ANZACS, anarchists and aversion therapists
Because he doesn't believe the present can be understood without acknowledging the past, Dr James Bennett is casting a critical eye over a broad slice of twentieth century Australia and New Zealand.
Beginning his postgraduate journey with a thesis that had a major focus on transnational labour movements of the early 20th century, James' research has since broadened into several interconnected strands with the relationship between Australia and New Zealand as their central organising principle.
Every thread fascinating in its own right, the sometimes surprising linkage between his focal points, and their continuing impact, imbues each with added significance.
To date, James has turned his attention to representing history in film, incidents of resistance in the history of the city of Newcastle, the First World War, the medicalisation and demedicalisation of homosexuality, the ANZAC legend, and the critical pedagogy of tertiary level history.
A Senior Lecturer in History, James' own recent past has seen him fulfill the duties of Head of the History discipline in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle, and Student Academic Conduct Officer for that School.
James' interest in early labour movements recently translated to his involvement in a project culminating with the launch of the book Radical Newcastle by the Vice-Chancellor at the Newcastle Writers' Festival in early 2015.
Co-edited by James in collaboration with the UON's Dr Nancy Cushing and Federation University's Professor Erik Eklund, the book contains short essays by more than 30 contributors.
Opening with accounts from the Newcastle penal settlement of 1804, the book surveys episodes of dissent, protest, and fighting back through to the recent battles of the Newcastle Inner City Residents Alliance against perceived corruption and overdevelopment.
James is also working toward a book comprehensively reviewing all English language films and documentaries depicting the First World War's Gallipoli campaign.
An extensive array of source material from Australian, New Zealand, and UK filmmakers will feature.
Due to his expertise in this area, James has also been asked to submit a chapter detailing the representation of ANZAC and the Gallipoli campaign in the context of Australian cinema and transnational threads for an upcoming Wiley-Blackwell screen companion.
James suggests that depictions of Australia's involvement in the First World War are often idealised, with the typical narrative nationalistic and narrow. Being confronted with differing perspectives to those perpetuated by the media and legend is challenging for some Australians.
"The most problematic content in the first year survey course on Australian history is the ANZAC component," James says.
"Partly because it is all around us like wallpaper and the tendency of students can be to regurgitate aspects of the Australian legend. It can be difficult to stand back and think about it critically."
James and colleagues are currently exploring critical pedagogical strategies, such as the use of documentary film and group discussion, to assist these students in rethinking their stance.
"We are looking at that research-teaching nexus and the anxieties in the classroom for the teachers, and to some extent for students, and trying to take a more critical approach," James discloses.
These targeted strategies, and data relating to the baseline attitudes of students, will be presented by James and his colleague Dr Margot Ford at the Australian and New Zealand History of Education Society (ANZHES) Conference 2015.
On top of that, James and Margot were recently awarded a competitive Faculty grant to organise a workshop in Newcastle in 2016 that will form and cement an international network on education and modern conflict in international comparative perspective.
The network will work towards submission of a large external grant application in 2017.
GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES ON AUSTRALIA'S FIRST WORLD WAR
Early in 2015, James co-convened the international conference, 'The First World War: Local, Global and Imperial Perspectives'.
The conference explored the social and cultural impacts of the First World War through a critical and multidisciplinary lens.
"In some profound ways, the legacies of the First World War continue with us today," James asserts.
James and fellow UON historian, Dr Kate Ariotti, are working to assemble a collection of works based on conference papers and resultant explorations.
Local and international academics will contribute work around issues such as women and war, Australian prisoners of war, the home front and remembrance.
"There will also be a chapter on the labour movement in the First World War, so the kind of industrial troubles that were happening on the home front but were informed by international events."
"This conference and the book are actually about globalising Australia's involvement in the First World War," James explains.
"Most of the writing concerning that war has been quite inward looking and nationalistic in focus, but we have tried to create a good blend of local and international."
On a research trip to New Zealand in the 1990s, a now deceased aunt of James' divulged that his medico grandfather had been involved in New Zealand's most famous trial, that of matricide killer Pauline Parker and her accomplice Juliet Hulme.
This family connection, together with a feature film about the case by New Zealand director Peter Jackson, combined to firmly capture James' interest.
"Jackson is an exceedingly interesting film maker working at a highly interesting time in the development of New Zealand film, and to have an ancestor who's implicated in the story raised all sorts of questions for me," James confides.
Extensive cultural shifts have compelled James to contrast original representations of the case to more recent depictions, with a focus on gendered constructions, social class, and national identity.
The medicalisation of homosexuality in Australia and New Zealand during the second half of the 20th century is another area of interest raised by the Parker-Hulme case. James presented at a UK conference marking the 50thanniversary of the Wolfenden Report, which led to the eventual decriminalisation of homosexuality in England.
CROSSING THE TASMAN
James' thesis explored Maori encounters with, and resistance to, the 'White Australia' Policy. Those stories are being echoed in a strand of research related to current relations between the two nations.
James suggests that the theoretically reciprocal relationship between the two countries, although historically taken for granted, is becoming increasingly one sided.
"There was a major shift in 2001 when people born in New Zealand, but living in Australia, were no longer able to access the services that they were once entitled to," James says.
"Taking out citizenship has become more difficult since 2001 and some New Zealanders have been caught between the cracks."
The deportation of New Zealanders who have served a combined jail sentence in Australia for longer than a year has become what James describes as a 'hot button issue' in his native country.
"The deportees may have no cultural memory of New Zealand, or friends and family there. That isn't taken into account."
James suggests that there is a growing dissatisfaction on the part of the New Zealand public and Opposition benches, with the current New Zealand and Australian governments' perceived lack of action on this fading reciprocity.
"It is an interesting and still developing aspect of Trans-Tasman relations."
"There are questions being asked. If we are mates with an intertwined history, why are people being treated like this?"
"Is it now a case of 'Once Were Mates'?"