History in the Making Author in Focus: Zoe Smith

Photo provided by Zoe Smith

Zoe Smith is the author of Marx’s ‘Men’: Conceptions of Proletarian Masculinity in the Writings of Karl Marx recently published in Volume 8, number 1 of History in the Making.

As part of our first instalment of our ‘author in focus’ blog series for 2021, Zoe discusses the ins and outs of writing history in 2021 and offers some great advice for future historians.

How did you come to the topic for your History in the Making article?

My History in the Making article actually started as a short essay for a capstone history course here at ANU called ‘Approaches to History’ which focuses on historiographical practise and developments, and was convened by Dr Alexander Cook, when I took it last year. We had a lot of flexibility for both the essays in the course, meaning we could essentially write about any text or theory that we’d covered. Since utilising them in literature back in high school, the intersection between Marxist theory and feminist/gender theory has always interested me, and when we read The Communist Manifesto, Marx’s criticism of ‘patriarchal relations’ jumped out. Thus, the idea of researching the intersection between Marxist history and gender history became my focus, and when further research into the secondary literature established that the majority of the discussion of the intersection between class and gender in the context of Marxist theory focused on femininity, a focus on conceptions of proletarian masculinity was something Alex and I agreed would be a great topic. I’ve also always enjoyed working with theories of masculinities, so utilising hegemonic masculinity as a conceptual framework was something I was really keen to do, and thus the topic developed from there! All of Marx’s writings were also easily accessible online, which was a necessity considering how the majority of last year was spent at home!

What’s your writing process?

I think after four years of university I’ve finally perfected my writing process, but it certainly took a while! My approach has always been to do all my research first, and organise my research into sections, and then write when I’ve got everything available to me whilst constantly referring back to the primary text/sources. Then I just sit down and write, section by section, from start to finish.

Anyone who knows me will know that this first draft is always over the word limit – I always tend to be too ambitious in how much I want to talk about and how much detail I can go into – so the next step in the process is then going through the draft with a fine-tooth comb and a harsh critical eye to cut, consolidate and refine. I also always get at least one other person to look over the draft to help me cut and refine – I find having a fresh set of eyes helps pick out things that I might miss or feel too sentimental to get rid of! From there, it’s then printing out and going over the final draft with a red pen to catch any last errors or bits to rework, and then about seven final read throughs before finally submitting.

I’ve learnt along the way to reference in chunks as you go – leaving 80+ footnotes to do in one segment at the end is an event you quickly learn to not repeat!

What advice would you give to someone considering submitting an article to History in the Making?

Just do it! If you, or your tutor, or your mentor, thinks that it’s a strong article and it’s something you’re proud of, you have absolutely nothing to lose by submitting it. However, I’d make sure to be prepared for peer review if you get to that process – particularly if you struggle with criticism or haven’t gone through that process before. It’s not something to be scared of, but it can knock you back a bit if you’re not used to having a lot of criticism around your work, and it’s completely understandable if it is something you struggle with, I know I found it hard the first time I went through the peer review process with another journal! My advice in that regard is try and not take the critiques to heart too much – not everyone is going to agree with what you write, or your approach, and that’s nothing against you as a person. At the end of the day, the process, whilst challenging, is part of making your article better, and making you a better researcher, writer and historian, with the outcome being publication, which is such an honour because it tells you people are interested in your original ideas and perspectives!

Do you have any advice for history students trying to study and conduct research during 2021?

Be flexible, in both your research ideas, and your actual plans, and take advantage of what’s available to you, both locally and nationally. Flexibility is generally a key piece of advice regardless if there’s a global pandemic or not, and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the last two years is to be prepared for things to change. If you were planning to research the lives of nuns in France in the seventeenth century, you’ll have to think if that’s still an achievable research topic without the ability to go over to France to look at the physical sources. This isn’t to say that you solely should focus on Australian history whilst international travel isn’t available, but you do need to mindful of how much you can fruitfully research an international topic entirely online and whilst on a different continent, and so you may need to shift your topic/approach slightly.

This leads into my second piece of advice – take advantage of what’s available to you locally and nationally. Your local state archives might have a special collection on something you’ve never even considered looking at before, or some valuable sources just ripe for mining. Additionally, in my experience, most local historical societies and state archives here in Australia are very willing to help out in providing copies of sources, or information, to those interested but interstate. You may have to pay a small fee for microfilm copies or copies of physical sources, but when travel is not necessarily a guaranteed option, it’s a small price to pay. And depending on how things are at times, interstate travel to other archives/libraries/repositories is a lot more likely and possible than overseas – although you do need to be prepared for a last-minute cancellation/rescheduling if things change last minute (as they are prone to at the moment!).

We’re also lucky to have some amazing online databases at our fingertips, making research from home still very achievable. Trove, a collaboration with the NLA, is a personal favourite of mine and has been invaluable for my honours research, it’s a free database with digitised newspapers, maps, Government gazettes, as well as books, interviews, music, diaries and letters. It’s definitely something to take advantage of, and also means that you may stumble across different types of sources you might not have even considered using before!

Where would you like to take your research next?

Well, I’m actually writing the answer to this question whilst on a plane coming back from Brisbane where I’ve spent five days deep in their Heritage Collections and archives! The trip (generously funded by the ANU School of History) was primarily to acquire manuscript material for my honours thesis, which is utilising the 1857 Hornet Bank massacre as a case study for investigating gendered attitudes to interracial rape on the Queensland frontier, however, some of the material I discovered up there I’d love to come back and dive into further. I’m intending to commence a PhD next year, using the writings of white female colonial writers such as Barbara Baynton, Louisa Lawson and Rosa Campbell-Praed (whose manuscripts I mined extensively whilst in Queensland) to investigate cultural understandings of intimate violence in the Australian eastern colonies in the mid-late nineteenth century. So, I certainly hope to continue my research in gender history, and combine my love of literature with my current interests in intimate and sexual violence, as well as understandings of masculinity and femininity, in the mid-late nineteenth century.

Biography

Zoe Smith is currently an honours student at the Australian National University, finalising a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) with a double major in History and English. Her research interests include social conceptions of gender throughout British and Australian history – particularly in the nineteenth century, and in the context of the Australian frontier, and utilising gender and feminist theoretical lenses to interrogate both Australian and British literature. She has previously been published discussing sexual violence and colonial anxieties in Australian literature in the ANU Undergraduate Research Journal in March 2020, and on the University of Sheffield History Matters blog in February 2020. Her honours thesis is focusing on interracial rape on the Queensland frontier in the nineteenth century and its gendered implications, and she intends to do a PhD also in Australian gender history.

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