Continuing the Conversation

Laura Sefton

Laura Sefton

Laura Sefton is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham.You can follow her on Twitter @laurajsefton. This blog was written on behalf of the various PG students at MBS.


As the Modern British Studies conference quickly approaches, we are excitedly finalising the details of the postgraduate workshop scheduled to take place on the first morning, 1st July. The schedule for the event with links to the panellists can be found on the MBS conference pages.

The workshop will be centred around Working Paper 2, co-written by postgraduate researchers in the department in November 2014. We always envisaged that the paper would be referenced in the workshop but in a new political climate, in which the Arts and Humanities are placed in an even more vulnerable position, the concerns raised in the paper seem more pertinent than before. We have therefore asked panellists to briefly respond to two different aspects of the working paper and then we will open up the debate to the floor for lengthy discussion.

Our working paper had two principal concerns: how postgraduates and early career researchers can engage with the Modern British Studies project and the working conditions we needed to do so. One of MBS aims was to “provide sites for research seeking to move beyond the fragmentation of the field whether by academic staff or a postgraduate community.”

Indeed, a key aspect of MBS’s intellectual project is to challenge the “problematic disciplinary, analytic and theoretical fragmentation of the field”, yet we feel strongly that our daily working practices and the research we undertake are intrinsically linked and, as such, the former is as important as the latter.

We called upon MBS to place PGs and ECRs at the heart of the project, firmly believing that they could not fulfill their stated aims without addressing our concerns because fragmentation of the field is not just occurring within research, but amongst researchers.

The isolation of academic research has long been documented, but as academia becomes increasingly specialised, communities are harder to maintain and researchers are further isolated and insular. This is compounded in Modern British history; as the field fragments, our questions become narrower, our answers more focused, our circles of influence smaller and our support networks diminished.

Just as academia demands increasing specialism, it also requires demonstrable engagement. We are told we must engage with the public, we must find ways for our research to have impact otherwise a career in academia, or elsewhere, is impossible. At the same time, we are told that the ‘problem’ is our inability to talk to the public; that our specialised research does not translate to ‘ordinary’ settings, that we cannot address the publics concerns. Yet the subsequent focus on employability, transferable skills and measurable impact usually involves jargon and bureaucracy that only serve to make us even more unrelatable.

Ironically, this preparation for the ‘real world’ renders us unable to fully engage with the big questions the public are now asking. As Britain’s future and place in the world is debated and austerity, privatization and the very meaning of society dominate public discussion, critical analysis and sound judgements are needed more than ever before. We should not engage for the sake of engaging but because we are passionate about intellectual knowledge and have a firm belief in its value to wider society.

Moreover, PGs and ECRs are also under greater pressures to research, teach, network and demonstrate impact in an increasingly competitive environment. It is unsurprising then that resilience gets weakened, wellbeing suffers and passion gives way to pragmatism.

Too often HEIs’ defence of PGs and ECRs and fleeting moments of unity are centred on the critique of specific cases within other universities. Whilst it is right that institutions are held accountable for their actions, classifying them as out of the ordinary enables other institutions to normalize their own working practices. A thorough and open debate about the academic landscape and the socio-economic position of postgraduates and ECRs is desperately needed. Even the discursive framework used to talk about postgraduates and early career researchers is problematic, maintaining hierarchies in universities that are surely detrimental to collaborative research.

If MBS seeks collaboration and engagement it must continue to provide an Intellectually rigorous and supportive environment for all of its researchers. Yet, as proud as we are to be active and respected members of the MBS community at Birmingham, we are also members of the wider postgraduate community in Britain and beyond. MBS must use its influence to show solidarity with PGs and ECRs and provide a forum to openly discuss our concerns.

We believe then that MBS can be, and should, be, a space for all postgraduates working under the umbrella of Modern British Studies who seek debate, conversation and the means for genuine engagement in a supportive environment. As part of this, the waiving of all costs for all postgraduates, ECRs and the unwaged, is particularly welcomed, but this is only a start. We urge all postgraduates and ECRs to attend the workshop on 1st July as well as writing a blog post* about the conference. This way we can begin building a strong community of researchers working in Modern British Studies.

*For further information about the blog posts please see here

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