#Thanks for Typing

Josh Allen

Josh Allen

I was recently enthralled by the hashtag “Thanks for Typing”. In a nutshell #ThanksforTyping is a way for today’s intellectuals to share and shine a spotlight upon just how vital the (often unpaid) labour-both intellectual and emotional-of typists, proofreaders, research assistants and other (often unpaid) has been in the development of knowledge.

Within the field of modern British studies, uncovering “brain work’s hidden labourers” is an area of research that is gathering pace. Probably my favourite article last year was Carolyn Steedman’s Threatening Letters: E. E. Dodd, E. P. Thompson, and the Making of ‘The Crime of Anonymity’” in History Workshop Journal, exploring the relationship between the author of the Making of the English Working Class and his longstanding research assistant.

But when it comes to my current project, exploring graduate study at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1970s, I’d be the first to admit that it’s probably the spells I’ve spent as a clerical worker that lead me to be intrigued by the traces of typists and other fleeting interlocutors glimpsed in the archive.

Image result for typewriter 1977

Clerical work requires a lot of patience and a surprising degree of flexibility. Being the CCCS’ Secretary, a position held by a woman called Joan Good in the period that I study, probably required even more flexibility than most, not least because of the shear volume of work. As John Clarke, who was involved in the CCCS throughout much of the 1970s recalls: “We [the students] had to be involved in the management… They were running a research centre with 1.5 [academics] and a secretary”.

These attempts at “management” might not have always have been welcomed by a professional administrator, as Janet Batsleer recalls:

“…I think she was amazingly tolerant of the way folk occupied that space really, because it [the Centre’s Gestetner duplicator, located in Joan’s office] was used a lot to produce papers and she was there for sessions and so on, that is probably why she sticks in my mind so much.”

[Gestetner copiers are rather noisy…]

Clerical workers also intrude into the contemporary documents that are stored in the CCCS’ archive. Traces of their presence and exertion lingers in the physical effort in terms of paper filed and sifted, in the typed indentations on the page, in the occasional awkward line break and neat dab of correction fluid. The relationship between a “writer” and a typist is akin to that of a draftsman and a machinist, one sketches the blueprint, the other gives it embodied form. It is a very different relationship from that between writer and computer. Dorothy Hobson’s MA thesis (1978) notes that her initial typist “was carried off to have her baby”, if you go to the Library’s Research Reserve and call it up you can see the change in typists to the line. MacBooks don’t take maternity leave: the experience of relying on a machine and relying on a person is quantitatively different and cannot but affect the work you produce.

Other CCCS’ theses also thank typists. Paul Willis lists no fewer than seven women who helped produce his final PhD, noting that they saved him “in [his] hour of need… From [his] own indifferent typing”.

Interestingly John Clarke MA thesis, lodged a year or two after Paul Willis finished his PhD thanks “Paul Willis for his assistance… with the typing”. This initially led me to assume that Paul’s’ typing had become less “indifferent” and that he’d stepped in to lend his friend a hand. John Clarke’s oral history, however, shines a light upon what actually happened. He apparently “…inherited [a class] from Paul Willis at Birmingham Poly which was teaching private secretaries two components of an advanced diploma, one part of which was use of English in communications… the other part was key management concepts so that they would be able to appreciate the male supreme elements that they were working for.”

He clearly built up a rapport with the class because as he recollects:

…embarrassingly if you go to the university library and find my Master’s thesis you will find that it was typed on 10 different keyboards, because they said, “We’ll do it for you,” and so they took a chapter each, they were all entirely different.”

my interpretation of the part of the thesis dedication that thanks Paul Willis “for the typing” is that Clarke was actually thanking his friend for passing on the class to him. Who knows: maybe a previous cohort typed Paul Willis’ PhD up for him?

Interestingly Hazel Chowcat, who studied for a PhD at the Centre between 1977 and 1980 and who, having been a secretary herself, was interested to study the ideological patterns that structure clerical work, actually argued that making generous and emotionally involved gestures like offering to type up your tutor’s dissertation were key to the secretary’s job. Much as Paul Willis’ later project Learning to Labour shows that the key skills needed to navigate and cope with manual work are honed in patterns of “anti-school resistance” displayed by working class schoolboys, so Hazel Chowcat indicates that the key to understanding clerical work is that it is usually performed by women. For her, secretaries are oppressed and controlled twice, once as “workers” then as “women”, expected to perform caring duties in a discreet and compliant manner.

Given the current interest in studying the processes that produced the documents in our archives and the books that sit on all our bookcases pit-prop our disciplines, what can be gleaned from the CCCS’ practice as researchers and writers in the pre-digital age (and in Hazel Chowcat’s case, her research) is incredibly vital in pointing to ways in which we can question the conditions within which intellectual inquiry once functioned.

In true academic style, though, I’ll end this post on a plea or two. Firstly do go and scroll through #ThanksforTyping. Secondly if anybody, for a journal article, undergraduate, or MA, dissertation (PhD, postdoc..?) wants to go and research the questions relating to academic production and scholarly labour in the 20th Century the archive is amongst you, you walk within it and you walk past it every day.

I was at an event in a professional capacity the other week and an academic colleague asked me what I was researching for my degree. I began to explain, talked about the CCCS archive, talked about the long memos they used to send, the academic colleague recalled the long memos they used to receive… At this point another administrative colleague, who was working at the University long before I was born, chipped in “interesting to hear you talking about how academics used to send each other loads of long memos. I used to have to type them all and post them!”.

There are still quite a few university staff today who remember the world that the 1970s CCCS was working in. An administrator that joined the University straight from secretarial college at seventeen in 1978-the year that Policing the Crisis was published-would only be fifty six or fifty seven today, and very possibly still working here. They’d certainly have stories to tell: of what different professors were like to work for, of what it was like to have to “book time on the word processor”, of the days when unaccompanied secretaries were not allowed to enter Staff House and it was the greatest honour to be invited for a drink in what’s now the Bratby by “your professor”.

When encountering administrative staff, especially older administrative staff, it is worth bearing in mind how much has changed and also-some would say-how little.






Seeing like a Sub: Modern Britain from Beneath

Modern British Studies at Birmingham are delighted to announce its new research resource: ‘Modern British Subby’ a state of the art deepwater research vessel. Including a fully functioning multibeam echosounder system for hydrographic and habitat surveys as well as a deepwater capacity ipod dock, this will allow the centre to continue its cutting-edge explorations into the British past while listening to killer tunes beneath the ocean.

MBS’ new under-ocean research craft – the second addition to the MBS fleet after the 17.5 foot Explorer-HV expedition kayak which Dr David Gange has been using for his project on Britain’s Frayed Atlantic Edge – will aid us in our aspiration to find new ways of thinking about British society, culture, politics and economics from the eighteenth century onwards.


Modern British Subby in Action: Here piloted by MBS Fleet Commander Dr Chris Moores alongside historian of nautical trade Dr Kate Smith.

In keeping with our cross-department interest in histories of mobility, endangerment and the environment we believe that ‘seeing like a sub’ will allow us to appreciate what Britain looked like from the ocean floor, allowing us to reflect on Britain’s connections to the wider world through the excavation of techniques and conventions of underwater planning via the interrogation of Britain’s historic transnational cable routes.


The first edition to our fleet: David Gange’s kayak.

Inspired by Michel Callon’s work on the scallops of Saint-Brieuc Bay, we wish to understand how non-human, sub-aquatic forces created Modern Britain; fish, crabs and seals have shaped Modern Britain and we wish to know more about their historic agency and the stories they can tell. Here Birmingham’s oral historians will be pioneering non-anthropocentric oral history techniques while working within and around the submarine.

‘In this world, headwinds are far more prevalent than winds from astern’. Building on such a notion and working in the established practice of Melville (London, 1851), we  respond to the signing of Article 50, by stressing historic connections between Britain and mainland Europe. By restoring Doggerland from the enormous condescension of the North Sea, we hope to further demonstrate Britain’s connectivity to the Continent and suggest hidden depths to a history which is all too often told as an ‘Island Story’.

Most importantly given our long-standing interest in object-oriented history and the history of loss, we hope to find and explore many ship-wrecks with treasure and, building on our track record of delivering dialogues with the dead, interview any ghostly piratical skeletons discovered in this process.

As Fernand Braudel wrote, ‘the sea itself, the one we see and love is the greatest document’: it’s time we learnt to read this. If nothing else our new resource will allow us to keep warm below the storm in our little hideaway beneath the waves.

Our ‘Modern British Subby’ – named ‘Subby McHistory McSubface’ is currently moored up in the Worcester-Birmingham canal alongside Protium, the University of Birmingham’s Hydrogen-powered canal boat. We are working out how to best navigate our new vehicle seawards and look forward to updating you on our progress as we make it.



Fare thee well poor devil of a Sub-Sub, whose commentator I am.

Conservatives, Grammar Schools and the ‘Great Meritocracy’

Photo for Uni Page

David Civil

In his first budget since becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond outlined plans to spend £500 million on new school buildings, with a significant portion going towards the creation of grammar schools. Social commentators and journalists have exposed the Conservative Party’s faith in selective education to considerable scrutiny. What has been left relatively unexplored, however, is what the return of grammar schools tells us about the role of meritocracy in Conservative Party ideology.

Apart from Brexit, the concept of meritocracy has come to define Theresa May’s early premiership. At her first Conference speech as Prime Minister in October 2016 May outlined her plans to transform Britain into a ‘Great Meritocracy’.

She turned to the concept in the belief that it could remedy post-Referendum social divisions and to distinguish her government from the ‘boys-club image’ associated with David Cameron and George Osborne.

Conservatives should be interested in social stability through the preservation of only those inequalities which are deemed legitimate and fair. With the advent of Brexit and the rise of Trump, a variety of politicians across the Western World have come to recognise that inequalities emerging from market outcomes are no longer deemed socially acceptable. Those ‘left-behind’ by globalisation, it is argued, are turning against the established elite.

For Theresa May, meritocracy offers a potential solution. With its emphasis on intelligence and effort it seems to offer the chance to restore fairness to social hierarchies. In embracing meritocracy, however, May is simply following the well-trodden path of her predecessors.

The desire to create a meritocratic social hierarchy seems to be a prerequisite for political office in modern Britain: Tony Blair, in a speech to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference shortly after taking office in October 1997 proclaimed, ‘the Britain of the elite is over. The new Britain is a meritocracy’. David Cameron, during his campaign to become Conservative Party leader argued that his Party needed ‘a new identity’ and went on to claim that he was a ‘believer in meritocracy and opportunity on merit’.


Theresa May at King’s College, London. (c) Jay Allen via Creative Commons

The word meritocracy is a post-war creation. Its creator, British sociologist Michael Young, catapulted the term into mainstream political discourse through his 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. The book is told in the guise of a fictional PhD thesis from the year 2033. In this not-too-distant future Britain is a ‘true meritocracy of talent’, where rewards, goods and status are distributed precisely by the formula: ‘I.Q + Effort = Merit’.

Image result for michael young the rise of meritocracy

The new elite this system creates is more secure than its aristocratic predecessor because its status is seen to be the outcome of individual intelligence and effort. While these characteristics may be appear more socially just than birth or luck, this elite feels able to arrogate to themselves larger and larger rewards. By the end of Young’s narrative it has become a distant, heartless and rigid ruling caste.

Despite Young’s warnings Britain’s political elite began a frenzied battle to appropriate the concept and to infuse it with a positive, popular meaning. The concept appealed to Britain’s mainstream ideologies, all of whom could endorse meritocratic policies despite different conceptions of social justice and equality.

For the British Conservative Party adjusting to the changes of the post-war period involved reconciling themselves to meritocracy. Merit, despite its abstract nature, would serve as the new basis for socially legitimate inequalities.

In The Rise of the Meritocracy the integral role played by grammar schools makes private provision as well as the education of the masses redundant. In an age of automation, comprehensives teach functional skills which allow those excluded from the meritocracy to better serve the new elite.

Similarly, Hammond’s budget did little to address an emerging funding crisis engulfing the nation’s education system. The Association of School and College Leaders claim England’s schools are being forced to make £1 billion in savings this year alone, rising to £3 billion by 2020. Many fear that the return of grammar schools will be matched by the emergence of a new generation of comprehensive ‘sink-schools’.

Just as Young warned, therefore, meritocracy may be the cause of, not solution to, the unfairness May perceives has engulfed the nation’s social hierarchy. Despite the Prime Minister’s assertions, Meritocracy is not a new concept. Meritocratic assumptions have been at the heart of major policy changes in post-war Britain from education policy to tax reform.

The Rise of the Meritocracy ends with revolution. Theresa May and Phillip Hammond would do well to heed Young’s warnings. The return of grammar schools, and the faith in meritocracy which underpins their creation, represent an illusory attempt to remedy drastic levels of social inequality and threatens the social stability Conservatives should seek to preserve.

David Civil is a M3C-AHRC funded Doctoral Researcher at the University of Nottingham and University of Birmingham. You can find out more about his work here or follow him on Twitter @Civil_93.

Annual Lecture 2017 – Tara Zahra (Chicago): The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World




Between 1846 and 1940, more than 50 million Europeans moved to the Americas, irrevocably changing both their new lands and the ones they left behind. As villages emptied, some blamed traffickers in human labour, targeting Jewish emigration agents.  Others saw opportunity: to expand their empires, gain economic advantage from an inflow of foreign currency, or reshape their populations by encouraging the emigration of minorities.

These debates about and experiences of emigration shaped competing ideals of freedom in Eastern Europe and “the West” over more than one hundred years. After the Second World War, the “captivity” of East Europeans behind the Iron Curtain came to be seen as a quintessential symbol of Communist oppression. The Iron Curtain was not, however, built overnight in 1948 or 1961. Its foundation was arguably laid before the First World War, when Austrian Imperial officials began a century-long campaign to curtail emigration in the name…

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Research Round-table: Reconstructing the Historical Subject


We’re delighted to be hosting a round-table on Wednesday 22 February 2017, in Muirhead Tower Room 112, from 4-6pm. Around the theme ‘Reconstructing the Historical Subject’ Dr. Adam Dighton, Dr. Marta Filipová, Dr. Ben Mechen and Dr. Zoë Thomas will discuss their current research. Prof. Matt Houlbrook will chair.


All welcome! Contact: Dr. Simon Jackson, S.Jackson.1@bham.ac.uk


Dr. Adam Dighton: Military History at the British Army’s Staff College, 1885-1914.

The study of military history formed an important part of the syllabus used to train high ranking officers at the army’s Staff College during the latter half of the ‘long nineteenth century’. During the period between 1885 and 1914 the justification for teaching this subject underwent a fundamental transformation. This was caused by a change in the perceived didactic function of history during this time. It is the aim of this paper to examine why this change took…

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Looking for panels or panellists? MBS 2017

Modern British Studies Birmingham

As the Call for Papers for the British Studies in a Broken World set out, we asked for  proposals offering ninety-minute panels or roundtables related to the conference’s themes or showcasing emerging new research across the field.

Despite some difficulties with this format and some arguments amongst us about what would be best, we felt, based on our experience of the 2015 conference, that it encouraged coherence within panels and helped conversations take place across individual papers and projects.

We are keen, however, to encourage those who are interested in giving papers or organizing panels a forum to discuss this and find possible collaborators. Last time round our forums did not prove particularly popular, so this year we just want those interested to use the comment section on this page to find people.

For those who wish to present a paper – briefly  explain your interests (max 50 words) and…

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