Cultural studies and the possibilities of academic collaboration today

Kieran Connell

Kieran Connell

Matthew Hilton

Matthew Hilton

Is it possible to do collaborative work in the twenty-first century university? This was a question uppermost in the minds of many of us when we set up Modern British Studies at Birmingham. We weren’t necessarily looking for shared projects or detailed partnerships in the conducting of our research. We were looking for ways in which our individual interests might be made to speak to one another.

Working Paper 1 was produced – after countless revisions – to offer a sort of umbrella above all of our different agendas. It was there to provide a shelter from the other pressures that affect the working lives of the modern academic. And it was meant to articulate a vocabulary which would allow our diverse interests and projects to be in conversation with one another. In many ways MBS2015 was about extending that conversation – the ‘rethinking’ of the title was less to set out an agenda and more to engage in a wider debate about the current state of the field.

That said, for the two of us, we were particularly interested in how collaborative research might be conducted. In this we had taken inspiration from the work of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. For two years up to 2014 we ran a project together to create an archive of the Centre, now deposited and generally available at the Cadbury Research Library. The archive contains the personal depositions of former staff and students and includes such materials as department meeting minutes, draft papers, seminar notes, syllabi and reading lists, position papers, as well as a full run of the Centre’s Working Papers and the transcripts of interviews conducted during the project with around 50 former members.


What these papers offer is a fascinating insight into how the Centre operated on a practical level. Indeed, the Centre’s seemingly legendary status rests upon its defiance of standard academic working practices and its embrace of collective forms of research and writing. Well known now are the subgroups, the working papers, the breaking down of barriers between teacher and taught, the general theory seminar, the embrace of continental theory, and the engagement with politics beyond the Centre, be it socialism, feminism, anti-racism or the institutional provision and forms of higher education.

We have recently been able to publish an article about the Centre working practices because, amidst all of their ventures and apparent alternative way of doing things, Centre members liked to write. The archive enables a reconstruction of the debates, arguments, setting of agendas, redirections and changes of focus and tensions over theories, models and subjects precisely because they were all so keen to put pen to paper. They might have been disinclined to attend administrative meetings but when they did so their papers tabled for discussion suggest very different departmental agendas: ‘The political orientation of the Centre’; ‘Systems and subjectivity, or whatever turns you on’; ‘Think small – but hard’; ‘Some nasty remarks and some constructive ones’.

CCCS2What comes across from so much of the archive is that collective work was imbued with creative tension at both a personal and a political level. The working practices of the Centre required not only a commitment to one’s own research, but to the overall Centre goals of interdisciplinarity, theoretical reflection and political engagement. It required attempting to organise academic work in a way that reflected the external political commitments of members – whether in feminism, anti-racism or various brands of socialism. It required too a willingness to subject one’s work to the immediate scrutiny of others and to engage in generous forms of interaction as individual contributions made way for the greater collective output.

It begs the question as to whether such a venture might be recreated today. It is easy to argue it is not. The pressures of the REF, of undergraduate teaching, of greater bureaucracy and managerialism, and of attention to one’s own individual career all suggest that these days are long gone. But what a detailed focus on the working practices allows is a clear sense that the Centre did not exist in some sort of pre-Thatcherite utopia yet to be ravaged by the neoliberal revolution to come. The Centre always occupied a contested space under the scrutiny of ignorant managers (especially after the Centre’s involvement with the demonstrations of 1968), deeply critical and suspicious fellow academics in cognate disciplines, hostile former fellow travellers who reacted bitterly to the seeming embrace of Althusserian structuralism, and a wider public cynicism which continues to periodically sneer at what is dismissed as ‘mickey mouse’ studies. Indeed, collective research was as much to do with the financial consequences of these prejudices as it was to do with a genuine commitment to collaboration. We need to be constantly reminded that if there was a heyday of the Centre (roughly the 1970s when many of the more famous Centre publications came out), it was done so with a permanent staff of just 2.5 (Stuart Hall; Richard Johnson from 1974 and half of Michael Green seconded from the English department). Collaboration with students was born of adversity as much as ideology.

CCCS3Today, it would be impossible to recreate entirely the cultural studies experiment of the 1970s. The selection of recruits by existing students would be but one of the practices that would not be tolerated in the modern university (if it was then) and would threaten a unit’s continued existence. But it is worth reflecting on the fact that the working practices of the Centre arose from a position of hardship, not of institutional beneficence. We have no desire to ape what the Centre set out to achieve. But what we can be is inspired by the efforts of its staff and students to engage across the boundaries put up by pedagogic practices and the management of research.

We must always seek to find ways to collaborate if only to improve and enrich our individual efforts. In an earlier blog, Matt Houlbrook reminded us that ‘All writing is co-writing’. At the most general level it certainly is; we all rely on the input of our peers. But we should also not forget that we have to strive constantly to create those spaces where co-writing can take place. If we can create structures – officially recognised and supported within the modern university or not – that enable our conversations to continually take place then our own daily working practices will reflect that shared commitment to a discipline, a dialogue and an endeavour. And our working lives will become sites of everyday resistance to the pressures to think of ourselves as individual researchers, teachers, academics and, heaven forbid, ‘leaders’.

Matthew Hilton, University of Birmingham

Kieran Connell, Queens University Belfast

Our article, ‘The working practices of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies’ has been published by Social History. It is available at:

MBS 2015: Videos

cropped-mbs-logo-03.pngFor those unable to attend or those wanting to revisit some of the arguments at the Rethinking Modern British Studies Conference, we have posted a couple of the lectures on video.

You can find the recordings on the Conference Pages of the MBS Blog.

We also want to thank those that allowed us to record and post these lectures.

More Conference Blogs

Over the past week we have posted another series of responses to the MBS Conference.

Aaron Andrews wrote about neoliberalism, PGR experience and the significance of the ‘affective’ during the three days.

We re-posted Lucy Robinson‘s immediate response to the conference from her own blog.

Laura Cofield reflects on historical trends, interdisciplinarity, historrry and our catering selections.

And this morning we posted Daniel Hood’s questioning of the conference’s Definitions and boudaries.

Look out for more posts over the next couple of weeks….

Copyright by Brian Clift via Wikimedia Commons

Copyright by Brian Clift via Wikimedia Commons

So, what next? MBS 2015.

Chris Moores, feeling confused.

Chris Moores, feeling confused.

It is going to take me a little bit of time to process the MBS Conference of last week. I have never organized a wedding, but I am told that those involved in the planning are often ill-equipped to take stock of events. I suspect this might be the case.

I am clearly not alone in wondering what just happened. This blog post does not offer any commentary, reflection on the state of the field, discussion of the productive tensions that were on show about what it means to research, teach and talk about British Studies. Nor is it a review of specific papers, panels or ideas. We hope to do some of these things a bit later when everyone here has had a bit of a rest and a think. Actually this blog is a reiteration of our invitation for others join in and help us grapple with the end of the conference.

The scraps of Twitter conversations I have seen suggest that enthusiasms present at the conference are taking people off in all sorts of directions. Hosting another huge conference in a year’s time might be a little too much for us to take on, but 2017 could be possible if people are up for it. Taking the discussions out of Birmingham to other campuses, learning spaces, and public forums seems hugely exciting. We are happy to facilitate these where we can, would love to be involved, but we do not want to own these and, of course, we remain a centre with no budget.

The PGs involved from and beyond Birmingham, in particular, have been quite beautifully using the platform they have been given to re-imagine their role in conferences, the University and MBS. Good.

The Twitter record of the conference is amazing (#mbs2015), but difficult to preserve and capture. Thanks to Lauren Piko, who has been unbelievably charitable in ‘storifying’ conference panels, we have a record of parts of the event. Having conversations on Twitter brought energy, buzz and critical engagement (within character limitations), but leaving them there risks making things a touch fleeting and ephemeral, so we hoped to make some of these a bit more permanent through the blog. I do not think I am alone in seeing this as an opportunity to have an honest discussion on the field and the nature of academic work. Let’s try and make the most of it.

All academic work is a collective endeavour, all scholarship is collaborative. Because of this, our existing research networks and friendly and supportive academic communities will always remain vital, but it is important that we continue to keep these in dialogue with others.

In the first instance then, I want to reiterate our invitation to anyone who would like to write a blog in response to the conference to do so. If you write it, we will post it (some minor caveats aside!). We are happy to take individual or collective posts; feel free to be as creative as you like. If people would like to make other responses or have any questions, just get in touch. See our MBS Conference Blogging Info for more information.

And finally, I want to thank all of my colleagues at MBS Birmingham for being uniformly fantastic. I have asked a lot of favours over the past few weeks and everyone had been hugely helpful and supportive. The tasks they have taken on have been many and varied, but always massively appreciated. Volunteering to chair sessions with unfamiliar academics, running a hugely interesting postgraduate workshop which set the tone for proceedings, sticking conference programmes in packs, turning offices into storage huts, running microphones around big lecture halls, responding to keynote lectures, helping to kick out a University clearing meeting that had started in one of the seminar rooms, filming lectures, manning the reception desk when keynotes were happening, being good company over lunch and dinners, driving to a large wholesaler to pick up bulk quantities of water prior to events, driving to a local supermarket to pick up more quantities of water, phoning the caterers to half the coffee and increase the quantities of water…. Thank you all, you are all brilliant.

Although saying that, Daisy Payling is especially amazing.

Perhaps it is just because I have lived with the Conference for over a year, perhaps it was because one of my co-organizers was sleeping on the futon in my spare room meaning that all conversations turned to the conference over the three days, perhaps it is because its diffusion into social media meant the conference became a seemingly perpetual event, one I was literally carrying in my pocket on my phone, but one of the things that seems striking is so many of us seem to have really felt this event and how many have been able to articulate their feelings. I am not sure what this means yet, but perhaps you can all help us figure it out?