Matthew Woodbury (PhD 2018) lives in New Zealand, where he is senior historian forthe Te Arawhiti—also known as the Office for Māori Crown Relations. Elizabeth Collins caught up with him to talk about his path from Ann Arbor to Wellington.
What inspired you to go into a PhD program in history?
I’ve always loved learning about the past and talking about how we got to be where we are. In college, when I found out I also liked archival research, I saw the PhD as a pathway to becoming a professor.
Can you tell us a bit about your dissertation?
At the core of my project was a question about the ethics of government. My research looked at how colonial administrators in New Zealand thought about indigenous Māori communities in the mid-1800s. I wanted to show how changes in New Zealand’s economic, political, and social circumstances made government programs targeted toward Māori—ones that were described as “humanitarian”—increasingly coercive and controlling.
What kind of work do you do on a day-to-day basis?
Over the course of a week I might meet with Māori communities to discuss their aspirations for how the Crown could acknowledge historic breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, research the history of a contentious site that is being considered as redress for a breach, or draft a briefing to the government minister responsible for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations.
How have your PhD studies and research helped prepare you for this position?
At the core of my work is identifying, interpreting, and conveying complex information to very different audiences. The PhD allowed me to develop the research and communication skills I rely on everyday—knowing how to create and deliver a research program, comfort with synthesizing mountains of sources, and experience with presenting conclusions in a variety of forms.
Your work involves a fair amount of public outreach. What types of challenges do you encounter as a historian engaging in current affairs?
Treaty settlements are a lightning rod for big questions about colonization. It can be hard to reduce history’s complexity and contingency into bite-sized pieces that will fit in reports, speeches, or news briefings. As a public servant I also have to be mindful about how I refer to ongoing work as we are responsible to the government of the day. When thinking about thorny issues, my office has a saying—”What would that look like on the front page of the Dominion Post?”—which reminds us that public perception can be as important as the actual content of a decision.
What advice would you give to history PhD students who might be interested in a career beyond academia?
I found it helpful to put some thought into what aspects of academia I found energizing—for me it was collaboration, evidence-based writing, and trying to make a positive change—and seek out opportunities to explore what those “likes” looked like in settings beyond the academy. PhD students are smart, committed, and capable people, and U-M has the resources to explore all kinds of pathways.