Reading: White masculinity in contemporary Australia

Andrea Waling’s recent book White masculinity in contemporary Australia: the good ol’ Aussie bloke explores the historic development and contemporary understanding of hegemonic ideals of Australian masculinity. There is an experience in my own PhD (so far) of finding a book or a journal article right when you need it – and Waling’s book came about at just the right time for me.

When exploring queer identity within a culture, masculinity is going to come up. And in Australia the domination of white ideals of masculinity is ever-present. Waling discusses the history of Australian masculinity as it was formed to differentiate (white) Australian men from their colonial motherland, right through to contemporary masculinity and the tension between historic and modern ideals. Masculinity, as with gender, is performative and ideals are rooted on propagandist approaches to influence the masses.

The experience and performance of masculinity for gay cisgender men in regional Victoria was the focus of my master’s writing. I wrote a young adult novella to explore the tension I felt between performative masculinity and my queer identity as a teenager growing up in small-town regional Victoria. The piece was rooted in auto-ethnography and utilised themes from Banjo Paterson’s poem With the cattle throughout as the influence of masculine expectation that men in regional Australia still feel. Of course, I realise now that my understanding of masculinity, gender and culture were in their infancy. My understanding of the concepts and theories that underpin my research has grown significantly and will grow further over the coming years.

Where I stand right now is that I see Australian culture as organised around hegemonic masculine ideals. The dominant influences of masculinity are still evident in Australian television, and not just in how straight men are portrayed. Just as straight women are seen in the role and relationship to men, queer people juxtapose and heighten historic masculine ideals. Not to say that representation isn’t changing – Australian television representation is lightyears from where it was even ten years ago. However, the influence of the dominant ideology is still evident – and perhaps that’s because we all live within the culture and reflect it in our work. I guess I’ll find out.

My arts degree is my professional reputation

Hi, I’m Damien and I hold two arts degrees – and apparently this means I’m unemployable. Despite this, I have found myself a highly-sought-after employee throughout my career.

While reading Julian Meyrick’s essay Drama in hell in The Monthly today, I was thinking about just how critical my arts degrees have been to my career. Meyrick’s piece is about the decline in drama departments in universities across Australia. He argues that drama provides “a rough indicator of the health of creative arts teaching in. universities.”

This post isn’t about my wild (albeit non-existent) success as an author, rather it’s about how my creative writing degree is at the core of why people want to hire me.

My masters study was in writing and my focus right throughout was young adult fiction (mostly, but not always speculative fiction) – and very much embedded in my interest in creative arts. Admittedly, creative writing isn’t impacted in the same way as drama, which requires greater resources and facilities for fewer students. But the devaluation of creative writing is equally as short-sighted as it is for drama, music, film and television and the visual arts. While I may have only published a few short stories, I continue to work on independent writing when I have time. Of course, this post isn’t about my wild (albeit non-existent) success as an author, rather it’s about how my creative writing degree is at the core of why people want to hire me.

More than once in job interviews, I’ve been asked ‘How would you describe your professional reputation?’ I understand that a prospective manager is trying to gauge how I see myself and how I will fit with their team. My answer to this question about reputation might sound a little arrogant – although I can confidently say that it is 100% corroborated by former colleagues and managers. My professional reputation can best be described as highly ambitious and highly accountable. In more than a decade in the workplace, I am recognised as someone who can be dropped into any situation, and gets things done to a high quality, maintains integrity, and often in far-from-ideal circumstances.

Yep, cool, I hear you. Wow don’t I have tickets on myself. And you know what, I do. I’m really bloody good at making things happen. I also acknowledge that it’s only possible because I work with equally brilliant people, who all bring their own skills to the mix. Success does not exist in a vacuum and I am no exception.

This reputation – and literal job offers that come to me on a regular basis from people who have worked with me – is what you get from an arts degree.

My arts degree is where I built my problem solving skills. My arts degree saw me develop the critical and analytical ability to tackle new and difficult concepts, and find a solution. My arts degree is where I honed my project management skills. My arts degree is where I learnt how to think deeply and critically assess information in order to make the best decision. My arts degree taught me how to be accountable to myself and to others.

Most importantly, my arts degree was my passion. By going to university and studying something I loved, I was able to get the most out of the experience. This idea that people now have to choose a higher HELP debt to follow their passion suggests that the best degree for me, is actually reserved for the wealthy. Yet, a creative arts degree was my ticket to a successful career.

To devalue creative arts, and the arts more broadly, is to fail to see what creativity and critical thinking can do. In planning, structuring and executing a 20,000 word novella for my final MA (writing) submission, I held myself to a standard that has been the bedrock of my (quite successful) career.

Maybe one day I’ll publish my own novel. But to say my MA (writing) was not a great decision for my career is to admit that maybe you need an arts degree to build your critical and analytical ability.

What to do with downtime… Nintendo Switch, anyone?

It’s time for an update on the PhD journey and how it’s progressing so far.

A quick recap: I started a PhD researching LGBTIQ+ representation on Australian television in February this year. And I’ve been busy working through this initial stage of exploring my field to understand where my own research will fit and finding that all important gap in knowledge.

This week marks an exciting moment. I have sent off my papers to the panel for my Confirmation of Candidature, the first major milestone of a PhD. While my panel reviews the documents and I wait for the meeting, I have found, for the first time since I started, that I am dealing with some downtime. Yes, there’s still things I can be doing, and I am doing them, but I’m also trying to take the break before things pick up again (assuming I progress at my confirmation).

The problem? I’m struggling to stop and relax. I’m finding myself searching for things to do and terrified I’ll lose momentum.

As a result of this struggle, I have been thinking about how I used to relax and if that could help now. Something I haven’t done in a long time is play video games. Fifteen years ago, immersing myself in an interactive world was just-the-ticket to switch off, so why not today?

And so here I am, a little late to the party, buying a Nintendo Switch and a few games that I know will hit those nostalgic strings: Mario Kart and The Legend of Zelda. I’ll need to stay disciplined and not let the excitement of a new toy take all my focus. But I am excited to distract my brain and hopefully get it in a good place for what comes next!

At the risk of creating a distraction for myself, I have to ask: What are your recommendations for Nintendo Switch games? What should I play? And what is just right for a bit of escapism in the midst of major PhD milestones, a pandemic and a continuing lockdown?

Three skills I’m glad I had before starting a PhD

When I was in primary school, I wanted to be an actor and a lawyer – I held some unusual vision that I would be both of these things in some kind of Zoolander slashie division of the industry. In hindsight, I think it’s just that I only understood the job of a lawyer through what I saw on television. Maybe I thought all lawyers were actors(?). That might need some unpacking…

The obsession with television was perhaps more important. As a queer kid in a conservative regional town, television was a window to a world beyond what I knew. And maybe that’s why I wanted to be an actor, because I saw these people playing out lives I wanted to be part of.

When it came time to decide what I wanted to do with my future, I didn’t have the passion for law my six-year-old self may have hoped for, nor the talent or drive to be an actor. However, that obsession with television remained.

Everyone has their own journey to success and their own vision of what success will look like. For me, it was more circuitous than many of my peers. There was a moment in my bachelors degree where I was researching the influence that television has on culture for an essay and just wanting to know more – I thought I could make a career of this, somehow. I didn’t have the institutional or social capital to even begin to navigate what that would look like. And so, the idea sat in the back of my mind.

Here’s the thing, I know plenty of people that completed their bachelors, honours and then went straight into a PhD, and thrived. But I’m not that person, and I think it’s okay to talk about that.

The best thing I did was spend more than 10 years in the workforce before starting a PhD

My bachelor and master degrees were earned while working full-time, and then I spent my subsequent career working on everything from internal culture change communications to major advertising campaigns.

The subject-matter of my work matters less than the lessons I learned along the way.

Here are three skills I’m pleased I developed before I started my PhD.

1. Project management

It might seem obvious, but a three-year PhD research project requires project management skills. I mean, most jobs require project management skills.

Do you do the roster at work to ensure there are enough people on to cover the work required? Have you volunteered to organise a fundraising morning tea? It’s all project management.

Get familiar with what works for you for planning and allocating tasks. I like GANTT charts because I like being able to visually see how different tasks relate to each other and when I will have a lot of things coming together at the same time.

2. Managing up

This is possibly a loaded term, and some managers don’t like it because they see it as a slight on their management skills. For me ‘managing up’ means caring about your manager or the decision-maker and making their job easy. It is an approach I try to take with my supervisors.

‘Managing up’ is anticipating the questions, a decision-maker might have and thinking about how they work. There are some simple ways to do this:

  • Wherever possible (and make this the rule with clear reasons for exceptions) agree ahead of time on what you need from a manager and when – good project management is about having a plan and executing it.
  • Proactively communicate delays to expected timelines.
  • Email subjects should tell a manager exactly what the email will require of them so they can organise their priorities, for example: “For action by [DATE and TIME]: review draft website content.”
  • Give managers time to do things or an explanation of why there’s no time – if every approval is urgent, it often means there a break in the system – help them see where things are falling down.
  • Provide context – seriously – seeing an email that says ‘For review’ with an attachment is infuriating. It doesn’t take much to write two-or-three dot points with the context, remind the person reviewing the document about how this is addressing a request they made – they’ve probably forgotten, because we’re all busy.

3. Writing an write an email for action

I feel like I’ll be starting something, but so many poorly written emails have crossed my desktop!

People generally don’t know how to write a clear and succinct email for action. If you’re approaching someone to participate in an interview in your research, the instinct is to start with a long explanation of why it’s important.

And then we minimise our requests: ‘I’m just hoping you could’, ‘If it’s not too much bother’, ‘I’m just following up’!

Delete ‘just’ from your email vocabulary, now!

Here’s a quick template on how to write an effective email for action

Subject[For action/information/approval] by [date and time]: [Subject] OR [Invitation to participate]: [Interview topic]
OpeningDear [Name],

Clearly and directly explain the purpose of the email in one short sentence, if they stop reading here, they need to be able to know exactly what you want. – even if the answer is ‘no’.
ContextExplain the background in a few sentences, anticipate questions the receiver may have.

Use dot points if required.
What happens next?What are the next steps? Again a few short sentences.
Contact details and sign-offProvide contact details for any questions and a polite sign-off.

I realise these will be seen as pretty obvious to some, but not to everyone.

As I’ve chatted to students and friends who are interested in a career in academia, these are the skills that often aren’t priorities. But they are skills that will make your PhD journey a little smoother.

University culture shock

I dropped out of uni twice before making it stick the third time. I once shared this in a conversation at a networking event – I can’t remember how we got there – and a man about 10 years my senior, who had gone to Scotch College (proudly declared earlier in the conversation) spent the next 20 minutes preaching the importance of discipline.

The others – like me, all recent graduates at this event to make connections – nodded along earnestly. So I asked, ‘How much was your rent while you were at uni?’ He dismissed me and continued, ‘No hold on,’ I interrupted, ‘I worked full time through all of those attempts at university and I made it here today, I don’t lack discipline.’

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t that articulate, I just like to remember it that way. And it didn’t have some profound effect. The group found a way to close ranks and cut me out and I left the event, still holding the full stack of business cards that I was encouraged to bring.

I didn’t grow up wealthy. Importantly, I also didn’t grow up poor. There was never a day in my childhood that I missed a meal. And while there were many times where I didn’t have something I wanted, I always had everything I needed. This is a position of privilege. I want to acknowledge this position and contextualise the subsequent discussion with the fact I started with more than many others do.

When you grow up in the country it feels like the world is designed to hold you back.

Regional and rural employment opportunities are limited. Regional and rural education opportunities are limited. Every year thousands of Year 12 graduates make the move to a major metropolitan centre to attend a university with the opportunities they want to pursue. And when you get there, you will be surrounded by people just like my older friend at the networking event who went to school in the city and are living rent free in their childhood home. They might have jobs for ‘spending money’, but ultimately this is an extension of their childhood experience, to provide a soft transition into adulthood.

I didn’t fit in during my first two attempts at university study. This probably had something to do with my maturity as a 19-and-then-20-year-old (my age at each attempt) and the pressure I put on myself to fit in. But I was also told that people thought I was a snob because I didn’t go to lunch with them (I couldn’t afford it), I didn’t go out drinking with them (I was at work and I couldn’t afford it) and I didn’t hang out with them in downtime between lectures and tutorials (I was in the library using a computer as I couldn’t afford internet access to work on assignments from home).

It wasn’t until my third attempt that I finally stuck the landing. I enrolled in an online degree through Griffith University (working full time meant internet access was available). Suddenly, I was just like everyone else. There were a lot of people who grew up in the country, lots who were still there. All of us were working full time and I would argue we demonstrated great discipline. I’m so grateful to that online degree program and wouldn’t be where I am today without it.

One of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is a new understanding and world of thinking about how we work. I know many people who are making the move to the country (many are moving ‘back’ to the country) because the shift means we don’t have to give up our city-centric career to move out of the city – we can all work from home.

I think the influx of new people into regional and rural Australia is going to be a good thing on many fronts. Many of these areas will see service industries reinvigorated. Many will welcome new industries and new ways to grow their economy.

While COVID-19 is changing the way we work, it’s not creating the same level of conversation about the way we study. Universities are delivering online because they have to, and the conversation is consistently about returning to campus. But maybe there’s an opportunity for the sector to be more inclusive and accessible. Not just to those in rural and regional Australia, but to all those who don’t fit the mould of the classic university student.

We have to make sure the higher education system responds, as well. Greater investment is needed in developing degrees to be delivered online – which is different to delivering in person. And, more degree options need to be offered at regional universities.

The demand will be there, because it was already there when I was finishing Year 12 – but will the supply be there to meet it?

The interview and academia

Image of a podcast microphone
Photo by Gene Jeter on Unsplash

I’m no stranger to conducting an interview – I feel like it comes with the territory of working in communications. Even though I’m not a journalist, I’ve been interviewing people all through my career.

There’s the obvious opportunities I’ve had to work with very talented videographers and editors, interviewing people to tell their story to add to advertising campaigns. But something that surprised me was how much interviewing was required for good internal leadership comms. Getting to sit down and interview a leader, then write a message from them using their answers creates effective and inspiring content. Often they say ‘I never would have thought to say it like that!’ and you play the recording back to show them it’s exactly how they said it.

All this to say that I understand how powerful an interview can be. It unearths and empowers people who don’t see themselves as great communicators.

My worlds are colliding at the moment. I’m teaching a group of excited first years all about the interview and sending them out into the world to capture interesting stories and practice their skills. And at the same time I’m delving into uncharted territory (for me, at least) of the semi-structured interview for academic research.

I’ve always looked at the importance of helping someone tell their story as a communications tool, relating to persuasive communications and emotional connection. And now I’m beginning to see the power of the interview as data.

Like all data, there are limitations. We have to interrogate the structures in which someone exists and the potential for that to limit their answers. This isn’t new to me, but perhaps the limitations will be more obvious and impactful as I delve into this different form of the discipline.

One thing I didn’t expect – perhaps naively – is how thankful I feel for putting off my PhD study until this point in my life.

There were many moments where I seriously considered the opportunity to pursue research. And something always held me back (mostly a lack of money).

Now I see that the time I spent building my career also built these skills. I don’t know how I would even start to approach this without that experience.

Why am I doing a PhD?

The most consistent advice I received when I set out to apply for a PhD was ‘Don’t do it!’

It stood out to me that successful academics, all of whom completed a PhD and are now working in various capacities in academia were so quick to discourage someone from pursuing the same path. And honestly, it got my back up a bit – it felt like gatekeeping from a sector that had been designed to keep someone like me out (not wealthy, grew up in regional Australia, not from an academic family – my dad being a first in family to get an undergraduate qualification and many of my siblings not having the opportunity to move to a city where university study was possible).

There were a few very encouraging people who helped me decipher and demystify the research degree.

As I persisted the discussion shifted: ‘Why do you want to do a PhD?’

It’s a good question. I’m under no illusion that I’ve made an easy career decision. I’ve left a successful communications career, where I was getting every opportunity I could have hoped for to take a big step down and into a new field. Add to that, I’m moving into arts and humanities education and research, a discipline that is under consistent and increasing pressure due to government funding cuts and universities that are suffering from a lack of support through the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

So why am I studying a PhD.

There’s not just one reason and it’s impossible to say that one reason is more of a driving force than another. Instead, I’m outlining three reasons that I come back to consistently when I need motivation.


First up, passion. It seems pretty obvious, but I’m passionate about my own queer identity and how it is represented in media of all forms.

The world is changing and we are seeing LGBTIQ+ representation hit our screens in new and abundant ways. This is exciting – and I still get excited when I find a new show that provides another queer character for me to see, understand, connect with, critique, discuss with friends, challenge, celebrate – the list goes on.

When you get past the initial cry of ‘Don’t do it!’ from those already holding this form of cultural capital things quickly shift to the importance of passion. Even a few months in I have felt the loss of constant contact with colleagues and peers, to what is a lonely process of research. Passion has been something to hold on to when I’m frustrated or overwhelmed.

My passion has already been a driving force and I can see it will play a crucial role as I get deeper into the research process.

Making a difference

Second, any queer person will likely be able to tell you about a time when they were young and saw someone that resembled themselves on screen.

I know I’m not alone in sitting up late at night with the TV on the lowest possible volume and one finger hovering over the channel change button on the remote while I watched Queer As Folk on SBS. We can critique the monocultural and stereotyped representations – and we should. But as a terrified queer teen in a unwelcoming country town, I was able to recognise something of myself in the characters on screen for the first time.

This is why I think my research can make a difference. Because television has a relationship with, and influence within culture. In academia theorists such as John Fiske, Stuart Hall and Tom O’Regan have written extensively on this topic.

I want to continue delving into this for LGBTIQ+ people and help identify and empower representation on our screens. I believe I can do this through research.

Continue teaching and teaching more

Third, I’ve been so lucky to get to teach media studies, screen studies and communications through Swinburne Online Learning since 2017.

It has been an awesome component of my mix of work, while I’ve developed myself as a communications professional. Similar to students in the units I teach, I completed both my degrees online. As someone who’s supported themselves since they were 17, an online degree was the best option for me.

At first this started out as a way of giving something back. I understand what it’s like to study online and I could bring that understanding and my professional experience to give others a great online learning experience. What I found is that teaching is hugely rewarding. I love finding new and creative ways to help students engage with and understand concepts they’ll need for their future careers.

I want teaching to be a bigger part of my career. And I want to be able to contribute to the system in a way that will open it up to more people like me. A PhD will help me to make teaching a bigger part of my career and will be essential to being part of the solution.

I don’t know what the next three years will hold, but I’ll endeavour to share my journey whenever I get the chance.

And I hope that if an aspiring PhD candidate contacts me years down the track, that my response won’t be ‘Don’t do it!’ Though perhaps it will be about passion.