Ask An Americanist

Ask an Americanist: Dr Nicholas Ferns

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Dr Nicholas Ferns is a historian of international development, colonialism, and foreign aid who lectures at Monash University. His recently completed PhD thesis, “Beyond Colombo: Australian and Colonial Foreign Policy in the Age of International Development, 1945-75,” examined the ways that postwar notions of international development informed Australian policy in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. He has published widely in academic journals and The Conversation, and is a long-standing ANZASA member.


Q: Tell us a little about your background.


I completed a Bachelor of Arts (Hons), MA, and PhD at Monash University. My PhD thesis (which was completed in 2017) examined Australia’s engagement with post-World War II ideas of ‘development’ and the incorporation of these ideas into foreign and colonial policy between 1945 and 1975. My MA thesis examined how personal friendships informed the diplomacy of President Woodrow Wilson. I am now working as a Lecturer in the Monash University Intercultural Lab, teaching units on Contemporary Australia and Australia in a Globalising World. I am deeply interested in examining Australia’s place in the world, which often involves understanding the interaction between it and the United States. I think that there is a tendency to see Australia’s relationship with the United States (whether it’s politically, economically, or culturally) in an oversimplified way and I am very keen to challenge this both in my research and teaching.


Q: How did you get interested in the history of international development?


It was something that evolved in the first year of my PhD. I was keen to make the transition to examine the connections between Australia and the US, and was building on some work that I did in Honours, which dealt with the escalation of the Vietnam War. Exploring the ideas of people like Walt Rostow, whose Stages of Economic Growth was one of the foundational texts of post-war modernisation theory led me to think about how Australian experts and policymakers conceived of these concepts. I have always been interested in trying to trace the origins of historical forces that guide our current society, and the concept of ‘development’ helps to explain so many things that occurred after 1945. It is one of those ideas that many people take for granted both historically and in contemporary society, but it has a history. It is a concept that tells us so much about how people see themselves and others, and continues to exert a profound influence in the 21st century.


Q: What are you working on at the moment? How was this project conceived?


I’m currently in the exciting (or overwhelming!) situation where I have finished my big PhD project and have about a million ideas for what to do next. I am currently working on converting my thesis into a book manuscript, which is an exciting process. I have a number of pieces that I am currently writing that come out of my doctoral research, one of which examines how colonial administration spending was increasingly considered foreign aid in the decades after 1945. There are a number of other pieces that I have in mind that trace the international history of development using Australia, Papua New Guinea, and the US as case studies. My doctoral research has also spurred a number of potential new projects, as the history of development is an exciting and growing field that has a diverse range of unexamined areas.


Q: Do you have a favourite source /collection that you have discovered or used in your research?


I think the standout sources for me have to be Cold War development theory/propaganda, generally produced by American experts/policymakers. I mentioned Rostow’s work earlier, and this was definitely the hook that sucked me in to studying development. His most famous text, which was sub-titled A Non-Communist Manifesto has the perfect blend of American exceptionalism and universalist language that sums up that period of history (it was published in 1960) so well. I also enjoy looking at personal papers of Australian economists who complain about university bureaucracy in terms that feel very familiar in 2018!


Q: How have you seen your field shifting/evolving in recent years? What trends do you hope to see in the future?


The field of development history has been going through an exciting phase in recent years. Aside from the simple fact that a lot more historians are taking an interest in development, the shift away from focusing on key actors like the United States is interesting to see. There is now a much bigger interest in tracing the impact of development ideas/policies in the Global South, which has opened up exciting new projects and archives. This is where I think the field needs to go in the future, with increasing connections between Global North and Global South scholars. I also would like to see increased interactions between development historians and development practitioners, as our work has clear relevance to contemporary issues regarding development.


Q: What has your relationship with ANZASA looked like over time?


ANZASA was where I presented my first ever conference paper! I was so lucky to have been part of ANZASA in recent years, as it has offered me the opportunity to build networks of friends and scholars that I continue to maintain today. Some of my closest friendships within academia were a result of ANZASA conferences and I think this can be attributed to the friendly and welcoming environment that has always been a hallmark of the association.


Q: Finally, as a scholar, what is the most valuable piece of advice that you’ve been given?


With regard to the writing process, some of the best advice I received during my PhD was the stuff that it’s pretty easy to forget when stuck in the mire of thesis writing. My supervisors regularly had to remind me to ‘say it once and say it well’ when I kept waffling on about a particular point. Another standout piece of advice revolves around the power of direct and straightforward prose. While ideas can (and should) be complex, they don’t need to be presented in convoluted and inaccessible ways. The final piece of advice that has always guided me in academia is to be generous to those who come through the system after you. Academia can be a daunting and inscrutable place, and helping others through that is something I learned from my mentors and supervisors.

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