History in the Making Author in Focus: Matt Firth

In the last issue of History in the Making Matt Firth, a postgraduate student at the University of New England, published an article on the changing policies of Australian colonial governments toward corporal punishment between 1788 and 1838.

Here, Matt explains how he arrived at his topic, the challenges of balancing writing and research with an active family and business life, and what he’d like to ask the Holy Roman Emperor.

How did you come to your topic for your article?

One of the things I love about history is the many tangents any inquiry can open up, and I have to say that my article was definitely tangential to my normal interests and inclinations as a medieval historian. In taking a unit at the University of New England entitled ‘Crime, Incarceration and Servitude’ I had anticipated researching Early Modern carceral ideology. I did this to an extent, tracing the evolution of the English prison system from 1550–1850, but my attention kept returning to the colonies. This opened the opportunity to work with the delightful staff in the history room at the State Library of Tasmania (I am Hobart based), and pore over their collection of convict memoirs and British Parliamentary papers, and an article on flogging in Colonial Australia was born.

How did you find and access your primary sources?

I usually find that my initial leads come from secondary sources. Searching a university database will normally locate relevant journal articles and the footnotes are invaluable. In this case, from there I went to the State Library and spoke with the historians there who provided access to the sources I had located, and they made further suggestions. Naturally as my research developed, new sources were found, old ones discarded and many trips to the Tasmanian State Archives were made.

How do you juggle your studies and the rest of your life?

This is not easy. Communication and commitment are the key. I came to my postgraduate degree later than many—ten years after attaining my BA—and am married, have a little girl and run a small business. I study part-time. However, I am doing both a Graduate Certificate in Classical Languages and a Master of History, so part-time is a matter of opinion! Sacrifices need to be made at all levels and flexibility is a must: study, work and family all require no less than 100% commitment. I schedule every hour of my weekdays from 6am to midnight and ensure I allot time to both family and study alongside work. I remain flexible on the weekends to ensure my family comes first, however the hard conversations have been had and they know I need blocks of time to study on the weekends.

What advice would you give to someone considering submitting an article to the journal?

Firstly, don’t simply submit the essay that was submitted for marking. Edit in line with your marker’s comments and edit it to ensure it reads as a stand-alone article as opposed to simply answering a question Secondly, pay attention to the journal style guide and make sure you stick to it – I say that as both an author and reviewer!

You’re hosting a dinner party. Which three historical figures are invited?

Raising deceased historical figures from the dead is way more likely than me hosting a dinner party. We will have to go down the pub.

I would take Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire, Henry V of England and Louis XIV of France. Men who committed their lives, resources and people to establishing pan-European autocracies. I would like their opinions on the EU.

What do you plan to read next?

I have returned to my medieval studies and am working on a research paper looking at the political uses of torture in late Anglo-Saxon England (so not entirely removed from convict flogging). I am reading Larissa Tracy’s Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature as an accompaniment to this.

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