conference paper was useful. We all know, and read all the time, about the alternate pains and joys of academic writing. For me, an awareness of where the writing was painful, where it was fun and what relationship that had to my interpretation, was a good guide to how I should approach the rewriting. It turns out that chapter 1, which dealt with travel writers of the 1940s and 1950s was painful to research, painful to interpret and painful to write. Chapter 2, however, on youthful travels of the 1960s and 1970s was a breeze in comparison. Chapter 3, concerned with the modern period, was an anomaly. I don’t think I got the interpretation right then and I’m still working it out now.

This process wasn’t just an exercise in dredging up the writing pains of the past. As well as being a good learning moment for writing my First Year Report (rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, ever dissatisfied), thinking about how and why I enjoyed writing a particular argument (or didn’t) was key to discovering where my new material was. In this case, an idea I am still working on, I enjoyed writing the section on youthful travels of the 1960s and 1970s because it was, and is, new. My argument is that Australians and to a lesser extent New Zealanders in this period took with them and honed what I am calling an ‘Australasian Gaze’. It was a particular type of Urry’s and McCannell’s tourist gaze; a way of looking at Britain not just as ‘another tourist destination’, though that packaging was a part of it, nor simply as a repository for a detatched ‘sense of history’; the Australasian Gaze was formulated specifically against earlier forms of Australian gazing, themselves developed within the context of the British Empire and with the inherent subtext of British superiority. The Australasian Gaze subverted this, belittling core aspects of British history and Australia’s own Anglo-Celtic migrant history and asserting a new Australia (and New Zealand) on a cultural par with Britain.

Interestingly, this concept really challenges the ideas behind the third part of my original MA thesis. In that piece I had argued that the historical focus on many British guidebooks written for Australians betokened an archetypal Australian tourist who wanted to indulge in fantasies of her country’s British heritage, at once alive in Britain and yet maintained outside of time, through monuments and historical sites. Thinking about the belligerent rise of the Australasian Gaze in the 1960s and 1970s alters this reading. In fact, it now seems, that Australian tourists in the 1980s and 1990s (generally speaking) really did want a version of White’s ‘time travel’. While the recognised the importance of certain British historical sites to Australia’s own heritage, this wasn’t at the core of their tourist experiences. They wanted history, any history, for the sake of history. And Britain, repackaged by the likes of Rough Guide, Australia’s own Lonely Planet and all the other guidebook empires, was made into ‘just another tourist site’ which would deliver what they wanted. The tourists were seeking an authentic experience of medieval castles, Norman churches and old hay barns, but it was one a mile away from the ‘authenticity’ of the 1940s and 1950s, when Australians still clung on, by the skin of their teeth, to ideas of Empire, Queen and country.

To get from popular 1950s Australian travel writer Frank Clune’s idea of Britain as the Grandmotherland, with all the ideas of Imperial loyalty, history and shared culture that it entailed, to the 1990s Australian tourist, hungry for some more historical camera fodder, intent on ‘doing’ England in a few days, before moving on to ‘do’ France, Italy and the rest of Europe, required a big shift. That shift was the intense rise of the Australasian gaze, which shredded the Australian tourist imagination of any sense of Anglo-Australian context for Britain’s history and tourist sites. This Gaze, written in two specific guidebooks, is what my article will focus on.

Sometimes, the length of the road and the pain caused in walking it can seem worthless, if the traveller ends up back where she started. In my case, my article draft bears many resemblances to my original thesis. Much the same is true of my PhD thesis, one year on from the start, whose basic ideas haven’t changed. I’m hoping that’s a sign of their academic strength. Really, the truth is I won’t know until I test them. That, after all, is what conference season is for.


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This entry was posted on September 23, 2014 by and tagged , , , .
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