It is just over a year since we hosted the Rethinking Modern British Studies conference in Birmingham. Now seems a good time to reflect on what #MBS2015 achieved. Now also seems a good time to think ahead about how we might build on the strengths and the limits of the ongoing conversation the conference prompted about the state of our field. It is on this basis that we invite you to come, once again, to Birmingham to continue this discussion in July 2017.
The response to the call for papers for Rethinking Modern British Studies went far beyond anything we expected. Bringing together around three hundred British historians over three days and four parallel sessions, the conference provided striking evidence of a vibrant and diverse field. What Charlotte Riley and James Vernon have described as ‘Glastonbury for historians’ provided a focal point for a genuinely open and collaborative conversation between scholars from across the world about modern British society, culture, politics, and economics. The result was exhilarating, challenging, and often bewildering.
#MBS2015 drew attention to the particular vitality of current work on histories of humanitarianism, race and empire, and the emotions. All of these were recurring and prominent themes at the conference and in the online debates that followed. So, too, were the important discussions about the conditions of academic labour and the position of PGR and ECR historians in the contemporary academy. It has been gratifying to realise the impact the conference has had. The sense of excitement that marked the event itself has been followed by continued social media discussions and more recent reflections including Charlotte Riley’s review in Twentieth Century British History, over twenty thoughtful blogs published on the Modern British Studies website, and subsequent academic gatherings in and beyond Birmingham.
Much of the intellectual dynamism of the conference was driven by PGR and ECR historians. Their invigorating contributions to individual panels, plenary roundtables, and the discussions that took place in seminar rooms and on social media set out new ways of thinking about established historiographical and theoretical debates. The PGR and ECR sessions with which the conference began provided the impetus and buzz that ran through all three days. The vital role of our own PGRs and ECRs at #MBS2015 reflects their position within the centre itself. If the conference was a success, it was because we managed to find a format in which a diverse range of new voices could be heard.
We are committed to maintaining this kind of democratic public sphere. This means thinking carefully about how any future conference is organised and run. This also means providing the financial support necessary to ensure conference attendance is affordable and accessible. It is clear that our decision to make registration and refreshments at #MBS2015 free for PGR and ECR historians was vital to the event’s success. As difficult as this might be in the current university environment, this is something that we will do again in 2017.
The past twelve months have also provided an opportunity to reflect on the limits of the discussions that began at #MBS2015 —the conversations that did not happen and the questions that went unanswered.
First: as Charlotte Riley, Margot Finn, and others have noted, despite the deliberate emphasis on British studies the conference was a gathering of modern British historians. Perhaps the intellectual challenges set out in a CFP written by scholars based in a history department did not resonate with those working in adjacent disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Perhaps the networks through which the CFP circulated did not extend beyond members of history departments in Britain and beyond. Whatever the reason, #MBS2015 did not interrogate the problems and possibilities of working across disciplines in order to understand society, culture, politics, and economics in modern Britain. This remains a pressing intellectual and political challenge.
Second: outside of the plenary sessions, many of the vibrant debates at #MBS2015 worked alongside rather than in dialogue with one another. Parallel thematic sessions created different intellectual streams that made it easy to attend mini-conferences — about humanitarianism and transnationalism or histories of the emotions and subjectivities, for example. While the conference aimed to bring together historians working on the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the balance was skewed towards the latter and it was possible to navigate the conference through specific temporalities. The conference structure allowed conversations to develop over the course of three days and demonstrated the vibrant and diverse state of the field. Yet it also made it difficult to bring different perspectives, preoccupations, and methodologies into sustained conversation.
Third: the success of the conference was also underpinned by the diverse and energetic conversations that took place on social media. These conversations fed directly into the plenary sessions and allowed important and democratic discussions to continue for weeks after the event. But Twitter in particular invites a congratulatory tone. What it now seems less good at is inviting sustained debate as to the relative importance of different specialisms or how they might challenge one another. The relationship between social media and the conference format demands further reflection.
Channeling our work into these historical silos carries intellectual and political costs. As satisfying as it is to celebrate the strengths of our particular field, in remaining within those confines we evade the challenges posed by engaging with scholars working in different ways on different topics. How might histories of emotion reorientate the preoccupations of historians of political economy — and vice versa? How might a foregrounding the environmental humanities, for example, offer us new ways of thinking about British studies? What can the sticking points between discrete fields reveal about the nature of histories of modern Britain?
In remaining within the confines of our particular fields, we also evade the most difficult questions about what our discipline is — and should be — at this particular historical conjuncture. As we enter a moment of genuine crisis, are some kinds of history more important than others? As the political, social, cultural, and economic effects of Brexit become increasingly manifest, should historians pay more attention to questions of inequality, power, and the global economy — all comparatively neglected at #MBS2015? When the role of the ‘expert’ in public life has been so spectacularly undermined, do we have to think again about who we are and what we do?
#MBS2015 was one part of what Stuart Hall might call an ‘unfinished conversation’. As we now look ahead, we want to continue that dialogue about the nature, status, and effects of our histories of modern Britain. On 5-7 July 2017 the Centre for Modern British Studies will host another three day conference in Birmingham. The call for papers will circulate at the start of October 2016. Although it might foreground many of the issues raised in this blog, we invite you now to suggest the questions that should be addressed in the second Rethinking Modern British Studies conference.
We have recordings of Stephen Brooke and James Vernon’s plenary lectures and the various responses of some of those attending the event available via this blog.