‘More than the Sum of its Parts’: Historical Writing and the Collaborative Process

By Associate Professor Noah Riseman

In June 2015, Dr R. Scott Sheffield from the University of the Fraser Valley in Canada proposed to me. Scott had come across the Pacific to attend a conference I was convening titled “Brothers and Sisters in Arms: Historicising Indigenous Military Service.” We were eating dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant in Melbourne, and unlike most proposals, Scott’s came as a surprise. For the past few years Scott had been collaborating with another scholar to write co-authored monograph on the history of Indigenous Second World War experiences from Australia, Canada, the United States and Aotearoa/New Zealand. The other person was just too overcommitted and needed to leave the project behind. Would I jump on board?

 

It was a daunting proposal. While I had been researching Indigenous military service since my PhD (published by University of Nebraska Press in 2012), I was trying to move on from the field. My postdoctoral research primarily focused on the post-Second World War era. Moreover, I primarily see myself as an Australianist who dabbles in comparative US history. The thought of adding Canada and Aotearoa/New Zealand to that mix was challenging. Scott turned on all the charms, though, and it is very hard to refuse such a generous invitation from a super-polite Canadian. I accepted, and I have not regretted that decision for one second.

 

Working collaboratively can be challenging, but when you find the perfect fit of work ethic, personalities and complementary knowledge, it can generate ideas and opportunities you never considered. For our partnership, what I brought to the table was a strong background in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, a healthy understanding of settler colonialism, and a decent knowledge of twentieth century Native American history. I had some familiarity with key themes and events in Māori history, but I had literally only read six books on Canadian First Peoples history. Pretty much anything I knew about Canadian First Peoples beyond military service derived from Olive Dickason’s A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations. Fortunately, this suited what Scott needed; whereas my strengths were Australia and the United States, Scott’s strengths were Canada and Aotearoa/New Zealand.

 

Other complementary specialisations lay in our thematic and methodological interests. Scott had done extensive archival research in Canada, Aotearoa/New Zealand and Australia. He was particularly interested in Second World War regulations about Indigenous enlistment, the experiences of Indigenous people in the armed forces, and post-war policy reform around Indigenous veterans’ benefits and citizenship rights. My interests were more on social histories, Indigenous perspectives on the war and the theme of gender. I was especially determined to uncover and incorporate women’s voices and experiences wherever possible (and Scott was 100% supportive of this).

 

Collaborative projects can take a variety of forms, and in my own experience some have been more effective than others. The partnership with Scott was incredibly successful because we were always honest and critical with each other, with no egos to bruise and never taking personal affront to criticism. We regularly kept each other informed about our timelines and commitments. It would not be uncommon for me to send Scott an email along the lines of “I’m going interstate for research the next two weeks then have something else due, so I won’t be able to look at this until the end of the month.” Perhaps it was kismet, but our different hemispheric schedules tended to complement perfectly, as I would almost inevitably get a reply like “That’s okay, I can work on this now because I start teaching just when you are free again.”

 

Scott already had an outline for the book and even tentative chapter outlines or drafts, which made the process much easier. We used Dropbox to share archival records, articles and ensure that we were always working off the most up-to-date version of each chapter. Early on I suggested reducing what Scott envisioned as four contextual chapters to two. I argued that this would be more appealing to the publisher and would be less work for us. He came around to the idea, and the book is better for it. Indeed, in many chapters that began with drafts substantially over word limit, I did much of the cut cut cutting (and I will let Scott share his thoughts over my reactions when he kept writing in the passive voice). The final table of contents for the book looks like this:

 

Introduction

Part I: Context

1 Indigenous Peoples and Settler Colonialism to 1900

2 Indigenous Peoples and Settler Militaries, 1900–1945

Part II: The War Years, 1939–1945

3 Engagement: Indigenous Voluntary Military Service

4 Experiences of Military Life

5 Mobilising Indigeneity: Indigenous Knowledge, Language, and Culture in the War Effort

6 Home Front Experiences

7 Contesting Engagement: Conscription and the Limits of Indigenous Collaboration

Part III Post-War Reform

8 Homecomings: Transition to Peace, Veterans’ Return, and Access to Veterans’ Benefits

9 Rehabilitating Assimilation: Post-War Reconstruction and Indigenous Policy Reform

Conclusion

 

The approach that we agreed on was that one of us would take first ‘cut’ of a particular chapter, and once we completed a draft (or as near complete a draft as we could), we would send it to the other for critique, to fill in blanks, and to add other examples or sources. Often I would leave comments along the lines of “SCOTT: please insert a Canada example,” while Scott may have comments such as “NOAH: please insert American and Australian references.” This method proved incredibly effective, as we were able to draw on our regional and thematic strengths to craft each chapter over a series of drafts arriving in our respective inboxes overnight. One potential challenge was that I used Endnote but Scott did not. Fortunately, our research assistant Julien did a great job reconciling the footnotes and bibliography.

 

The two chapters least developed and where I took the lead from the get-go were chapter 5 on Mobilising Indigeneity and chapter 6 on the Home Front. The former played to the strengths of my PhD research (and I pulled out my old index cards, still legible), while the latter especially lent itself to my interests in gender and sexuality. To ensure that we embedded Indigenous perspectives across the book, I found myself especially immersed in oral histories from the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, the 28th Maori Battalion website, a comprehensive collection of newspaper clippings about Native Americans from the National Archives and Records Administration, and any published firsthand accounts I could find from Indigenous women in the war.

 

Scott and I submitted the book proposal and three sample chapters to Cambridge University Press in June 2016. We received favourable – and incredibly helpful – readers’ reports in December, and Cambridge offered us a book contract in January 2017. I am especially grateful to Professor Ann McGrath for pushing us not just to insert women’s stories into the text, but to show the ways women’s involvement exposed and challenged the gendered structures of the military and Indigenous and settler societies. Emeritus Professor Tom Holm, arguably the world’s most pre-eminent scholar of Indigenous military service, was incredibly encouraging of our deployment of martial race theory.

 

When I sent a draft of this blog post to Scott, he even came back with some other insights that would best be left in his own words: “The very act of marshalling arguments to convince you of something I thought important to include, for example, often helped enhance the effectiveness of the line of argument. In other cases, going back and forth sparked novel epiphanies or lines of attack that perhaps neither of us would have thought of had we been undertaking the book alone. In that sense, the whole is more than the sum of its parts because of the collaborative process.”

 

Scott and I worked diligently throughout 2017 with regular emails arriving overnight, Skype meetings probably once a month, and sent off our final manuscript on Christmas Eve. We both happened to be attending a conference in Ottawa in early December 2017, where we celebrated with a toast to each chapter (and one for good luck).

 

Working collaboratively can have its challenges, but in all honesty this was one of the smoothest joint projects I have ever undertaken. I mark that down to both of our propensities to be honest, and more importantly always to take each other’s criticism constructively without any sense of personal affront. Alas, now our research trajectories are going in different directions (me towards gender and sexuality and Scott towards British Columbia war history). But here is hoping I can propose to Scott again sometime soon.


Noah Riseman is an Associate Professor of history at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, where he specialises in histories of race, gender and sexuality. His co-authored monograph with R. Scott Sheffield, Indigenous Peoples and the Second World War: The Politics, Experiences and Legacies of War in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, is being published by Cambridge University Press in December 2018.

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