In the last issue of History in the Making Elizabeth Morgan published an article delving into Australian memorialisation traditions since the mid-ninteenth century through her examination of local cemeteries in Albury, New South Wales.
Here, in the first in a new series of author in focus interviews, Elizabeth explains how she came to her topic, her experiences of peer review as a first-time author, and her personal fascination with history, community and identity.
How did you come to the topic for your article?
My topic of cemeteries and death culture came from a fabulously named subject at the University of New England: Waking the Dead, which of course generates much interest. I can’t think of many history students who don’t profess a love of cemeteries, gravestones, and memorials. The cemetery research I completed was for the research component of ‘Waking the Dead’, but it was incredibly fun to complete. Who could say no to several days wandering cemeteries in the name of actually studying? In the course of researching the article I learned a great deal about the town I grew up in, the way in which death is treated in Australia (and worldwide) and, excitingly, the way things are changing even now. It’s lovely to take the study of history and relate it to the present day.
What did you learn from the peer review process?
When I first started thinking about the peer review process I was sagely advised to “leave my ego at the door”, meaning that my work was likely to be shredded and I shouldn’t take it personally. Thankfully, for both my writing and my ego, the peer review process was fairly painless. All the comments I received were less intimidating than those received on the original assignment I submitted for university.
The main point that came through the peer review process was that, although I thought I had adjusted writing from ‘uni assignment’ to ‘article’, I still had included a lot of assumed knowledge and things I’d mentioned in passing because I had a good grasp on the topic. This totally overlooked the fact that my audience may have never heard of some things I assumed were common knowledge. The peer reviewers helped me identify these gaps in my writing, which I was able to fill in and expand on during the editing process.
The only difference between peer review and comments from your university markers is that you aren’t being given a grade by the peer reviewers, and they haven’t read a hundred essays on the same topic before they’ve gotten to yours. They still want your work to be as good as you can make it, and they are looking for the potential for your work to be polished to a publication standard. It is very rare for an article to be accepted without revisions, even for your academic lecturers! My article is definitely stronger for having gone through the peer review process.
What questions do you still have about the topic of your research?
I suspect I could spend a good chunk of a research career on this one topic. My immediate questions about cemetery were ones I raised in the conclusion of my article: what will I find by correlating the small plaque grave markers that are common today with the obituaries in the local newspaper, and how has that changed over time as grave markers have become smaller in both the size and the sentiments expressed on them. Death is a concept that western society is gradually reacquainting itself with in the 21st century and the way this new trend is expressing itself is fascinating in light of how it was almost taboo in the 20th century. ‘Natural’ shroud burials and no burials at all are becoming more popular, and it will be interesting to see how unmarked graves will be considered in the future when there is no marker to indicate to the viewer who is buried in front of them and why they should care.
Any research can be a rabbit-hole of possibility if you want it to be!
What do you plan to do when you finish your studies?
This question assumes I plan to finish studying! Given enough time and money, I’d love to learn all of the things. Alas, I have been restricted to finishing my undergraduate degree before I move on to another. In my immediate plans are honours, PhD, and studies in Theology and more languages: just a few things to be going on with!
Ultimately I’d love to research and teach, but for now I study history because I really enjoy it, not for an ultimate career goal.
Why did you choose to study history?
I came to university as a mature-aged student, while I was at home with babies. I thought the best idea would be to study something that interested me rather than looking ahead towards a career. Although my road through my undergraduate degree has been long and bumpy—life happens! I still hold to this principle.
Studying history helps me put the world in context. Finding a sense of ‘identity’ or ‘community’ was something I struggled with as a young adult, but history helps me see that I am part of a broader community. It helps me understand how things today have come about, by looking backwards at the threads that have woven together to create the events of today. I find it fascinating to see the pieces of various ‘puzzles’ come together to create different effects over time.
What historical period would you like to visit?
I really enjoy having antibiotics, running water, electricity, enough food, and the Internet. I would really like to stay here in the future, rather than visit any historical period!