Christienna Fryar: On #MBS2015

Christienna Fryar

Christienna Fryar is an assistant professor at SUNY Buffalo State wrking on the nineteenth-century British Empire, the Modern Caribbean, and comparative slavery and emancipation. Her research interests include colonial administration in postemancipation Jamaica, natural and non-natural disasters, Black Europe, sports and the rise of the British Commonwealth, and more broadly, the ever-changing relationship between the United Kingdom and the Anglophone Caribbean. You can follow her on Twitter @jamaicandale and on her Tumbler where this blog first appeared.

How to describe MBS2015, one of the best conferences I’ve been to in a while—and certainly the best of its size? The only way I’ve managed to corral my thoughts is through a set of realizations I had during and after the conference. Though given how long it’s taken me to finish this post and how long the post is, “corral” and “manage” should be taken loosely.[1]

1. Generosity of spirit. Yes, there were some spirited debates. But MBS2015 had an warmth about it, weather pun not intended, and felt much more open and welcoming than many conferences of its size.

2. Intellectual exhaustion/invigoration. Never have I left a conference so exhausted and drained. I agree with all of the notes about more breaks, longer lunches, thinking about Twitter, etc. But I wouldn’t want for future MBSes to have less content. Even if it needs to be spread over an additional half day, the number of concurrent sessions was great as were the shorter plenaries. It created more sustained conversations and allowed for a few mini-conferences to emerge. And I certainly left Birmingham mulling over countless ideas and inspirations.

3. Never has my favorite conference tactic paid off so thoroughly. I try to go to at least one panel on a subject I know nothing about so I can see what else is going on in British history (or whatever field). The quality of MBS2015 was so high that some of my favorite papers of the conference were at panels I decided to attend at the last minute.

Me, during Lucy Robinson and Chris Warne’s paper “‘Embracing the Divine Chaos.’” All caps is an unusual level of excitement on my twitter feed.

Similarly, the one sentence that I’ve been intently mulling over since the conference also came from a random panel choice, this time the Creative Histories panel where Alison Twells asked, “Is our work accessible if it’s impenetrable?”

4. A subtle but persistent sense of doom about the consequences of the recent election for higher education. Intellectually I knew what a Conservative-only government meant, but I hadn’t translated that into practical consequences. So I was especially caught off guard during the “Future Histories of Race” panel when Caroline Bressey pointed out that there’s no guarantee that vital archives will even survive the next five years. What a dire thought.

5. The numerous operational definitions of when “modern Britain” actually was clashed during the conference. MBS defines modern Britain as between 1850 to the present. Most US-based historians probably see modern Britain as including some portion of the eighteenth century, if not all. And at times during the actual conference, “modern Britain” seemed synonymous with “postwar Britain.” Does this matter? Maybe, if the confusion has larger repercussions for debates about modernity or if it’s closing down lines of inquiry across time periods or if it’s restricting our search for crucial antecedents to the things we study. (And as somebody who almost has an allergy to anything before 1833, this is as much a note for me as anybody else.)

6. Imperial history. Modern British history in the US has almost been completely taken over by empire. The vast majority of graduate students and recent PhDs in British history work on some aspect of Britain’s encounter with the wider world, as do an increasing number of senior scholars. Jobs are increasingly posted as “Britain and the World” or “British Empire,” a response to the drastic shift that already happened in the field. What’s more, while new imperial history no longer has the purchase it did when I began graduate study ten years ago, you get the sense that it wasn’t rejected so much as thoroughly absorbed and accepted. (To put it another way, while questions remain about how total British society’s immersion in empire was and whether said immersion can be quantified, the basic idea is now an accepted commonplace.)

So imagine my astonishment when I realized that this was not at all the case in UK British history. The domestic/imperial silos seem firmly in place, as was the question, rarely voiced but subtly present, about whether in fact imperial histories speak to the theme of British studies. Catherine Hall’s brilliant plenary felt like a call to action rather than a timely reminder that #BlackLivesMatter, the way I suspect the same talk would have felt in a US context.

So why is empire so prominent in US British history?

Some of “the why” is quite obvious: In the UK, British history is national history, so institutions have many modern British historians, who each cover a specific facet and relatively narrow time period. For British historians in the US, however, we are usually the only modern British historian in the department. Some of us may be the only British historian, period, and at small institutions, we could be the only Europeanist. Increasingly, we’re hired as global/world historians or as area specialists. What’s more, while British history used to form part of the undergraduate history canon, it does so no longer. British historians at US institutions have to cover a much wider range of material, all the while trying to convince undergraduates that there are interesting things happening in British history.

But some of “the why” is less obvious: while funding’s dwindling for everyone in every field, it’s surely becoming more difficult for US scholars, especially graduate students, to get funding to do certain kinds of British history projects. Those whose research takes them to parts of the developing world are probably more likely to get funding for that kind of research than those whose research is entirely in the British Isles.

7. Never the twain… The other question, though, is what’s being done in UK British history. If we go by the MBS2015 program and the conversations had at the conference, here’s what’s happening instead.

  • the history of emotions: I didn’t attend any of these panels and missed both Seth Koven and Stephen Brooke’s plenaries, so I won’t wade into the debate that emerged other than to say I’m not surprised that US-based scholars were the most flummoxed by the field.
  • urban history: no surprise it’s still thriving since it began in British history.
  • regional history: I really wish I could have gone to the regional history panel, which was scheduled at the same time as my own. But there were other papers, like Daisy Payling’s on leftist activism in Sheffield, that spoke to the richness that a regional lens can add to political history.
  • very recent history: I didn’t make it to the 1970s panel, but by all accounts it, and the 1980s panel which I did attend, were especially vibrant, as was the subcultures panel, which featured papers on the 1980s and 1990s.

Sure, I’d argue that this work should clearly proceed, if it doesn’t already, from the agreement that Britain was an imperial nation in the Hall/Kathleen Wilson/Antoinette Burton sense of the term. But work of this kind would likely be crowded out if imperial history had overtaken British history in Britain to the degree that it has in the US. So clearly the task is to build something together, using the numerous institutional contexts and pressures to our advantage as a field. That requires, however…

8. True connections. I started my PhD in 2005, so this is only an impression: but it seems to me that there are fewer connections between American scholars of my generation and UK-based scholars than there used to be. The “archives year” is harder to do, given immigration/visa difficulties. To add to the funding point above, it’s also harder to argue that it’s necessary to spend a year in the UK now that digital archives and liberal camera policies seem to make research quicker while living in the UK is still so expensive, weaker pound notwithstanding.

Now that American scholars are spending less and less time in the country, we’re missing out on the kinds of generative connections our predecessors may have had. If a scholar only has a few weeks to do dissertation work, popping into IHR seminars will be more difficult. S/he might not have time to attend the IHR conference or meet other scholars who are based outside of London.

In 2010, Susan Pedersen said to a group of graduate students in British history (myself included) that one of the great strengths of our field is that we have two robust halves, one on each side of the Atlantic, that are unencumbered by a language barrier. But this is only a strength if we are indeed in continual conversation with each other. Yes, some of these connections can be forged at NACBS, a conference I also love. But NACBS is in the middle of the year, probably lowering the number of UK-based scholars who attend, and it’s certainly more hectic than MBS2015 was. Which brings me to…

9. Social media. Twitter was the story of the conference. I came to know about the conference through Twitter—I follow Matt Houlbrook and so found out first about the creation of Modern British Studies and second about the conference.[2] Twitter was the most quantifiable measure of MBS2015′s vibrancy, as were the Storifies put together by Lauren Piko and others.[3]

But are there ways, once conferences are over, that social media can build transatlantic ties the way that “archival years” used to? I don’t have any concrete ideas yet, but it feels as though social media (Twitter, blogs, other things?) might be one way to maintain—if not create—connections across the field in this era of minimal funding and maximum pressure.[4]

MBS2015 was brilliant. It’ll be even more brilliant if we can figure out ways to keep up some aspect of the intellectual engagement when we aren’t all face to face.

[1] Brief note on terms: I refer to US- and UK-based scholars, because the differences I mention below come down mainly to the specific pressures of national academies, not to training or nationality.
[2] Full thanks go to Caroline Shaw, who approached me at AHA about putting together a panel. While it was clear to me that MBS2015 was THE conference of the year, I was mid-family crisis this past winter and probably wouldn’t have had the foresight to push through and organize a panel.
[3] The second would be that we all survived the first day in such good spirits. As a Southerner, I know my way around heat, but the situation on Day 1 was truly unbearable. Thank goodness for all the water.
[4] I say this while keeping in mind the comments of Lucy Robinson, who sounded a note of caution at the Creative Histories panel about taking on all of this extra, unpaid labor.


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