A male voice in a female chorus.

Hall headshot

Richard Hall

Richard is a post-graduate student at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge, you can find our more about his work here. He is working on A Social and Emotional History of Fathers and Sons in Post-war Britain. He is on Twitter: @rrichhistorian

As it was in 2015, one of the best things about MBS in 2017 was the opportunity to share ideas in a stimulating and supportive space. There seems to be a particular energy around MBS, which inspires productive and challenging conversations with like-minded souls. Certainly, a sense of solidarity was powerfully represented in the round-table on feminism and history. It was – fittingly – impassioned, consciousness-raising, and sisterly.

It was an impressive line-up too: Sally Alexander, Hester Barron, Caitriona Beaumont, Claire Langhamer, Lucy Robinson and Penny Summerfield. They spoke passionately, about theory, about practice, about being surprised (and admitting it), about children, about self-reflection, about disempowerment, about working with not on sources, about working collaboratively, about being nice, and about being angry. They spoke about being feminists, and being historians. And being feminist historians.

This last point inspired several thought-provoking questions. Is a feminist, historian, who does not work explicitly on gender, a feminist historian? Is all history that acknowledges patriarchy feminist history? How do the personal and the political inform the intellectual? Responses to these and other questions led to a discussion that rested very much on the present, rather than the past: on gender prejudice and what it is to be a woman in a history department.

Perhaps I wasn’t the only man in the room to feel a little discomfited by what followed. Certainly, no-one felt inclined to add a male voice to the female chorus of discontent. I imagine most of us fancy ourselves as fairly liberal: acutely aware that battles for equality are far from over; gender-blind in all our workplace and studyplace interactions. We might also imagine that, save for a few crusty old misogynists, most history departments are relatively progressive environments. We might put the gender pay-gap down to structural issues happening outside departments; we might think everyday sexism is mercifully uncommon in them.

If any of us did harbour such misconceptions, they were quickly laid to rest. What we heard from women across the room was a catalogue of prejudice and exploitation: having your work quoted un-cited; doing more administration than men; seeing more students than men (for pastoral and academic purposes); dealing with all male reading lists; dealing with initial-surname formats that lead to false impressions of all-male reading lists; being asked to sit on panels or attend meetings simply because you’re a woman; being ignored in those panels and meetings; checking men’s work for unconscious bias because they’re too lazy to check themselves; not being taken seriously in a whole host of ways… the list went on.

Of course I am not naïve enough to say that I wasn’t previously aware of these issues; but I am saying that the vociferousness and unity of the discussion shocked me a bit. What also shocked me a bit was the complete absence of men’s voices. It got me thinking about recent work by Lucy Delap, which investigates feelings of guilt and shame among anti-sexist men in the wake of Women’s Liberation Movement politics in the 1970s and 1980s.[1] Since that moment, the study of men, as well as women, as gendered actors has become more established.[2] More recently still there has been some public debate around male feminists.[3] But given our silence about feminism both past and present at the MBS round table, perhaps we still have something to learn from the emotional journeys these anti-sexist men went on 30 or 40 years ago.

Of course, similar points might be made in relation to anyone both supportive of, and outside of, a marginalised group, for whom the political will never be quite so personal (I wonder how many white voices were heard at the Black Lives Matter workshop at MBS, for example, which unfortunately ran parallel to this session). These are difficult conversations to join: the debates presently raging within feminism around issues of white colonisation illustrate some of the complex and fiercely felt views that relationships of power give rise to.

Nonetheless, I feel like these are conversations men could and should be having: just because we believe it intellectually, it doesn’t always follow that we’re conscious and diligent in the workplace.[4] For example, when men choose to use female, rather than male, pronouns where the gender is undetermined, it can shake listeners and readers out of lazy normative practices; or when men take on the leg-work to make a panel more female (an example a female colleague recently shared with me), it can change behaviours as well as attitudes. At the very least we can be alert to the day-to-day prejudices that were reeled off all too readily in the discussion at the MBS round-table. Perhaps the best way to join the chorus, is to sing.

[1] Lucy Delap ‘Uneasy Solidarity: The British men’s movement and feminism’ in Kristina Schulz (ed) Women’s Liberation Movement: impacts and outcomes (Berghahn, 2017).

[2] Among many, see Joan  Scott, ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’ in The American Historical Review, 91 (1986); Michael Roper and John Tosh ‘Introduction: Historians and the politics of masculinity’ in M. Roper and J. Tosh (eds) Manful Assertions: Masculinities in Britain Since 1800 (Routledge, 1991); Judith Bennett ‘Patriarchal Equilibrium’ in Judith M. Bennett (ed) History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Manchester University Press, 2006).

[3] See for example http://girltalkhq.com/feminist-conversations-the-growing-trend-of-men-speaking-publicly-about-feminism/

[4] On women working with men to improve gender equality in the workplace, see https://30percentclub.org/assets/uploads/UK/Third_Party_Reports/Collaborating_with_Men_-_FINAL_Report.pdf


Precarity, communality and #mbsreads


Simon Briercliffe

Simon Briercliffe is a Postgraduate Researcher at the University of Birmingham. He blogs at https://uptheossroad.wordpress.com/ and can be followed on Twitter @sbriercliffe.

One of the things that makes MBS so unusual and productive is the central role that the PGR and ECR community play in the direction and tone of the biennial conference.

That was absolutely true in 2015: anyone who was at the opening workshop in 2015 will probably remember it as a slightly cathartic howl – from students uncertain about their prospects, from newly-minted PhDs hoping to grab a year’s contract wherever they can, from more established academics struggling against an intransigent system. Structurally speaking, little has changed, and the appearance of 10-month contracts and TEF certainly haven’t improved matters.

But at this year’s MBS conference, the tone was slightly different. The workshop, organised by a number of Birmingham PGRs including Ruth Lindley and Shahmima Akhtar, set out to turn that emotion into something constructive. If you weren’t there, Ben Mechen’s short paper that was published yesterday sums this up really well: how do we make our conditions – of precarity and uncertainty – generative? What do we do next?

Introducing #mbsreads

There are of course a million and one answers to this, none of them easy. In the spirit of at least having a go at something, though, the PGR community here at Birmingham thought it would be worth following up on one of the concrete ideas that came out of this year’s workshop: an online reading group, in which the intellectual and political challenges of the conference can be pushed forward together.

There were several important considerations in how we put this together. What books to choose? What format? What time? How to make MBS a wider conversation without appearing to try and limit or dominate the field?

Our key motivation was to represent the diversity, accessibility and flattening of hierarchies that MBS seeks to achieve. With that in mind, we’ve had to recognise that no way of running this will be perfect; but we can at least make an effort in the right direction.

I’m therefore pleased to announce that our first #mbsreads group will take place on Friday 22nd September 2017 at 1pm; our subject will be Catherine Hall’s Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830-1867; and that the conversation will take place using the hashtag #mbsreads on Twitter, and for those not on Twitter, in the MBS blog comments.

This is very much an experiment, particularly the format, and we’re extremely keen to hear feedback on making this project even better: particularly suggestions for reading (as with the conference keynotes and plenaries, we want to use our position to particularly highlight authors who are neither white nor male); for timing (this is academic work, so we’ve set it in the work day; but there are plenty of us including yours truly who work part-time and we plan to vary the time); and for format (which was the most difficult decision we had to make – I’m still curious/nervous as to how the conversations will go. This is very much open for discussion).

We have in mind here a very open project: we as PGR students at Birmingham have kicked it off, but it’s in no way intended as a PGR reading group – we want historians of all grade and none to join in on equal terms.

Civilising Subjects

Catherine Hall’s work will be a familiar touchstone to many, and I’ve no doubt there will be a huge range of historical and historiographical conversations that we can have. The ideas of identity construction proposed here are an essential part of the historian’s toolkit: that empire, just like any set of social relations, is a power relationship defined by what is outside as well as what is inside.

I particularly like her use of John Barrell’s idea of “this/that/the Other” – that identities are constructed against other identities, but that those are constantly shifting, evolving and affecting one another. I’m also looking forward to discussing the importance of transnational history to “British Studies.” This was a major theme of MBS2017, and something that Hall outlines very effectively:

“I was a historian of Britain who assumed that Britain could be understood in itself, without reference to other histories: a legacy of the assumption that Britain provided the model for the modern world, the touchstone whereby all other national histories could be judged… I have become a historian of Britain who is convinced that, in order to understand the specificity of national formation, we have to look outside it. A focus on national histories as constructed, rather than given, on the imagined community of the nation as created, rather than simply there, on national identities as brought into being through particular discursive work, requires transnational thinking.” (p.9)


While historical discussion will form part of #mbsreads I’m sure, it’s Hall’s ‘personal is political’ thinking that is perhaps most striking here. The book’s introduction is an example of what I’ve recently heard described as “ontography”: how the author has grown and how their ideas have been formed by their own experiences.

Other examples (perhaps for future discussion) are Stuart Hall’s Familiar Stranger and Geoff Eley’s A Crooked Line. In particular, Hall’s experiences of being “inside” and being “outside” are central. The inside-ness of Baptist religiosity in Kettering was challenged by the outside-ness of a narrow-minded Baptist culture in Leeds. The inside-ness of Englishness and whiteness which, as Hall notes, “seemed irrelevant to my political project” was challenged by the outside-ness of visiting Jamaica with a Jamaican husband himself grappling with the idea of “home” (pp.4-5).

With that in mind I want to suggest that #mbsreads considers that personal/political side of historical practice as well: to think about our own inside-ness and outside-ness, and where it places us, how it directs our work. I’m particularly thoughtful about this after Ben’s post yesterday.

Some reading this will be in secure positions; some will not. Some of us are “inside” an institution, a discipline, an academic world; some of us are not. We who are living precarious lives are perhaps both inside and outside some of these things. So, in Ben’s terms, how can this be generative? What can we take from historical experiences, and how can we apply them to our own work and our own selves?

Be there or be square

To recap then, we’re launching the #mbsreads conversation at 1pm on Friday 22d September. It’s not intended as an MBS Birmingham© Production but as a way of exploring those conversations which began at MBS2017.

We’ll be reading Catherine Hall’s Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830-1867, both on Twitter (using the hashtag #mbsreads and trying, where possible, to keep on top of all the threads) and on the MBS blog. We would love you to join us.

MBS 2017 Response: Doing history within precarity

Mechen Image

Ben Mechen

Ben Mechen was a Teaching Fellow in Modern British History at the University of Birmingham in the academic year 2016-2017. The following blog is the text of his paper at last month’s Modern British Studies Conference. You can get in touch or follow Ben on Twitter @benmechen.

To contribute to this conversation, I thought I would just pull together some thoughts about how, as PGRs and ECRs, we might do history from within precarity.

The starting point here is that, with the job market as it stands, our status as historians and, related to this, our personal wellbeing and our relationships with each other, with more senior colleagues as well as with those at home, are precarious and will be precarious, and that we must therefore, from a position of realism rather than pessimism, think not just about the many ways in which academic precarity is disabling and disenfranchising – which it is – but also how we can make our precarity generative, both in terms of the ways we work with and relate to each other, and the kinds of history we write.

To make precarity generative, when it is us rather than the university harnessing it, isn’t necessarily a celebratory or reinforcing gesture. It is instead to use precarity as our historically or generationally-situated starting point for thinking radically about history as work and also for thinking about the work of history.

The energy for doing this, for generating something new, comes, I think – and to refer back to the framework of the Modern British Studies PGRs – precisely from our double positionality as PGRs and ECRs as both seekers of legitimacy, each trying to establish a professional toehold, and as ourselves conferrers of legitimacy, like all historians, on particular historical subjects through particular acts of attention.

So how might we build outward from precarity in these two areas?

Firstly, history as work.

This has mainly to do with how we relate to each other and the university as a cohort of precarious researchers, and the forms of solidarity we might try to build given our positions of individual weakness. I want to suggest a few things here – and I emphasise that these are just ideas for discussion.

Firstly, where we can, we must try to break the logics of competition enforced on us by marketisation. One way to do this – the most obvious way – is by joining the union and being active in it. Another is to support grassroots networks like FACE.

Sharing information, feelings and ideas, though, is yet another, and one that can go alongside and outside these formal affiliations and acts of resistance: information, feelings and ideas about working conditions at particular institutions, about real rates of pay, about teaching loads, about bad days at the office, about failed as well as successful applications.

Let’s have honest conversations, publicly when we can, privately when we need. WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook, shared Google docs: these can be good weapons of the weak. A move from precarity to security sometimes feels dependent on communicating to the outside world a constant narrative of success, industriousness, happiness, in which we’re completing a redraft, a conference proposal and a lesson plan by lunchtime, when really we’re struggling to keep going and keep smiling.

Everything is not always “fine”. We might think about the utility for us, as well as more senior colleagues looking to be our allies, of Sara Ahmed’s concept of the ‘killjoy’, vocalising frustration, indeed anger, at the status quo when rubbing along would be more painless, as well as Jack Halberstam’s notion that we should reclaim failure as a powerful and liberating form of critique. Harry Stopes’ recent blogpost about pay at the New College of the Humanities, or Rachel Moss’s on the unruly body in modern academia, are excellent examples of this, but put one’s head above the parapet like this would be less risky were we more inclined to kill joy – or to fail – together.This doesn’t have to be our permanent stance but it should be one we’re all ready to hold when needed. Let’s keep our precarity visible. Let’s make our presence awkward.

Secondly, and following from this, if we move from a precarious position to something more stable, let’s not pull the ladder up. Instead, let’s remember our former precarity and try to leverage our new security into shaping the profession in ways that alleviate precarity’s worst effects and most pernicious manifestations.

To accept as part of this that academia is not a perfect meritocracy is not to discount your own right to be there: one problem is that there are too many good people and not enough good jobs. Another is that this is a profession struck through with deeply-embedded forms of inequality.

Finally, and following this, when doing history from within precarity we need always to think about precarity in the plural. My precarity as a fixed-term teaching fellow, and as a cis straight white male, might be different – might be far less precarious – than your precarity, even if at some level precariousness unites us.

Before we even get to the question of academic precarity, meanwhile, there is the question of academic access: we are here, within the university, whilst others are not. Intersectional analysis and awareness is a condition of our generational solidarity as precarious academics and as members of a larger, multi-layered precariat, not a danger to it. In every encounter with each other, we must remember this.

Secondly, from history as work to the work of history, because doing history from within precarity must be more than just navel-gazing about our place in the profession.

What can precarity be generative of here?

The key point is this: that despite our precarity we remain in positions of authority as historians, and that in fact our appearance as “serious” historians depends on this exercise of authority over sources, subjects and audiences in order to make claims – plausible claims – about “the way things were”.

Like all historians, we tell stories about the past that we hope others – other historians, the public – will believe and we do this because we care about and are interested in the past and what we, and what others, know about it. Like other historians, we make decisions about what needs to be brought to light and what remains in the shadows.

We must therefore recognise the authority of the postgraduate or early career historian at the same time that we recognise our relative weakness within the profession. By embracing the duality of this position, we can make histories that better recognise other, and no doubt more extreme forms, of marginality and precarity across time and space.

In doing history from within precarity, we can as a cohort continue to reanimate the study of history from below, as others have already called for; to consider with fresh eyes how precariousness and other forms of marginality were developed, sustained and lived in the past as well as how they stretch into the present.

In my current research project on pornography in postwar Britain, to take a personal example, this is partly to centralise, where I can, the experience of the sex worker. To take examples from our current political moment, Grenfell, creeping Islamophobia and environmental degradation similarly present to us stories of marginalisation and precariousness rooted in history and demanding further historical work, some of which is already underway.

This is not to draw equivalences between our precariousness as academics in a rich country and the precariousness of others, now or in the past. It is simply to say that we have a particular vantage point on these questions and that we should consider how this might inform the questions we ask, the sources we use, and the histories we do.