As in 2015, this summer’s Modern British Studies conference will begin with a postgraduate workshop on the morning of 5th July. We have decided to split the session into two-halves: the first taking stock of conversations we began over two years ago about the working conditions of early career academics; the second, a training session on academic publishing led by Guy Ortolano (New York University) editor of Twentieth Century British History and Josie McLellan (University of Bristol) former editor of Contemporary European History and current editor of Gender and History journals.
As current PGRs working at Birmingham, it is the former we want to reflect on here. We’ve come a long way since we began the conversations that culminated in our collaboratively written Working Paper Two. In that paper, we argued that market-based education systems place restraints around PGRs’ ability to produce research that speaks to major debates and issues confronting our society today. Since then we have developed our own intellectual agenda centred on exploring the relationship between the material conditions of our labour and historical research through a series of blog posts, group discussions (Forum for Early Career Researchers), dedicated conference sessions and workshops (Seeking Legitimacy; Visibly Hidden). Although we have often differed on particular issues, as a group we would still argue that impact agendas, tough funding competition and short-term contracts have implications on the historical and intellectual choices we make, and are therefore inseparable from conversations about the future of Modern British Studies as a field.
But what work can these conversations do for us now? The ideas first emerged at a time when the subject of our debates was the supposed fragmentation of British history as a field. Now, as the title of this year’s conference British Studies in a Broken World so ominously reflects, we are in a moment of troubling global crisis. Significant social, cultural, political, economic, and environmental changes make the historian’s role in public life and debate more important than ever. At the same time, however, the rhetoric of ‘fake news’ and ‘Brexit’ suggests popular belief in expertise is failing. Given the enormity of the political crises we face and the ensuing social, economic and cultural instability, it feels indulgent to return to our ongoing debate about the position of postgraduates and early career researchers within the academy. How can we justify putting the time and energy into debating our own careers when we are already so privileged compared to so many? Is it responsible to look inward when we urgently need to be facing outward?
We have always believed that thinking about new researchers in the academy illuminates, rather than shuts down, important debates about expertise and authority in public life. Indeed, we argue that pausing and zooming in on the position of PGRs offers a particularly useful vantage point from which to examine the power structures that allow some of us in society to become experts and not others. The precariousness of our position reveals how slippery the boundaries are between those inside and outside the academy; those who are perceived as experts and those who are not.
In the process of becoming academics, we choose the kind of history that emerges, but our position within the academy is far from secure. Although we are currently able to privilege certain narratives and emphasise certain historical subjects, unless we successfully negotiate the job market, our interpretations become invalid. The subjects we painstakingly brought into being, are returned to the past. As Ben Mechen reminded us at our PGR/ECR workshop Seeking Legitimacy, our dual position simultaneously carries power while rendering us powerless. How many untenured researchers take on ‘difficult’ historical subjects that some senior historians may find frivolous or even offensive? How many of these challenging case studies disappear back into the archives at the end of unsuccessful bids for funding? Whose perspectives do we lose because we fail to tackle structural inequalities?
Our current conditions should remind us of the importance of working together collaboratively to dissolve the boundaries between academic and non-academic history, between historians and our publics. But we cannot do this without confronting the conditions that allow some of us to become historians, and not others, especially when those of us on the ‘inside’ do not yet represent the broad range of human experience. Despite occasional calls on Twitter for gender and racial equality (see #noallmalepanels or #thanksfortyping), there are only 115 female BME professors in UK Higher Education, compared to almost 4,000 white female professors, and 450 male BME professors compared to 14,500 white male professors. Conversations are important, but we must insist on change. We can work within the current landscape, by discouraging all male panels for example but we all must continue to rethink the structures within which we work, questioning where the boundaries of the academy lie and work together to move them.
A few of us have tried to confront this issue through our own historical research by being open and reflexive about our privileged, if temporary, positions as historical experts. Although we are working on diverse issues such as race, religion, citizenship and ordinary life, we all explore the fact that history-writing risks perpetuating the exclusionary power structures of the past. Going further than simply bringing marginalised individuals and groups to light, ‘difficult’ case studies can challenge seemingly natural categories of analysis. By recognizing the historical contingency of concepts that we use to make sense of the contemporary world, we confront our starting points, particularly who we include and exclude when we make assumptions about today’s social and political structures. History is a powerful form of critique, revealing the fragility of contemporary assumptions.
We have always believed then that debates about PGR/ECR labour amount to more than a fraught commentary on the status of job markets. By persistently highlighting the relationship between conditions of labour and our historical outputs, we have insisted that questions about who gets to be a historical subject are never distanced from questions about who gets to be a historian. In the tumultuous setting of 2017, we are not distracted by questions of our labour but argue that our precarity is an important point of connection to those outside of the academy. By both using history to critique contemporary assumptions that exclude or marginalise and by being reflexive about our own privilege in getting to this point, we can weaken the seemingly established and uncompromising boundaries of the academy. As we stand on the edge of the academy, we must embrace our vulnerability as it is our precarious position of becoming historians that most keenly reveals the relationships between academic and non-academic, between experts and non-experts, between history and our present moment.
Ahead of the forthcoming Modern British Studies conference in July, we ask everyone who wishes to attend the PGR and ECR morning session – indeed anyone hoping to attend MBS 2017 – to read the Call for Papers for Seeking Legitimacy and ‘New Researchers and the Future of MBS’. We need you all to take part so that we can broaden these discussions outside Birmingham, and establish a PGR and ECR community across the modern British studies field committed to rethinking the future of historical practice.