British Studies and North Britain: UHI, HSBI, and the Impact of Research-Led Teaching

This week we are very happy share a guest blog from our colleagues at the University of Highlands and Islands who offer their own take and on Britishness, British Studies, teaching, research and engagement.


We have been following the exciting events at Modern British Studies from our base in the north of Scotland, at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI). UHI is Scotland’s newest university, spread out over 13 colleges and research centres from Perth to Shetland, and Argyll to Moray. This is our campus:

UHI Campus Map

UHI Campus Map

In the Humanities we have a thriving range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, and like most Scottish universities our students take modules from different disciplines. Our staff, too, are often involved in more than one subject area, and as such interdisciplinary research is second-nature to many of us. Because of the nature of our institution we had to find creative ways to make Humanities teaching and research work, and we’ve become experts in the use of VLE spaces and video-conference teaching.

For the past three years we have been working on a new interdisciplinary Masters programme, which was approved recently with Prof. Matt Houlbrook as our external. The MLitt British Studies brings together academics from History, Literature, Philosophy and Archaeology who share a research interest in British identities: Dr Jim MacPherson (History, Dornoch), Dr Kristin Lindfield-Ott (Literature, Inverness), Dr Innes Kennedy (Philosophy, Orkney) and Dr Simon Clarke (Archaeology, Shetland). Students on the programme will study core modules from those disciplines as well as option modules from across the Humanities, and their dissertation will be an interdisciplinary research project of 15,000 words. Students can study this course in the Highlands and Islands, or anywhere in the world – we are internationally validated. The weekly video-conference seminars bring staff and students together in small discussion-based sessions, and the classes are timetabled to suit our students’ needs.

But this isn’t all that makes the course special. As well as growing organically out of our research interests – work we’ve done in the past, current projects, and future undertakings – and being truly interdisciplinary, the course is distinctly different from traditional Masters courses: it puts students at the heart of wider research public engagement projects. We see our students as ‘junior researchers’ – from day 1 on their undergraduate programmes we expect to them think, read and write outside the box. Our MLitt students are part of our soon-to-be-formally-launched ‘Hub for the Study of British Identities’ (HSBI), and online research network for academics, students and the public. HSBI is a digital meeting space, and it encompasses a blog, a peer-reviewed journal (with space for junior researchers), a forum for debate, and various social media outlets. But it’s also a physical network that will bring researchers and the public together in a series of workshops and conferences, held face-to-face but supported by video-conference technology so as many people as possible can participate without having to worry about funding.

Where do our junior researchers come into this? They are at the heart of HSBI. They will be involved, formally and informally, in running the Hub, editing the journal, moderating the forum and contributing to the blog. They are expected to participate in the workshops and conferences, and to share their work with the wider community. Throughout their time with us – and beyond, we hope – they will be ‘British Identity Citizens’ (must find a better term for that!), brought together by shared scholarly interest, public engagement and the opportunity to be taken seriously as researchers. We are working with a number of cultural and heritage bodies – in particular, High Life Highland – to give our junior researchers ample opportunities to gain hands-on work experience in the cultural sector, from museums, archives and libraries to cultural arts and heritage management. Our junior researchers will be publicly visible – on placements throughout our region, by giving public talks and leading workshops, and by promoting our region’s rich cultural resources through their research.

Of course, the road to ‘British Studies’ wasn’t easy, and it has taken much convincing (of our institution, of local partners, of colleagues) that this is less about current politics and more to do with finding an umbrella that allows us to pin down our research and set up these exciting collaborations. In the land of the marginally-defeated referendum, of SNP dominance and social justice, we are painfully aware of the responsibilities and expectations that come with such a programme. We have been impressed, however, by people’s enthusiasm for our undertaking – both within and without academia, and it has proved to be an excellent conversation starter for engaging with the public.

In Inverness, for example, we have spent time discussing notions of identity with members of the public in the ‘Yes’ hub, who were admittedly a bit sceptical at first. Soon, though, they realised that we weren’t trying to sell them ‘British Studies’ as a pro-British, pro-establishment, pro-English idea, but that instead we wanted to hear their ideas on the concept! Soon, both tea and ideas flowed, and we went away inspired. They’ve kindly displayed some posters for us, too!

UHI 2

Just before the MLitt approval event one of our team, Kristin, obtained British citizenship. We don’t want to get into the how and why, or the prohibitive cost associated with it, or how this relates to identity – but instead, we wanted to talk about the ‘Citizenship Ceremony’ in which the process culminates. The ceremonies are run by the local councils, and there is quite a bit of freedom in how councils choose to frame the event. Here, in Inverness Town House, the ceremony was firmly Highland. Not Scottish, Highland. The address was about the region – its rich heritage, the opportunities it provides, its ‘unspoilt’ landscape – and there was a notable absence of British emblems (with the exception of a Union Jack and the oath that all new citizens were required to swear). There was, for example, no rendition of the national anthem – but there was a gift, which, as that, too, is at the discretion of each council, was delightfully local: a map of the Highlands. We are hoping that one of our students will do research into this – the process of becoming British. We’d also been keen to hear from others who have gone through the process – how did your ceremony compare to this one? The Highland Council version was truly that – Highland. It confirmed, yet again, that Scotland is a different country, and one of many identities.

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2 thoughts on “British Studies and North Britain: UHI, HSBI, and the Impact of Research-Led Teaching

  1. What a fantastic initiative. In my view, an academic and public engagement with ‘Britishness’ and its manifold constituencies is one of the main directions in which Modern British Studies should be heading.

    Interestingly, I wrote a preliminary paper on ‘Confronting the British in Modern British Studies’ for MBS over six months ago. Despite the discussion this generated and the striking importance of national identities to the General Election, the subject of the paper has been strangely neglected by MBS (it is interesting to note that regionalism and nationalism are among the few categories of identity which MBS does not mention in its first working paper). While the appropriation of such politicised categories for research purposes can be problematic, I also think it can be highly rewarding for our research and our ability to speak to wider audiences about contemporary politics in Britain (see: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk-politics/2012/08/stuart-hall-we-need-talk-about-englishness).

    I am really looking forward to discussing these issues at the forthcoming conference.

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