James Greenhalgh: On doubting, debating and encouraging

James Greenhalgh

James Greenhalgh

James Greenhalgh is a lecturer in British History at the University of Lincoln. He has published on space, planning and gender in mid-twentieth century Britain. He is currently working on the content and design of the HLF funded International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln, he is the chair of the New Researchers Panel for the Urban History Group and the Thesis Reviews Editor for Urban History.


It had seemed to me for the last few years that we perhaps needed a conference like the MBS2015. The small sub-disciplinary conferences, the one-off specialist symposiums and workshops are often intense and excellent, but rarely take me beyond my academic comfort zone. In contrast the ‘big conferences’ seem all-too-often to have become bloated leviathans that fail to satisfy in terms of consistent quality or sociability.

The three days at Birmingham seemed to thrive on a good balance between quality, coverage and size. For this, amongst other things, I’d like to add my voice to those who have already commended Chris, Daisy and everyone else for their hard work.

All that said, I was apprehensive going into the event. I had some doubts about the questions being asked by the collection of manifestos, working papers, blog posts etc. from which the conference appeared to have sprung. I struggled to see cause for much scholarly concern in a set of interrelated disciplines that (to me at least) seemed to be populated by bright, interesting, ambitious scholars with fine ideas, sharp minds and fresh approaches to the past.

In the end, some of these doubts remained and some of them were assuaged. What I left in no doubt about was the robust intellectual health of our discipline. True, there were grave and timely questions asked about the work of historians within increasingly commercially-driven institutions and I suspect yet graver questions will need to be asked in the future. Yet, for now at least, I prefer to focus on the positives.

What stood out to me was the quality of what was on display here. More than any other sizeable conference I have been to the consistently high standard of the material was remarkable. I was left with a lingering sense that we had all upped our games for this conference, perhaps jockeyed by the sometimes heated discussion that had preceded it. I found the sheer depth of thought that had gone into much of what I listened to was inspiring, and anecdotal evidence suggested I was not alone.

I was particularly struck by some of the great work that is going on concerning affect and emotion and the session chaired by Claire Langhamer on the second day contained some particularly thought-provoking papers and discussion. Discussion inside and outside of the sessions often trod the line between passionate and antagonistic, words were exchanged and tempers (very) occasionally frayed. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that much, if not all, of these exchanges came from a place of genuine intellectual curiosity.

Outside of the conference I was, and always am, struck by how friendly everyone seems to be. Lubricated by both fine conversation and reasonably priced booze, I enjoyed two nights with old and current colleagues and some lovely new friends. Mention must be given to the postgrads, who always impress with their enthusiasm and innovation. As an ECR at the beginning of permanent position, it was heartening to see many remain undaunted by the task of thriving in the discipline.

There were, of course some issues: we are still a very white bunch; the use of social media seemed occasionally questionable; and there seemed to be a pervasive sense that historians should be left wing – leading me to wonder how we speak to the c.50% of the voting public who endorsed parties of the right in May.

However, of greatest concern to me was a pervasive sense of doom about working lives and, particularly, the wisdom of encouraging prospective PhD students to undertake a career in the academy. The idea that we should not advise the type of bright new researchers I met at this conference to pursue a career in academia seems to me both self-defeating and far too depressing. It made me wonder if we perhaps need to merely get better at the advice we give out?

I include myself in a group of at least 15 ECRs I know who have picked up permanent or long-term roles in the last two years. As Lucy Robinson says, we should not “buy in to the idea that a job is a favor, or act of patronage…”, but at the same time I think we should remind ourselves just how privileged and lucky we are to have been given the chances that enable us to pursue careers in history. I believe we should then advise those coming through with these two notions in mind.

Sure, getting a job is tough, and it takes some ability and a generous amount of luck to get work. This conference, though, reminded me that it is our duty to try and make sure we give every encouragement and assistance to the people who want to turn their minds to the job of understanding the past.

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