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’.
What 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.
Today, 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: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03071022.2015.1043191#abstract
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